I recently bought copies of two books I previously owned but somehow lost: Spraycan Art, a photographic journey through graffiti styles by Henry Chalfant and James Prigoff, and Mixed Blessings, Lucy Lippard’s 1990 survey on identity politics and multicultural art. When I first had them in the mid-90s as a student at San Jose State University, I wore those books out like favorite sneakers or a new CD on heavy rotation, reviewing its pictures and texts over and over, trying to grasp graffiti’s extreme stylization and the emotional agitation of art in the multicultural era – my era. Through these books, I understood these art forms to be tools in a cultural war between the underrepresented and the “system” that operated against them. Moreover, the books were windows into world’s I wanted to participate in; their words and images populated my imagined New York.
But when I actually did move to New York in 1998 those movements already seemed out of step. Galleries and museums weren’t showing graffiti and neither were the streets. Handball court walls and subway trains were no longer canvases – they were “so fresh and so clean,” and that was how they stayed. Of the four elements of hip hop culture, graffiti seemed most in danger of homelessness and obsolescence. Similarly, multicultural art, work by minority artists, and that which trafficked in identity politics was largely missing in the clean white galleries of Soho and Chelsea, within the institutional space of museums, and in the printed pages of the top art publications. When I finally got my bearings in the art world here and met a bunch of other like-minded Asian American artists committed to pursuing the idea of representation, it seemed clear that minority artists only had a handful of spaces where they could realistically show – those that were explicitly established to present culturally-specific art like the Studio Museum in Harlem, El Museo del Barrio, the Asian American Arts Centre, and a handful of others.
Graffiti and multiculturalism, attitudes as forms on which I pinned my early conception of art and culture, were clearly old news. To taste-making New Yorkers in the late 90s, these movements had grown old and ugly together. Multicultural art, like graffiti, was first fueled by anger against under-representation. Minority artists were disenchanted at a system that routinely omitted them from the “center” of contemporary art and the art historical canon. Emboldened by past generations of Civil Rights protests and feminist theory’s breakdown of patriarchal social order, artists began to come together, forming communities of like-minded, disaffected cultural producers and making work that spoke directly to and against the powers they felt kept them down. They used art to talk about the struggles of their people and the historical, political and cultural forces that informed their identity – an effort to mark cultural territory in major narratives of American Art from which they were omitted. Their work directly targeted the power structure of the art world, but it also was a self-conscious process of formulating their own sense of identity within a dominant white culture. As such this work was primarily shown in those spaces whose audiences were sympathetic to these perspectives. Multicultural art was preaching to the converted its own practitioners complained.
The 1993 Whitney Biennial was a watershed moment for multiculturalism in art, an art that paradoxically was meant to strike out against the institutions it was also trying to gain access to. It’s curators – Elizabeth Sussman, Thelma Golden, John Handhardt, and other Whitney curators – pursued an exhibition about identity politics and it became a test of whether this movement would sink or swim in the mainstream. It wound up getting trashed in the most absolute terms by many of the influential critics of the day. Christopher Knight called it a “disastrous installment” of the biennial, and Robert Hughes subtitled his review “A Fiesta of Whining” and complained that it was “preachy and political.” Multiculturalism and identity politics fell completely out of favor, its moment falling from the loftiest, most public perch available in art. Thereafter, this kind of work was dismissed as little more than political rhetoric – pedantic and conservative like state-sanctioned propaganda in a communist country telling its populace what was morally correct.
But now, in our current politicized moment when the nation is gripped in a deep recession as it was during the ’93 Biennial, art has returned to politics. The rhetoric has been re-occupied, but the politics of identity remain on the margins. Now politics in art seems to refer to a personal politics that become buried within the movement of global capital and information, a loss of difference that occurs when everyone’s desire is driven towards the same products, and the language used to sell them is co-opted from anti-corporate subcultures. In art, it is now the logistics of forms and materials, their means of production, the way they enter the world and feed back into the language of consumption that weigh heavily in artistic and theoretic thought – this circular meta-process operating on every work of art is now thought of as its politicization. The artist as ready-made.
In spite of this new, compelling reading of our culture, multiculturalism and identity politics still matter today because the problem of representation persists. The vocabularies that artists use to spell out their realities have changed greatly since the late 80s and early 90s, and I know most want to avoid divisive rhetoric, but there is still much to learn from a movement that many wanted to forget ever happened. And that’s because, while art looks quite different today, there’s a lot about the art world that hasn’t changed.
I was heartened to see some new bubble letters freshly spray painted by some clearly nostalgic graf artists on a new section of sound wall bounding the Grand Central Parkway in Queens as I was driving home today after lunch with Claire Barliant and curator Edwin Ramoran. It seems as if graffiti is making some tentative come-back moves. At lunch, we talked about the stuff I mentioned above and threw around some direct references: The Decade Show, Marcia Tucker, MOCADA, Museum of Hispanic Art, Godzilla, Longwood Art Gallery, Eugenie Tsai, Holland Cotter, Rocio Aranda, Elvis Fuentes, Marcia Tucker, Elizabeth Sussman, the Studio Museum in Harlem, Thelma Golden, Lauren Haynes, Thomas Lax, Jeff Chang, Lia Gangitano, Jose Ruiz, Erin Sickler, and on and on.
And as long as I’m dropping names, I realized I left a bunch of deserving artists out of the “My Whitney Biennial” post from a couple weeks ago. Here’s the new though ever-evolving list with new additions in bold:
Jaishri Abichandani, Manuel Acevedo, Derrick Adams,Terry Adkins, On Akiyoshi, Elia Alba, Laylah Ali, Blanka Amezkua, Tomie Arai, Nicole Awai, Nadia Ayari, Radcliffe Bailey, Tamy Ben-Tor, Sanford Biggers, Karlos Carcamo, Nick Cave, Patty Chang, Mel Chin, Cecile Chong, Theresa Chong, Ken Chu, Seth Cohen, Robert Colescott, Papo Colo, Ernest Concepcion, William Cordova, Jimmie Durham, Nicolas Dumit Estevez, Zachary Fabri, Ming Fay, Cui Fei, Brendan Fernandes, Benin Ford, Coco Fusco, Chitra Ganesh, Rupert Garcia, Rico Gatson, Mariam Ghani, Deborah Grant, Renee Green, Alejandro Guzman, David Hammons, Skowmon Hastanan, Leslie Hewitt, Annamarie Ho, Donna Huanca, Arlan Huang, Shih Chieh Huang, Yoko Inoue, Emily Jacir, Mathew Day Jackson, Arthur Jafa, Steffani Jemison, Rashid Johnson, Jennie C. Jones, Charles Juhasz-Alvarado, Brad Kalhamer, Jayson Keeling, Swati Khurana, Byron Kim, Terence Koh, Las Hermanas Iglesias, Simone Leigh, Shaun Leonardo, Lam + Lin, Bing Lee, Nikki S. Lee, Kalup Linzy, Jeanette Louie, Miguel Luciano, James Luna, Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow, Tala Madani, Kerry James Marshall, Daniel J. Martinez, Esperanza Mayobre, Ana Mendieta, Charles McGill, Yong Soon Min, Wardell Milan, Naeem Mohaiemen, Ivan Monforte, Irvin Morazan, Yamini Nayar, Manuel Ocampo, Pepon Osario, John Outerbridge, Joe Overstreet, Cliff Owens, Fahamu Pecou, Paul Pfeiffer, Adrian Piper, William Pope.L, Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, Sara Rahbar, Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz, Naomi Reis, Faith Ringgold, Nadine Robinson, Athena Robles, Jose Ruiz, Rafael Sanchez (the one who had a solo show at Exit Art in 2010), Jacolby Satterwhite, Dread Scott, Seher Shah, Xaviera Simmons, Arthur Simms, Shinique Smith, Jeff Sonhouse, Chanika Svetvilas, Mickalene Thomas, Mary Ting, Slavs & Tatars, Sol’Sax, Hong-An Truong, Juana Valdes, William Villalongo, Roberto Visani, Mary Valverde, Anahita Vossoughi, Kara Walker, Kay WalkingStick, Hank Willis Thomas, Fred Wilson, Saya Woolfalk, Lynne Yamamoto
Today was ordinary; I knew early on there would be nothing to overwhelm it. Time was like a stubborn fog over the city – unmoving, spreading its grayness so evenly that morning felt like evening. There was a staff meeting to begin with in which we talked about goals for the museum’s different departments in terms of the ‘communities’ we’re trying to reach relative to our mission – a typical, but I guess necessary, discussion for all museums. As someone else talked, I sensed myself falling into a hollow trance, robotically nodding in agreement to ideas I only half heard. I had no ideas of my own on this matter, but felt like I used to. I looked at people talking. Noticed the practiced way of their speech. How certain culminations of sentences predicated subtle shifts of the head and inflections of eyes. This was the most interesting part of the meeting.
Nothing could be gained and nothing lost today. Emails trickled in unenthusiastically, many starting with “Happy new year!” There were a few invitations to Lunar New Year functions I should probably attend. Every email seemed to come from an anonymous ‘we’; personalities were subsumed into bland, protective affiliations. I lingered at the coffee spot in the late afternoon talking to my man behind the counter about Real Madrid’s predictable collapse against FC Barcelona. I wanted to stay a while longer to hear more about his soccer agony, but was pulled by a vague force back to the museum, back to my desk. I listened to my colleagues slap away on their keyboards producing that familiar “tick-tick-tick” sound in offices that, when you concentrate on it, sounds like a wild symphony of dysfunctioning clocks.
This Sunday I’ll be going to Jeanette Ingberman’s memorial service at Exit Art, the non-profit alternative art space she founded with her husband Papo Colo in 1982. It’s first show was called Illegal America, based on Jeanette’s masters thesis paper on art and the law. She had a lawyer’s mentality: a talker, confrontational and questioning, always looking for an angle into the truth or something that sounded better. When I worked there (from 2007-11), Jeanette constantly told me how similar she thought Jewish and Chinese culture were, with their focus on family and food. I would nod in agreement but think to myself, isn’t that how all cultures are? I knew it was her way of expressing closeness, knowing how important my “Chinese-ness” was to me. And I saw how she looked for connections with anyone that walked into Exit Art’s massive Hell’s Kitchen space no matter who they were. “Hello! How you doing?,” she would excitedly ask a visitor.
I like remembering the way Jeanette talked, her voice a buoyant, piercing instrument salted with a proud Brooklyn accent. She used to sweep into the curatorial office, plop down on a chair with her laptop and chat it up with me and Exit Art’s other curator, Lauren Rosati. She would read absurd emails sent by upset visitors or acquaintances, weigh in on a headline in The New York Times, complain about the latest awful show at so-and-so gallery or museum, and update us on the state of her and Colo’s diet and the political dynamics of the food industry. In these sessions, she avoided work discussion, never asking about the status of a show or checking on an important detail she was fuming over just earlier. It was her way of releasing stress, and it was her telling us that work was just an extension of what she was passionate about as a person. This was the way we should be, she seemed to be teaching us.
This partially explains how she saw Exit Art as an island, special in the way it expressed marginality without apologies and a cultural jungle populated by strange-looking plants and animals that were hybrid species. It was always an us-against-the-world attitude; we played with an edge. Her voice, together with Colo’s moody hum, carried the signal of Exit Art, a signal that I think pulses inside me now too.
I called her when I decided to leave Exit Art. It was a Monday morning before anyone had gotten to work and I remember my nervousness. She was in the hospital, had been there for the past 6 months dealing with her illness. I knew she was weak but I wanted to tell her voice to voice. Her’s cracked when she answered and it sounded like I woke her up. “Oh hi, Herb!” she said excitedly, “How you doing?” I told her I was fine and that I was sorry, but that I had to leave Exit Art for another job. I spit it out quickly wanting those seemingly embarrassing facts to be released. The words she left me with will remain between Jeanette and I, but I felt much better afterwards about moving on because of what she said. And in fact, she gave me words to live by, motto versions of what she had been teaching all along, of what she was all about.