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Hannah Black on "the identity artist and the identity critic"


Artforum’s massive summer issue features a section entitled “Artists and Identity,” with texts, images, and artists’ projects on the fraught subject of identity politics in the art world. The contribution by Hannah Black is especially compelling. She exposes how artists of color are frequently used by art institutions to flaunt their supposed sensitivity to race while simultaneously denying its systemic and historical reality. Here’s an excerpt:

To perform as evidence of the institution’s purity, the identity artist has to exemplify a race/gender category, but as soon as she steps into the institution’s embrace, she becomes an example of universality. She is artificially cleansed of race/gender even as she is called on to represent it. Tokens are currency, and currency only exists insofar as it’s exchanged.

The limits of inclusion are clear, sometimes brutally so. At the University of Chicago, which, like many prestigious US institutions, produces world-renowned politically radical critical theory alongside other research, victims of violence in the city are unable to receive treatment at the university’s medical center: Wounded people die near medical help because the university until recently refused to reopen an adult trauma center that could save their lives. Intellectualized or aestheticized trauma is displayed for institutional, artistic, or academic validation, but physical and emotional trauma goes untreated, because it falls outside the bounds of institutional relevance. The pseudopolitics of art and academia are the pseudopolitics of identity, where exceptional individuals are supposed to magically carry or absolve the social and collective history of race.

The assumption seems to be that theories of race/gender are always autobiographical and drawn from singular experiences, while theories of class/labor can be abstract and universal, when not reduced to a fully reactionary bootstrap narrative of individual striving. There is an identity politics of class, too, which interprets it as a flatly individual and experiential category, a set of affects, vague anomies. This form of identity politics affords no materiality to history (which is a word for collective experience) beyond the narrow boundaries of the self.

This kind of identity politics is a really existing mechanism through which institutions attempt to publicly exonerate themselves of their role in the reproduction of domination.

Image: Hannah Black, Intensive Care (detail), 2013. Via Rhizome.