Power, Politics and Privilege in the age of Covid and Black Lives Matter
Keynote by Hassan Mahamdallie
Why a Creative Case for Diversity in the arts is important
Covid-19 is a relentless and brutal truthteller. We should listen to what it is telling us.
It is telling us that we are as unequal in death as we are in life. Those most reviled, unvalued, marginalised, oppressed, exploited, taken for granted, looked down on and easily forgotten, have been thrust into the frontline of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is disproportionally taking the lives of the poor, Black and minority communities in every country.
What of those who have the privilege of working in the arts? What is Covid telling us? If we looked in the mirror, what would we see? Perhaps we would discover that we tend to be a selfish and self-absorbed bunch, with an overexaggerated sense of our own importance and the work we do. Art is not the answer to everything at all times, you know.
What else is Covid telling us? It is telling us that the dominant structures of artistic production that we are all forced either to work in or relate to in order to survive and get the work seen by audiences, is like the society that it springs from, broken and not fit for purpose.
The crisis that Covid has tipped the arts into here in the UK and elsewhere, has merely revealed what very many of us already understood through bitter experience – that the dominant image of the “cultural class” and its leadership as especially liberal and progressive and caring compared to wider society, is an illusion,
As soon as the Covid lockdown happened in the UK, the arts leadership, particularly those at the top of the big ‘national’ venues and institutions. sent everyone home while they planned how to save their careers and their power.
Who decided that ‘the new normal’ should be like the ‘old normal’ but worse?
However, if Covid has exposed all the fault-lines in existing society, the Black Lives Matter movement represents what the African-American scholar Cornel West describes as “a prophetic fightback”. Black Lives Matter is pointing us towards a very different future.
After the shockwaves from the killing of George Floyd reverberated around the globe, the big UK arts institutions posted grand statements supporting Black Lives Matter, while (as we later found out) simultaneously planning mass redundancies in areas of their organisations where most poorly paid Black and minority staff are concentrated, in catering, front-of-house, and other manual jobs.
Since I entered the arts as a professional in 1985, my sector, theatre has been transformed for the worse – now over 70% of those who work in theatre are freelancers, waiting for arts institutions and companies to employ them.
There should no longer be toleration of the argument I’m sure we will face – be patient, change and progress take time. Wait until we get back on our feet. ‘After all,’ (they always tell us) ‘nothing changes overnight’.
But in March 2020 the whole world did change overnight, as countries went into lockdown. To meet the challenge, governments enacted huge sweeping reorganisations of state provision and control of private industry, passed emergency laws, vastly increased state borrowing and other measures. In the UK, the arts establishment in a matter of weeks completely restructured their national and flagship organisations to ensure their own survival. They got large government bailouts. (Many small organisations, starved of funds, went bust. Many freelance artists are now delivery drivers or have left the profession).
So, we have all witnessed radical and rapid change…when those with power want it to or are forced into it.
Many of us over the years have correctly called out the arts leadership for failing to move fast enough over issues of inequality. ‘You are failing’ we tell them. But there is another way of looking at it – that those with power have not failed, quite the reverse – they are succeeding. They have been succeeding in holding off real, fundamental challenges to the status quo. Academics call this phenomenon ‘Diversity Resistance’ defined as:
"processes that preserve the status quo such as institutional inertia and lack of support in the form of non-engagement, understaffing, underbudgeting, insufficient training and so on. Among the more overt is 'symbolic bias', in which individuals deny that inequality exists and exhibits anger toward those who propose change to remedy it. (Thomas, K.M., Plaut, V.C. The many faces of diversity resistance in the workplace)
Ever faced that pushback?
The arts do have the potential to find a new relevance, to be where national and global discussions about what kind of future we need and want to see. However, at the moment this opportunity is being passed over in favour of salvaging the old status-quo, at the moment pouring government subsidy into empty venues that only a minority ever stepped into prior to the pandemic and are likely to be more reluctant to do so after the pandemic subsides.
Adjusting our artistic practise to a post-COVID world, such as moving into digital spaces, should not worry us. After all the dispossessed through human histories have always been the innovators – it is who we are and how we survive. We may be pushed to the margins, but that does not mean that the work we produce is marginal. Far from it.
The development of the Creative Case
The fight against entrenched inequalities, and the pursuit of equality for all, is always going to be a political question. In whatever arena, this kind of work is intensely politicised, because it throws up sharp questions about the nature of society and its claims to be truly democratic. At heart it is about power, who has access to it, and the privilege they draw from it.
But each different arena has its own particular starting points, arguments and goals – and this is true for the fight for equality in the arts.
I have learned that the arts and cultural landscape, the structures and institutions that shape it, how power and privilege are expressed, traditions and modes of thinking, the ideas and worldviews that dominate it, demand particular responses, strategies and tactics from those who seek to fundamentally change it.
In September 2011 a team of radical equality and social justice activists hired by the Arts Council England (ACE) launched what we called The Creative Case for Diversity and Equality in the Arts. We defined this radical shift in arts policy thus:
"The Creative Case is based upon the simple observation that diversity, in the widest sense, is an integral part of the artistic process. It is an important element in the dynamic that drives art forward, that innovates it and brings it closer to a profound dialogue with contemporary society."
But to fully understand how we came to this declaration, one has to go back to a tragic and awful event that took place in a dark London street many years before. A national political crisis erupted out of a racist murder in 1993. Black London teenager Stephen Lawrence was stabbed to death by an ultra- racist gang of youths. The police, despite knowing the identities of the killers, failed to arrest them and bring them to justice. A subsequent government inquiry found that the police’s failure to deliver justice was due to it being institutionally racist. Out of the damning inquiry came government legislation that put a legal duty on all publicly funded institutions to combat structural racist discrimination, promote equality, and to show their progress publicly.
The Arts Council of England, funded through the government’s culture ministry to distribute subsidy, was bound by this legislation. It responded by setting up a small central diversity team that I was recruited to, initially to draw up and implement a series of national Race Equality Schemes that, for the first time in ACE’s history, put contractual obligations on the organisations it regularly funded. This replaced various piecemeal funding streams, one off projects and short-term initiatives that ACE had previously tried and had largely failed. The first scheme was launched in 2004, and later came a Disability and then Gender Equality Scheme that widened later into a Single Equality Scheme, covering race, disability, gender, faith and sexual orientation.
The contractual obligations on all ACE’s regularly funded organisations to further diversity and equality targets remain today. Like all contracts there is the threat of penalties for failing to deliver.
However, we soon realised the realm of equality had not escaped politicisation. The post 9/11 era, particularly the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005, brought new arguments into the debate, specifically around Muslim’s place in British society, the supposed level of their integration. This gave an opening to those on the right to push back against equality in general, with the values of multiculturalism particularly coming under attack. These false arguments seeped into the arts in the form of ring wing attacks on the Arts Council’s diversity policies.
By 2007 ACE’s diversity team recognised that our ability to make significant change was gradually being blocked. We had to change tack. I argued “that we couldn't rely on the impetus of the law or on the moral outrage at Stephen Lawrence's murder. We had to think a bit more quickly on our feet and try to reposition ourselves, or else progress would stop and then begin to go backwards”.
We also concluded that the previous arguments for change were, although sometimes useful, represented only partial solutions – whether that be the legal case (‘it’s the law’), the moral case (‘it’s the right thing to do’) or financial case (‘it’s good for business’). We needed a case that spoke directly to the arts. So out of the 2007 internal discussion emerged an idea that integrated diversity (and the fight for equality) with the creative act itself. I later wrote:
"We are conscious of the growing call to bring art back into the centre of the discussion and thinking on diversity. We set out an artistic-led approach to diversity in the arts as the driver for change. The Creative Case builds on what we believe to be an instinctive understanding within the arts community that diversity and creativity are inherently linked. We wish to articulate an approach that encompasses the ways in which diversity has been and remains an intrinsic and dynamic part of the creative process."
Two Examples of the relationship between diversity, artistic practice and innovation
Gender Barriers: Louise Bourgeois
When the artist Louise Bourgeois died in 2010 at the age of ninety-eight, obituary writers and art critics praised her for her ‘persistence’ and noted that she had not gained deserved prominence until she was into her seventies. However most did not touch on how she was excluded from the charmed circle of male artists whose work was purchased and exhibited by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the late 1930s.
"Because I was French and kind of discreet, they tolerated me – with my accent I was a little strange, I was not competition – and I was cute, I guess. They took me seriously on a certain level, but they refused to help me professionally. The trustees of the Museum of Modern Art were not interested in a young woman coming from Paris. They were not flattered by her attention. They were not interested in her three children. I was definitely not socially needed then. They wanted male artists, and they wanted male artists who did not say they were married. They wanted male artists who would come alone and be their charming guests. Rothko could be charming. It was a court. And the artist buffoons came to court to entertain, to charm."
It took MoMA fifty years to mount a major exhibition of Bourgeois’s work (and thereby the first retrospective of a female artist). According to the artist herself this finally came about in 1982 because a female curator, Deborah Wye, "convinced them [the trustees] that I was important".
Race, disability and innovation: Yinka Shonibare
Yinka Shonibare's version of Goya's famous painting "The Sleep of Reason Gives Birth to Monsters" is a colorful photographic reconstruction. However the white man asleep is replaced by a black man with a bald head, and his 18th century outfit is now patterned with colourful West African-based designs and shapes.
Many artists have been impaired. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri Matisse and Frida Kahlo are three examples well-known to the public. However, it is important to understand how their disabilities may have entered their artistic processes. In contemporary times the UK artist Yinka Shonibare has explained how the nature of his disability interacted with his artistic development. A 2001 profile of his work revealed that:
"Shonibare’s developing intellectual critique was informed by his own experience of physical disability. At the age of nineteen, while doing a foundation course at the Wimbledon School of Art, [London] he contracted a viral infection that left him completely paralyzed for a month and in a wheelchair for three years. Although able to get about, he has impaired mobility, including limited use of his left side.
This, he insists, made him both more determined and more creative as an artist: ‘Historically the people who made huge, unbroken modernist paintings, were middle-class white American men. [think Rothko] I don’t have that physique; I can’t make that work. So I fragmented it, in a way which made it both physically manageable and emphasizes the political critique’." (Breaking the Code: New Approaches to Diversity and Equality in the Arts, by Hassan Mahamdallie. Originally published in: Appignanesi, Richard (ed.) Beyond Cultural Diversity: the case for creativity, Third Text, London, 2010)
The launch of the Creative Case
We launched the Creative Case in 2011 at probably the largest public conference that Arts Council had ever hosted up to that point. We framed it as a conversation instead of a diktat – which caused consternation for some of the subsidised arts who were used to the Arts Council telling them what to do, in the manner of an old patriarch. Instead of bulleted action points on our discussion documents we would put a series of provocations. We called on the arts sector to be our partners. We gathered and published case studies from across history, across artforms and different areas of oppression, including race, disability, gender and social class. We rewarded those organisations that began to make significant headway, reversing what had been policy of trying to effectively bribe big arts companies into doing stuff around diversity by giving them extra money. No longer.
I argued that the Creative Case represented:
"A journey that leaves behind increasingly outmoded approaches to our artistic and cultural life in favour of new ways of seeing and telling and making. We can begin to overcome notions that have wrongly cast diversity and equality policies as an unwelcome obligation or burden on the artistic world, and instead turn this ‘deficit model’ into its opposite – a progressive force that can renew the arts in this country and lay the foundations for its artistic and democratic renewal."
Today, versions of the Creative Case are the consensus across the arts sector in England, Scotland and Wales and taken up internationally.
However, unfortunately, perhaps predictably, it is not the case that because we have won the argument, and have generated a level of momentum, that the far-reaching irreversible change we desire has taken place. In the UK we have yet to achieve the shift in power and the dismantling of privilege that a small elite refuse to relinquish.
The language of change and control over change
Some of those powerful decision and taste makers have regrouped to push what prominent theatre director and producer Madani Younis describes as “the new paternalism” – the co-opting of the language of change, and the seeking of control over the speed and direction of that change, in order to limit it. In the words of a character in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard (made into a 1963 film by Visconti): “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”.
As Madani Younis wrote in 2019 about a New Paternalism about the gap between the arts in London and its multicultural, diverse population:
"The unique cultural and creative energy that London generates is recognised and envied globally. Yet, we face a contradiction. Those peoples and cultures at the heart of this kinetic force and continual innovation are not properly represented at all levels within our arts and cultural industries. Progress still remains slow at best – and glacial at worst. We are presently hindered by a new paternalism, where a few very privileged men and women running the sector may acknowledge change is necessary, but rather than divesting themselves of power, have decided to hold onto the reins by co-opting issues and stories around class, diversity and gender. ... We need to disrupt the normative behaviour in the arts." (Now or never. Madani Younis in Capital Gains: A Global City In A Changing World. Fabian Society, London 2019).
“We need to disrupt the normative behaviour in the arts”: Theatre (the art form I know most about) in the UK as an institution or cultural force has historically failed to develop the ability to self-critique or examine itself. This is in part to do with the sector’s structure – hierarchical, top down, careerist, based on the power-laden, elitist Artistic Director/Chief Executive model; an accumulation of power and decision-making made worse over recent decades by the atomisation of the artistic workforce into competing individuals floating in a capitalist marketplace, that is driving down wages and the protections we need at work. Virtually no one in the arts in the UK talks about power (except those who point out they lack it). It is itself an exercise of power of course, to think you can wield it without acknowledging you are actually doing so.
The semblance of change in the theater sector
So the reins of power, and thus authority, largely remain in the same privileged hands. In a sense a culture of middle-class entitlement still prevails.
I haven’t got time to go into this shift towards this new paternalism, but I will give you one example of how the UK theatre sector has recently revived what I thought had been a discredited tactic - revived to give the outward impression of the appearance of change, instead of divesting themselves of power to those best positioned to enact real change.
I’m talking about the growing number of colour-blind/gender-blind/integrated disabled casting of versions of the classical western canon of plays – Shakespeare, Chekhov, Tennessee Williams, Ibsen and so on.
Now, I am all for actors from a diversity of backgrounds, who have been shut out of the classical repertoire, rightly being given the chance to play leading roles, and I think it is quite possible to argue that, for example, all-female Julius Caesar or Coriolanus productions bring something new to the table, or that Richard the Third should be played by a disabled actor. This is a basic issue of equality. Although before we congratulate the theatre sector, can we first acknowledge the exclusive white male, non-disabled casting of the classics was agreed official industry policy for decades. “Black people can’t say Shakespeare properly” and so on.
Colour-blind casting, may well breathe new life into Shakespeare – but I would argue that it does not represent a strategy for thoroughgoing advances of equality or diversity, or even inclusion. In fact, in the long run, it reinforces, not weakens, the dominating western canon that the elite have invested so much cultural capital. They will let you into the canon, but only as a way of preserving its dominance. This, I believe, is what Madani is talking about when he uses the term ‘the new paternalism’.
There is nothing automatically progressive or innovative in deploying colour-blind casting or reversing gender or non-disabled/disabled roles to spice up adaptations. A non-disabled character doesn’t automatically become a disabled character just because the role has been given to a disabled actor.
Some say colourblind casting is altering British theatre positively. How? Not in employment. In 2015 the RSC staged a celebrated Othello with two fine actors of African descent in lead roles. It was celebrated as “groundbreaking”. In what way?
I looked up the RSC’s workforce data and discovered that in 2014-2015 (the year the production was staged) 8% of the RSCs permanent staff was BAME. 2% were disabled.
Yet a year later workforce data showed in that the BAME workforce at the RSC had actually dropped by 6% (8% to 2%) while their white workforce rose 3% (72% to 75%) and disabled staff had halved at 1%. The latest Arts Council figures showed that 85% of the RSCs permanent staff are white, 3% are BAME. and 1% disabled. In other words, disabled employees in the RSC could be considered to be in the area of a statistical error. Not good!
Colour-blind (or diverse casting) in the 1990s was the subject of a devastating critique by the foremost American playwright– the African-American writer August Wilson – who created his own canon of work with plays such as Fences, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and many others.
In 1996, fed up with colour-blind casting, at a time as contemporary Black theatre in the US was being defunded, Wilson gave a lecture called “The Ground on Which We Stand”. He argued:
"Colorblind casting is an aberrant idea that has never had any validity other than as a tool of the Cultural Imperialists who view their American culture, rooted in the icons of European culture, as beyond reproach in its perfection. It is inconceivable to them that life could be lived and enriched without knowing Shakespeare or Mozart. Their gods, their manners, their being, are the only true and correct representations of humankind.
To mount an all-black production of a Death of a Salesman or any other play conceived for white actors as an investigation of the human condition through the specifics of white culture is to deny us our own humanity, our own history, and the need to make our own investigations from the cultural ground on which we stand as black Americans... For the record, we reject it…We must not continue to meet on this path." (August Wilson The Ground on Which We Stand, 1996)
I agree – we must not continue to meet on this path. Do you agree?
Three things are exercising my mind as we go forward in the UK, with a new Arts Council strategy of “Inclusivity & Relevance” as part of their new 10-year plan ‘Let’s Create’. I am all for new strategies – particularly if they speed up fundamental change. However:
Firstly: I worry about the term “inclusivity”. What are we being asked to be included into?
The great writer James Baldwin argued in his powerful 1963 book The Fire Next Time: the only way for the western societies to advance was for them to liberate and make visible all those they had made invisible, de-valued, persecuted and oppressed, and by doing so “bring new life to the Western achievements and transform them”. Baldwin argued that it would not do for those previously exiled from the centres of power to be invited to assimilate into a civilisation destructively locked into its own falsehoods – for after all, as he put it, who wants “to be integrated into a burning house?” Let it burn. A new house for all, with all, by all, had to be built.
Secondly: Artistic autonomy is so, so, so important – let the RSC get on with whatever – but the innovation and new ways of expression that UK, and I’m certain German society desperately needs – will come from those artists and their organisations who have been historically marginalised, but only if they can get much much more resources and power to produce their own work on their own terms than they have up to now.
For me it’s an issue of power, politics and democracy – maybe a word we don’t apply enough to the arts.
Lastly: When it comes Relevance (to society)– we need to talk about social class:
It is now time for the class divide in the arts and cultural production –the structural inequality that links with all the others I have been talking about – to be taken seriously. THE UK Arts Council recently published a research document on the social class divide. But I was disappointed that the main idea that underpins the report – that we should concentrate on “social mobility” (moving between classes) as to what we want to change. As a working-class person – I do not want to be lifted up into the upper middle creative class. I do not want to be civilized or gifted with “cultural capital” by elite tastemakers – or be one of the few lucky ones to be let though the gate. I do not want the back door key to the burning house – thank you very much. I want to do my own work.
I want to end forever the dominating, mediocre and suffocating hold the upper middle-class minority have over cultural production – - akin to a process of colonial rule of the arts.
We wrote and implemented the Creative Case for Diversity in the arts and culture because that was what was needed at the time to push change.
The question for us now is: Where do we want to go to next – how are we going to get there? And who will go on the journey with us?
The text is the keynote given by Hassan Mahamdallie on March 11 at the online launch of the publication "We Once Supported a Project ...a Structural Approach to Diversity"
Translation: Winnie Ya Otto; part of the keynote is based on Hassan Mahamdallie's paper "Politics, Power and Privilege". This part was translated by Almut Meakin.