More Fire: Identity Politics Again

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



3 Comments on “More Fire: Identity Politics Again”

  1. Nina H-C says:

    Let me start out by saying that I agree that multiculturalism and identity politics still has a place and purpose in the contemporary art world, but isn’t it specifically its relevancy that relegates it to the sidelines? It is a reminder to the art world that it is as deeply entrenched in the questionable values of mainstream culture as any other sector of society. It is often difficult emotionally and even sometimes visually to look at as it reflects that which we collectively don’t wish to see about ourselves.

    And isn’t that where its potency lies? If it were accepted by the mainstream art world, wouldn’t it lose it’s value? Such an incorporation would imply an acceptance of its message not simply by the majority of arts professionals, but also by collectors (for what gallery can afford to show more than a handful of works it doesn’t think it can sell?). I do feel that this broader art world serves as an approximate cross-section of society, in which case that would imply that the issues of race and social inequality that such work explores have been acknowledged, accepted, and incorporated into the social consciousness. Wouldn’t this likely mean that the problems themselves were being addressed and remedied? In which case, the potency of the artworks’ messages would be dulled, since they would no longer serve as a contemporary critique but rather an historical footnote. On the upside, one would expect a greater access to cultural venues by minority artists, but it would leave those artists who dealt with issues of race with seemingly little purpose other than to ward off any return to the earlier marginalization.

    Of course, this is not currently the case, so the art world’s discomfort with this work necessarily pushes it to the sidelines: a few individual artists get singled out for attention so as to give the impression that the art world is truly open and self-critical, but the vast majority are relegated to the outlets — often but not exclusively non-profits — that specialize in marginalized or socially conscious art. A secondary effect of this relegation seems to be the tendency to categorize these artists by their ethnicity (or ethnicities), further diminishing their messages by providing viewers with an easy excuse to avoid such art. “That’s just Black Art,” or “That’s just Asian Art,” seems to be the general response of many prospective viewers, and “since I am not that ethnicity, it holds no meaning for me, and I probably can’t relate to it anyway, so I will simply dismiss it.”

    I think that is why you end up with shows like Arrario Gallery’s “Irrelevant: Local Emerging Asian Artists Who Don’t Make Work About Being Asian.” Much of the work in the show included socially and politically active artists, even artists who make work that is deeply influenced by their ethnicity, but by in large, they avoided the easily identifiable subjects, methodologies and symbols. And the point of the show was specifically to explore the richness and variety of work created by a specific group of minorities: to break down the stereotype that being a minority necessarily means your work is strictly about your heritage. Although it may influence your artwork, it doesn’t have to define it.

    It is these easy definitions based on race and geography that bother me the most, I think. I am sincerely interested in performance art across the spectrum, but deeply frustrated that the majority of performance work presented, written about, and discussed in English is from the Euro-American arena. Having a background in Japanese language and a personal link to Japan, I have decided to embark upon a study of Japanese, and, as much as possible, other East Asian performance practices, with the intention of trying to draw more of this work into the view of performance art professionals at least, if not the wider art world. But in order to do this conscientiously, I feel it is necessary to educate myself further in the longer history of Asian, and specifically Japanese art, so as to respond sensitively to both Japanese language and English language criticism and analysis. However, this approach will make me a Japanese specialist, an uncomfortable position for a modernist who acknowledges the slippery definitions of nationality and influence in a period in which the speed and ease of travel and immigration has increased so rapidly. My concern about such a specialization is that I don’t want to simply place a series of “Japanese” or “Asian” artists (quotes intended) together in an exhibition or performance series as I fear it would mute the differences in their practices, the variety of their cultural backgrounds, and the relevancy of their work to wider audiences. The only solution that currently satisfies me is to consciously curate a mix of Asian and non-Asian artists around shared concerns or processes that may not directly address identity, but allow space for the inclusion of works that may address identity. It is not a perfect solution, but, for me, it seems like a *possible* means to bridge the gap between minority artists and mainstream audiences.

    As I mentioned at the beginning of this response, I do feel that identity politics is still relevant, and especially when approached through new angles and with ever greater sensitivity. Any doubts I may have had about this were recently washed away upon watching “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth,” ( and considering how — although I always new the broad strokes of this story — the details managed to shift my impressions of St. Louis so that I could come to a clear understanding of the racial animosity I had found so confounding during my time as a student in that city. The necessity of this voice, and the voice of minority artists within the art world remains, and begs for an updated critical and theoretical response. However, I don’t think that it can or will be picked up easily by the mainstream, and I have my doubts about the efficacy of directly confronting the issue.

    Perhaps I have been overly influenced by the ambiguity and and indirectness of Japanese communication, but I wonder if it is not more effective to mix these artists in with other talented artists who (whether of minority backgrounds or not) don’t make work around identity politics, and rely on the strength of the individual artworks themselves to carry the messages about social, economic and racial inequalities. Is it possible to subtly infiltrate the consciousness of the wider art-going public by incorporating such artists into a wider variety (and hopefully a larger number) of exhibitions instead of concentrating them into a few exhibitions that directly confront the question of identity politics? I don’t have an answer, only a question, and perhaps both strategies are necessary in order to effect real change.

    Thanks for starting this conversation.
    -Nina Horisaki-Christens-

    • Simon says:

      “infiltrate” seems to be a very interesting word to describe a potential strategy to put on exhibitions.

      I agree that grouping minority artists together into a single exhibition may do more harm than good. I think there would be more pressure for the viewer to generalize and render the works on display as being part of one large tradition or genre, when in fact it may not be the case. I guess categorizing can be for us and against us at the same time. (The violence of categories!)

      I have difficulty in seeing that art that deals with identity, race or multiculturalism must always be construed as a vehicle for raising awareness of “problems”.

    • Herb Tam says:

      Thanks for this thoughtful observation Nina…It’s true that the fact of being marginalized lends urgency to the work of many under-represented artists. I’ve noticed, and probably so have you, that many younger minority artists often don’t address race and ethnicity in their work. Think Paul Chan. And if they do, it’s not with the sense of outrage and longing for authentic otherness that I associate with art in the multicultural period. Rather, I’ve noticed in the work of artists like Patty Chang and Terence Koh an engagement with the process of understanding their cultural specificity that is very open ended and is able to relate to people from different backgrounds. It’s a complicated set of questions you pose and I don’t have good answers. All I know is that the 2012 Biennial artist list, as a fellow curator pointed out, contains 0 Latino/a artists. And I don’t want to keep picking on the biennial because I have high regard for the curators and the artists they chose, but it does exemplify bigger issues. And your proposition to mix artists from different backgrounds together, no matter their subject matter, is the right idea. Thanks for thinking about this…

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