The foregrounding of identity in contemporary cultural production has long been evident, however there is an increasing tempo to these developments within contemporary art, intertwined with a toxic politico-media culture worldwide. This essay attempts a snapshot view, from an Australian perspective, of how the exhibitionary complex is responding, and of the globalised socio-political landscape in which such art is produced and received. This includes art which emerges, not just from a personal creative impulse, but also from the collective, and the intersections between individual subjectivity and group agency within the public sphere. This art is almost always figurative, and if not, is by its very nature engaged with the human condition. It encompasses the art of political resistance; of Indigenous self-determination; of feminism, ‘masculinities’ and gender diversity; of biopolitics and sexuality; of masquerade and personal mythologies; of the neurodivergent and the self-taught; of displacement and forced migration; of trauma, witnessing and forgotten histories.
Work being made in this expansive space is largely medium-agnostic, and it is a glaring category error (often made) to describe such work as an artistic genre, or even as a mode of practice. The reductive tag of ‘identity art’ has usually been attached (by the art establishment) to contemporary practitioners from outside of Northern/Western art circuits—initially Latin America, Africa and South Asia—but increasingly to any artist whose practice foregrounds their identification with a social minority, which of course varies from place to place depending on demographics. However, progressive thinkers acknowledge that most artists (like people in general) live and work at the intersection of multiple identities, which may be shifting, contingent, emergent. Alongside highly visible signifiers such as race, gender, ethnicity, religious attire or ability-divergence, there is an increasing emphasis on less explicit factors, such as neurodiversity, sexuality and what might be called bio-precarity—for example, refugee status and/or statelessness, driven by military conflict and/or ecological peril. The simplest way to consider this work may be as an assertion, through artistic practice, of difference from the normative mainstream.
For Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, expressions of cultural identity are intrinsic to practice, and 2017 was a big year. Some important Australian exhibitions—for example Sovereignty (Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), Melbourne); Defying Empire (National Indigenous Triennial, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra); and Tarnanthi (Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, second edition)—were mounted, implicitly challenging the political paralysis around Indigenous self-determination, through diverse works of considerable affect and beauty. Major solo exhibitions were held by Aboriginal artists Tracey Moffatt, (My Horizon, Australian Pavilion, Venice Biennale), Brook Andrew (The right to offend is sacred, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne), Jonathan Jones (barrangal dyara, Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney) and Vernon Ah Kee (not an animal or a plant, National Art School Gallery, Sydney), among many others. Māori artist Lisa Reihana represented Aotearoa/New Zealand at the Venice Biennale, to great acclaim. A marked emergence of feminist art histories has been evident across many exhibition platforms in recent years. The focus in 2015-16, by Sydney College of the Arts and others, on a buried history of feminist practice (Future Feminist Archive), and ACCA’s 2017-18 show, Unfinished Business: Perspectives on Art & Feminism, have featured works ranging from lyrically personal to in-ya-face agitprop across diverse media. In the United States, Latin America and Europe there has been a resurgence of interest in the work of important but neglected female artists such as Ana Mendieta (Cuba, 1948-1985), Lygia Pape (Brazil, 1927-2004), Chantal Akerman (Belgium, 1950-2015), Etel Adnan (Lebanon, 1925-), and Carolee Schneemann (USA, 1939-), to name but a few. Many such exhibitions are historical/archival in nature, but with sightlines into the contemporary. Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985, mounted by the Hammer Museum and now touring, was part of Los Angeles’s city-wide, periodic project Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, exploring the influence of Latin American and LatinX art in Southern California and the United States more broadly.
Exhibitions which focus explicitly on gender diversity and non-heteronormative sexualities have also come to recent prominence worldwide. Where once gay, lesbian and transgender art was considered cringeworthy, if not offensive, 2017 saw major international museums mounting exhibitions on such themes. Examples include London’s Tate Britain (Queer British Art 1861-1967); New York’s New Museum (Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon); and Hong Kong’s M+ Museum (Ambiguously Yours: Gender in Hong Kong Popular Culture). In Brazil, home to the world’s largest art audiences, MASP (São Paulo Museum of Art) presented Histórias da Sexualidade (Histories of Sexuality), in which the work of Tracey Moffatt was featured, and the Santander Bank Cultural Centre (Pôrto Alegre) presented Queermuseu (Queer Museum). This latter show, while attracting large attendance, was prematurely closed due to protests by conservative groups which accused the show of promoting ‘blasphemy’, ‘paedophilia’ and ‘bestiality’, a response seemingly fuelled by religious sensibilities, and indicative of a resurgent Brazilian alt-right.1 In a year which saw the passing of same-sex marriage legislation in Australia, the Art Gallery of New South Wales showed a retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe’s more sedate photographs, and somewhat more adventurously, the Bathurst Regional Art Gallery presented The Unflinching Gaze: photomedia & the male figure, curated with an explicitly ‘queer gaze’ by the gallery’s then director, Richard Perram. Victoria’s regional Shepparton Art Museum presented Cover Versions: Mimicry and Resistance, and in March, the National Art School Gallery presented the Museum of Love & Protest (in conjunction with the Sydney Mardi Gras festival), a celebration of forty years of LGBTQI activism. In 2014 the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) staged a retrospective of the late artist/activist David McDiarmid (1952-1995), titled When this you see remember me.2 In the broader sphere of art and biopolitics, Sydney’s Artspace has so far presented two provocative iterations of The Public Body; The University of New South Wales Galleries (UNSW Galleries) and associated venues presented The Big Anxiety festival, focussed on neurodiversity, mental health and their intersections with artistic practice, following 2016’s The Patient – The Medical Subject in Contemporary Art. Exploring the intersection between cultural and faith identity, in early 2018 two important exhibitions foregrounding Middle eastern/Islamic heritage were staged—Waqt al-tagheer: Time of change at Ace Open, Adelaide, and Enough خلاص Khalas at UNSW Galleries, Sydney. More broadly still, there has been a worldwide upswing of interest in the art of political activism—bringing into the museum the archives and visual ephemera of resistance and protest movements of many kinds. In 2017-18 the Whitney Museum of American art in New York staged An Incomplete History of Protest, drawing on its extensive collection, and London’s Tate Modern staged Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, just two examples of a worldwide trend.
As well as exploring transcultural and translocal identities, much of the work shown in these diverse exhibitions, far from being relentlessly earnest, is multi-layered, playful and ironic, deconstructing media and societal tropes around identity representation. Aboriginal artists such as Tony Albert, Richard Bell, Destiny Deacon, Amala Groom and Christian Thompson probe historical stereotypes and hybridised identities in works of sometimes biting humour. Australian performance artists Bhenji Ra and Justin Shoulder exuberantly celebrate gender-divergence and a shared Filipino heritage through costume, masquerade, sound and video. Sri Lankan-born Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran explores the homoerotic gaze, religiosity and his South Asian heritage through large-scale installation and ceramics. Further afield, South African photographer Zanele Muholi, until recently ignored in her own country, has achieved international acclaim, exploring lesbian invisibility and her own persona as a Zulu woman, through an astonishing archive of monochrome portraiture. British artist Isaac Julien makes multi-layered video installations, roaming across transatlantic black histories, sexuality, ‘identity as commodity’, human displacement and ecological catastrophe. Cuban artists Tania Bruguera and Coco Fusco fuse diasporic practice with deeply situated social actions in their native country. Across the North Atlantic arc, a generation of superb figurative painters exploring the complexities of contemporary black experience—for example Kehinde Wiley, Kerry James Marshall (both USA); Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Lubaina Himid, Hurvin Anderson (all UK)—have gained long-overdue recognition, and been awarded solo shows in major museums. In China, South Asia, the Middle East and their diasporas, marquee-name artists such as Ai Wei Wei, Mona Hatoum, Yto Barrada and Imran Qureshi continually interrogate diverse aspects of contemporary identity and social issues through works of great power and (often necessary in authoritarian regimes) veiled but insistent social critique.
Many of these developments can be viewed as part of a growing trend towards both expansion and decolonisation of the Western Canon across many art forms, with literature leading the way by some decades, of which more below. The reparative re-imagining of a once-hegemonic Modernist/Contemporary Art Canon is now underway in Northern citadels. Both the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Tate Modern in London have, in recent years, made visible efforts to include Latin American, African and Asian Modern and Contemporary artists into their collections, and by extension an expanded field of art history. In a recent keynote address, the Tate Modern’s director Frances Morris said that her team’s mission was to ‘decolonise Modernism’,3 and the work-in-progress results are on display for all to see in London. This retrospective re-narration by major Northern institutions is encouraging, but it is certainly well overdue, and still not widely implemented.
The exhibitions and major museums mentioned above are cited to demonstrate the extent to which established museums are beginning to embrace (or not) the range of artistic engagements with social and political issues. Alas, space does not allow for an account of Australia’s international biennials as sites of expansion, or of the numerous smaller galleries and artist-run spaces in which such art is incubated. Independent art spaces such as Sydney’s Artspace and the 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art; Melbourne’s Gertrude Contemporary; Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art; the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art (PICA) and Adelaide’s Ace Open, as well as some adventurous commercial galleries, have long mounted exhibitions of local and international artists whose work engages with these themes.
Having canvassed an array of important exhibitions both global and local, I now turn to the issue of their reception. One might reasonably expect that, in multicultural Australia, an expanded cultural field would be seen as a good thing, collectively contributing to an inclusive national conversation about Who We Are. We are a diverse country with a sophisticated intellectual life, right? So why are these culturally-enriching perspectives so often critiqued in identarian terms? The answer seems to lie beyond the realm of cultural production—the tone set by an anxious political debate around national identity. In Australia, as elsewhere, assertions of difference are commonly sneered at in popular media. Thinkers who interrogate national mythologies have often provided convenient whipping boys and girls for retail politicians. In that reality, to question the historical provenance of a statue of colonial Governor Lachlan Macquarie (or even its descriptive plaque), or, heaven forbid, the date of Australia’s national day, is to invite a torrent of trolling and media opprobrium. Meanwhile prominent Indigenous warriors remain excluded from the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, and unlike in Mexico for example, where Aztec resistance figures such as Cuauhtémoc are memorialised on the grand Paseo de Reforma in Mexico City, no statues of Jandamarra, Pemulwuy or Truganini grace the boulevards of Perth, Sydney or Hobart. It is tempting to ascribe these denials to some special quirk of national character, evident in a generalised mainstream resistance to the Other, imbricated with unfinished business with the nation’s First Peoples. However, these kinds of responses are undeniably resurgent across most democracies worldwide, increasingly normalised by the populist right-wing politics of the Trump/Brexit era, and I will return to this below.
Even within quasi-scholarly contexts, visual art which foregrounds cultural identity often attracts a whiff of disapproval. In literature, theatre, independent cinema, poetry, rap and other forms of storytelling, the first-person voice is common, the subjective almost a given, and in that sense unremarkable. In contemporary visual art however, critical expectations appear somewhat different. While contemporary forms of subjectivity are plainly inseparable from the creative impulse—and despite several decades of crossover between art, politics and ‘the everyday’4—there persists a widespread view that this ought not to extend to the autobiographical, still less the political. In this view the life story and/or social condition of the artist have no part to play in their production of ‘fine’ art, quarantined from ordinary life in the realm of aesthetics. This tradition owes much to Kantian notions of taste, transcendent beauty and the sublime—a value system (let’s call it Connoisseurship) dating from the European Enlightenment—relatively recent, indeed a moment ago in the grand sweep of humankind’s history of object-making, representation and mimetic practice. The discrete ‘art object’ is likewise a rather recent invention, predicated on extracting surplus value from the work of makers. Not so long ago, and in many extant cultures, there was/is no divide between making and living.
And of course, art has for many decades been re-entangled with the lived experience of humans—our bodies and our selves, enmeshed in a seething body politic, and an image economy of unprecedented scale and unimaginable complexity. No longer is the artist a conduit for interpreting the optical world, but a political subject5 with social agency, both individual and collective. Jean Fisher (USA), writing a decade ago about the work of Belgian-Mexican artist Francis Alÿs, suggested,
To make art more answerable to ‘real life’ has been a persistent drive of the politically conscious artist at least since the 1960s, but politically motivated art has always been caught in the dilemma between the desire for artistic freedom and the demands of political activism, a dilemma in which poiesis has too often ceded to praxis. And yet one has to ask whether or not this is not a false antinomy based on the old assumption that the aesthetic was necessarily detached from everyday life, which is tantamount to claiming that the creative act could have nothing to say about the truth of existence, a patent absurdity.6
On this reading, art which foregrounds the artist’s identity is merely exploring one more ‘truth of existence’, driven by subjectivities of many kinds. And identity, as sometime Artforum International editor Michelle Kuo reminds us, ‘… is never about some singular individual. Identity politics is not about individual interests or preferences, or some myth of an authentic self surging forth. The question of identity is as much about asserting one as escaping it. Every form of subjectivity is also a form of exclusion and coercion’. She describes the idea of ‘first-person art’ as a ‘woefully naïve concept of subjectivity, one that forgets how identity is also imposed by others, by history, by institutions, by technology. […] It is the recognition and renegotiation of these complexities which constitute the politics of identity politics’ [my italics].7
Identity, then, is a relational phenomenon, often synonymous with connection to place, and its politics can be seen as a subset of politics in general, which may account for its consistently bad press, and the myriad contradictory interpretations of its manifestations in contemporary art. Until recently (the post-9/11 epoch) the heterotopian dream of a ‘post-identity, post-gender, post-racial, and even post-human’8 (and I would add post-colonial) world seemed to be coming into view, at least in progressive democracies, but the mirage has evaporated. On the political Left, the promise has been derailed by what British artist Hannah Black calls the ‘pseudopolitics of identity’ within Academia. She speaks of ‘identity artists’ who are opposed by ‘identity critics’ for whom race and gender are ‘understood to be a private delusion lacking political meaning’ belonging to ‘… the private sphere of bodies, which lies either outside the public sphere of capital or within a sticky interior’.9 Black is mindful of the so-called identity/class impasse—a discredited binary in which universalist class struggle is perceived as being fragmented by atomised group identities.10 Certainly on the political Right, gender and race politics have long promised a rich terrain on which to divide and conquer. In the united States, one-time Presidential eminence grise Steven K. Bannon told Robert Kuttner of American Prospect: ‘The longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. […] If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.’11
Such populist perspectives are inevitably highly reductive, themselves a form of venal identity politics—an audible dog-whistle—in the service of electoral gain. However, they have their equivalents in the polite media, and by extension the realm of cultural production and scholarship. At their worst, such characterisations bleed into popular media tropes like ‘virtue signalling’ and ‘political correctness’, amplified by tabloids and shock-jocks into the catch-all rubric of ‘culture wars’. These expressions have been rendered almost meaningless by mis/overuse, and they have their artspeak equivalents. Popular culture’s anxieties are echoed in scholarly journals, subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) couched in the vocabulary of Academia. International voices such as the British historian Niall Ferguson and Canadian academic Jordan Peterson have gained prominence in recent years, and there is a persistent conservative drumbeat in Australia for the enhanced teaching of ‘Western Civilisation’. For example, the influential right-wing think-tank, the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), in 2017 issued a grandly-named report into history curricula, titled ‘The Rise of Identity Politics: An Audit Of History Teaching At Australian Universities’.12 Its key finding was that history has shifted away from the study of significant historical events and periods to a view of the past seen through the narrow lens of ‘class, gender and race’, and that ‘the substance of Western Civilisation […] is not being taught to Australian undergraduates studying history’. An excellent and erudite riposte to the IPA’s curricular demands was published on the academic platform The Conversation, in which self-avowedly right-leaning Trevor Burnard, Professor of History (and British Empire specialist) at the University of Melbourne, delivered a Free-market Economics 101 lecture (supply and demand!).
We don’t live in the fantasy world the IPA inhabits, full of Australian students of European heritage, desperate to learn about the legacy of western culture that is ‘our’ cultural past. If we followed d’Abrera’s [the report author’s] policy prescriptions, we would do ourselves serious damage.13
The IPA is a conservative, ideological organisation representing itself as an independent research institute, so there are no surprises there. However, another recent skirmish revolved around an op-ed piece on the reputable Australian website Artshub, titled ‘Social messaging appears to be skewing art awards’.14 According to the website, the article (the main body of which has since been removed, with an apology) ‘… surveyed a snapshot of recent art prizes in October and November and asked whether the current zeitgeist, across the works of selected winners, was skewed towards social messaging’. ‘Skewed’ is a somewhat loaded word, and the writer’s stated intent was ‘… to ask whether the prominence given to such themes through these awards risked focusing public attention on the social messages they were exploring, rather than the individual artist’s expertise’. (False dichotomy alert!) In the original article, the writer went on to critique some of the winners, many of whose ethnic heritage was non-Caucasian, and her thesis appeared to be that these artists had been chosen for their ‘messaging’ rather than merit. This had negative implications for the integrity of both artists and award judges, and a social media storm erupted, leading to the article’s withdrawal.
These exchanges are symptomatic of thousands of small-scale skirmishes the world over, essentially focussed on issues of identity assertion, and they are not always initiated by the political Right. However, while the two articles cited are possibly well-intentioned attempts to spur debate, their underlying sense of grievance tells us something about the groundswell of unease felt by certain sectors of society in the face of a new landscape in which cultural identity looms ever larger. It sometimes seems that Australian cultural commentators have missed the last two decades of artistic developments worldwide, and are now playing catch-up. Certainly, the idea that art cannot simultaneously embody a socio-political ‘truth of existence’ and also be of high artistic merit is laughable, as anyone who has stood before Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937) will attest. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, especially, have grappled with expressions of cultural identity and political sovereignty for decades, none of which has prevented the making of profound art.
The explanation for the aggressive re-assertion of ‘mainstream values’ may be quite simple: sheer nostalgia for a lost era of certainty, when a monolithic notion of Western Civilisation defined the polity, untroubled by threats of cultural insurgency. Some would go further, and characterise it as a last, desperate, rear-guard defence of white, male, heteronormative privilege. Yet one must ask, is the response not disproportionate to the threat, which after all is only the demand to be heard and included in the project of World Civilisation? The preceding list of exhibitions foregrounding cultural identity might imply that they typify most contemporary art these days, but this is very far from the case. Despite its increasing presence in international biennials, public art installations and the more adventurous contemporary museums, to many people this kind of work remains a murky and even dangerous backwater of the art world, occasionally lifted into mass visibility by superstars such as Ai Wei Wei, but largely a sideshow to the main game of the exhibitionary complex, which is dominated by crowd-pleasing museum blockbusters. This is echoed in a rampant international art market. In the great clearing houses (art fairs, auction houses and commercial mega-galleries), ‘identity art’ remains a minor and slightly apologetic category—something of a passing fad, not to be taken too seriously. Despite some inroads into collector consciousness, sales figures are dominated by Old and Modern Masters, French Impressionism, American Pop, shiny retro-spectacularism (think Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst) and so-called zombie formalism (think Dan Colen or Rudolf Stingel), only occasionally enlivened by a dash of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Marlene Dumas or Mark Bradford. The market, they tell me, does not lie.
All this would suggest that Western Civilisation and its mercantile exhibitionary complex will remain secure in its hegemony for a while yet, and that inroads by women, artists of colour and non-normative identities are but a minor threat to its continued sovereignty. However, the voices for change are getting louder, and the barbarians at the ramparts are unlikely to go away. The Occupy movement may have had its day, but there is a new buzzword about: Assembly.15 The obsessive monitoring of cultural production by conservative think-tanks may even be a positive sign—an acknowledgment that outdated verities are being eroded by a new generation of media-savvy, political subjects. In Australia, mainstream indifference to contemporary art—and its modest public subsidy—has long been predicated on a polite agreement that so long as sport retains its primacy and culture does not raise its head too far above the parapet, it can go on speaking to itself, because no one else is paying much attention anyway. That may be changing. The creative arts cannot be a substitute for mass political action and progressive international leadership, but they can undoubtedly change perceptions and change lives, one person at a time.
Destiny Deacon and Virginia Fraser, Something in the air, 2016; Brook Andrew, The weight of history, the mark of time (sphere), 2015; installation view, Sovereignty, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne. Photograph Andrew Curtis.
Tracey Moffatt, Indian from the series Passage, 2016. Digital C-print on gloss paper, 102 × 153cm. Edition of 6 + 2 A/Ps. ©/Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney and Tyler Rollins Fine Art, New York.
Maria Kozic, Bitch, 1990; Mary Featherston and Emily Floyd, The Round Table, 2017. Installation view, Unfinished Business: Perspectives on art and feminism, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne. Photograph Andrew Curtis.
Histórias da sexualidade, Museu de Arte de São Paulo, Brazil. Installation views.
1. For an account of these events see: Shasta Darlington, ‘Brazilian Art Show Sets Off Dispute That Mirrors Political Battles’, The New York Times, 13 September, 2017.
2. An important precursor to these exhibitions was the National Gallery of Australia’s (Canberra) 1994 exhibition Don’t Leave Me This way – Art in the Age of AIDS.
3. Frances Morris, keynote address, ‘Expanding Horizons: rethinking the past through the lens of the present’, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 1 September 2016. Video recording available online, https://www.mca.com.au/events/international-keynote-address-frances-morris/
4. This usage is derived from Nikos Papastergiadis, Spatial Aesthetics: Art, Place and the Everyday, Rivers Oram, London, Chicago, 2006.
5. I use the term ‘subject’ in the Continental (post-structuralist) philosophical sense, implying agency, as opposed to the passive sense of being subjected to power.
6. Jean Fisher, ‘In the Spirit of Conviviality’, in Cuauhtémoc Medina et al., Francis Alÿs, Contemporary Artists, Phaidon Press, London, 2007.
7. Michelle Kuo, ‘Introduction’, ‘Art & Identity’, Artforum International 54, Summer 2016.
9. Hannah Black ‘The Identity Artist and the Identity Critic’ in Artforum International 54, Summer 2016.
10. For a recent account of these debates see, David I. Backer and Kate Cairns, ‘Movement Pedagogy: Beyond the Class/Identity Impasse’, Viewpoint Magazine, 21 December 2017.
11. Robert Kuttner ‘Steve Bannon, Unrepentant’, American Prospect (online), 16 August 2017. See http://prospect.org/article/steve-bannon-unrepentant
12. Bella d’Abrera, The Rise Of Identity Politics: An Audit Of History Teaching At Australian Universities In 2017, Institute of Public Affairs, Sydney, 2017 (online). See https://ipa.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/The-Rise-of-Identity-Politics.pdf
13. Trevor Burnard, ‘Memo to the IPA: history teaching is driven by student demand, not “identity politics”’, The Conversation, 19 October 2017. (online). See https://theconversation.com/memo-to-the-ipa-history-teaching-is-driven-by-student-demand-not-identity-politics-85889
14. Gina Fairley, ‘Social messaging appears to be skewing art awards’, Artshub, 24 November 2017, (online). See http://visual.artshub.com.au/news-article/opinions-and-analysis/visual-arts/gina-fairley/social-messaging-appears-to-be-skewing-art-awards-254831
15. See for example: Judith Butler, Notes toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, Mary Flexner Lectures, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2015. Also see, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Assembly, Heretical Thought, Oxford University Press, New York, 2017.
David Corbet is an independent writer, researcher and curator based in Sydney.