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On Identity: April 2018

This post continues the exploration of the philosophical currents that shape current art practices.

A previous post, More on Painting, touched on the issue of identity, discussed in terms of “self-differing”, or the self as a collection of “innumerable configurations of personality and emotion” as opposed to an “all-at-oneness”. This is a more esoteric aspect of identity than what has become known as “identity politics” in which various groups who define themselves by gender, sexual orientation, or level of ability demand greater recognition, respect and a share in social benefits.

While these demands warrant attention & positive action, the issue of identity and its implications for art has become a confusing areas for artists and critics in the post-modern era. At the same time the issue has ballooned into something out of all proportion to its importance in the human search for meaning. While in its original form, the exploration of identity presented some interesting philosophical questions, it has now become an ideology with all the attendant dangers of wildly popular but poorly understood ideas.

The first victim in the art world, especially with regard to painting, has been an understanding of self. As I understand it, the idea of self-differing that is in common use is a re-stating of the relativist philosophy that Socrates opposed.

posts/On Identity/Socrates
A marble head of Socrates in the Louvre (copy of bronze head by Lysippus) c. 470 BC

The Sophists believed that “you can never step into the same river twice” as every moment is different and there are no constants. They extrapolated from this that, because there are no constants, there can be no right or wrong, so every person should act in their own interests. Today’s neo-liberals are the modern version of this thinking.

Socrates countered this with a belief in ethical virtue as something that should be aspired to and is immutable, permanent and unchanging. As such he was the father of absolutism and today’s religious traditions and others with unswerving beliefs in moral absolutes.

A definition of the self as a collection of “innumerable configurations of personality and emotion” is a pillar of post-modernism and revives the sophistry that Socrates opposed. A widely accepted modern version of sophistry has facilitated imposition of the Neo-Liberal agenda accompanied by the rise of “identity politics”. While having no wish to detract from the justified demands for equality made by disempowered and disadvantaged groups, unfocused relativism may be largely responsible for low voting numbers and a general lack of participation in organized political groups, especially among younger voters (or non-voters).

The relation between identity politics and relativism is delightfully described by writer Ian McEwan in his novel, Nutshell. He describes the young as “…on the march, angry at times , but mostly needful of authority’s blessing, its validation of their chosen identities. …I may need advance warning if upsetting books or ideas threaten my very being by coming too close...I’ll feel, therefore I’ll be. Let poverty go begging and climate change braise in hell. Social justice can drown in ink. I’ll be an activist of the emotions….My identity will be my precious, my only true possession, my access to the only truth.” This nicely captures the naïveté of identity politics and suggests why it has been nurtured and embraced by neo-liberals.

In the visual art world more so than most, the primacy of identity has had a schizophrenic effect. On one side, artists who create large, grand or durable artworks are suspected of egotism. This potent charge has encouraged a generation of artists who ensure that their works are small and self-effacing, or if not small, constructed of recycled waste products. In this view large paintings are a throwback to the modernist era when gigantic artistic egos created giant canvases.

The flip side of the current obsession with identity in the visual arts is  the unprecedented importance placed on the personality of the artist rather than the artworks themselves. Artists are brands marketed on the strength of name recognition rather than artistic excellence.

Nutshell: McEwan, Ian, Published by Vintage Publishing, United Kingdom, London, 2017

post/On Identity/Jeff Koons
Titi, 2004–09, Jeff Koons, High chromium stainless steel with transparent color coating.

Who can judge excellence in a world without right or wrong, good or bad? The last absolutist critic to have any influence, Clement Greenberg, based his judgements of excellence on his own good taste, rather than any more fulsome philosophical rationale. Having been discredited in accordance with the current relativist world view, along with the modernist artists he championed, the market has become the final arbiter.

That we have become a culture of change, rather than a changing culture also lends itself to the neo-liberal agenda. Where the only constant is change, it has become the only absolute and almost a religion. The most damning accusation that can be levelled against those who oppose any change is that they are “afraid of change”. Thus changes, no matter how harmful or ill-advised, are protected from critiques and in every election, all parties claim, “it’s time for a change!” as though it were an ethical virtue. But the change brought about by victorious Western political parties has been an intensification of Business-As-Usual policies that enrich some and impoverish an increasing number of people and the natural world. The climate change crisis can be directly linked to the policies of the parties calling for change below.

In conclusion, while identity politics have made Western culture as a whole more aware of and tolerant of differences, it has been co-opted by Neo-Liberals to deflect attention from pressing issues of environmental degradation and economic disparities. In the arts, identity politics have encouraged a self-reflexive culture, where art is all about itself rather than a mastery of the medium and its aesthetic potential, which has contributed toward stunting the culture. While contemporary art products can be whimsical, clever and highly original, they lack commitment. Much of what we see is unconnected to the artist’s soul, expressing ideas solely from the busy, market-oriented mind.

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