The Invisible Hand of the Great White Male Musical and Artistic Canons

In my previous post I discussed how ridiculously easy it would be to avoid the Art of Monstrous Men, and the post before that discusses how to Decolonize the Musical Mind. The past couple of days I’ve come across some interesting pieces about diversity in the arts (or lack thereof). The first was a piece about bringing the art of women, long buried in storage of the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, to light; the second was a piece about how the High Museum in Atlanta tripled its Nonwhite audience in two years by, well, increasing the diversity in its programming, staff, and marketing; and the third is a rebuttal of one of the myths justifying the Great White Canon of Classical Music.

Taken alone, any one of these pieces are fascinating and demonstrates the unquestioned assumptions that allow us to center the artistic products of White Men throughout history. And this is a problem shared by popular entertainment forms–we only have to be reminded of the #OscarsSoWhite, Grammy Awards, and Whitewashing in Hollywood movies to see this. These are particularly ironic given a recent open letter to the Boston Symphony Orchestra by 60 area musicians decrying the lack of diversity and innovation in an organization that “touts its diverse programming.”

In its response, the BSO said that while it was committed to presenting works from all eras by diverse composers, marketing surveys indicate that BSO audiences want to hear works from the canon, “specifically the universal master works composed between 1600 and the mid-1900s.”

In “high art” we tend to hide behind the rubric that the quality matters more than the gender or color. We do that, however, without questioning the underlying assumptions of that contention. Namely, that so-called “quality” is highly subjective, culturally specific, and that systems of institutional power will favor the work of some populations over other populations and reinforce the norms that allow that privilege to exist.

In the “The Myth of the Canon’s Invisible Hand” (a guest post by Harvard musicologist Anne Shreffler) some of those issues come to the fore:

How exactly is this selection process supposed to have worked? One imagines a fictional court of justice in the heavenly spheres, presided over by—whom? (God? St. Cecilia? Herbert von Karajan?), that conducts annual reviews of ALL the compositions by ALL the people, and hands down impartial judgment on their “musical quality.” The verdict: Sibelius, yes; his contemporaries Amy Beach and Will Marion Cook, no.

In the wake of recent conversations about the egregious underrepresentation of women and people of color in the classical repertory, we are confronted yet again … with the deep-seated belief in the “invisible hand” selecting for musical quality. The minuscule numbers of women composers programmed by major symphony orchestras last year (as reported by Ricky O’Bannon and Sarah E. Baer) are depressing, and at the same time—like the recent revelations about sexual misconduct by conductors and teachers—they are totally unsurprising to anyone familiar with the classical music world.

When there are literally tens of thousands (likely more) of compositions in existence with no one having had the chance to listen to them all–much less do any sort of comparative analysis of them–we’re not in much of a position to even really address quality in anything other than culturally arbitrary terms.

Among the reasons for lack of representation by women that Shreffler gives (including  institutional inertia, career ambitions, intellectual laziness, and individual bias) is an arbitrary notion of “neutrality” (i.e. read: “universality” from the BSO response above):

But there is another, less well understood reason why a virtually all-white, all-male repertory has been tolerated for so long: the widespread preconception that music has no gender, or much of anything else.

“Saint Catherine in Prayer,” by the 16th century painter and nun Plautilla Nelli now on exhibit at the Uffizi Galleries.

Neutrality is intimately tied to “greatness” because that keeps a work from being “culturally specific” and is one of the reasons that Eike Schmidt, after discovering that the Uffizi houses the “largest collection of works of arts by women before the 19th century,” rather than creating specific exhibits to showcase the art of women, he includes them as a legitimate part of the existing exhibits because, well, the works of the “Great Masters” were culturally specific.

For those who might question whether women artists merit a special exhibition, Eike Schmidt at the Uffizi is quick to note that it’s not just about exhibiting the works of women.

“It’s more an occasion to bring them back into art history,” Schmidt says.

He adds that the paintings by women now coming out of storage are not being displayed in a separate space. “We don’t create a feminine ghetto or anything like that,” he says.

In the piece, Jane Fortune (founder of Advancing Women Artists Foundation and author of “Invisible Women: Forgotten Artists of Florence”) mentions some of the institutional barriers to women artists which had a healthy [invisible] hand in shaping their art as well as the reception of it throughout history.

“You have to consider a context in which women artists were not able to study,” she says. “They couldn’t frequent academies as fully fledged members. They couldn’t study anatomy. And they couldn’t issue invoices for their works.” It was illegal for women to participate in professional organizations (guilds), Falcone says, so they could not exchange services for money.

As long as these early works by and the lives of women remain hidden from our histories of art, this will reinforce the centering of men and their work in the art world. And it’s the living women and PoC who suffer the most from this myopic legacy. Case in point, more from the BSO’s response to the open letter mentioned in the Boston Globe piece above:

In its response, the BSO said that while it was committed to presenting works from all eras by diverse composers, marketing surveys indicate that BSO audiences want to hear works from the canon, “specifically the universal master works composed between 1600 and the mid-1900s.”

The BSO said such a dramatic change would be “significantly challenging.’’

“It would be impossible to completely change the balance between contemporary music and music from the canon without alienating significant portions of our audience and affecting the BSO’s well-being,” the BSO said.

Which brings us to the High Museum in Atlanta and how it tripled their Nonwhite audience in two years. I mean, if even the Whitewashed Hollywood can learn the lesson that Diversity Pays at the Box Office, I think our Arts Institutions can learn a thing or two. How did the High Museum do it? The piece gives us five points.

  1. Content
    Of the 15 shows the High presented this year, Suffolk says, five highlighted the work of artists of color, including the Atlanta-based muralist Hale Woodruff and the Kenyan-British potter Magdalene Odundo. “You can always do another white guy show,” Suffolk says, but that doesn’t mean you should.
  2. Marketing Strategy
    Before 2015, the High spent the vast majority of its marketing budget on the promotion of a few blockbuster exhibitions. The result, Suffolk says, was that most locals didn’t think of the museum as a place that fostered regular, repeat visits. If the blockbuster shows didn’t appeal, they had no reason to go.Now, the High spends 60 percent of its marketing budget to promote a cross-section of its exhibitions. (“There was a little bit of condescension in telling people come see this show but not invite you back for five other shows,” Suffolk notes.)
  3. Admission Prices
    Last year, however, the museum opted to overhaul its tiered structure and charge everyone the same price: $14.50. As Andrew Russeth has pointed out in ARTnews, the move was largely symbolic: Because it raised the price for children, it didn’t actually make the High much more affordable to families…[H]e believes the move has made potential visitors feel that the museum is making an effort to welcome them. “We’re telling people, ‘We’re listening to you, we hear we’ve gotten out of kilter with the marketplace,’” he says.
  4. Diversify Docents
    the High has also seen a radical change in the demographics of its docents—the people who guide students and visitors through the museum and may be the first faces they see when they enter. In 2014, the incoming class of docents was 11 percent people of color. By 2017, it was 33 percent.
  5. Diversify Staff
    In this area, Suffolk admits, the High still has a lot of work to do. Its staff has only become slightly less white over the past two years, from 69.6 percent in 2015 to 65.5 percent in 2017.

While this is anecdotal (the piece does mention that other organizations have successfully changed the demographics of their audiences–though none are named), and I always advise keeping Survivorship Bias in mind with “Success Stories,” I think most of the initiatives above are already naturally happening within the overall landscape of the arts and entertainment world and it’s simply a reflection of the changing demographics of the US. Something I’ve discussed at this blog many more times I can mention while talking about non-Western music ensembles and musicians.

Above all content and members of the organization will go the longest towards changing audiences. Being able to see folks like you in performing groups/staff/volunteers or reflected in repertoire choices/artworks is going to matter more than anything else. Until that happens, I think we’ll slowly see the shrinking market of White Male Legacy institutions as they become similar to other HIP organizations–specialists in a narrow range of art and music. Art and music that is often arbitrarily selected from a much larger population of works that have been systematically suppressed by various cultural institutions to favor of White Male Canonical Masterpieces.

I’ll end with a quote from the Open Letter to the BSO:

As exciting as it might be to hear the BSO perform Beethoven’s Fifth, it would mark the 55th performance since 2000 and the 21st just this decade. Would it not be more exciting to open up new, rarely-explored venues?


  1. […] So there’s been a lot of chatter about diversity (or lack thereof) in Classical Music and Orchestras the past few weeks. Just some examples: Holly Mulcahy’s piece about diversifying orchestra audition excerpts; Eric William Lin’s discussion (with wonderful interactive graphs) of NY Phil’s rep over 175 seasons; Rob Deemer’s unveiling (in a little more formal venue) of the massive database of Women Composers that he and his students have been curating for some time; and, of course, Anne Shreffler’s piece about the Canon’s Invisible Hand which I discussed previously. […]


  2. As you know, the Internet ate my long comment, so here is the short version. 🙂

    I’m sympathetic to all you say, yet even with the “canon” as it is currently packaged and branded, there is stiff competition. Beethoven knocks out Beethoven. Yes, his 5th symphony is played too much by my standards, making it hard to hear my favorite, the 8th, performed.

    Classical music is in some sense struggling to survive and compete its current constricted form (though, as you have aptly pointed out many times, it is not necessarily doing worse than other types of music). Thus, trying to include more POC and women could very well have the result of “diluting the product line” with which people are familiar and “weakening the brand.”

    I’m a marketing guy by day, working in advertising, and the above may sound cynical and even out of place, but I think, ultimately, it’s true. Though again, I would love to hear Amy Beach performed more often. Throw in some Clara Schumann piano works–they’re awesome too!


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