Why Art Sucks: 57 Cultures and Nothing On

The local art scene has turned into a refuge for the creatively challenged.

In this sense, most identity art is unbearably shallow. It's a badge, really, static and schematic, usually reliant on an exclusive batch of symbols and referents. It's limited in what it communicates, and therefore very easy to read. (Which may be why, as a critic looking at such art, I often feel myself in the position of a child being taught a lesson.) It confirms membership in a club, and because clubs have a stake in maintaining their ranks, it precludes the removal of the badge in order to dig through whatever it is that lies beneath--the stuff that makes up the person, that is, not the "identity."

According to identity-politics dogma, defining and expressing oneself in terms of gender, ethnicity, race, or sexuality is a radical gesture: no more closets, no more shame. But "celebrating difference" sometimes means a short trip to another kind of bondage. As James Baldwin put it in a 1984 interview: "Speaking out of black America, when I had to try to answer that stigma, that species of social curse, it seemed a great mistake to answer in the language of the oppressor. As long as I react as a 'nigger,' as long as I protest my case on evidence or assumptions held by others, I'm simply reinforcing those assumptions. As long as I complain about being oppressed, the oppressor is in consolation of knowing that I know my place, so to speak."

So it's easy enough for artists to remain safe in their ghettos, making work about their oppression or the intricacies of their identities (my mom is a WASP, my dad is a Japanese American, and I myself am involved with a Latina, having come out as a lesbian after confronting some feminist/shame/oppression issues that surfaced when I was working as a stripper...). One will notice that plenty of artists with marginalized backgrounds have achieved success in the larger culture precisely because they have something to say to that culture; identity art, to the extent that it purports to do anything outside its own ghettos, is preoccupied with creating "awareness," to use another genre buzzword. It's an ultimately stultifying goal: Those of like tribe may identify, those of unlike tribe are supposed to sympathize or feel guilty. Viewing a recent local installation titled "i am more than just a postcard," for example, spectators were offered a way to correct their consciousness--which up until then, presumably, didn't include an awareness of contemporary Native women--by purchasing postcards with pictures of these women on them. Beyond getting viewers to nod their heads in agreement or hang them in guilt, what does such art really do--and what of interest does the artist have to say?

Well, art and exhibits based on identity may make reasonably well-educated or open-minded art patrons feel better about themselves. On this level, they constitute a kind of medicine cabinet full of pseudo-therapeutic tonics (women's dance, black male performance art, transgender photography, queer film, Native painting) that salve the conscience of those more progressive members of the "dominant culture." They certainly won't change any mind that's not already open, however: Art may help us to see things in different ways, but if it were capable of creating world peace, it would have done so by now.

If the arts could be said, ideally, to offer a panoramic view of the world and the infinite range of human experience it contains, then the practitioners and proponents of identity art are running in the opposite direction, willfully putting on blinders that limit them to a range of trite and true issues. And those who stray from the path may be accused of betraying their "community," as happened to filmmaker Todd Haynes, who is gay, and who made one of the most devastating and complex movies of 1995, Safe, about a wealthy suburban heterosexual woman. In following its tragically clueless protagonist, the film makes a subtle yet caustic critique of mainstream society and the price one pays for living in it passively. It's a statement that no doubt had its seeds in Haynes's consciousness as a gay man (he calls Jean Genet a major influence), but it was all the more forceful for its adaptation to broader issues and audiences.

Taken to its extreme, this tendency to make art only about what one knows, or who one is, is a denial of imagination itself. Women make art about menstruation, motherhood, rape, or their oppression by men; Native Americans about historic injustice, contemporary prejudice, or spirituality; blacks about race and rage; gays about their sexuality. How could these kinds of limitations fail to encourage the promulgation of clichés, whether they're righteously preached or bathed in feel-good treacle, whether they're "embracing various communities" or "celebrating difference"? Here are some of the eye-opening, mind-bending things I've learned from art in the past few years: Child abuse is horrible; there's funny gender stuff that goes on between men and women; straights get nervous when queers come on to them; Natives are still getting screwed over by the U.S. government; you have to fill out a lot of forms to get an arts grant; the situation in Bosnia is atrocious; conservative, anti-NEA politicians say the darnedest things; guns are phallic symbols; there were gays among ancient China's nobility; censorship is bad; Asian women and Caucasian women have different standards of beauty.

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