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Identity Art & Identity Politics Collage

Identity Art & Identity Politics

Started: 1960
Ended: Present
Identity Art & Identity Politics Timeline
"I take my identity from my politics, not my politics from my identity."
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Angela Davis
"We're all products of what we want to project to the world. Even people who don't spend any time, or think they don't, on preparing themselves for the world out there - I think that ultimately they have for their whole lives groomed themselves to be a certain way, to present a face to the world."
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Cindy Sherman Signature
"We need to recognise the opacity of identities like 'whiteness,' or 'heterosexuality,' identities which manage to censor other identities like 'blackness' or 'homosexuality.' If we allow the former to function as absences rather than presences, they will continue to be invisibly self-legitimating."
3 of 4
Candice Breitz
"To be queer is to be on the outside and to be on the outside is to be a force of resistance. I think of my body as that, and I think of it as armature - I don't want to belong in that really particular way. I think it's important to posit something that will make people raise their eyebrows. It's not about just being accepted - it's about opening up people's brains a bit."
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Summary of Identity Art & Identity Politics

The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have seen many artists use art as a way to present their authentic life experiences, interrogate social perception of their identity, and critique systemic issues that marginalize them in society. These include women artists, artists of color, LGBTQ+ artists, disabled artists, and indigenous artists. Their art as well as activism have transformed the curatorial practices of the art world and made a profound contribution to the social and political spheres related to the rights of minority groups. While the term "identity politics" gained traction in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s to designate art that deals with issues of identity (especially race, gender, and sexuality), it has fallen out of favor since then, with many critics asserting that it has had a reductive effect, turning artists into tokenized representatives of one particular identity and further contributing to a view of identity as innate and fixed rather than socially constructed. Aware of this potential pitfall, many contemporary artists working with identity issues have instead worked to highlight the complexity of identity as an evolving lens of social analysis.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • There is no one type or style of Identity Art, but the term can be a useful umbrella for understanding artistic practices that prioritize questions of artists' identities and the art world's reception of their works. Many artists have argued that the default expectations of the art market and curatorial establishment are rooted in white, male, and hetero-normative experience. Identity Art can be seen as an attempt to redress this imbalance, and to encourage reflection on operations of art history that have systematically disadvantaged those whose artworks did not conform to these expectations or address similar concerns.
  • Despite an often poorly-framed debate around its importance, art engaging with identity has led to greater awareness and major changes in the way museums, galleries, and critics treat work by historically marginalized groups. Decolonization initiatives, diversity programs, and critically reflexive curation are all legacies of Identity Art and Identity Politics.
  • A risk for artists engaged in Identity Art is the potential to have their work read only in relation to one issue or social struggle, so many artists today deal with issues of identity through the lens of "intersectionality," which views different facets of identity (such as race, sexuality, age, etc.) as intertwined. Relatedly, the concept of "performativity" (the theory of identity as fluid yet enforced by social conditioning) complements this view.
  • 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 robust, and in many cases mirror or pre-figure critical and curatorial controversies in museums, galleries, and the art market.

Overview of Identity Art & Identity Politics

Kehinde Wiley, <i>Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps</i>, 2005, Oil on canvas, Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York

African-American artist Kehinde Wiley stages encounters between the white past of art history with his present by inserting a black subject into his re-creations of Western masterpieces. The insertion invites reflection on history, exclusion, and marginalization of non-white peoples. The models for his paintings are usually everyday people he asked to pose for him; he calls it his "street-casting process." Here the neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David's painting of a triumphant Napoleon (Napoleon Crossing the Alps, oil on canvas, 1803) gets a remake with a black man taking place of the Emperor, his camouflage gear, Timberland boots, and bandana wrapped around his head bringing the work to the contemporary.

Key Artists

  • Judy Chicago is an American feminist artist and author. Originally associated with the Minimalist movement of the 1960s, Chicago soon abandoned this in favor of creating content-based art. Her most famous work to date is the installation piece The Dinner Party (1974-79), an homage to women's history.
  • Kehinde Wiley appropriates imagery, motifs, and compositions from classical portraits, replacing the traditional subjects with figures of African-American descent, the artist reconstructs historical narratives, while commenting upon hip-hop culture and the social dynamics imbedded within painting.
  • Felix Gonzalez-Torres was an American, Cuban-born visual artist known for his minimal installations and sculptures. Using materials such as strings of lightbulbs, clocks, stacks of paper, or packaged hard candies, his work is sometimes considered a reflection of his experience with AIDS and living at the time of the outbreak of that disease.
  • Frida Kahlo is a twentieth-century Mexican artist whose work has a strong autobiographical component as it addresses issues of feminism and nationalism. Her work is often associated with Surrealism and she is best known for her many, often uncanny self-portraits.
  • Kara Walker is a contemporary African-American artist who explores race, gender, sexuality, violence and identity in her work. She is best known for her room-size tableaux of black silhouettes.
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Do Not Miss

  • The Harlem Renaissance was the name given to the cultural, social, and artistic explosion that took place in Harlem between the end of World War I and the middle of the 1930s.
  • Feminist art emerged in the 1960s and '70s to explore questions of sex, power, the body, and the ways in which gender categories structure how we see and understand the world. Developing at the same time as many new media strategies, feminist art frequently involves text, installation, and performance elements.
  • "Queer Art" became a powerful political and celebratory term to describe the art and experience of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people.

Important Art and Artists of Identity Art & Identity Politics

Dinner Party (1974-79)

Artist: Judy Chicago

This installation is comprised of a large triangular ceremonial banquet table set with 39 place settings, 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, such as Primordial Goddess, Fertile Goddess, Ishtar, Kali. Wing II includes women from the beginnings of Christianity to the Reformation (for example, Marcella, Saint Bridget, Theodora), and Wing III includes women from the American Revolution to more contemporary feminist thinkers, including Anne Hutchinson, Sacajawea, Caroline Herschel, Mary Wollstonecraft, Sojourner Truth, among others). 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).

Chicago completed this work over the course of five years with the assistance of over a hundred volunteers and artisans (male and female). It was first exhibited in 1979 and is now permanently located at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, New York. 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".

Dinner Party was a watershed moment for the centralization of female stories within an artworld context. It also provoked significant discussion around the correct way to represent women and their experiences. Although not universally praised by feminist critics (due to what some view as its essentialism), the piece asserted powerfully the necessity of engaging with female stories and brought into sharp relief the politics behind their previous exclusion. The work serves as an example of how women/feminist artists attempted 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. Such questioning provided a seed for other ways of dismantling assumptions around "talent" and artistic greatness that had been used to hinder the visibility of other minority groups in the art world, such as artists of color. Widely recognized as a classic of Feminist Art, Dinner Party can also be understood as an important precursor to Identity Art.

The Black Factory Archive (2004 - ongoing)

Artist: Pope.L

A traveling caravan, a community engagement initiative, a catalyst for conversation, Pope.L's The Black Factory Archive invites participation wherever his white truck stops with a deceptively simple proposition: Passers-by are asked to contribute an object that represents "blackness" to them. This process opens up space for reflection about which objects are associated with blackness (and why?) and what kind of history, social construction, and stereotyping are involved in the inscription of identity onto objects. Nearby, a gift shop is set up with everyday consumables and objects such as canned foods, bottled waters, t-shirts, and the ubiquitous yellow rubber duckies labeled The Black Factory. His truck always travels with a group of "staff"/performers, who "operate" the Factory, act out skits, and interact with the public. "The idea," the artist reflected, "is to maybe bring back some sense of a public square kind of atmosphere....You want people to feel that they can enter the discussion. At the same time, I don't want them to get the idea that the discussion is going to be easy."

While racial identity is often seen as inherent based on biological markers such as skin color, historians and theorists have shown how the category of "race" itself was a social construct that only emerged from the eighteenth century onward, with the confluence of Enlightenment classification thinking and the white subjugation of peoples racialized as Other and therefore "savage" and inferior. The history - and continuing reverberations--of slavery in America is inextricably tied with this theory of race. Born in 1955, African-American Pope.L makes provocative works drawing on performance, public intervention, and other mediums that confront viewers with America's slavery past and the present experience of blackness today. By asking an open-ended question about identity, the Black Factory Archive demonstrates the multiple viewpoints that can be brought to bear on an identity. It also highlights how, in addition to individual and collective histories, material culture, too, plays a crucial role in the shaping of identity and vice versa.

Artifact Piece (1986)

Artist: James Luna

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 bring attention to how cultural institutions tended to romanticize or present indigenous culture as extinct, lost, or pure and untouched by change. 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 remarked: "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 had to confront their own ethnographic assumptions and prejudices. He recalled 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 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 white gaze that objectifies 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 Art & Identity Politics

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Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Paisid Aramphongphan

"Identity Art & Identity Politics Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Paisid Aramphongphan
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First published on 14 Jan 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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