Rainer Ganahl, "Language of
Emigration/Lederer Family," 2003,
chromogenic print, 16 x 20".
Photo courtesy Skirball Cultural Center.
Nikki S. Lee, "The Wedding (5)," from
the "Parts" series, 2005, C-Pring
mounted on aluminum, 30 x 34". Courtesy
of Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects.
Jean Baudrillard, 2004
|Life got me thinking this May 1st about identity--personal and collective--and its relationship to representation, its relation to those characteristics (if indeed there are any) endemic to the “I,” and those aspects of the self that are socially formed.
I was brought to this topic by thinking about who elected to march on May 1st, by the fact that my Theory as Practice students decided to convene class. Ironically we happened to be reading heady articles on race even as issues of identitywhat is an American, what is a Hispanic?played out on the streets of a nation struggling to define who it will be.
By coincidence, that week I also attended “The Jewish Identity Project” at the Skirball and saw there the compelling photos of cultural genocide from Darfur. Later I visited the mini-retrospective of Chicana identity icon, Judy Baca at Patricia Correia Gallery. The whole week, while pundits speculated about whether the Spanglish national anthem was too much, or maybe not enough, I kept coming back to the realization that much of history--itself a contested construct intimately linked to how groups and individuals are seen or see themselves--is played out along this dimension of identity. It plays out along the fault lines--tangible and de facto, economic and racial--upon which identities lay themselves out. It also struck me that if indeed, as discourse has convincingly argued, identity is no more than a socially mediated abstraction, then this “abstraction” is wreaking very real and deadly havoc. . .
That week I looked out at my college class--young artists who early in the semester conceded that issues of selfhood/identity find their way into almost all creative practice one way or another--and saw an Armenian, a Korean, an African American, and Irish American, students from, Taiwan, Japan, China, Central America, you name it. Here they sat, the comfortable inheritors of this mushy phrase: “today’s multiculturalism.” This got me ruminating on the evolutionary arc--neither linear nor progressive in its path--of our ideas about identity.
|Cultural, tribal, even personal identities like “shaman” have been around, unspoken I am sure since humans organized themselves socially. Colonialism was clearly played out on the terrain of dominant vs sub-dominant identities. But after WW II, something new took place; and that was the subsumption of all cultures under one culture. America, in her Marshall Plan treaties of reparation with the defeated Japanese and Germans, exported not just goods and services but reality--a powerful, naturalized-via-the-power-of-mass-media picture of the way things were and ought to be--in the First World, the Third World and all the worlds in between.
This representation of the real and the good, with direct implications for personal and collective, local and global notions of identity was effected widely through dissemination of images and products. Both constituted aspects of what theorist Jean Baudrillard called simulacra, a stand-in simulation for lived experience. Baudrillard’s notion of simulacra is not just another word for clever marketing; would that it were so simple. This “order of things” he invokes, based on Western European versions of self and desire are, as Louis Althusser suggested, interpolated (summoned into existence through use) to become the very coil and matrix of reality and, by extension, of identity. Dominant cultural ideologies exported at home and abroad in this way are not a peel-away veneer that you can look behind at will. In a funny and essential way simulacra have become all we know.
The 1960s and ‘70s saw a radical uncoiling of that fictional unitary fiber in an effort to find, envision, give visual and textual voice to cultural realities outside American and West European grand narratives. The fairly cataclysmic changes of the ‘60s required that certain groups forefront large, generic collective identities, mobilized necessarily along racial/cultural lines. Social movements and social change require numbers of people with the same cause, a perceived common history and, yes, a common appearance. Identity discourse was born first through “who are we,” and evolved from there to “who am I.” These new collective cultural entities were given voice in arts and letters: Latino power, Chicano power, Women’s power, Black power--Angela Davis claiming a place for blackness in a world of Father Knows Best.
|The consequences of this search for collective identities netted us Feminism, the Civil Rights movement, the first Women’s Studies program at Fresno State, Minority Studies Programs at CSUN--where erstwhile mild mannered Valley-ites seized the Administration building. So was heralded in 1965-85 the two-decade era of multiculturalism, that buzzword and catch-all utopian agenda that myself and every other liberal was proud to call our own; that same multiculturalism glibly invoked today as a marker of racial progress.
However, tucked into those collective voices at the root of that period of social activism is this not so progressive, rather uncritical invocation of identity as some grand homogenized average: “the Hispanic,” “the black,” someone summarized by a presumed appearance, presumed character and collective memory. So the battle to win a spot for subaltern voices ends up, in logical as well as practical terms, relying on the very same “short hand pictures,” or stereotypic inferences that lie at the root of prejudice. The un-nuanced multiculturalism of the last two decades has turned, I fear, the very complex nature of cultural and personal identity into an empty PC reflex, fodder for the reactionary forces that invoke this platitude as “progress,” and are quite comfortable with never actually confronting the meaning and practice of respectful difference. Recall the recent racial implications of disaster assistance in New Orleans.
|So while my young and diverse art students feel fully equal and invoke multicultural progress, we gloss over the intricacies and complexities of identity--economic, political, sexual, tribal, religious, psychological. Rather, we end up with the colliding realities that underlie a failed foreign policy, the racial turmoil in our jails and high schools, the powder keg standoffs at borders where identity difference, ignored or glossed away, repeatedly ignites.
Multiculturalism has a disquieting reliance on both stereotypic thinking and homogenized abstractions. It is one big, happy post modern mall-world where we are all equally free to eat Asian-Mex side by side. Then there is the “imperialist Zionist” and the “Arab terrorist.” Such images perpetuate, without real inquiry, a model of center vs. margins, suggesting that the issue of dominant and subaltern identity be viewed as a perpetual Antonio Gramsci-esque struggle for entrance into the sought after center by the margins. Here every minority (whatever that means in 2006, when major cities are overwhelmingly non-white) wants a piece of the American pie, and every American (whatever that means in a transnational, globalized habitat) doesn’t want to share. This is a shorthand, lazy way to view an increasingly complex issue that may well have grave ramifications should we continue to get it wrong.
By the mid- to late 1980s, subaltern identities of every ilk were attempting to better manage and understand their experience through an analysis of institutions of power. The intellectual community found itself in the interesting position of having reduced just about every aspect of identity--taste, dress, status, employment, sexual preference, education, gender, hobbies, talents--to a social construction imposed by and through privileged access. Depending on which side of the culture wars we found ourselves, we applauded or jeered as theory pronounced the death of the author, the death of history, the death of the canon in art and literature, the death of the academy. We found ourselves in that post-structuralist era in an identity vacuum not unlike that faced by the Existentialists in the 1950s. But this one ran deeper, since the very “will to act,” by which Jean Paul Sartre defined the secular "I," came itself to be viewed as formulated by and through institutions and persons of power.
It isn't surprising that when we reached this ontological cul de sac in deconstructive discourse--that is to say, when we came to the conclusion that every aspect of conscious experience was in fact mediated, and in some sense not wholly of our own making--we got mighty anxious. We turned willy nilly to ask ourselves less and less about collective/political identity, and more about our inner subjective life, that which is ours and ours alone. This was easy in fact, a return to the familiar.
Frans Hals, "René Descartes," c. 1649,
oil on panel, 19 x 14 cm. Courtesy Statens
Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen.
Judy Chicago, "The Dinner Party"
(detail), mixed media, 36" x 46 1/2'
each side. © 1979 Judy Chicago.
Photo: Donald Woodman.
Hybridation n. 1," 1998, digitally
edited cibachrome, 116 x 166 cm.
Judy Baca, "Pancho de la Tierraq/
Earth," 1993, acrylic/mixed media
on styroforam, 36 x 18 x 26".
Photo courtesy Patricia Corriea Gallery.
|Since René Descartes and the Enlightenment, Western Europe has found irresistible the fiction of a singular unified subject, a uniquely feeling and thinking “I” (an idea wholly foreign to many non-Western societies). As pictured, this "I" acts, chooses freely, manipulates its destiny, seeks the good, conquers and then educates the inferior, progresses ever forward with the help of its right hand tools--observation, hard work and technology. I do not know which came first, but certainly the concurrent Reaganomics of the ‘80s turned the country’s attention to success, acquisition and profit. Nothing earns or acquires better than an encapsulated, self-sustained "me."
In visual art we moved from Judy Chicago’s inquiry into collective female identity (admittedly a messy stereotype of womanhood), to Neo-Expressionism’s visceral, personal engagement with the private self. Instead of “The Dinner Party’s” gathering point I saw Mary Kelly mount and track the fecal records of her son; Julia Kristeva publish on abjection; Lucien Freud and Jenny Saville paint oozing red, lushly decaying carnal bodies planted firmly in an almost ononistic awareness of the self; Orlan manifest the personal by molding her body to taste in series of plastic surgeries; and Mike Kelly dive right into scatological metaphors. All of it seemed to me like an anxious search for the unmediated, essential parts of the “I” that we had speculated away.
The best works of art and literature of the mid-1980s to the mid-’90s began to interrogate more critically the subtle interfaces between personal, subjective experience, and collective ideology. Mentioned always in this regard are Cindy Sherman's constructed self-portraits, which early on raised some of the most provocative questions about the boundary between personal and socially constructed identity. By making and carefully selecting fragmented, non-integrated identities, she reinserted the possibility of agency and self-determination into subjective consciousness, and reclaimed as personal acts both memory and desire. And, whatever we feel about legalizing non-nationals, one cannot deny that a parallel reclamation took place on the streets of downtown Los Angeles and elsewhere.
As we enter a global market economy, as travel, war, diaspora and transnational cultures dissolve typical nation-state/cultural/political markers of identity, we will have to reassess what this complex idea means many more times, and with much greater care.
|Which brings me back to the shows I saw. Judy Baca is like a living chronicle of the best of early incursions into political identity-building. She spearheaded, with more rigor than most, those activist movements that put the ideas discussed here on the map. Baca is an icon of 1960s and ‘70s minority advocacy, the hands-on component to her murals and public projects prove that multiculturalism was not always, and need not be today, a glib catchall.
As for the Skirball, “The Jewish Identity Project” is courageous in its effort to expose the real complexities of Jewish identity specifically, and human identity in general. As emblems of über complex positioning, Jews have been “double others” (in the way that Adrian Piper calls her identity a “triple negation:” she is black, woman and artist). By virtue of their economic status and European racial origins, Jewish identity is aligned in rhetoric and images with the white, privileged center; by extension lately, Jews and Americans wage wars of choice together. The conflation is just as pernicious as “Arabs dishonor life.” In truth, as the eternally mistrusted “exotic other,” Jews have never been integrated into any dominant culture; they are ever visitors.
|By the same token, they never benefit from the cozy umbrella of multiculturalism easily extended to other economic minorities. Further, their identity, though steadfast, has never been regional or localized, for they are the poster people of diaspora. Historically the Jews move from culture to culture, are pushed from land to land, piecing together an identity constantly forced to balance deeply rooted Jewishness against the press of assimilation.
Several pieces in the show make a Spartan effort to discuss these nuances of Jewish identity in a way that does not reify the stereotypic logic at the root of “us ‘n them” thinking. Large color photos of Ethiopian Jews, a Jewish teen from Belize, Jews with American Indian grandparents get a bit too “ebony and ivory.” But other subtle photographs and video pieces, in which Jews are realistically portrayed as Mexicans, Cubans, as Bible belt trailer folk, as urban Jewish parents confronting orthodox prejudices--these all attempt to investigate Jewishness and identity in increasingly insightful and forthright ways.