4/21/10

Rethinking

I received some very thoughtful comments regarding my last post, and wanted to highlight one in particular from photographer
Michael Sebastian. I've included it in its entirety below so you can read his thoughts, and I have to say he's given me a lot to consider. Michael writes:

"As a relative codger of 47 with a demanding "day job" who is doing his best to "emerge" around the rest of his life (picture an overlarge and grizzled moth clawing its way free of the cocoon...) I am obviously no fan of age-restricted competitions. OTOH, I don't deny that any private entity has the right to limit its contest offerings any way it wishes, if it doesn't mind arbitrarily limiting the talent pool it can draw from--foolishly, in my estimation. When this starts to matter to enough people, those contests will find themselves bereft of contestants soon enough.

But respectfully, it seems inconsistent to accept preferential treatment for some groups (e.g. women and minorities) while decrying it for others (the under-35 crowd). Why is one kind of discrimination allowable while the other is odious? It becomes a tiresome contest between varying (if real enough) legacies of oppression: whose past suffering is more virtuous, and therefore more worthy of compensatory preference? I suppose this is really the affirmative-action debate writ small---under what circumstances is discrimination acceptable in the service of a supposedly overriding "greater good"? Can't imagine that's where you want this post to go; nor do I.

But preferences of any kind, however well intentioned, are a retrograde step as we work toward the ideal: the individual consideration of photographic work based on the work's merit, considered apart from its creator's demographics."

I have to say Michael's argument is very persuasive, and after thinking it over I may just have to fall on my sword and agree with his reasoning. He's right to question the bias toward any particular group, regardless of history. Which brings me to a post I wrote a while back about sexism in art. I'm going to repost the bulk of it because it offers an intellectual argument regarding an alternative to the way contests are usually judged. I know long posts are often skimmed, but I hope you'll stick with me:

'In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell writes extensively on gender bias in relation to hiring practices among orchestras. On Slate he summarizes:

"Prior to the 1980s, auditions for top orchestras were open—that is, the auditioning committee sat and watched one musician after another come in and play in front of the judges. Under this system, the overwhelming number of musicians hired by top orchestras were men—but no one thought much of this. It was simply assumed that men were better musicians. After all, what could be fairer than an open audition? And weren't the members of audition committees, "experts" in their field, capable of discerning good musicians from bad musicians?

But then, for a number of reasons, orchestras in the 1980s started putting up screens in audition rooms, so that the committee could no longer see the person auditioning. And immediately—immediately!—orchestras started hiring women left and right. In fact, since the advent of screens, women have won the majority of auditions for top orchestras, meaning that now, if anything, the auditioning process supports the conclusion that women are better classical musicians than men. Clearly what was happening before was that, in ways no one quite realized, the act of seeing a given musician play was impairing the listener's ability to actually hear what a musician was playing. People's feelings about women, as a group, were interfering with their ability to evaluate music."
So here we have concrete evidence of gender bias in a creative field. This is not to say that those who did the hiring were overtly sexist or even aware of the preference, but the preference existed nonetheless. On a basic level gender bias is deeply pervasive in Western culture, and I believe it's so ingrained that even those of us who consider ourselves enlightened can fall prey. I remember instances in my (luckily) more distant past when I would be reading an article in a newspaper or journal, would think it was brilliant, and then on discovering the author was a woman feel my esteem go down a notch. I was always taken aback by this shift in my perspective, and it was only in challenging myself and even actively seeking out powerful artistic female role models that I now no longer have such a change of heart based on gender. Still--if I as a creative woman could fall prey to such bias against my own sex, what about those who never question their assumptions? Or those who wholeheartedly embrace their misogynistic attitudes?

...As far as Christie's and the work of men selling for so much more than women, unfortunately there's no way for auction houses to put up screens, as it were, because the pieces are being sold for so much money largely due to the clout and reputation of the artists who created the work. But it does get one to thinking about the various shows and rounds of jurying that occur on a continual basis--would anything change if no name were included with submissions by emerging artists? Don't get me wrong, I think things are improving--at least where I've been paying attention, which is within the photography world--and as more female innovators like Jen Bekman rise to the top I can only hope that the playing field will level out--that the best, regardless of gender, will receive the accolades they deserve.'

What I wrote above is perhaps essentially impossible to put into practice, and potentially detrimental in other ways (art is often about context, and a body of work might need to be seen as a meditation on a person's race or gender, whereas the playing of music can be seen in some ways as more "objective" and thus can be done anonymously). But as an intellectual exercise I think it raises some thought-provoking questions. Thank you Michael for getting me thinking.

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