Wokeness in the arts has been proceeding apace these last several years and is as stifling and ludicrous as it is anywhere else. “Reinventing” theater, music, and opera were relatively simple, if not laughably misplaced. Making Alexander Hamilton black, or simply casting minorities in roles traditionally played by whites isn’t too jarring to the senses. Canceling composers with “questionable” records on race and gender were to be expected. And opera has self-consciously adopted a classically woke pose in staging any Western classic.
Indeed, as Heather Mac Donald points out, the drive to purify the arts and purge them of racist and sexist influences endangers our cultural heritage.
The destruction being carried on in this post-George Floyd moment cannot be overstated. Everything in the West’s cultural inheritance, whether in music, literature or art, is coming down. A former director of the Paris Opera Ballet expressed the idea behind the assault. To defend an artistic tradition on the ground that it is seeking a stage illusion is “not a valid argument in a context in which one race had oppressed another,” in the Times’s paraphrase.
Ballet is itself an “illusion.” To that end, in 2018, the Staatsballett Berlin mounted Swan Lake, and as tradition holds, the dancers covered their exposed body parts in white greasepaint — not as an act of white supremacy but to create the illusion the dancers were swans.
One of the dancers in the Berlin ballet company happened to be black. You can guess what happened next.
One of the company’s ballet mistresses told the company’s one black dancer, Chloé Lopes Gomes, to use the paint as well. Gomes says she told the ballet mistress, “I’ll never look white,” to which the mistress responded: “well, you will have to put on more than the other girls.”
This incident dominated the front page of the Times arts section and was flagged on the front page of the paper itself—it was that important. The Staatsballett Berlin issued a groveling apology, taking responsibility for society’s “structural racism.” The company has promised to hire the usual phalanx of diversity trainers to provide mandatory antiracism workshops. The organization will also examine its repertory for “outdated and discriminatory ways of performing” and will “re-evaluate” its “longstanding traditions,” it says.
Mac Donald points out that the result would have been the same if the scenario had been flipped. If the ballet leader had told the black dancer “Don’t bother with the body paint. You’re too black. It will never work.” This too would have been “discrimination.” “Racism today is a non-falsifiable proposition governed by the principle: heads I win, tails you lose,” she said.
We’re supposed to pretend that this ongoing destruction of the very essence of what makes us who we are isn’t being done out of hatred. We’re supposed to pretend we deserve it for all of our past oppression and other sins against people of color. We’re supposed to sit in silence and accept the destruction and if we open our mouths in protest, we’re racist, sexist haters.
The solution used to be simple; don’t hire black dancers if you’re going to perform Swan Lake or any other ballet where you want to create the illusion of swans, or ghosts, or any supernatural apparition. Surely there are white dancers more than qualified to do the job. But hiring only whites would bring down the world on your head if you’re the Berlin ballet, so it’s get woke, go broke.
I’m sure Ms. Lopes Gomes is a talented, delightful dancer. But she doesn’t fulfill the most basic requirement of being able to play the role of a white swan as intended and as tradition has dictated. If you’re going to change the tradition, it should be done in the context of maintaining the integrity of the author’s intent, not because of a political agenda.