Form and Content: Art and Identity Politics

Nizan Shaked


Thread: Identity Politics
In their recent analysis of the Black Lives Matter movement the editorial board members of Endnotes assess the potential for unity under identity: “There was, we might say, a peculiar possibility for movement unification presenting itself here; a unity one step from the graveyard … ; a unity of the potentially killable: hands up, don’t shoot.” However, they conclude that economic disparities are too broad: “it was inevitable that the unity at play here would be correspondingly thin. If the content of identity is null without it, at extremes of difference the positing of identity reverts to the merest formality, while the content escapes.” Agreeing with this description of identity’s paradox, I nevertheless ask whether positing identity as form against an escaping social content is a correct description of a complex dynamic. Using Holly Lewis’ The Politics of Everybody: Feminism, Queer Theory, and Marxism at the Intersection, I show how different discourses define the term identity in paradigmatically irreconcilable ways: some as form, others as content. I then turn to a set of cases in art since the late 1960s where identity has been specifically taken up at the crux of both. I look at an influential genealogy of practitioners that synthesized Marxist-based conceptualist practice with the influences of Civil Rights, Black Power, the women’s and gay liberation movements, and later, queer politics (AIDS being another historical moment of “unity one step from the graveyard”). Artists like Adrian Piper, Andrea Fraser, Renée Green, or Félix González Torres, did not represent identity as subject matter, but rather used conceptualist interventions into disciplinary assumptions to distinguish between identity, subjectivity and the self. They analyzed how structures, forms, and narratives of identity categories establish or support how meaning in art is assigned or appears. They offer a way to think of identity politics as a working or applicable model, beyond anthropological definitions or claims for or against situated knowledge.

identy politics - art