The dedication of New York City’s new Whitney Museum — a $420 million, nine-story behemoth, under construction in Manhattan’s meatpacking district for the past five years — was an occasion for celebration. Leave it to an Obama to employ the occasion for racial scolding.
The Obama in this case was Michelle, who has long shared her husband’s constitutional inability to refrain from racializing a public occasion: “You see, there are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and they think to themselves, well, that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood,” she said at the dedication ceremony. “In fact, I guarantee you that right now, there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum. And growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I was one of those kids myself.”
As it happens, I spent an afternoon at the new Whitney last weekend, and the visitors filled out a veritable racial rainbow. But I take the First Lady’s point — which is, at least in part, backed by the numbers. The National Endowment for the Arts reports that whites, who constituted 66 percent of the national population, made up 76 percent of the adults who visited an art museum or gallery in 2012. Hispanics (10 percent of visitors) and African Americans (7 percent) were underrepresented compared to their respective portions of the national population. Whites were overrepresented, and blacks and Hispanics again underrepresented, among attendees of performing-arts events as well, whether jazz concerts, musicals, or poetry readings. Notably, in 2006, the Institute of Museum and Library Services found that African Americans had the lowest participation rates (ranging from 18 to 22 percent) across all categories of museum types — art, science/technology, historic house/site, history, and natural history – surveyed in its study.
The verdict seems clear: Carnegie Hall is for the Kennedys, not the Cosbys. Inasmuch as that is true, though, the question is: Why? Mrs. Obama’s answer is largely wrong.
Museums and centers for the arts in this country have never been more enthusiastically pluralistic than they are today.
One can hear in this latest lecture her infamous 2008 campaign remark: that America is “downright mean.” What she is suggesting — and the Obama duo’s treatment of race relations over the past six years makes this clear — is not that free and independent-minded black Americans are refusing to take advantage of the nation’s 17,000 museums, but that curators and crowds have quietly signaled that black Americans are not welcome.
That is bunk. Museums and centers for the arts in this country have never been more enthusiastically pluralistic than they are today. Currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City is Jacob Lawrence’s One-Way Ticket, a sequence of 60 paintings depicting the mass migration of African Americans to the urban North in the early 20th century. At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, one can see the famous prints of Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai, the pictures of Gordon Parks (the first full-time African-American photographer at Life magazine), and a solo exhibit by Gonzalo Fuenmayor, in which the young artist’s “Colombian heritage and Latino identity collide in works that address Latin America’s colonial past and its legacy.” At Lincoln Center this month you can hear a Canadian-based Afro-pop band influenced by the music of Chad, or Arabic “standards” performed by a billboard-topping French jazz virtuoso. Whoever you are, America’s cultural centers have never been more welcoming.No, the problem is not primarily that museums are still beholden to some de facto policy of racial exclusion. It is that the American Left has spent the past half-century decrying much of the West’s high culture. The Great Gatsby is misogynistic, The Divine Comedy is homophobic, Ovid’s Metamorphoses needs a trigger warning. The narrative of Western civilization is one of racism, sexism, imperialism, and the repressive imposition of the gender binary, and its cultural monuments are little more than testaments to that history. Is it any wonder that museum attendance on the whole is on the slide?
Black America has been particularly hard hit by this impulse. Black leaders such as Al Sharpton (“Greek homos”) and Jesse Jackson (“Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Western Civ has got to go!”) have been happy to pull up the roots of American order, while arguing that doing so is in the best interests of the black community. It has proven just the opposite. By dismissing the importance of cultivating an appreciation for the best in America’s history and culture, they have alienated many black Americans from their own country, and from their neighbors. We see this alienation and resentment playing out in the “Black Lives Matter” movement’s pathetic occupation of Apple stores and brunch restaurants. And at the highest levels, President Obama, with his romantic view of the Third World, is a product of that education. So is his wife.
Perhaps the First Lady could talk about that when she next cuts a ribbon.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.