The latest development at New York's Metropolitan Museum brings to mind books like George Orwell's dystopian novel "1984" and the equally grim tale "The Sympathizer" by Viet Thanh Nguyen. In both stories, the chief protagonist runs afoul of an authoritarian regime and as part of his punishment, must make confessions.
On Nov. 26, 2020, the New York Times ran an article in its art section that the Met had appointed its first Chief Diversity Officer, Lavita McMath Turner, a Black woman with experience in such matters, most recently at the City University of New York. That's not a big surprise. Many major U.S. cultural institutions have recently taken a similar step. Moreover, as the NYT article pointed out, the NY city government informed its cultural institutions that if they didn't take steps to diversify their staffs, they might lose some of their public funding.
What most interested me was an element of confession associated with the Met's announcement. It came at least in part as a result of a staff letter five months ago, the NYT said, that urged the museum's leaders to acknowledge "a deeply rooted logic of white supremacy and culture of systemic racism at our institution."
The notions of white supremacy and systemic racism are key phrases and concepts in the current movement that sometimes goes as far as attempting to "cancel culture" in bringing about change, much of which is arguably overdue. If one doesn't decry "white supremacy" and "systemic racism" in those terms, however, one is insufficiently "woke" and, well, might suffer the fate of Orwell's Winston Smith or Nguyen's anonymous narrator -- periods of punishment and correction.
While those advocating such a reconsideration of the very basis of U.S. society tend to paint it in terms of a moral awakening and reckoning, is also purely and simply a power struggle.
The Met's President and CEO Daniel H. Weiss and Direct Max Hollein stopped short of repeating the key phrases -- "white supremacy" and "systemic racism" -- in the institution's July 6, 2020 mea culpa. But the document made it clear that a confession along such lines is in the offing."Our government, policies, systems, and institutions have all contributed to perpetuating racism and injustice, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art must reflect on its past and aspire to be an agent of change," the July 6 statement said.
Along with promised reforms and new initiatives on various fronts -- hiring, staffing, collecting, exhibitions, etc. -- substantive change "will also require that we understand our past and that we accept the importance of truth-seeking as a necessary part of the process of learning and reconciliation."
In other words, forward-looking reforms are not enough.
"A set of commitments to anti-racism cannot begin without an honest assessment of an institution’s own history and present practices. This process will require that we investigate our own history and that we accept the importance of truth-seeking as an essential element of healing and reconciliation. We will begin this work in the coming year through an institution-wide initiative and produce a public report."
That was number one on the list of steps the Museum said it planned to take.
In writing this, I don't mean to beat up on the Met per se. It's just that these developments are an excellent example of the nature of the culture war in which the U.S. is currently engulfed, and particularly in the arena of high-culture arts and that of academia.
But at the same time, they give rise to an interesting question: if the Met's forthcoming self-examination concludes that the institution and thus its leadership have been complicit in preserving white supremacy and that the Met is part of systemic racism, can Weiss survive as president and CEO? It's hard to have it both ways.