Text has been a pliable and oft-used medium in Jimmie Durham’s artistic practice. Language has appeared on the surfaces of his sculptors, paintings, and works on paper, and it has been transported to the page in scores of poems, stories, and essays over his five-decade career, many of which are captured in the volume Jimmie Durham: Waiting to be Interrupted. Selected Writings 1993–2012 (Mousse Publishing, 2014). As a complement to the works on view in Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World, we highlight Durham’s role as a writer with a Walker Reader exclusive, a never-before published essay, written by the artist in Naples in 2014—on, fittingly, books, art, and the language of “identity.”
In 1992 or ’3, I was in New York City working on a gallery show. Gabriel Orozco had just moved to New York and was helping me put things together. He brought over a young white woman who had that kind of naïve arrogance that seems to pass for sophistication in NYC. She said that the time of “identity art” was over. I had not heard the phrase before and had to think for several days about what it might mean.
It seems clear to me now that so much art reflects the art system itself. That is a particularly detrimental phenomenon that can be called “identity art”—re-enforcing a hermetic system. I know that American crime novel writers constantly reference the system of crime novels, but when I look for a book to read I am looking for actual writing about thoughts. I am not looking for that kind of “bookism” that would hush my brain. It is actual writing of thoughts that I want, not “books.” For me, it is the same with art. It’s not about style, talent, material or content—I want something more that I often call “intellectual,” by which I mean the same things I mean when choosing a book to read or music to hear or a film to watch.
In Europe, the history of art is the history of strengthening personal identity through the identity of the state. I often refer to the marble carving of a giant white man made by Michelangelo to represent a Jewish shepherd. More pervasive are the thousands of paintings in Europe purporting to be of biblical scenes, only set in Europe with European costumes. Much more important to European identity are the paintings of Jesus. He is always portrayed with fair skin and hair, blue or hazel eyes. So much so that the world “knows” that is how he looked. Identity art to a very high degree.
In New York City, I divided the gallery into left and right. As one entered, “art” works hung on the left side—pieces typical of things I was making at the time, similar to works I’d made for Exit Art a couple of years earlier. These works have no “message,” political or otherwise. They do, however, have a political edge, in the form of texts that are part of the work, or juxtapositions of kinds of material or in different ways.
On the right hand side of the gallery all of the works were “anti-art,” and purported to be made by a fictitious character from English literature, Caliban.
I still try to see what about this show brings forth the clearly accusatory label “identity art.” The “art” side was works in which I attempted to break out of the hermeticism of known art ways. The Caliban side was more overtly political, but there still was no message. I tried to show the stupidity of British colonialism and racism, but at no time did I make statements, condemnatory or explanatory. Caliban, a fictional character, tried to see his face, unsuccessfully.
The following decade witnessed the explosion of art by artists who were not white and not following the accepted ways of art. Often they, like the Europeans, however, would include imagery or other references to specific places or family.
It is certainly true that very many Native American artists have been making paintings of Native Americans—similar, I suppose, to paintings of guys like those by Chuck Close, Elizabeth Peyton, David Salle, David Hockney, and others—but these artists are exempt from the charge of identity art.
I have written about a statement by the actor Ian McKellen. He said that often straight people complain that gay people tend to “go on” too much about gay life. Straight people, he said, never cease talking about their dates, spouses, honeymoons—a constant barrage of chatter about their straightness that seems only natural to them, not to be interrupted by “others’” talk.
So many artists who were not white and not doing the art that the white guys were doing: it surely must have been quite tiring to the white world. By about 2005 many different curators had come to describe my work as dealing with my identity. No matter how much I protested and tried to explain, they cheerfully kept the label. Only curators, though. I have never heard another artist, critic, or even gallerist or collector use the phrase.
That says to me that it came from and spread amoung curatorial departments and programs.
It seems clear that they mean “art by non-white artist,” because it is used exclusively against us.
About two years ago the American art historian Jessica Horton and I were talking about the phenomenon of art by non-white artists being labeled “identity art.” Horton said it is a nonsense phrase that is not used by art historians. We agreed that it is against clarity and knowledge.
The reasons why it now becomes so popular are really more than stupidity, even though that is an important factor in why so many curators will take up a phrase to be seen as “in- the know.” Racism is the primary reason.
As I write, in 2014, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp has a large group show called, Don’t You Know Who I Am? Art after Identity Politics.
The director and curator are both friends whom I respect. Without having seen the show, I find it perverse.
The show includes many non-white artists, so that we can see that the museum does not mean anything covertly racist, as is so often the case. Among these are Haegue Yang and Oscar Murillo, whose works seem in many ways to rely on their backgrounds and identities. I do not mean that pejoratively. I also do not want to make the show central to my argument. Reading the statement about it, though, one can see that the inclusion of the phrase “identity politics” in the title means art of a particular political or polemical nature. (Leaving aside for the moment the fact of what all of the art people normally mean when they use the phrase, “identity art” is political and is made by artist who are not white.)
There certainly is much bad art out there these days, and, as Jone Kvie says, that is a main criterion for commercial success. The main reason there is so much bad art, though, is that there is so much art.
A publisher friend in New York City 35 years ago was lamenting that good books could not be published because all the publishing houses were run by accountants who looked only at volume sales. Now we see thousands of bad books on sale in every airport, train station, supermarket. Difficult to find a good book, and therefore writers’ seriousness of intent unconsciously goes small.
The art system is similar.
What is most energizing now is that anything goes. Art now really can be anything if a serious artist makes it seriously. (I tend to like the seriousness of truly humorous art, so don’t think I mean portentousness.) Because of minority artists—OK, yes, as well as Marcel Duchamp, Guy Debord and Bas Jan Ader, but not beginning with them—because of minority artists, art is now free of all bourgeois frames.
If we want or need to be tired of something let it be lying art and bad art. These two kinds go through all the fake and misleading categories the academicians can dream up.