Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Erich Hatala Matthes's "Drawing the Line"

Erich Hatala Matthes is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Faculty Director of the Frost Center for the Environment at Wellesley College. His teaching and research focus on the ethics, politics, and aesthetics of art, cultural heritage, and the environment.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Drawing the Line: What to Do with the Work of Immoral Artists from Museums to the Movies, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Drawing the Line does indeed offer a helpful distillation of one of the book's key arguments. "Cancel culture" has many possible meanings in the context of the arts, but one way that it plausibly evinces itself is through protests/boycotts/and other actions that focus public attention on the misdeeds of particular artists. One of the main ideas I defend in the book is that this drive to cancel particular artists is often well-motivated, but ultimately ineffectual or counterproductive. The focus on particular individuals can in fact offer an opportunity for people in positions of institutional power to sacrifice those individuals without making any changes to the institutional structures (membership, policies, etc.) that allowed, e.g. a predatory artist to flourish in the first place. In other words, we should be wary of situations in which the notoriety of specific individuals draws our attention away from the work that needs to happen to create lasting change in the art world. Even when activists are sensitive to these issues, prevailing media narratives about "cancel culture" unfortunately continue to distract attention from institutional change. Consider the recent dust up over Dave Chappelle, where countless articles have discussed his "cancelation." But what did B. Pagels-Minor, one of the Netflix employees who organized the walkout in protest (and lost their job!) actually say? "Many people want to boil down this to just 'crazy libs' obsessed with 'cancel culture' who want to harm Chappelle, but that could not be further from the truth. Let me be clear: Within the Trans* team there is no desire to 'destroy Netflix' or 'cancel Dave.' Our goal has always been to create parity in the content available at Netflix to better reflect the spectrum of users" (source). I go on in this chapter to argue that support for more diversely composed and managed arts institutions is important for avoiding the situations that lead to "cancel culture" controversies in the first place.
However, because of cancel culture’s obsessive focus with the individual artist, in the cases where it is effective, it offers an opportunity for those powerful parties in the art world to jump on the bandwagon of pillorying a particular artist without making changes to their own operations. The philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò has helpfully described how “elite capture” can take place across the political spectrum, with identity politics as one of its casualties—an idea that is supposed to focus on advocacy on behalf of a vulnerable group can be exploited to ultimately serve the interests of those in power. The internet outrage of cancel culture seems especially susceptible to elite capture. Because of its reliance on social media, cancel culture is part of the attention economy, and attention is a finite resource. When cancel culture directs our attention to the sacrificial destruction of particular individuals, it’s easy enough for those in positions of power in the art world to acquiesce to the canceling of some representative artists without making any significant alterations to who wields power in their organizations or how decisions are made. As journalist Helen Lewis puts it: “Those with power inside institutions love splashy progressive gestures ... because they help preserve their power.” Angry Twitter users gain some momentary satisfaction, but nothing actually changes.

The difficulty is that the drive behind cancel culture is not without a reasonable motivation. Ta-Nahesi Coates notes that the ability to cancel people is nothing new; it just used to be the prerogative of the powerful alone. As he puts it: “Any sober assessment of this history must conclude that the present objections to cancel culture are not so much concerned with the weapon, as the kind of people who now seek to wield it.”
Follow Erich Hatala Matthes on Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue