I’m Other, Subsidise Me
August 17, 2010
The writer and film curator Omar Kholeif tells us The Arts Need Diversity Schemes:
It is no secret that the new British government is making sweeping changes to arts and culture policies. From budget cuts to the entire restructuring of national and regional arts funding, the unstable future of our collective culture is increasingly debated.
Our collective culture? Really? My own visits to galleries of modern offerings have been remarkably short on feelings of affinity and collective ownership. More typically, the experience has been one of alienating tedium due to the self-absorption of a curatorial caste.
In the midst of that, we must also consider where minority groups fit into the equation.
But of course. There just isn’t enough racial politics in “our” art.
Will policymakers choose to maintain positive action programmes? [...] As a young arts professional, I have only recently felt my career taking off, having utilised the often-controversial diversity scheme as a springboard.
Some readers may be surprised to learn that their taxes have been funding racial favouritism.
After graduating with a first-class degree, I spent what seemed like a lifetime twiddling my thumbs in unsatisfying entry-level roles and, like many humanities graduates in my cohort, waiting at the job centre.
Which may shed some light on the value of an arts degree and the wisdom of pursuing that particular line of business.
Without the financial means to fund further my education, or the resources to devote time to unpaid work experience, I ended up taking on opportunities unrelated to my vocation.
Last year, just as matters had started to improve, I was accepted onto a curating fellowship. It was originally founded in response to a survey in 2005 that revealed only 6% of London’s museum and gallery workforce hail from a minority background – a disproportionate ratio, considering that black and minority ethnic residents make up nearly a third of the capital’s population.
As this is a Guardian comment piece, the density of assumption is of course quite high. Note the implicit belief that every conceivable ethnic category of humankind should be “represented” proportionally in all areas of endeavour - or at least those that suit the author’s current line - irrespective of individual choices and priorities. Note too the implicit belief that if reality doesn’t correspond with this expectation, then something nefarious must be taking place, regardless of whether evidence of such has actually been discovered.
No evidence of foul play appears in the piece and a lot seems to hang on the claim of a “disproportionate ratio” of minority employees. But London offers a range of niche employment for which many people relocate from other parts of the country, where ethnic demographics may be very different and much closer to the offending 6%. If some types of employment in the capital reflect national rather than local demographics this isn’t inherently scandalous or evidence of injustice. In and of itself, the ratio of minority employees in London galleries isn’t the most compelling justification for “corrective” racial profiling.
Certain ethnic, social and cultural groups have been historically oppressed and are, accordingly, less likely to tread down seemingly less stable career paths, such as the arts.
Ah. Groups, always groups. Enthusiasts of identity politics do love to classify. As Mr Kholeif cites no evidence of actually experiencing oppression or exclusion in his chosen sphere, perhaps we’re to assume that the historical mistreatment of some individuals warrants favouritism on an indefinite basis for completely different individuals in different circumstances. Like some genealogical compensation scheme at taxpayers’ expense. Despite receiving favours based on assumed victimhood, it isn’t entirely clear whether Mr Kholeif considers himself a member of an “ethnic, social and cultural group” that’s been “historically oppressed.” Nor is it clear what bearing that would have on his present situation. Does the shabby treatment of a person’s ancestors – or of unrelated people who belong to the same notional group – entitle that person to a publicly subsidised career “springboard”? Does our Guardian contributor feel oppressed now? And if so, how so?
As a first-generation British immigrant, I was groomed from as young as the age of five to go down the route of medicine – after all, my father had sacrificed a great deal to bring us to this country.
And a career in medicine might have avoided some of the aforementioned visits to the job centre. Again, it’s worth noting that Mr Kholeif doesn’t mention any first-hand experience of vocational or artistic exclusion based on ethnicity, or any similar experience had by anyone known to him, which seems an odd omission as it might have made his argument a little more convincing. In fact, the only discernible obstacles he mentions are the limited market value of his chosen skills and the preferences of his own parents.
So what are we to do? Let the case rest and suggest art exhibitions are an area reserved for the white middle class?
Art exhibitions are generally open to anyone who turns up. I don’t recall seeing burly door staff excluding people based on their pigmentation or the size of their mortgage. And arts curators gifted with the preferred levels of melanin are evidently deemed desirable by the arts establishment, sufficiently so to warrant preferential treatment and tax-free bursaries of £15,000 a year. Not exactly indicators of institutional hostility. But apparently something must be done and must continue being done. Perhaps we need state employees to visit any parent whose ancestors might be designated as historically oppressed. Once some tenuous connection to victimhood has been established, pleading can ensue, along with the promise of special favours, until the unfortunate parent agrees to let their offspring pursue a career in the arts, as opposed to something more lucrative and respectable. Would that finally bring the suffering to an end?
To avoid imperialistic tendencies, minority groups must be allowed equal footing in the forum, where they can create their own canon.
Curse those imperialistic tendencies. If only our artistic culture were as open-minded and adventurous as, say, Egypt’s. Readers will note that by the end of his article Mr Kholeif has offered no damning example of these tendencies in action, or of the exclusion he would have us believe is pervasive and which he claims must be remedied at public expense.
Mr Kholeif’s “research concentrations” include “queer film theory (specifically in relation to minority and Diaspora cultures)” and “how ‘writing’ can be used as a tool to unlock intellectual potential in periphery subjects.” However, his main research interest “relates to the intersection of art and culture with identity politics, and re-appropriating post-colonial theories for a web 2.0 era.”
That Mr Kholeif was obliged to spend so much time at the job centre is, therefore, shocking.