Taking issue with the Guardian’s view of cultural equality

March 8, 2018 by norman lebrecht


Most sane people agree that both genders and all ethnic minorities should have equal opportunity in art, as in life.

Some pay lip service to this principle. Others try by word and deed to open doors for the under-privileged and ensure that the arts have a level playing field.

That is social justice and plain common sense.

But it’s a very long way from here to the Guardian’s editorial today which calls for the imposition of fairness. Here’s the nub of a rather woolly argument:

Attending to diversity does not quash quality but increases it, widening the pool of talent rather than reducing it to a small, historically privileged group. And, by boldly looking outwards at the world around it – in all its richness – British classical music stands a greater chance of flourishing and growing as it should, rather than withering as so many fear. Naturally, it would be preferable if equality could be achieved without targets imposed and commitments signed up to – but Thursday’s International Women’s Day will be a fitting moment to recall that shifting traditional inequalities is a struggle, and takes more than a vague sense of optimism. The power of unconscious bias – the unreflecting process by which racism and sexism are perpetuated even by decent and fair-minded people – demands to be combated with something stronger than good intentions. A healthy cultural world is one in which all kinds of voices are heard and enjoyed. A healthy cultural world is one that honours the moral imperative to be fair.

An imperative? Backed by law? Or social sanction?

Is the next stage for male artists to be deplatformed?

Heaven’s sakes, art is not fair. There is no gender equality in the Last Supper. The Ring of the Nibelungen is both sexist and racist.

By the Guardian’s rules, neither Leonardo nor Wagner could have functioned.

Nor could Virginia Woolf (no minorities), nor George Orwell (distinctly sexist), nor Tracey Emin, nor….

Art needs to be free. Free from manipulation of every kind, including the imposition of equality.

We must try harder to give everyone an opportunity. But we must not preach, and we must never enforce an external doctrine on the free flow of the creative process.

Your views?


Comments (42)

  1. FS60103 says:

    The interesting thing is that some of the most influential gatekeepers in contemporary British classical music over the last three decades – Sally Groves, Sally Cavender, Jackie Newbould, Jude Kelly and Gillian Moore, to name just a handful – have all been female. When Ms Cavender actually challenged this notion of equality-by-quota in the media a few days ago, you could barely move on social media for people mansplaining feminism to her.

    Still, it’ll probably be a worthwhile exercise for institutions which don’t need to make their concerts pay – universities, colleges, specialist festivals and the BBC – to explore more neglected repertoire (it always is). Everyone else (ie many of the major UK orchestras) is actually – if you look at their programmes instead of generalising from a pre-decided position – doing what they can to vary their programmes, within financial parameters that leave little room for manoeuvre. A few years of enhanced exposure to, say, Ethel Smyth and Ruth Gipps will certainly demonstrate that their music is easily of the same quality as Charles Stanford and William Alwyn. And, very probably, that the general public is just as uninterested in hearing them. Then we can revert to the status quo – a generalised neglect of the vast majority of minor composers, which makes no distinction for gender. Mediocrity isn’t dictated by chromosomes.

    1. DT says:

      These influential guardians of contemporary music are, incidentally, all upper-middle class and propertied women — don’t forget Susanna Eastburn, who seems to have no function except to be ‘influential.’

      1. FS60103 says:

        I am not disparaging these people – their achievements are substantial, real and in most cases their status is wholly justified by their ability.

        I just wanted to make the point that if (a big if) contemporary classical music in the UK is indeed dominated by male composers, then that has been in no small part down to the judgement and skill of a group of highly knowledgeable and well-informed women. And that if (another very big if) an “establishment” is indeed controlling whose music gets played and heard, it’s certainly not an exclusively male one.

        1. Hilary says:

          Superbly put.

        2. John Borstlap says:

          There is no group of people / an establishment that controls what is being played, the UK is a free western country. There is a small number of self-appointed ‘taste makers’ spread through music life and a hughe number of people who have no judgment of themselves and for that reason prefer to follow these ‘taste makers’ to risk ‘taste failure’, because if something goes wrong they can always say that they merely followed received wisdom.

          1. David R Osborne says:

            John there is money, and who controls it. So yes, of course there is an establishment, even if what you say about tastemakers is also true. Never forget where the money goes!

  2. Mike Schachter says:

    One can hardly expect anything approaching intellectual rigour, or even intelligible English, from the Guardian under its present editor. There is nothing fair about talent.

    1. Sue says:

      Bravo. It’s a rag for SJWs and it victimizes people and leaves them there, all the while posing as bourgeois. No wonder it has the begging bowl out!! Deservedly so.

  3. Michael Endres says:

    The “moral imperative” mentioned in this article ( a set of rulesto come dicated by the enlightenend ) seems to be a classic leftist tool: emphatically propagating diversity as long as it doesn’t disagree with one’s own agenda.

    1. Sue says:

      You’ve nailed it. We are the hammers and “The Guardian” is the nail.

  4. Greg Hlatky says:

    You would need a heart of stone not to laugh at Mr. Lebrecht’s dismay.

    1. V.Lind says:

      You would need a lot more than that. For one thing, the Guardian is talking about now, and the future — no-one can change the past, in terms of finished works (no reason they cannot dig out unused women’s work of quality if they unearth it). The Last Supper was painted a long time ago; Wagner is long dead. But the Guardian editorial endorses a view long, long expressed here by none other than Mr.Lebrecht.

      How has the latter got so fair and balanced all of a sudden? We had MONTHS of whinges about the number of female musicians in Vienna, and positive pieces on some women’s only conducting class in Texas, if I recall correctly. This blog has consistently advocated the advancement of women, triggering some lively debate about the business musicians are in and the question of whether women ought to be chosen in quotas or proportion over considerations purely based on talent.

      I feel as if I have walked through a looking glass this morning.

      1. Saxon Broken says:

        Err no…Norman Lebrecht just enjoys stirring the pot by being contrarian. It is part of what makes this blog-space fun.

  5. Caravaggio says:

    Yours truly is SO tired of this diversity push business everywhere. To what end? To make the privileged respite their consciences? Marketing opportunities? Both? I am also opposed to oppression and unfairness and all that but surely there’s a middle ground somewhere?

    1. Sue says:

      It’s a first world confected “problem” from socieites which face zero existential threats. None of them gives a damn about the plight of men and women in under-developed nations, nor women migrating to the first world from them!!

      1. Cyril Blair says:

        If you think the “first world” doesn’t face existential threats, you are sadly deluded. The US of A faces the threat of creeping tyranny at this moment. All of the us the world over face the existential threat of rising oceans, killer storms, and deadly heat. If it doesn’t kill us, it will kill our children and grandchildren.

        1. Mike Schachter says:

          I am no fan of Trump’s but even less of people who complain of “creeping tyranny” when they mean that they disagree with the administration. The left is always pining for a one-party state.

          1. Cyril Blair says:

            That is not what I meant by creeping tyranny, but carry on.

        2. Sue says:

          You’d certainly never know from the snowflakes and their preoccupation with safe spaces, identity politics and political correctness. I guess they’ve just never been taught history. A generation died in WW2 to protect these fragile little snowflakes.

          I repeat, no existential threat – no bombs on the home soil, no foreign armies.

          1. David R Osborne says:

            Oh Sue- Snowflakes, safe spaces, identity politics, political correctness. Check again with your alt-right playbook, because you missed one: ‘virtue signalling’. See if you can’t fit that one in for next time.

  6. David R Osborne says:

    Exactly right Norman. There is no sensible reason whatsoever why we should not have gender equality across all areas of the art-form, in particular on the creative side. But how best to achieve this, and more importantly should it be part of a fundamental restructure?

    There is no point in mandating quotas from the top, because we face so many other serious problems all created by music’s top- down structure. An obvious way forward might be for governments to re-allocate a large proportion of the funds that currently go to the so called elite level, channeling them instead into grass-roots music-making and education (as long as we have a good discussion first about what this education should like).

    It is at that level that programs to foster gender equality are likely to be most effective, and given that control of the money is the only thing keeping our uncreative, change-averse artistic leadership in their place, we would all be better off.

    Imagine just for moment if the (something like the equivalent of) three quarters of a billion US dollars used in the construction of the Elbphilharmonie, had instead been spent on community choirs and orchestras, and early childhood musical appreciation programs. That’s an obvious example but there are countless others on perhaps not quite the same scale.

    It is at the grass-roots level that we will more than likely find solutions to all our problems, gender imbalance being only one of them.

  7. David R Osborne says:

    Sorry, typo: “(as long as we have a good discussion first about what this education should LOOK like).”

  8. Jon says:

    It’s worth remembering that about 90% of the Guardian’s writers and columnists are drawn from an incredibly narrow and privileged elite group, having been educated at Public School and then Oxford or Cambridge. For example:

    George Monbiot, Stowe School
    Polly Toynbee, Badminton School
    Andrew Rawnsley, Rugby School
    Jonathan Freedland, University College School
    Zoe Williams, Godolphin and Latymer Girls School
    Tanya Gold, Kingston Grammar School (Independent)
    Marina Hyde, Downe House for Girls
    Bidisha Bandyopadhyay, Haberdashers’ Aske’s School for Girls
    Peter Bradshaw, Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School
    David Mitchell, Abingdon School
    Timothy Garton-Ash, Sherborne School
    John Hooper, St Benedict’s School
    Sam Leith, Eton College
    Peter Preston, Loughborough Grammar School (Independent)
    Simon Jenkins, Mill Hill School
    Richard Norton-Taylor, Kings School, Canterbury
    Clare Armitstead, Bedales
    Ben Goldacre, Magdalen College School
    Martin Wainwright, Shrewsbury School
    Hadley Freeman, “boarding school in Cambridge”
    Matthew d’Ancona, St Dunstan’s College
    Alan Rusbridger, Cranleigh School

    Not much evidence of ‘widening the talent pool’ there.

    1. buxtehude says:

      @Jon: Deplatform that lot. Then: tar & feathers! It will be so right. Then: Brexit!

      Also it seems hardly fair to single out poor Wagner when the composer of Johannes-Passion and the author of The Merchant to Venice come to think of it, should have priority.

      “Down the memory hole” could have been the rallying cry but since that’s Orwell’s there will have to be another dump site found.

    2. Hilary says:

      Interestingly none went to Westminster School, which is where the current luminaries (not necessarily the best) of the UK New Music scene went to : George Benjamin, Thomas Adès and Julian Anderson.
      Contrast that with previous generations, and a shift is discernible. The education system has a great deal to answer for!

      1. roger says:

        Seumas Milne went to Westminster School. And look where he is now!

      2. Eric says:

        Actually, Thomas Adès went to University College School, not Westminster School.

    3. Minutewaltz says:

      Jon – also Archie Bland who went to Winchester.

    4. buxtehude says:

      This touches on the cultural proclivities of the establishment, or what used to be that:

      1. buxtehude says:

        The changing of the guard described here has gloomy implications for classical funding.

    5. roger says:

      excellent! I was going to bring this up but I didn’t have the names to hand. thanks for the research. champagne socialists they all are…..

      1. Sue says:

        What an oxymoron ‘champagne socialist is” and what socialmorons THEY are. And the culturalmorons that swallow their SJW victim fodder are just as bad.

  9. Greg Hlatky says:

    It is absurd to think there will be diversity imperatives and quotas and when they happen you will have deserved them.

    1. David R Osborne says:

      Well that of course depends what you mean by ‘deserved’. In classical music however, the determining factors of postcode and household income are, or at least should be of far greater concern than matters of gender inequality. The latter is to be frank, far easier to fix.

      1. sanchez1979 says:

        Absolutely true. Privileged women from affluent backgrounds have the audacity calling themselves “victims”, whilst the real victims are those who cannot escape poverty and have very limited inaccessibility to education.

  10. almaviva says:

    In psychology, the law of the instrument states that when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. By extrapolation, when the only emotion you have is rage, everything looks unjust.

    1. Sue says:

      You’ve just identified the “Guardian” ideology and readership. Whack!! Hammer, meet nail.

  11. Anon says:

    The Guardian’s expressed opinion is very much an empty straw man argument.

    Where it matters, in reality, there is very much equal opportunity in western societies today. Simply go and sit in entrance exams (usually they are open to the public!) in any tertiary education music college. Count how many women apply for still quantitatively ‘male dominated’ fields like composition or orchestra conducting and how good they are.
    There is no discrimination, there is equal opportunity already. Stop the destructive nonsense. Entering the field of classical music professionally is extremely competitive and not ‘fair’. Equally so for men and women.

    1. Michael Endres says:

      Far more worthwhile would be addressing the increasing social injustices that prevent people from choosing a career path they desire, regardless of their gender, instead of listening to those — often coming from an already privileged background –who demand quotas above everything else.

      1. John Borstlap says:

        This is touching the reall issue underneath all the word mists….. but also it seems to be obvious that some general rules would help to make people conscious of the problems.

  12. M2N2K says:

    The same old error: confusing equality of opportunity with equality of results.

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