New Survey Reveals Homogeneity in Art Writing

A very interesting survey about the art press was released by Nieman Reports last week, and it goes a long way toward establishing a fact that I’ve been quite aware of for quite some time, and which I daresay most of my readers know instinctively: people who write about art are overwhelmingly on the left, nearly to the exclusion of any other views.

From my time studying the art world in an academic setting nearly twenty years ago, to what I now do on a daily basis, such as reading multiple publications about things like upcoming sales and shows, I’ve been very aware of the fact that I’m usually the odd man out in a group of commentators. I often don’t agree with the weight ascribed to the work of untalented hucksters masquerading as artists, I roll my eyes at curatorial mistakes regarding sacred art which even a 2nd grade parochial school student would not make, and I often want to take a dose of brain bleach with my coffee, just to get all of the soul-sucking, intellectually lazy poison that I’m forced to read each morning out of my head. Thanks to this new report, which surveyed over 300 professional visual arts journalists, we can start to see some hard data that goes a long way toward explaining why this may be the case.

Take a look at the results from Question 96: “How did you vote in the 2016 presidential election?” Only 0.47% of those surveyed voted Republican in that election, while 84.98% voted Democrat. The remainder of participants either voted Libertarian or Green, or did not vote at all whether by choice or because they were ineligible to vote. Admittedly, one might conclude that these results could have been affected by the somewhat polarizing Republican candidate for President that year.

Yet before we chalk up those numbers to the influence of a particular candidate, consider the results in response to Question 97: “How do you identify in politics?” Of those surveyed, 48.11% identified themselves as “Progressive”, 34.91% as “Liberal”, and 7.08% as “Moderate”. Once again, only 0.47% of recipients identified themselves as “Conservative”. If the 327 participants in this survey are from the most prominent general media and art-specific publications in the country, and only one or two of those individuals self-identifies in an anonymous survey as a Conservative, is it so far outside the realm of possibility to suggest that the almost entire absence of conservative views in the art press may have an impact not only on what we read, but also on what we see in museums and galleries, or what prices are achieved in the art market?

In its article summarizing the survey results, Nieman’s asks, “So what are the implications of a mostly homogeneous field of arts writers? What is the cost to the culture of having the top jobs and much of the influence in the hands of a few white men?” Interestingly, the homogeneity considered troublesome is one based on race and gender. The question of whether there is a cost to the culture of having an almost exclusively left-wing art press doesn’t even appear to have dawned on those who carried out the survey.

We can, and should, ask why there is such a lopsided view of things in what we read about art. If, as polls generally show, this country has a relatively even split between left and right when it comes to electoral politics, opinions on social issues, and so on, why would art media outlets intentionally ignore the views of tens or hundreds of millions of people in its reporting? Do conservatives not buy art, or read art blogs, magazines, and newspapers? Do they not attend museum exhibitions or scholarly lectures? If they don’t, is it because they find no value in the visual arts? Or is it because they’ve been made to feel unwelcome, causing them to turn elsewhere for cultural enrichment?

The reader should note that drilling down to figure out the socio-political opinions of the participants was not really the intent of this survey. Rather, the report looks at how the art journalism industry has been changing, identifying the sources used by the participants to do their jobs, the influence of technology on their work, etc. That being said, given the results to the questions posted above, I suspect that we can be reasonably confident in asserting that an equally enormous disparity between left and right would result from a survey focused specifically on the respective worldviews of the participants.

A century ago, writing about art often skewed toward the right, with the mainstream press championing artists who were in the Western tradition, and skewering those who chose to break with that tradition. Now, the pendulum has swung to the extreme opposite end of things, so that what was once considered subversive and revolutionary is now the dogmatic purview of the art media establishment. Regrettably, the present reality is unlikely to change, barring some sort of major societal upheaval – but at least it keeps people like me busy.