it’s a strategic mistake to get the case for equality bound up in aesthetics


I have said, many times, that the deepening progressive obsession with pop culture minutia is a profound strategic and analytical mistake. It devotes scarce political resources to concerns that are inherently disconnected from the actual lived oppression of most members of marginalized groups. It convinces a generation of young liberal people that the work of politics is easy, that all you have to do is like the right music or movies to be part of the solution. It deepens the widespread sense that progressive politics are less about principle and more about being part of some cool elite social culture. And it does terrible damage to actual aesthetic criticism, reducing the question “is this good?” to “is this politically convenient?,” or worse, “does liking this make me look like one of the good ones?” Judging art for its political qualities first is what people used to make fun of in, say, Soviet kitsch.

It also binds up the case for equality in the inherently subjective nature of artistic taste. In this Slate piece, Aisha Harris complains about the assumption “that people of color only get rewarded for being people of color, not because they may actually be—gasp—deserving of their reward.” But of course, that’s precisely the argument that you invite when you make the case for equality dependent on the perceived quality of specific works of art. Different people have different artistic tastes, and thank god; a world where that wasn’t true would be a sad place. But when you hinge the argument for equality of opportunity in creative fields on the specific complaint that a particular movie or performance was unjustly denied, you’re inevitably weakening that case because not everyone does or should agree on what movies are good.

Case in point: Harris presents the Best Picture award for Shakespeare in Love as some sort of straightforwardly unjust outcome. And, indeed, that’s a very common complaint, a kind of aesthetic shorthand that you hear a lot. Personally, I think it’s wrong. Shakespeare in Love is a great movie, in my opinion. Meanwhile, its direct competition, Saving Private Ryan, is typically treated as having been unjustly denied the Oscar. But Saving Private Ryan is an actively bad movie, one great battle scene followed by every war movie cliche imaginable, filled with incoherent themes, one of the most uninspired performances of Tom Hanks’s career, and a metric ton of Spielberg schmaltz. You’re free to disagree — and that’s the problem. Because the people criticizing the Oscars for being so white are staking so much on the subjective merits of particular award categories, they are ensuring precisely the response that aggravates Harris. If we admit that artistic tastes don’t map cleanly onto a particular political perspective, there will always be a critical counterpoint that cuts against the perceived wrong in awards season. The only alternative is to enforce a particular taste based on its political dimensions, which is both contrary to our basic conceptions of taste and exactly the claim that Harris rightly finds offensive. As long as you build the case for equality on the subjective appeal of, say, Sylvester Stallone slurring his way through rote sports movie scenes in Creed, you’re playing into the argument you want to dispute.

All of this is unnecessary; the case for greater equality in Hollywood is clear, and doesn’t depend on the aesthetic merits of specific movies. We should pursue equality of access in all industries, including the creative industries, because we recognize that the opportunity to try your hand in a given field is a basic and cherished kind of freedom. We further know that these opportunities have been unequally distributed along lines of class and race and gender, and so we should take an active role in correcting that problem. Aesthetically, we don’t need to see any individual creative act or creator as good or bad to recognize the value of diversity in our creative class. Most people from any particular group will be bad at the creative arts, because talent is rare. But a great artist can come from anywhere, and if we fail to take an active role in seeking them out in the places where opportunities have been hard to come by, we risk missing out on genius. More, diversity in perspective is an essential element of artistic bounty, and truly diverse perspectives can’t be achieved without diversity in our creative class.

Diversity in Hollywood matters on a systemic level; there’s no need to tie our case to any individual work. And we should be clear that the real diversity that matters is much less diversity in awards season, where the already-successful are given even greater rewards to go with their immense wealth and celebrity. “Who should get handed golden statues in an annual celebration of the aristocratic .01%?” is not a progressive concern. Instead, what really matters is at the beginning, at the bottom: who gets the opportunity to create in the first place. There, the case for diversity could hardly be stronger, and it does not depend on the fickleness of individual taste.