Survey by Qualaroo

Just where are we exactly when we consider the dynamics of power in the field of contemporary art?

Ahead of our international conference, How Global?, read an extract of MHKA curator Nav Haq's essay 'The Invisible and the Visible. Identity Politics and the Economy of Reproduction in Art'...

"While there is a deeply ethical appeal in the desire for a more inclusive representational landscape and certainly under-represented communities can be empowered by an enhanced visibility, the terms of this visibility can often enervate the putative power of these identities." (Peggy Phelan 1996, p. 7)

Some questions seem to always remain urgent. I would like to consider one of them: Just where are we exactly when we consider the dynamics of power in the field of contemporary art? 

Following the well-documented artistic strategies of 'institutional critique' of the 1960s and 1970s onwards, we had come to know more about art's power relations through the waves of socially- and politically-engaged movements and tendencies in art that were categorised under the broad frame of 'identity politics'.

With hindsight, this is most often typical of the 1980s generation in the West – perhaps in the United States and the United Kingdom predominantly. Working with defined constituencies of Otherness based on perceived 'minority' or 'marginalised' status – mostly via notions of race, gender and sexuality – the thrust of these movements was to seek the light of cultural emancipation.

It is fair to say that the art system, or what is often referred to as 'the art world', has over the recent decades worked through various necessary phases of attaining self-reflexivity: postmodernism has allowed it to take apart its own partialities of taste and collapsed its understanding of aesthetics; it has become aware of how it has mediated the cultural narrative in close alignment with broader socio-political hegemonies; and it has eventually authorised 'other' perspectives to enter into the fold in the name of inclusivity. Broadly speaking, it has claimed the understanding that it possesses a locus of power at its core, and that it is taking steps to address it.

But at the heart of it all, the question is – how much has really changed? Has artistic practice fulfilled the potential provided by the space that opened up especially for this emancipation through all the theorising? To what degree have the traditional terms of engagement between art's infrastructure and those wishing to be artistic practitioners been addressed, and where might we go from here?

It is perhaps worth undertaking the exercise of revisiting the trajectory of identity politics thus far, albeit with the effect of tightly condensing its discourse. Much of the key practice and debate around the subject of cultural marginalisation attributed to the 1980s occurred as part of a broad drive by groups marginalised from the art sphere demanding to be included, but also to be able to insist on their own identity.

For artists, there was a deep desire to be made visible – identifiable – exactly for who they were. Subsequently, it could be said that they were offered the conditions to position the defining factor of their marginalisation – i.e. their race, gender, sexuality – as being something intrinsic to their art. We might think for example of artists ranging from Keith Piper to Ana Mendieta in this regard.

For Other perspectives and personas to be given the kind of opportunity they were previously deprived of was an understandable and legitimate desire in the name of inclusivity and pluralism. But what level of progress was this? What was lacking?
Theorist Russell Ferguson, in his introduction to Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures (1990), a key book on this subject, discusses the particular conditions of this desire for visibility. He observes that the "unquestionable, invisible, universal", that is the bourgeois, heterosexual, white male, has ultimately been the legitimising force for both the discourse of art and those able to practise within it.

Ferguson suggests that this power to legitimise extends towards those considered marginalised in society, with the mode of acceptance happening through a process of recasting them via predetermined criteria of identification.

All the while, the invisibility of the dominant group has meant someone's perceived difference (as manifested in their art) could only be meaningful in terms of a system of oppression. What in effect was formed was a subservient relation between the invisible and the visible. It is something we have known for a long time as the discourse of identity politics is well established.

The move to address under-representation in art became like an act of holding up a distorted mirror towards society in order to form an institutionalised sort of multiculturalism. Furthermore, through the limited modes of representation for this kind of 'identity art', there ensued an identity reductionism, a severe flattening out of the ways in which identities could be visualised and thus understood.

We have to go back literally half a century to the foundations of the so-called Institutional Theory of Art, first raised by American writer and philosopher Arthur Danto, to the moment when the way the art system sustains itself was first verbalised: "To see something as art requires something the eye cannot decry – an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an art world." (Danto 1964, p. 580).

Danto, and others considering this theory such as George Dickie, fleshed out what he at that time might have meant by an 'atmosphere', determining that this ultimately correlated with the conditions that created the aforementioned "unquestionable, invisible, universal" figure at the art system's centre. Discussing how an anonymous participant navigates the art field, Danto states in his essay "The Artworld": "We cannot help him until he has mastered the is of artistic identification and so constitutes it a work of art" (Danto 1964, p. 579).

This introduces the notion of 'identification' – an understanding of the codes that constitute the 'atmosphere' surrounding an artwork that can deem it identifiable as art, and only then can someone fulfil the aspiration of being part of the art world.

"The greater the variety of artistically relevant predicates, the more complex the individual members of the art world become; and the more one knows of the entire population of the art world, the richer one's experience with any of its members" (Danto 1964, p. 583-4). It seems an obvious point in hindsight to state that it is the art world that defines what art is, and many would argue that Danto's idea remains profoundly relevant today.

Yet it is difficult to describe this 'atmosphere' concretely, as its effectiveness lies in its sheer intangibility. The implication of Danto's text is that there exists some sort of codification – behavioural codes of such great value that they even act as a legitimate form of cultural capital. Furthermore, some sort of art community 'meme' is nurtured in this state of intangibility. It drives the memetic behaviour that spreads between people within a group – the art world – in order to perpetuate its streaming of value.

But perhaps the identity politics generation lacked sufficient awareness of this meme to instigate the real change required? The discourse of 'identity politics' in art for a long time has looked highly redundant, and for very good reasons too. With some exceptions, it was something that had rather stifled aesthetic limitations, with its clichéd images of the self or the body holding forth a marginalised status – a kind of figurative portraiture of one's "otherness" if you like.

'Identity politics' art, arguably, may even have caused more problems than it set out to resolve. The act of making visible, though considered necessary for a certain period, could now be thought of as a second tier of marginalisation. It could be seen as a ghettoisation harboured within the fold of art world legitimisation. As Peggy Phelan so eloquently elucidated in her landmark book Unmarked: The Politics of Performance in the 1990s, visibility under these conditions can be considered an institutional trap.

These kinds of generic denominators for the self-representation of the marginalised create a kind of ethical dilemma for artists, with their promises of being able to enter the base stratum of the art system, but on the condition of having to perform the prescribed role of the Other. The 'identity' paradigm also became a kind of strategy 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.

Even whole institutions have been built around supporting this kind of practice – one thinks of organisations such as Iniva in London. Thus there is a certain amount of baggage that comes with 'identity politics', and not all of it is helpful. At least there is one realisation that may be useful – the context of internationalism in art today mirrors that of 1970s and 80s institutional multiculturalism in the Anglo-Saxon world.


To read the full essay published on L'internationale please click here.

Nav Haq is a speaker at our international conference How Global? on 23-24 June 2016.

Book tickets now

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Tuesday 29 October 2019, 11:00 to 15:00


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