Notes & Comments March 2022
Sick with guilt
On the loss of purpose in cultural institutions.
Anyone who has seen Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film The Seventh Seal will remember the scenes depicting a procession of flagellants. There really were such exhibitions of unhappy ecstasy in plague-infested Europe in the Middle Ages: trains of people beating themselves publicly because they were overwhelmed by feelings of guilt. And while there are still such processions here and there in remote outposts, for most of us the practice seems inextricably medieval, even insane.
How curious, then, that the practice should have been, mutatis mutandis, revived in various elite institutions in the West. You cannot visit a fancy college or arts institution these days without being confronted by a modern-day version of this drama of mortification in search of deliverance. Today the knouts are generally composed of words (and money, lots and lots of money), not leather, but the multitudes, skirling out their sins, present a spectacle that is, in its own way, every bit as alarming as anything conjured up by Bergman. “Racist! We are all racist! We were always racist. We have always been sexist, too! And ableist! Our very existence is an insult to virtue. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!”
It is all pretty silly and would be simply comical but for two things. One, the behavior is patently pathological. When the fever finally breaks, and it will, this will be seen clearly and with well-deserved embarrassment where it is not simply shoved under the mental rug and mercifully forgotten. Two, the disease has intruded upon and disrupted the operation of many of our most important cultural institutions: almost all colleges and many of our best repositories of culture are in the grip of the illness. Grasping the entire menu of politically correct failings to their collective bosom, institutions that had hitherto devoted themselves to the study of the past, the search for knowledge, or the cultivation of the arts now cultivate the ensorcelling emotion of virtue that emanates from their public declaration of supposed sinfulness. As many observers have noted, the more elite the institution, the more grotesque the groveling tends to be. Corruptio optimi pessima: the corruption of the best is the worst.
Consider, for example, the Morgan Library & Museum, one of the most exquisite jewels in the diadem of high culture. Despite being marred by some unfortunate architectural renovation in recent decades, the Morgan, like the Frick Collection, is a monument to aesthetic achievement of the most exalted kind. Its collection is superb. Its temporary exhibitions are almost always of the highest quality. Indeed, as we write, the Morgan is host to a superlative exhibition of paintings, prints, and drawings by the Augsburg-born artist Hans Holbein the Younger (ca. 1497–1543). The Morgan’s current director, Colin B. Bailey, is a brilliant scholar of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French painting. What does it mean, then, that Bailey should send on January 19 a groveling, self-flagellating letter to members of the “Morgan community” announcing the institution’s abject capitulation to the entire woke agenda of race-obsessed political correctness? “Dear Friends,” he writes,
In the months following the May 2020 murder of George Floyd—whose tragic death was preceded by that of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and so many other Black Americans—cultural institutions across the nation reflected deeply on issues of social justice, inequity, and systemic racism. The Morgan Library & Museum responded to the call for greater diversity, equity, access, and inclusion (deai) and has worked hard to address the role that our institution can play in this important movement.
There follows a summary of the various diversity initiatives the Morgan has undertaken, including a “6-month deai action plan” that has to be read to be believed. Bailey’s letter ends with a little clot of politically correct bureaucratic thru-text: “As we contribute to the diversification of expertise in our field, amplify underrepresented voices in our collections and programs, engage new audiences, and build a more empathetic and just Morgan community, our primary goal remains to effect enduring change and progress.” And here we thought that the Morgan’s “primary goal” was to care for its collection and mount thoughtful exhibitions that educate, enlighten, and delight the museum’s visitors.
We misspoke in the preceding paragraph. We said that the Morgan’s document outlining its “Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion” “action plan” had to be read to be believed. That is not right. Reading it does nothing to improve its credibility. It remains an occult specimen of abstract HR committee bloviation. The fact that whole passages are repeated verbatim in the letter signed by Bailey underscores what a desperate exercise in politically correct window dressing it is. But it is nowhere near as alarming as the museum’s “Critical Cataloging Statement,” which, among much else, announces its “ongoing review and revision of the language used in our collections catalog.” It urges the public to alert the museum should it “encounter any insensitive, offensive, outdated, or inaccurate language in Morgan collection descriptions.”
There’s more. “Our critical and ethical cataloging work”—ethical cataloging work?— “is part of the Morgan’s Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion initiatives.” Who would doubt it? Certain items in the Morgan’s collection, we read, “may include insensitive wording and overt expressions of bigotry or bias, as well as outdated cultural or geographical references and stereotypes.” You don’t say? The Soviet Union confronted similar problems, as did the characters populating Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The past is just not up to our standards of ideological purity, and it must be censored, sanitized, and rewritten in order to bring it into line with our higher, purer, more enlightened sensibilities.
It should go without saying that the Morgan is not alone in its embrace of this toxic species of woke identity politics. Indeed, the pathology is endemic. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has surrendered to it entirely, as a glance at their new woke wall labels will demonstrate. Carnegie Hall hopped on to the same bandwagon with an emetic “statement connecting vision and action” that, like Bailey’s statement for the Morgan, began with the death of the career criminal George Floyd and went on to declare its virtuous “solidarity with the Black community and all those who seek to use their own platforms to eradicate racism, violence, and injustice,” etc., etc. Eradicating racism and injustice may be noble goals, but is it the job of institutions like Carnegie Hall? If you said “yes,” you are suffering from the virtucratic virus.
It would take a veritable library to catalogue the manifestations of this insanity in academia. Here we shall content ourselves with a single recent example from Princeton University, where a student-run ballet program went full flagellant. “Ballet,” they wail in their cri de coeur, “is rooted in white supremacy and perfectionism.” Not only that. “Before we begin detailing our action plan, we want to acknowledge that our leadership and those who composed this plan are all white,” emphasis in the original. What to do? “We aim to decolonize our practice of ballet,” write these brave, entitled beneficiaries of the most exclusive education the world has to offer, “even as ballet remains an imperialist, colonialist, and white supremacist art form.”
The first step is to make ballet less demanding: “[W]e want to centralize artistry instead of technique, in the hopes of maintaining our core purpose as a ballet company but doing away with some of the stringent and exclusive standards that pervade the art form.” We do not think George Balanchine would have been amused.
Nor would Balanchine have been amused by the efforts of effete whiners at Princeton to “deconstruct” traditional “assumptions” about the proper “body image” of ballet dancers. This image “is not realistic or helpful for a group of ballet dancers who have internalized damaging ideas about how they should eat and what they should look like,” we read. “Not realistic”—want to bet? It is perhaps painful to acknowledge, but it is true: ballet is an art form that puts a premium on svelteness; high-quality dance demands a certain physique. Jerome Robbins, we feel sure, would have regarded the efforts of this kindergarten to “open a conversation about body image and take steps to heal and deconstruct the harmful and racialized ideas about body image” with impatience and contempt. Rightly so.
As the commentator Rod Dreher noted in a stinging essay called “Hateful Whitey Binds Her Feet” at The American Conservative, Princeton’s ballet class shows “how the American elites are being indoctrinated to think about art, race, their country, and themselves. This is not,” Dreher adds,
a passing phase. These people will move into the directorship of institutions that will have a major effect on life in this country. They hate ballet. They hate art. They hate beauty. They hate their predecessors in the dance tradition. They hate freedom of thought. They hate white people (including . . . themselves). They hate America, and they hate the West. Above all, they hate.
Strange to say, there is a bit of good, or at least promising, news in all this. The friend who sent us the repellent letter from the Morgan has been a generous donor to that institution for years. She was, in fact, planning to visit the museum recently when she was in New York. Then she received Colin Bailey’s communication. She canceled her visit and she plans to stop giving to the museum. We suspect that many people feel similarly. Why should they go to a museum or concert hall or support a university only to be hectored by politically correct harridans? If they want lectures on “social justice,” they can read The New York Times or tune into cnn. The tide, we suspect, may be turning against this round-the-clock, racially infused wokeness. The ubiquity of the phenomenon has led to widespread nausea. In the academy and in the world of culture, the disciples of diversity have overplayed their hand, as such fanatics are wont to do. A reaction has been forming for some time, and we expect it to repudiate this cloying, moralistic tyranny in a manner at once subtle and definitive: by going elsewhere.
A Message from the Editors
Support our crucial work and join us in strengthening the bonds of civilization.
Your donation sustains our efforts to inspire joyous rediscoveries.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 7, on page 1
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com