Heather MacDonald is here in Budapest this week. We were on a panel yesterday at the Matthias Corvinus Collegium, where she, more forcefully than any of us, brought home to the Hungarian audience how embracing wokeness means the destruction of one’s civilization. I wish the Hungarians all had a copy of her recent City Journal piece on the self-immolation of the Art Institute of Chicago. It starts like this:
In 2012, the Art Institute of Chicago posted a tribute to its volunteer museum educators. “Our docents are incredible,” read the Facebook post. “ ‘To walk through the galleries and see children, led by docents, jumping up and raising their hands to talk is to see the work of the museum at its best,’ ” the entry continued, quoting then–Institute director Douglas Druick.
At that time, the Art Institute was still seeking to expand its docent corps. “We Want You! (To Become a Docent),” announced a contemporaneous article in the museum’s newsletter. The article emphasized the program’s rigor: becoming a docent “was no small task,” the museum advised, involving a competitive admissions process and written, supervised research on the museum’s collections.
Less than a decade later, in September 2021, the Art Institute shut down its docent program entirely and told its participants that they would no longer be allowed to serve the Institute in a volunteer capacity. Henceforth, six salaried part-time employees would replace the 82 unpaid educators. The docents were told to clean out their lockers; as a consolation prize, they were offered a two-year complimentary membership in the museum.
Had the docents been delivering subpar performances? Had the Institute discovered an incurable flaw in their training? No, it had noticed that they were overwhelmingly white. And that, in 2021, constituted a sin almost beyond redemption, whether found in an individual or in an institution.
The racialist wave that swept the United States following the arrest-related death of George Floyd in May 2020 has taken down scientists, artists, and journalists. Entire traditions, whether in the humanities, music, or scientific discovery, have been reduced to one fatal characteristic: whiteness. And now the antiwhite crusade is targeting a key feature of American exceptionalism: the spirit of philanthropy and volunteerism.
The Art Institute of Chicago is not the first museum to turn on its docent program. But it is the most consequential. It is worth tracing the developments that led to the docent firings in some detail. The Institute is a case study in what happens when museums and other cultural organizations declare their mission to be antiracism. The final result, if unchecked, will be the cancellation of a civilization.
The Institute’s chairman, Robert Levy, offered a different explanation in a Chicago Tribune op-ed. The docents constituted a “barrier to engagement,” he wrote. The Institute was choosing to “center . . . our students across Chicago—as we take this unexpected moment to rethink, redraw and iterate.” Sacking the docents was an example of the “critical self-reflection and participatory, recuperative action” that is required for the Institute to remain relevant to “changing audiences.”
This euphemistic phraseology, too, requires translation. Put simply, the Institute terminated the docents because they were, as Rondeau put it in Iowa, “99 percent white females.” “Centering” Chicago’s students means not subjecting them to the trauma of learning about art from white females volunteering their time and energy. (Rondeau’s “99 percent” estimate was too high, but the hyperbole was born of shame and frustration.)
The Institute has thus reinforced the consensus among the nation’s elites that racial divides should be deepened rather than dissolved. Using white docents to serve “urban schools,” Rondeau said in Iowa, creates a “disconnect between the voices [that students] hear for interpretation and the population we’re trying to serve.” Never mind that the docents were connecting to students through the language of art and perception. Their voices are irredeemably white, and thus a barrier to engagement.
Of course, this imaginative apartheid only works one way. No one would dare suggest that a black person can’t teach white students. But it is unobjectionable to say that whites are not competent to teach blacks.
It may be the case that inner-city Chicago students see whites, especially older bourgeois whites, as alien. But white middle-class females in the early twentieth century taught immigrants who did not look like them the fundamentals of American history and literature, helping them to assimilate into American culture. That instruction did not harm the immigrants. An encounter with the bourgeois world of accomplishment and manners could constitute a lifeline to Chicago’s inner-city children, compared with the oppositional underclass norms too prevalent in urban schools and families. Teaching them to expect color-coding and to view its absence as oppressive, by contrast, will prepare them for a life of resentment and excuse-making.
The new, paid educators will be chosen for their antiracist credentials, not for their ability to present art as a means of expanding one’s knowledge of what it means to be human. They must have previous experience facilitating “anti-racist” programming and be “equity-focused,” according to the Institute’s job announcement. A minimum of two years’ experience “working with people who identify as ALAANA” [African, Latinx, Asian, Arab, Native American]is a must. Once on the job, the new hires will deploy “anti-racist museum teaching,” develop “anti-racist pedagogy,” and engage “anti-racist student experiences.” One might think that students visiting the Institute were entering KKK territory, rather than a welcoming environment eager for their presence.
The heart of the matter:
The new antiracism mission of museums is not an outgrowth of the democratic impulse that inspired those institutions—it is its repudiation. In 2018, Alice Walton, art benefactor and heiress to the Walmart fortune, told Rondeau [who is white] that she wanted to give him a “ton of money,” by his recounting, to loan some of the Institute’s unexhibited holdings to poor rural communities in America. Rondeau was contemptuous. “I don’t want to get into your business, Alice,” he told her, with a sneering emphasis, “but I’m not sure poor rural communities in America need Toulouse-Lautrec. I’m not sure that that’s what they’re asking for. But this kind of art for the people, like, eat your Shakespeare, look at beautiful paintings, you will be ennobled, not so much. I don’t, you know, I don’t think that that methodology is sufficiently sophisticated even though we’re seeing it still operable.” Rondeau then hit Walton up for a contribution to Chicago’s ethnic museums that “struggle to keep their doors open.” What is the difference between the poor rural communities that don’t need the Art Institute’s art and the hoped-for audiences of Chicago’s ethnic museums that deserve Walton’s money? The former are white, the latter are not.
Read the whole thing. Seriously, do. You might not be the sort of person who would go to a major art museum, but you are probably the kind of person who is glad that they exist, believing that they serve an important civilizational function. Well, wake up. They are now administered by people who hate them, who hate themselves, and who hate the civilization whose artifacts fill those museums. When Heather Mac Donald told the Hungarians yesterday that civilization is at stake in this struggle with wokeness, she was not exaggerating.
Yesterday I spoke at length with an American journalist who is here trying to discern why some of us American conservatives are drawn to Orban’s Hungary. One answer is that Orban defends the people here against wokeness. I told the reporter that a few years back, when I heard that Orban’s government had removed funding and accreditation for the two university gender studies programs in Hungary, I was troubled, because I didn’t think the state should interfere in university life that way. Now I think Orban not only did the right thing, he was prescient in doing so. This stuff means the suicide of a civilization. Where are the leading Republican politicians sounding the alarm about the destruction of our nation’s cultural heritage at the hands of these sophisticated woke barbarians? Where are the leading Republican politicians moving to withdraw federal funding from any museum that undertakes this kind of racist, anti-intellectual self-scouring? They don’t exist. These Republicans are happy to take our votes, but they don’t have either the vision or the courage to defend our common civilization.
Whatever else you can say about Viktor Orban, he’s not that kind of politician.