On social contracture and ‘safe’ art

A curious thing happens when society experiences social contractures — the nature and character of art begins to shift, often quite radically. Those with the power to commission art tend to retreat into what is safe and familiar, not wanting to take risks in a terrifying time, and consequently, diverse creators tend to get left out in the cold. We have to go with what we know, you see, rather than chancing it on a project that could be great, or could be a flop.

You see it in the films and television shows studios decide to move forward with, in which books publishers are buying, in what gets attention in the visual art world. The definition of safe, acceptable, comfortable art begins to narrow and it becomes the only thing that is allowed. There’s always an excuse for it — a limited budget, and the money had to go somewhere, it just wasn’t you this time. We don’t want to offend advertisers. We feel like we’re taking enough risks in this year’s catalogue. This is just a little bit too edgy for us. We already have one [fill in the blank] author/filmmaker/artist in residence.

These things are often subtle to outsiders and those who are not braced for them. They emerge later in patterns that everyone purports to be shocked by, even if they were very apparent to anyone who took the time to look.

Under the Obama Administration, the US experienced a renaissance in the arts, in many ways. Some of that was certainly top down — more money and respect for the arts means more to throw around, and more opportunities for creators. Much of that was driven from the bottom up, though. It was creators viciously fighting for ground when they’d been historically shut out. It was the handful of creators who had managed to claw their way into the ranks who reached back their hands and said ‘here, I’ll help you up.’ It was consumers of pop culture clamouring for more diversity that forced decisionmakers to reevaluate the way they decided what to buy and how to handle it.

It might seem like there’s ‘much more’ diversity in pop culture now than there was before, but that’s not as true as some people like to think it is. When you’re so used to seeing people excluded, even a handful of them can seem like a vast number — akin to how women are perceived as domineering and taking up space when they talk for the same amount of time as men. Thus, there’s this notion that everything is much more diverse now and everything is solved that isn’t actually supported by the hard data from publishing, film and television, and other corners of the arts.

And I strongly suspect we are about to roll back, after many hard-fought gains. Because when budgets start shrinking, people look for things to cut. They’ll come up with elaborate, complicated explanations for what they are cutting and why, for the rubric used to make ‘tough decisions,’ but purely coincidentally, everything they cut will end up being the work of marginalised people — the pilots that don’t get picked up to series, the show that doesn’t get a midseason pickup, the book that almost gets acquired but doesn’t quite make it, the act that could have been booked but didn’t, these will be marginalised creators.

There’s always a reason. They didn’t have enough experience. It wasn’t quite mainstream enough. People might find it hard to relate to. What many of these things boil down to is either punishing people for not being able to benefit from nepotism (you can’t get experience if no one takes you on) or for having a lived experience that differs from that of the authority, and for wanting to depict that experience. A panel of mostly white studio heads are going to chop budgets on projects by people of colour first. A cis acquisitions and marketing team will take a pass on a memoir by a trans person. This is art that is still, after all these years, considered niche and challenging and ‘diverse’ and not ‘for everyone’ in the way that things by a certain, very narrow, class of people are happily accepted.

This is something we need to be aware of as we look at what is getting funding and support in coming years and why. We live under a presidential administration that is hostile to the arts, and in an economy that is likely about to go into abject chaos. It is not a good or safe time for anyone in the arts, but most specifically those who entered the room most recently, because they are most easily pushed out. And it’s something to think about as you consider the kind of art that you think of as safe, comforting, familiar, speaking to all experiences — are you inadvertently feeding the system that will continue to keep marginalised creators out, making it impossible for them to tell their stories?

Because the only way to push back on this is to make it clear that their stories are our stories, are everyone’s stories. I can read a novel about a Latina character even though I am not Latina — the world doesn’t fall apart, I’m not shaken on my foundations, everything hasn’t turned to garbage. I can read a book with a cis lead even though I am not cis — in fact, I am expected to accept this as reasonable and normal. The best way to show that there will always be a market for media produced by people who don’t look like you — whatever you look like, and sometimes even for people who don’t look like you, is to create that market. If you’re white, consume media made by people of colour and Natives. If you’re cis, seek out trans storytellers. If you’re Christian, pick up some Muslim writers or watch a Muslim television series. If you’re a dude, check out stuff written by ladies about lady stuff. Make it clear that you are here for media that includes everyone, now more than ever.

Image: The Crowd, Amy, Flickr