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Identity Art & Identity Politics Collage

Identity Art & Identity Politics - History and Concepts

Started: 1960
Ended: Present
Identity Art & Identity Politics Timeline

Beginnings of Identity Art

While many artistic traditions and practices can be understood as an expression of identity, whether individual or collective, Identity Art in the twentieth century had its starting point in the questioning of the art world's gate-keeping that had excluded non-dominant groups from participation. In the 1960s, both second-wave feminism and the civil rights movement exposed how discrimination and prejudices based on gender and race worked in upholding the dominance of white, male, heterosexual artists, curators, and arts patrons. Although operating rather like parallel tracks at first, both movements created ripple effects that would converge in later decades.

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 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 critiqued 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. " 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 the 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 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 artists. Key thinkers who contributed to this critique 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 "Orient" (historically meaning what is now northern Africa and the Middle East); and Homi K. Bhabha (an Indian critical theorist) who further developed Said's theories pertaining to postcolonialism. The Civil Rights movement and critical theories of race, ethnicity, and postcolonialism all have greatly informed artists working on various aspects of identity to the present day.

“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 of the concept Primitivist Art) argued that the exhibition presented non-Western works as inferior to those of European and American artists rather than examining critical and historical dialogue between them. 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 systemic exclusion of non-White, non-Western artists in major art institutions. Lisa Phillips, current director of the New Museum, said 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."

"The Decade Show" prompted many other institutions to address their treatment of non-white 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[ed] on reinscribing the personal, political, and social back into the practice and history of art." Ever since, artists like Kehinde Wiley, Renée Green, Byron Kim, Glenn Ligon, Pepón Osorio, and Lorna Simpson have continued to create art that provides a counter-narrative to the whiteness of Western art institutions.

Intersex, Queer and Trans Rights Movements

Queer theory, first discussed by scholar Teresa de Laurentis in 1991, as well as the gay-, queer-, and transgender-rights movements (which gained momentum throughout the twentieth century), has been accompanied by many artists who have worked 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 usage derives from the work of de Lauretis, and has been further developed in recent decades by later queer theorists. Overall, queer theorists and artists work to question and critique essentialist notions of sexuality, the widespread view in culture-at-large of sexual identities as fixed and biologically determined, as well as the heteronormative ideals of family life and forms of kinship that are historically and culturally conditioned yet often seen as "natural."

An important theoretical underpinning of queer theory is Judith Butler's concept of performativity. First theorized in 1988 in her work on gender, performativity dictates that gender 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 sexual division is now also widely acknowledged by medical and scientific professionals). Queer theory has prompted revisionist accounts of art history and re-readings of major artworks through a queer lens. In turn, artworks by queer artists such as Andy Warhol have provided a productive testing ground for new ideas in queer theory, such as in the writing of art historian and queer theorist Douglas Crimp.

Queer Art Movement Page

Disability Arts

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. As disabled writer Allan Sutherland notes, "The movement that we describe as 'disability arts' has developed [since the 1980s] 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 Art & Identity Politics: Concepts, Styles, and Trends

Identity Politics

It may be useful to differentiate between Identity Art as a broad category of art that explores issues of identity, on the one hand, and Identity Politics, which was a more historically specific term that became common in the art world (and public discourse) in the 1970s-1980s. Identity Politics was used to designate art that addressed race, gender, and sexuality, especially in the US context. Amidst the rise of Reaganism and right-wing politics in the 1980s, Identity Politics became a derogatory term used by critics as a way to dismiss the artistic contributions and boundary-pushing artists of color and queer artists (by framing them as "merely" about identity, and thus not fitting in with the skewed standards of the white-dominated art world). On the other hand, such dismissals furthered the argument of supporters of Identity Politics in showing the headwinds faced by minority artists who wished to make art by drawing on their life experiences.

Since then, there has been more acceptance of identity-focused art, even as "identity" can become both an entry-point and a limiting condition. Curators Anders Kreuger and Nav Haq point out that "Artists are allowed access to the art system on the condition that they have to act, or be framed, as socio-cultural representatives of the place/people they 'are from.'" The rise of Identity Politics in the art world, they argue, resulted in a transition "from marginalization (on the outside) to ghettoization (on the inside)."

Many contemporary artists are fully aware of the pitfalls of engaging with identity. Some would argue, however, that they don't have a choice but to address it: As the contemporary African-American artist Tschabalala Self noted, "All artists create identity-based work, but only some artists are asked about their identity [...] If some artists seem to make work that is ostensibly unconcerned with these realities, it's because they are not made to feel marginalized by them." So long as systemic marginalization and violence against groups based on perceived identity remain, questions of identity will continue to be part of many artists' reality. The terms of the debates may shift, just as our understanding of identity has evolved, but until parity and equal access to opportunity in the art world is truly achieved (not only for artists but also among museum professionals and staff), the critical reckoning of the art world's system of critical and monetary valuation will continue to be urgent for many.

Identity and Politics through Art: Interventions

While identity-related concerns 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 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 (yet highly constructed) passive visual image on a page or screen, to which they were more accustomed.

Guerrilla Girls, <i>Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum?</i> (1989)This poster was installed on busses in New York City to call attention to sexism in art institutions.

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 has 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, she 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 Art still "intervene" in the expected viewer/artist relationship. Cuban-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 and "safe" space of a gallery. It was also possible that members of the campus community who were not aware of the performance could enter and think it the aftermath of a real assault, blurring the line between art and real experience. The work highlighted the urgency of the issue and the reality of being a woman at the time.

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 African-American but could pass as white due to her light skin tone, 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 was one that played 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 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 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.

Identity and Politics through Art: Critique on the Gallery Wall

Issues and politics of identity 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 about identity. This critique from within the gallery system often intersects with Institutional Critique, the questioning of the gallery system itself.

Frida Kahlo's work 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 renown, 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 prevalent in 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 that were unworthy of the gallery. 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 Art 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 Art & Identity Politics

Today many contemporary artists use art as a tool in the (re-)negotiation of multiple aspects of identity that operate together - or intersectionally - rather than separately. The term intersectionality was first coined in 1989 by race and gender law scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, who argued that an individual cannot be defined by a single identity, such as gender, but that different aspects of a person's identity work together to determine their social standing, privileges and/or disadvantages. These include (but are not limited to) gender, race/ethnicity/diaspora, sexuality, and disability, as well as class, body type, and age.

Other scholars have proposed 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, and Deleuze and Guattari, and argues for an understanding of identity as a process of becoming, characterized by flux, change, impermanence, incoherence, and unpredictability. Many of today's identity-focused artists are incorporating ideas of post-identity into their works, such as the participants in a 2014 exhibition 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," but invite multiple associations, even as they are found, after all, in a wastebasket evoking a sense of irrelevance or a lack of value. The work thus insists upon identity as incoherent and imperceptible rather than fixed and knowable.

With multiple facets of identity explored through art and with many artists moving beyond "identity" as such, Identity Art today may be understood less as a fixed category or style, but as an awareness that many artists bring to their art-making processes (even so as to critique or complicate it). It can also be a critical and historical lens through which we can approach artworks, including those that were not made with "identity" in mind.

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.

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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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