Race, the Oscars, and the Arts

In my personal hierarchy of the arts, film comes in fourth behind music, the visual arts, and literature. So when I heard about the "white-out" tarnishing this year's Oscar nominations, my first thought was, "Who cares, the Academy Awards are way overrated anyway." But when I take a step back, I have to acknowledge that movies are at once the most important art form of the last century and the most popular, which is partly why film is king. Another reason is that film harnesses and develops the most advanced technologies of the time, thus making films representative in a very important way. And that technology is applied in the interest of creating dream worlds, which is cool.

So, yes, the Oscars are important, and therefore race issues relating to the industry are important, too. My own relative lack of interest isn't germane then. What is germane, however, is the fact that naming a "winner" in any of the art forms is ridiculous. The film industry's obliviousness to this fact is annoying, and contributes to the nagging sense that the Oscars are just a massive ritual of self-congratulation.

I do love to read year-end best-of lists for the arts. The thing is, I don't treat the lists as hierarchical. When I read a best-of list of jazz recording in Downbeat or Jazz Times I consider all 20 or 30 or 50 works to be roughly equally. And because of my own aesthetic preferences, I might be more likely to purchase (and yes, I do purchase), number 27 than number one. The Oscars would better if they just chose 10 people in each acting category and then structured the evening around a celebration of that, with no winner declared. (I know: Like that will happen.)

So, why are people of color so underrepresented in film? I think a lot of it it has to do with the massive costs on the line, which makes the money people wary and conservative about funding anything that doesn't fit the formula of what has already worked in the past. And we can toss in people's unfortunate tendency to be most comfortable with people like them.

In music there is a much lower cost threshold, and there are many, many ways to get your music out there. So maybe that contributes to the strong presence, even domination, of people of color in popular music. A list of key figures in popular music would certainly place Kanye West and Beyonce right up at the top. And rap/hip-hop is the most influential popular form of the past 20 years, without a doubt. My own playlist has a heavy presence of African Americans, since jazz is my most abiding aesthetic love. I should add that the jazz musicians I love are equally obscure to the people of all colors that make up the listening public. And I like it like that. I'm snobbish that way.


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