Identity Politics - History and Concepts
Beginnings of Identity Politics
Second-Wave of Feminism
The first wave of feminism, in the first half of the twentieth century, focused largely on legal issues such as women's right to vote. Building on this social activism, second-wave feminists in the 1960s and 70s then drew attention to the broader relegation of women to the domestic sphere, and the way that Western society perpetuates stereotypes about "essential" female qualities and the "proper" role of women: a patriarchal hierarchy in which women are seen as inferior and subservient to men. Feminist artists during this period also aimed to draw attention to these issues in their work. Some sought to revise the art historical canon, as well as historical reflection more broadly, both of which had tended to exclude the accomplishments of women and focus only on the achievements of great men. Linda Nochlin's 1971 essay "Why have there been no Great Women Artists?" was a foundational text in the call to address the imbalance within the art historical canon. Others sought to question stereotypes and the idea of gender essentialism, or the notion that gender (although the theory can also be extended to sexuality, race, ethnicity, etc.) is fixed, static and unchanging, defined by innate/inherent traits. An essentialist view of gender states that women are inherently bad at math and science, for example, and this view has historically been used as justification for limiting educational and employment opportunities for women in these fields, further perpetuating the stereotype.
In 1975, British film theorist Laura Mulvey published an essay titled "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema", in which she argued that narrative film (as well as other popular media formats) generally presents women as the object of a male scopophilic gaze, and, moreover, that female viewers participate in narcissistic identification, meaning that they receive pleasure from being objectified in this way. Mulvey's arguments echoed those of English art critic John Berger, who critiques men's visual dominance in his 1972 TV series Ways of Seeing, stating that "Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed is female. Thus she turns herself into an object of vision: a sight." Many female artists around this time sought to challenge this hegemonic norm in their art.
Civil Rights Movement and Push for Racial Equality
Concurrent with this second wave of feminism was the Civil Rights movement, during which African-Americans fought not only to gain equal legal rights, but also to combat negative racist stereotypes and to define their own identity and culture. This latter aim had its beginning in several arts scenes in the early twentieth century, particularly the New Negro movement and the Harlem Renaissance. By the middle of the century, African-Americans, as well as other racial minority groups (such as Native Americans and Latinx communities) were creating art with the aim of calling attention to ongoing prejudice and injustices against their communities, and with the intent of calling into question the supposed superiority of art made by (white) western artists. Key thinkers who contributed to this mindset include Frantz Fanon (a psychiatrist, writer, and philosopher from the French colony of Martinique) who wrote about the experience of being an oppressed black person living in a white-dominated society, Edward Said (a Palestinian-American professor of literature) who developed the field of postcolonial studies and is best known for his book Orientalism (1978) in which he critiqued the Western world's cultural representations of the Eastern world, and Homi K. Bhabha (an Indian critical theorist) who further developed Said's theories pertaining to postcolonialism.
“Primitivism” at MoMA, “The Decade Show”, and the 1993 Whitney Biennial
In 1984, the Museum of Modern Art in New York hosted an exhibition titled "'Primitivism' in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern", in which masterpieces of modern Western art were shown alongside "artifacts" from non-Western (mainly African and East Asian) cultures. Many critics of the show (and the concept of Primitivist Art) argued that these non-Western works were presented as inferior to those of European and American artists. In response, curators from The New Museum of Contemporary Art, The Studio Museum in Harlem, and The Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art, organized an exhibition in 1990, "The Decade Show: Frameworks of Identity in the 1980s", which featured over 200 works by 94 artists from various countries and cultures who wanted to highlight and challenge the systematic exclusion of non-White, non-Western artists. Lisa Phillips, current director of the New Museum, says of "The Decade Show", "It took up homosexuality, gay sensibility, gender issues, and issues of race and identity. These were firsts in the museum world. I remember very clearly an art historian saying to me that the next decade is going to be all about artists of color."
"The Decade Show" prompted many other artistic institutions to address their treatment of non-White, non-Western artists. One of the most significant outcomes of this shift was the organization of the 1993 Biennial exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which took as its main theme "the construction of identity". Then-director of the Whitney, David Ross, explained that contemporary artists "insist on reinscribing the personal, political, and social back into the practice and history of art." Ever since, artists like Renée Green, Byron Kim, Glenn Ligon, Pepón Osorio, and Lorna Simpson have worked to create art that provides a counter-narrative to the white Western art that still dominates Western institutions.
Intersex, Queer and Trans Rights Movements
Queer theory, first discussed by Teresa de Laurentis in 1991, as well as the gay-, queer-, and transgender-rights movements (which gained momentum throughout the twentieth century), have been accompanied by several artists who work to foreground pressing issues within the queer community, such as HIV/AIDS (particularly in the 1980s), as well as ongoing struggles against violence and stigmatization. Here, "queer" is used to reclaim the formerly pejorative term which has been used to designate non-normative (non-heterosexual) sexual identities. This derives from the work of de Lauretis, and has been further developed in recent decades by later queer theorists. Queer theorists and artists work to question and critique essentialist notions of sexuality, which might include the notion of a binary gender system or inherent and fixed sexual identities. An important theoretical underpinning of this is Judith Butler's concept of gender performativity (later extended to other aspects of identity, including race and sexuality). The theory of performativity dictates that gender is a social construction, that is, an identity that is tenuously constituted in time through stylized repetition of acts. These acts constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self, rather than a stable identity from which various acts proceed. Gender is thus distinct from sex, which corresponds to the biological or medical differentiations between men and women (although the instability of this binary too is now widely acknowledged by medical and scientific professionals).
Canadian disability researcher Jihan Abbas writes that, "The emergence of disability culture, and the importance of art forms and representations in this culture, must be seen as a natural extension of the disability rights movement, as the disability arts movement is essentially about the growing political power of disabled people over their images and narratives." Artists working within Disability Arts create and disseminate representations of their lived experiences of disability, challenging the problematic ways in which the vast majority of representations of disability have been constructed in popular culture. An artist or work may be classified as being a part of Disability Arts based on the artists' personal identification, their medical diagnosis, the experiences they encounter in their day-to-day life, the subject matter of their artwork, or any combination of the above. Disabled writer Allan Sutherland states that "The movement that we describe as 'disability arts' has developed over the last three decades, as disabled people have rejected negative assumptions about their lives, defined their own identities, expressed pride in a common disabled identity and worked together to create work that reflects the individual and collective experience of being disabled." Many proponents of Disability Arts firmly oppose conflating Disability Arts with art therapy, as they view art therapy as a biomedical tool that focuses on healing and repairing broken bodies. In the confusion between the two, the agency, identity and the aesthetic value of disabled artist's works are diminished.
Identity Politics: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
While the concerns of Identity Politics were slow to be taken up by many Western art galleries and museums, a great deal of progress occurred outside the confines of institutions. Artists have often taken their work outside of traditional gallery spaces, or used the space of the gallery itself in ways that "intervene" in their usual function. Artists may create work that is unable to be viewed in a conventional manner, or situate their work within a more politically or socially charged context. They may even intervene in everyday life, inserting their art and politics into normal conversations or social interactions.
Feminist (and other Identity Politics) Performance artists in particular have been taking to the streets for decades, such as Austrian artist VALIE EXPORT, who between 1968-1971 enacted a public performance titled Tap and Touch Cinema in ten European cities. For this performance, the artist wore a miniature "movie theatre" around her naked upper body, covered by a curtain at the front, so that passers-by could not see her, but were invited to reach in and touch. Her aim with this work was to confront the public, in a tactile manner, with a living, breathing female body, attached to a face which responds and looks back, rather than a simple (highly constructed) visual image on a page or screen (which accepts the voyeuristic gaze unquestioningly), to which they were more accustomed.
A later example is intersectional feminist group Guerrilla Girls, who have taken to the streets, putting up stickers, posters, and street projects in cities all over the world since 1985. The Guerrilla Girls' street interventions aim to highlight issues of injustice and inequality (both on the basis of gender and race) in the art world. For instance, in 1989, the group rented advertising spaces on buses in New York City in which they inserted posters they had made calling attention to the fact that at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, "less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female."
Indeed, Street Art in its myriad forms have proven to be an ideal medium for artists who seek to address Identity Politics in their work, as it allows for uncensored expression in public locations with large numbers of potential viewers. For instance, Montreal-based MissMe, who works primarily in wheat paste posters, installs street art that challenges outdated patriarchal attitudes and empowers women. In a 2018 street installation, they called into question the male-centred Christian origin story (in which the first women grew from the first man) while simultaneously reminding viewers of the pain and sacrifice demanded of women as bearers of new life, asserting that "I didn't come from your rib, you came from my vagina."
Even when not literally on the street, artists engaged in identity politics still "intervene" in the expected viewer/artist relationship. Cuban-born American artist Ana Mendieta's 1973 multi-media installation and performance Untitled (Rape Scene), for example, was a feminist piece created to foreground the high incidence of rapes and murders of women that were occurring on the University of Iowa campus while she was in attendance there. Audience members arrived via an elevator to be immediately confronted with the scene within the confines of a regular apartment, forcing them to contemplate a realistic scene of rape outside the distancing space of the gallery. It was also possible that members of the campus community not aware of the performance could enter and think it the aftermath of a real assault, blurring the line between art and real experience to highlight the urgency of the issue and the reality of being a woman at the time.
Indeed, public intervention has proved to be a highly effective strategy for artists of color seeking to create art that reflects the struggles of their communities, particularly in the context of living in predominantly white areas, states, and countries. American artist Adrian Piper, for example, who is part African-American yet light-skinned enough to often pass for white, carried out a performance in 1989-1990 titled My Calling Card #1, in which she passed out a small card in various social situations to individuals around her who made racist remarks in her presence. The card informed readers that Piper is in fact black, although they may not have been aware of that, and that the racist comment they had just "made/laughed at/agreed with" was in fact discomforting to her. The performance is one that plays out within everyday life, with only the documentation (in the form of the calling cards themselves) available for display as a record of the intervention.
Disabled artists have also made regular interventions into the relationship between art and audience. An important early work of the Disability Arts movement is English artist Tony Heaton's 1989 sculptural intervention titled Wheelchair Entrance. The work was composed of a wooden board labelled "wheelchair entrance" which was hung across a gallery doorway at a height that blocked ambulatory visitors but permitted entrance beneath it to anyone in a wheelchair. The work acted as a simple but effective means by which to make gallery visitors aware of architectural barriers to mobility. Moreover, it encouraged an embodied engagement with disability and mobility barriers, by forcing ambulatory visitors to confront a moment of physical limitation without attempting to explain or analyze the encounter, simply allowing it to create meaning through the perspective of the body. This piece reflects the social model of disability now prevalent in civic and political discourse - the idea that it is not someone's body which disables them, but the society around them. A person is prevented from entering a building not by because they use a wheelchair, for example, but because there is no ramp. Heaton's intervention in the space reflects this, with the space "othering" ambulatory visitors and preventing their easy access.
Outsider Art (art made by untrained artists outside the gallery system) also often engages with questions of Identity Politics, in both implicit and explicit ways. Artists of color for example, or those from socio-economic groups that are traditionally excluded from art education and access to galleries, have a long history of creating artworks that operate on their own aesthetic criteria and notions of success. In the twentieth century, artists like African American James Hampton, whose The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly (c. 1950-64) was made out of throwaway trash and only found after his death in a Washington garage, made work that blended African and Christian aesthetic styles in a highly stylized manner. Completely outside of the art market, it is unlikely that the piece woud ever have found its way to public display (it is now on show at the Smithsonian) without the intervention of Ed Kelley, an already established artist who brought it to wider attention after happening upon it. As scholar Colin Rhodes writes 'these works tend to emerge in situations where no comparable art-making activity exists', and their later discovery contains within them a rebuke to the systematic exclusion of those outside of the relatively narrow upper to middle class and predominantly white art market and institutions.
Critique on the Gallery Wall
Identity Politics are not only played out in non-conventional spaces or in ways that are unfamiliar to art audiences. Many artists create work fully able to be displayed and evaluated as more conventional painting, installation or sculpture, whilst still maintaining a strong political message asserting a particular identity. This critique from within the gallery system often intersects with Institutional Critique, the questioning of the gallery system itself, and/or the political positions of the artist themselves. To be usefully considered Identity Politics though, the work should reflect a position occupied by the artist, and be attempting to address its visibility or marginalization through the work itself.
Frida Kahlo's work, for example, frequently depicted her experience of disability in her self-portraits (namely, the numerous broken bones and fractures she experienced as a result of a bus accident when she was a teenager, as well as her inability to carry a pregnancy to term, also a result of the accident). Her work highlights the intersectional position of her identity as both a woman and an artist with a disability, foregrounding, when considered in detail, the relative lack of both in museum and gallery collections. Historically, few artists dealing directly with issues of disability in their work are represented in museum collections or the international art market, but Kahlo has achieved a high level of curatorial and economic capital, particularly in the twenty-first century.
Other artists have drawn on their sexual identity explicitly in their work, with the rise of the gay rights movement (and related movements, such as the transgender rights movement) after the Stonewall riots in 1969 in particular encouraging LGBTTQQIAAP (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, ally, and pansexual, henceforth referred to simply as "queer") artists to create works that take up issues particular to their communities, such as HIV/AIDS, violence, abuse, stigma, and acceptance. One notable example - of what is sometimes called Queer Art - is David Wojnarowicz, who dealt with pressing issues within the queer community in his work. Wojnarowicz was a target of the "culture wars" of the 1980s and 1990s in the United States, wherein artists dealing with sensitive (often identity-based) content and imagery in their works were attacked by various organizations (including the American Family Association and the Catholic League) on the basis of creating and disseminating what were claimed to be vulgar, immoral, or gratuitous images. Other artists who fell victim to the "culture wars" (by being denied funding, as well as receiving harsh disparagement) include Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck, and Holly Hughes.
Despite this political oppression, Wojnarowicz's work has now achieved significant curatorial interest, culminating in his 2018 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Like Kahlo's work, it draws attention explicitly to an injustice on the basis of identity and highlights the absence of explicit acknowledgement of minority positions in curatorial agendas. The success of Identity Politics is in part encapsulated by the reassessment and incorporation of ideas previously on the fringes into a mainstream process of art world acknowledgement.
Later Developments - After Identity Politics
Issues of identity continue to feature extremely prominently in the work of many contemporary artists, who use art as a tool in the (re-)negotiation of multiple aspects of identity (gender, race/ethnicity/diaspora, sexuality, and disability, as well as class, size, and age). However, the term "Identity Politics" has largely fallen "out of fashion," as art critic Holland Cotter puts it. As curators Anders Kreuger and Nav Haq argue, the rise of Identity Politics in the art world has resulted in a transition "from marginalisation (on the outside) to ghettoisation (on the inside)", and that "The 'identity' paradigm also became a kind of strategy device for some individuals to find success in their careers - using the kind of 'self othering' found in the work of many well-known but unmentionable artists [...] Artists are allowed access to the art system, once again on the condition that they have to act, or be framed, as socio-cultural representatives of the place/people they "are from". In this situation, the role of biography is used to essentialise individuals, meaning artists are expected to portray, artistically, their own social and political culture". While recognizing that Identity Politics has been an important and necessary development in the art world, as it has called into question the structures and inequalities in art institutions and in Western society more broadly, many scholars (including Kreuger and Haq) assert that the terms of the identity discourse need to be adjusted in order to make sense for the present and future. Specifically, Haq notes that "One of the big differences between now and this era of Identity Politics in the 70s and 80s is that the art world is much more international now," and argues that identity discourses need to be more nuanced and less reductive, in order to avoid the problematic generalization and essentialization discussed above. For this reason, intersectionality has been increasingly emphasized as a crucial aspect of any discussion of identity.
Many scholars of art and gender theory (including Rosi Braidotti, Elizabeth Grosz, Paddy McQueen, and Bobby Noble), understand the Identity Politics of the 1970s and 1980s as "uncritically install[ing] essentialist, normalizing concepts of [identity] as its foundation, which inevitably tends toward the exclusion and erasure of differences between [members of an identity groups such as women or homosexuals]". This "ultimately sustain[s], rather than challenge[s] and eradicate[s], social inequality, oppression and domination," and moreover "assume[s] and reinforce[s] the idea of a unified, coherent and authentic subject that is at odds with a fluid, multiple and fragmented model of the self favoured by many contemporary gender theorists,". These scholars have thus begun using the term "post-identity (politics)", which is related to the concept of posthumanism. Post-identity thinking has its basis in the theories of Nietzsche, Foucault, Deleuze, and Guattari, and argues for an understanding of identity as a process of becoming, characterized by flux, change, impermanence, incoherence, imperceptibility, uncontainability, and unpredictability. As Braidotti asserts, "although identity is a necessary grammar of social interaction, it is also something that we need to move beyond," especially because "identity is the effect of power".
Many of today's identity-focused artists are incorporating ideas of post-identity into their works, such as the participants in a 2014 exhibition titled As We Were Saying: Art and Identity in the Age of "Post" at the EFA Project Space in New York. One sculpture in the show, In spirit of (a major in women's studies) by A. K. Burns and Katherine Hubbard, consisted of a wastebasket filled with, various objects, including a studded leather belt, an electrical power strip, confetti, plastic snakes, and a rose made of feathers. These objects do not easily correspond to any one recognizable "identity", and the work thus insists upon identity as incoherent and imperceptible rather than fixed and knowable.