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Identity Politics

Identity Politics Collage

Started: 1960

Ended: Present

"I take my identity from my politics, not my politics from my identity."

Angela Davis

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

"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.
Identity Politics Image

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.

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