Summary of Identity Politics
Does your identity as a black artist affect your ability to succeed in the art world? Are women less likely to be included in art history than men? Who gets to represent disabled bodies, and in what ways? Identity Politics is concerned with investigating these questions, and with the assertion and reflection of individual and group identities. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, artists of color, LGBTQ+ artists and women in particular have used their art to stage and display experiences of identity and community, frequently referencing their marginalization, alienation or disconnection from wider society. These assertions of identity through artistic practice have transformed the curatorial practices of the art world and made a profound contribution to the shifting of society towards tolerance and acknowledgement of the significance of diverse identities.
Despite that important social function, the label of "Identity Politics" is often used in contemporary journalism and mainstream media in a derogatory fashion, with the implication that such work can only function in relation to a political project and does not have its own aesthetic or conceptual merit. However, many artists and academics argue that the questions this type of work raises about how humans relate to each other is one of the most important and necessary functions of art, and that the illustration of individual and specific experiences in new ways is essential to the development of artistic practice.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- "Identity Politics" as a label is a retrospective grouping together of several distinct struggles by groups and individuals. There is no single continuous history of it as a concept, and its development is marked instead by successive and/or overlapping social movements, with artists invested in those struggles often making art which reflected its concerns.
- Many artists have argued as part of these social movements that the default expectations of the art market and curatorial establishment are aesthetics rooted in white, male and heteronormative experiences. Identity Politics is therefore an attempt to readdress an imbalance, and to encourage reflection on operations of art history that have systematically disadvantaged those whose artwork did not conform to these expectations.
- A risk for artists engaged in Identity Politics is the potential to have their work read only in relation to a single issue or social struggle - as a political action rather than "good art" in its own right. This factor, coupled with the often-disingenuous debates around Identity Politics has seen several artists resist the definition of their work by the term. Although this criticism may be warranted in individual cases, this simplification attempts to undercut the charge that the criteria for "good art" is based on conventions that are gendered, racialized and heteronormative.
- Despite an often poorly framed debate around its importance, work engaging with Identity Politics has led to greater awareness and major changes in the way museums, galleries and critics address work by historically marginalized groups. Decolonization initiatives, diversity programs, and critically reflexive curation are all legacies of Identity Politics.
- Identity Politics is a concept which has far-reaching implications in both the art world and other mediums of cultural production. In the 21st century debates around its influence on the production of film, television and video games have been fierce, and in many cases mirror or pre-figure critical and curatorial controversies in museums, galleries and the art market.
Overview of Identity Politics
When artist James Luna lay himself down in a museum case to present himself as an exhibit, he was interested to note that visitors spoke about him as if he weren't there - even after they realized he was in fact alive. Dressed only in a loin-cloth, he wanted to highlight the art establishment’s presentation of his culture as dead and gone - rather than very much alive and well. The task of Identity Politics is to do just this - to reclaim artistic endeavor from the clutches of the white, male, western dominated establishment and shake it up for the viewing public, and artists have found a number of ingenious and provocative and ways to do so. Including lying half-naked in a glass box.
Important Art and Artists of Identity Politics
This installation is comprised of a large triangular ceremonial banquet table (with each side of the equilateral triangle measuring 48 feet long), set with 39 place settings (thirteen per side), each of which commemorates a significant woman from history. Each of the three sides (or "wings") of the triangle represent a different period from history. Wing I includes women from Prehistory to the Roman Empire (Primordial Goddess, Fertile Goddess, Ishtar, Kali, Snake Goddess, Sophia, Amazon, Hatshepsut, Judith, Sappho, Aspasia, Boadicea, and Hypatia), Wing II includes women from the beginnings of Christianity to the Reformation (Marcella, Saint Bridget, Theodora, Hrosvitha, Trota of Salerno, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Hildegarde of Bingen, Petronilla de Meath, Christine de Pisan, Isabella d'Este, Elizabeth I, Artemisia Gentileschi, and Anna van Schurman), and Wing III includes women from the American Revolution to more contemporary feminist thinkers (Anne Hutchinson, Sacajawea, Caroline Herschel, Mary Wollstonecraft, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Blackwell, Emily Dickinson, Ethel Smyth, Margaret Sanger, Natalie Barney, Virginia Woolf, and Georgia O'Keeffe).
Each place setting features elaborately embroidered runners, featuring a variety of needlework styles and techniques, gold chalices and flatware, napkin with gold edges, and hand-painted china porcelain plates that contain raised vulva and butterfly forms (each of which was created in a style that represents the individual woman the place setting was made for). The table sits on a "heritage floor" made up of 2304 white triangular luster-glazed tiles, upon which the names of another 999 women are inscribed in gold cursive script. The installation is accompanied by rotating "Herstory" exhibitions that describe the roles of the 1038 women commemorated by the work.
Chicago completed this work over the course of five years (1974-1979) with the assistance of over a hundred volunteers and artisans (male and female). It was first exhibited in 1979 and went on to tour sixteen venues in six countries across three continents before being moved to its permanent location at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, New York, in 2007. Chicago's goal with the work was to "end the ongoing cycle of omission in which women were written out of the historical record." She came up with the idea while attending a dinner party in 1974, at which, she recalls, "The men at the table were all professors, and the women all had doctorates but weren't professors. The women had all the talent, and they sat there silent while the men held forth. I started thinking that women have never had a Last Supper, but they have had dinner parties." Women were selected for inclusion based upon the following criteria: making a worthwhile contribution to society, striving to improve the situations of other women, making an impact on women's history, and serving as a role model for a "more egalitarian future".
This work serves as an example of how women/feminist artists attempt to revise the (art) historical canon, calling attention to the historical accomplishments of women as a way to challenge the male-dominated nature of history writing. Another important aspect of the work for Chicago in this regard was the use of media typically associated with women and so relegated to the status of "handicrafts" or "domestic arts", such as weaving, embroidery, sewing, and china painting, as opposed to the 'fine arts' which tend to be dominated by male artists. In this way, she sought to present the former as high, rather than low art.
Dinner Party was a watershed moment for the centralization of female stories within an artworld context, galvanizing feminist artists to reflect further on historical precedents. It also provoked significant discussion around the correct way to represent women and their experiences. Although not universally praised by feminist critics, the piece asserted powerfully the necessity of engaging with female stories and brought into sharp relief the politics behind their previous exclusion. It remains one of the best-known and most institutionally significant feminist visual art works of the twentieth century.
This black-and-white photograph features the artist dressed as a 1950s housewife, standing in a somewhat dilapidated home interior in front of a door, near which coats hang from a hook on the wall. At the bottom of the door are several scuff marks, perhaps indicating that the housewife had over a period of time used her feet to open and close the door while her hands were full of laundry or busy with other domestic tasks. Sherman, dressed in a dress and apron with a kerchief on her head, stands with her body turned toward the left of the frame and her hands on her hips, a determined expression on her face and her eyes looking directly off of the right side of the frame.
This photograph comes from Sherman's series of Untitled Film Stills (1977-1980), in which she recreated 69 still images from Hollywood, film noir, and art house films, placing herself in the position of the female subject (acting as femme fatale, starlet, housewife, vamp, sexy librarian, working girl, etc.). Rather than being self-portraits, Sherman's Untitled Film Stills seek to open a dialogue about stereotypical representations of women in the media. Although, read together, the images show a variety of roles that women are permitted to take on in the media, they also reveal the limits of these predetermined roles. As exemplified by Untitled Film Still #35, a woman's place is often confined to the domestic sphere, where she is expected to also maintain herself as sexy and alluring to satisfy male fantasies. Sherman says of the series "I was really torn between an infatuation with those periods and feeling like I should hate them, because those kinds of role models, and those structures those artificial devices that women were expected to fit themselves into, like bras and girdles. [...] I also wanted to show that the characters themselves were as confused as I was, and frustrated by the roles that they were being forced to play".
Seen from its first exhibition as an inherently feminist work, Sherman and her photographic practice are now a touchstone for visual artists interested in the representation of women in twentieth and twenty-first century media. Drawing on her identity as a young woman, the Untitled Film Stills assert Sherman's agency over the stereotypical roles expected of her, and the ability of female artists to represent themselves. This artistic strategy is one that she has continued as she grew older: for example she has drawn on the role of the aging female performer encapsulated by the fading grand dame of Hollywood's golden age. Throughout Sherman's practice, her experience and identity as a woman is foregrounded and used as the guiding impetus.
In this performance, Luna lay in an exhibition case in the section on the Kumeyaay Indians in San Diego's Museum of Man wearing only a leather loincloth. Around his body, he placed labels describing the origins of his various scars (for instance "excessive fighting" and drinking), as well as several personal effects, including ritual objects used currently on the La Jolla reservation (where Luna lived). Also included were Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix records, shoes, political buttons, college diplomas, and divorce papers. Luna lay in the case for several days during the opening hours of the museum, occasionally surprising visitors by moving or opening his eyes to look at them.
Luna (1950-2018) was a Payómkawichum, Ipi, and Mexican-American artist, born in Orange, California, who moved to the La Jolla Indian Reservation in California at the age of 25. The following year, he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at the University of California, Irvine, and seven years later a Master of Science degree in counselling from San Diego State University. His goal with this work was to present indigenous culture as a living, evolving culture, rather than an extinct, lost, romanticized culture as is generally represented by museums. As art critic Jean Fisher writes, Luna was thus exposing "the necrophilous codes of the museum," that is, the way that cultural institutions make corpses out of living Indigenous peoples and cultures. Luna has stated that "I had long looked at representation of our peoples in museums and they all dwelled in the past. They were one-sided. We were simply objects among bones, bones among objects, and then signed and sealed with a date." By directly confronting museum-goers with his own living, breathing body, he forced them into a jarring moment in which they must confront their own ethnographic assumptions and prejudices. He recalls that many of the visitors spoke about him as if he weren't there, even after they realized he was in fact alive.
The array of ritual and secular objects with which he surrounded himself served to further emphasize the hybrid reality of contemporary indigenous life and culture. He said of the work, "In the United States, we Indians have been forced, by various means, to live up to the ideals of what 'Being an Indian' is to the general public: In art, it means the work 'Looked Indian', and that look was controlled by the market. If the market said that it (my work) did not look 'Indian', then it did not sell. If it did not sell, then it wasn't Indian. I think somewhere in the mass, many Indian artists forgot who they were by doing work that had nothing to do with their tribe, by doing work that did not tell about their existence in the world today, and by doing work for others and not for themselves." Luna went on to explain the importance of the performance/installation medium, saying that "It is my feeling that artwork in the medias of Performance and Installation offers an opportunity like no other for Indian people to express themselves in traditional art forms of ceremony, dance, oral, traditions and contemporary thought, without compromise. Within these (nontraditional) spaces, one can use a variety of media, such as found/made objects, sounds, video and slides so that there is no limit to how and what is expressed." In this way, he challenged the Euro-centric gaze that objectifes others, such as Native Americans. As Fisher writes, Luna aimed to "disarm the voyeuristic gaze and deny it its structuring power", by placing himself in a position of power (as he was in control of when and to whom he chose to reveal his "aliveness", thereby implicating museum-goers in the performance without their previous knowledge or consent). This strategy has also been undertaken by other indigenous artists and artists of color, most notably Guillermo Gomez-Pena, Coco Fusco, and the performance group La Pocha Nostra.
Useful Resources on Identity Politics
- Through The Flower: My Struggle as A Woman ArtistBy Judy Chicago
- Cindy ShermanBy Eva Respini and Johanna Burton
- Meet Cindy Sherman: Artist, Photographer, ChameleonBy Sandra Jordan and Jan Greenberg
- Women Photographers: From Julia Margaret Cameron to Cindy ShermanBy Boris Friedewalde
- The Dinner Party: Restoring Women to HistoryBy Judy Chicago
- The Dinner Party: From Creation to PreservationBy Judy Chicago
- Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s History and ImpactBy Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard
- Art and FeminismOur PickBy Helena Reckitt
- Disability AestheticsBy Tobin Siebers
- Re-Presenting Disability: Activism and Agency in the MuseumBy Richard Sandell, Jocelyn Dodd, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson
- Cindy Sherman: The Complete Untitled Film StillsOur PickBy Peter Galassi
- Race-ing Art History: Critical Readings in Race and Art HistoryOur PickBy Kymberly N. Pinder
- Judy Chicago, the GodmotherOur PickBy Sasha Weiss / The New York Times Style Magazine / Feb. 7, 2018
- The Topic Is Race; the Art Is FearlessOur PickBy Holland Cotter / The New York Times / March 30, 2008
- How Identity Politics Conquered the Art World: An Oral HistoryOur PickBy Jerry Saltz and Rachel Corbett / Vulture / April 18, 2016
- At the Whitney, A Biennial with a Social ConscienceBy Roberta Smith / The New York Times / March 5, 1993
- Don't You Know Who I Am? Art After Identity PoliticsOur PickExhibition catalogue / Museum of Contemporary Art, Antwerp / June 13, 2014