What Can We Learn from Susan Allan Block?
A state arts agency might seem pretty distant from the insurrection at the US Capitol January 6.
But when Susan Allan Block responded to that event by posting on social media in all caps, NO PEACE, NO UNITY, NO CONCESSION, and called president elect Joe Biden “ILLIGITIMATE,” and referred to vice president-elect Kamala Harris as a “WHORE,” that changed.
Just in case you missed it: Block was a member of the Ohio Arts Council Board of Directors, originally appointed by Gov. John Kasich in 2016, and re-appointed by Mike DeWine in 2019. She is married to Allan Block, the third-generation owner of the media conglomerate Block Communications, Inc., which includes the Toledo Blade, as well as the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, and several broadcast outlets. Her comments were first shared in a screen-capture on social media by Toledo Blade reporter Nolan Rosenkrans, and immediately were re-posted by Ohio artists and arts administrators, with multiple calls to remove her from the Board. State Representative Casey Weinstein, a democrat representing part of Summit County, publicly supported that idea. CAN reached out to several Cleveland area representatives, but none responded before Block resigned Friday. The whole saga was well reported by the Cincinnati Enquirer, Pittsburgh City Paper, and Cleveland.com. US News and World Report weighed in, via a story from the AP wire. As the Poynter Institute noted, Block Communications has a history of interfering with editorial content to make it more supportive of the president, which caused writers at the Toledo Blade to go on a byline strike. Even Hyperallergic picked up the story.
What do we learn from this? That there is no telling where we will find shrill insanity? That even people who apparently care about the arts enough to serve on a state-level arts board can support overturning a free and fair election and use extremist, even foul language typed in all-caps to make their point?
In a phone call Friday, OAC executive director Donna Collins was clearly burdened by the gravity of the situation, and relieved that Ms. Block had by that time resigned. A national level scandal over insurrection and the idea of patriotism is an enormous distraction from the business of running an arts agency.
As an observer, I have to think that in a republican-controlled state (where the popular vote favored the very president who called for the insurrection, the same president whose own budgets would have eliminated the national endowments for the Arts and the Humanities) the idea of a state-level government arts agency could be fragile. Imagine, if you were the staff person in charge of said agency, and a political appointee on the board that oversees your work was shouting about illegitimate elections, in support of a bunch of thugs who had broken into the US Capitol.
I had reached out by email to Gary Hanson, the former executive director of the Cleveland Orchestra who sits on the board of the Ohio Arts Council, to ask about the situation. He distinguished between personal views and his role as a board member, saying “as an individual, I strongly disagree with what are disturbing and extremely strident statements.” Speaking as a Board member of the Ohio Arts Council, he added, “in the course of the OAC’s actions and deliberations I have never heard anything political from Ms Block or anyone else. Politics are left at the door when the OAC Board meets.”
We have no reason to believe otherwise.
Still, what can we learn?
If what we get from this is that right-wing extremism lurks in every corner of society, we have come up short. Of course it does. Even in the liberal nationwide bubble that is the arts, and even in the liberal geographic bubble that is Cuyahoga County, we know there are people among us who, to be more than polite, have varied perspectives.
If learning that a [now former] member of the OAC Board supported the insurrection was surprising, buckle up.
Block is the subject of a 2015 profile for Mature Living, a Toledo-based magazine, on the occasion of the launch of her company, Vendome Pastry, a year earlier. Before moving to Toledo, she had studied bread baking in New York, where she lived for 20 years. Then she moved to Paris to complete a culinary degree program and intern with a caterer there.
So much for the idea that extreme right-wingers don’t live in cities, or haven’t traveled.
If that seems “against type,” read on. M Living described Block this way: “Susan is an environmentalist and student of ‘Permaculture,’ a farming methodology that creates agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient. Her interest in the Locavore and Slow Food movements is the force behind her quest to partner with local producers and vendors to source the freshest, most sustainable and seasonal ingredients for her European style dessert and pastry creations.”
She’s got a lot in common with a lot of artists and hippies I know.
If what we learn from this is paranoid fear that political extremism can be hidden in every corner, we are embracing the witch-hunt ethics of McCarthy-ism.
It is fun, and maybe in terms of time management even productive to jetison from your social media circle the people who don’t think like you do. It is fun rhetoric to say that if the red staters want to secede we should let them, because those are the impoverished states that take more than they give in terms of federal taxes. It’s fun to say “those are the states sucking at the government teat.”
But it is not productive, and no one really wants to cut the country into independent, right wing and left wing nations, and nobody I know wants to take up arms. We absolutely have to figure out ways to connect with people who live in that universe of what Kelly Anne Conway called alternative facts.
It is not naïve to say art can do this. In fact I think it might be the only way. Maybe pastry and permaculture and local food can help. Art gives us a way to talk about everything in the world, besides politics and the election. This is not to suggest avoiding those subjects, but we have to talk about other things too. There’s more to life. In fact political systems exist only to enable everything else. Good riddance to Susan Allan Block, but as thinking, creative people, we’ve got a lot of work to do. Every kind of expression is more important now than ever, so that we can find humanity in people whose perceived reality is so far removed from our own.
The next meeting of the Board of Directors of the Ohio Arts Council is scheduled for Inauguration Day, Wednesday, January 20, 2021.