By Stewart Killeen
The recent celebration of the Academy of Picture Arts and Sciences awards, aka the Oscars, or the more prestigious-sounding 88th Academy Awards (as if chronology and tradition necessitated respect and veneration), was once again mired in the issue of racial diversity and institutional prejudice.
The apparent “whitewashing” of actor related nominations – the 20 actors nominated for Oscars in both this and last year’s ceremony consisting solely of white individuals – for many constitutes an obvious culture of prejudice in this star-spangled, almost-religiously revered annual affair. And while many correctly point fingers at the “embarrassing anachronism” that is the staggering predominance of white voters amongst the Academy’s electors since its inception – this year’s white voters comprising 94% of the Academy’s 6000-odd members – a revealing analysis carried out by The Economist on relevant data shows “the diversity issue” is not solely confined to Academy voters but instead represents a problem that is pervasive across the wider industry and across several ethnic minorities.
The report highlights the evident over-representation of white actors in respect of Oscar nominations relative to Black, Hispanic, Asian, and other minorities as a proportion of the American population, and less unsurprisingly the report underscores the clear lack of diversity evinced in both drama schools and casting offices, and strikingly so in respect to behind-the-scenes roles including direction and production.
This undeniable bias towards white actors and the consequent indignation it has engendered is better understood when one considers the widely believed mythologies that underlie the Academy Awards and, I would argue, artistic award ceremonies more generally. In a most insightful article on the meaninglessness of the Academy Awards, the blogger Bitter Gertrude shines a spotlight on the two prevailing myths that help perpetuate the credulity of these adorned accolades and their inherent institutional prejudice.
The narrative of artistic supremacy, that Broadway and Hollywood represent the pinnacle of American performative art, is a myth conceived and maintained, by means of cultural saturation in the service of propping up these entertainment and industry giants. The second myth concerns the historically-old cultural centrality of the actor and the tendency for such figures to stand as metaphors for what is Human.
Gertrude emphasises that rather than reflecting some objective measure, the voting of artistic merit reflects the “human metaphors that are emotionally potent for the person” voting. Thus, taking together, the forces of cultural saturation, the mythologizing of actors and performers, and the inexcusable fact of a predominantly all-white male voting regime serve to validate the seeming cultural value of the Academy Awards and prolong the diversity issue. Indeed, in the report issued by The Economist it is noted that the issue of diversity was brought to the fore by the fact that several emotionally relevant films were passed over for awards.
Given the “immense power” that these Awards and the powerful industry that supports them have in the real world through the messages they convey and the metaphors they showcase, it is worth asking what values of cultural appreciation can be garnished by these seemingly lofty ceremonies?
The answer, as I’m sure you are all too well aware, has little to do with the “artistic merits” of the performers, the actors, the musicians, not to mention of course the producers, directors, cinematographers, editors, and all the other culturally peripheral players.
Rather, it has very much everything to do with the greater force of marketing and sales. As one columnist has wearily noted the “nexus of branding/product placement/sponsorship deals reaches its apotheosis at award dos.”
Furthermore, the attentive glare focused on these events and the resulting deluge of commentary and opinion too often conforms to views that in any ordinary, down-to-earth event would be regarded as ultra-conservative. More dangerously too, these events serve as “facilitators of fantasy”, sedatives for the growing sense of helplessness in an increasingly unequal society – just think of the fantastical limits achieved by the Brits in setting up a scenario in which the astronaut Tim Peakes, currently residing in space, awarded Adele the accolade for global success. These are the cultural values being endorsed, the metaphors for being human that we are offered in these spectacles. Here, “commerce trumps art.” Indeed, as Bitter Gertrude remarks, only money can buy cultural saturation.