Wednesday, December 7, 2016
Bad ideas in art
I saw an extraordinary call for entries last week, for an exhibit entitled "Demographically Speaking." According to the call, the exhibit "will reflect the vibrance of its community through the inclusion of works that speak to a diverse audience." It goes on to say the show "will also address the inequities found within gallery and museum exhibitions posing the question, 'whose stories are being told in the art world?'"
(I gather that's artspeak for no straight WASPs need apply, especially men.)
I certainly agree with the concept of expanding the pool of artists beyond the usual suspects, with the idea that many groups have not "had their stories told" in contemporary art, and that shows with different demographic groups of artists may appeal to a broader swath of the potential viewing public. But I was take aback by what came after the artspeak.
Each artist entering the show has to complete a questionnaire that asks "How do you identify yourself or the subjects in the work you are submitting?" In a series of multiple choice questions, it asks you to describe your age, gender identity, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, religious affiliation, education level, and disabilities.
I guess I've led a sheltered life, because I was surprised to find five possible choices for both gender identity and sexual orientation (although in each case, one choice was "Other:_____). I confess, I don't know the difference between pansexual and polysexual (but that's OK, they're part of the same choice). Nor do I appreciate the subtle differences between cognitive disabilities ("developed after birth, from neurodegenerative diseases or acquired brain injuries for example") and developmental disabilities ("such as, but not limited to, Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, Intellectual disabilities, or Fragile X Syndrome"). If you're blind or deaf, is that a "physical" disability or a "sensory" disability?
Then, if you haven't already revealed enough about yourself, it says "Any other important identifiers you feel represents you or your work that should be considered not already listed above (social, physical, economic, etc.)? Please share:__________"
Questionable grammar aside, I am horrified by these questions. In most walks of life it's illegal to ask people about their disabilities, let alone their religion and sexual preferences. The prospectus is coy about this; after stating on page one that the questionnaire is required, it later says "Completion of this survey is voluntary" and then asks if they can please put your demographic details on the art labels; if you say no, they won't.
I'm all for more diversity in museums, but can't that be accomplished without such heavy-handed interrogation? Can't a curator or juror detect when an artwork is "telling a story" from a different perspective without the artist yelling "hey, I'm polysexual!!" If seeking out diversity among artists is supposed to get new audiences into the museum, will demographic info be the most important part of the press releases and exhibit postcards? "Come see our show; 12 percent of the artists are Latino, 4 percent are polysexual, 8 percent are transgender/genderqueer, 2 percent are Hindu, 5 percent have mental illness or psychiatric disorders."
Do you want to rush out and see that show? Maybe, but I'm sure not going to rush out and enter it.