For the Woke sincerely and passionately believe themselves to be redeeming culture, the humanities, and, increasingly the STEM fields as well, both ethically and intellectually. What this blinds them to is that in reality they are the humanities’ death rattle. This is not because, as many of Woke’s critics are pleased to imagine, that Woke are the humanities’ executioners. Rather, it is because in a world where the universities have either become or are becoming trade schools, and where the past is considered only of interest insofar as it is relevant to the present, Woke plays an extremely important role, though in fairness, largely an unwitting one, in providing the ethical grease to ease this transition.
It is the idealization of relevance that is behind victory of the idea that the most important thing art and culture can do is equitably represent communities, rather than inspire something that transcends both communities and individuals. In practical terms, within the subsidized world of the academic-philanthropic-cultural complex this explains why relevance is more and more prized over excellence on moral and ethical grounds. A representative statement of this view came from the Arts Council England’s deputy chief executive for arts and culture, Simon Mellor, who stated categorically that, “Relevance not excellence will be the new litmus test for funding.” It its a view seconded by the Arts Council director of music, Claire Mera-Nelson, who insisted that, “It is sometimes more important to think about audience opportunity than it is to always prioritize the quality of the platform.”*
The problem here is not that what has mass appeal is always junk whereas what appeals only to the few is always good. To say this would mere snobbery, and too much of the critique of Woke is just that: snobbery. But what is true is that understanding certain kinds of art, just like engaging with certain forms of spiritual practice – Zen meditation is an obvious example here – and, of course, attaining athletic excellence, are very difficult things to do, and take a great deal of time, effort, and commitment. There is an old Buddhist joke about the student who goes to the Roshi and says, “Master, how long until I find enlightenment?” The master thinks, and then replies, “Ten years.” Aghast, the pupils cries out, “Ten years??” To which the Roshianswers, “Twenty years.”