by Dave Holmander-Bradford
Why should we care about Identity?
Identity could be defined in a narrow constrict of singular personhood. I know I am a person because I self-exist, I feel, I can smell and eat, talk and hear. But seeing our reflection in a mirror or leaving evidence behind in space once we leave it isn’t what this conversation is about.
The true to self-contemporary artists concern with identity is more comprehensive when speaking to multiple considerations. Their work may self-identify with social changes and injustice directly or inversely. By direct we mean those reflection embedded with a specific value which conveys a personal passion. Inversely, i.e.: “the well-observed inverse relationship between disability and social contact” i The notion of “social utility” is almost for certain anything which artist find offensive and affront to creative works and voice to the consciousness of modern, civil and freely open society. “Social utility is a service, or characteristic, that benefits most of the population of any given society. For example, a service which benefits about 80 or 90% of the population at the cost of the other 10-20% considered as a social utility. In short, minimum cost but maximum benefits by a service for the society is a social utility.” ii
So, it is here at this intersecting of identities in a work of art we perceive and express ourselves. Factors and conditions of sex, ethnicity, eco/social placement and physicality likewise will define our identity. In these conditions, the artist may speak the loudest for the least.
Sociologists have identified five different approaches to specific types of identity.iii They include individual, social, collective, multiple, and stigmatized. It is therefore not too difficult connecting these cognitive functions to the larger issues in which contemporary society faces considering current economic, social and political disparity. Jeff Chang talks at length on the changing identity of American life beginning in 1963 through present day in his award-winning book Who We Be. The very essence of the civil rights movement to our current state of affairs’ have centered around different cultures and our identity. About multiculturalism, he cites Richard Bernstein, “considerable confusion about who exactly we are, how worthy we are, and whether we have things in common”. Chang continues with Paul Beatty’s reference to “homosexual right, radical feminism, and environmental extremism. And he closed with a story, likely apocryphal, set in the ashes of the Los Angeles riots, whose endless televised stream of images of fire and chaos seemed to evoke antebellum nightmares of some vast colored people’s vengeance” iv (p121) At the core of this discussion then is as an artist we do not come as a blank slate or empty pail. Each one a conditioned frame of reference which at its source is not original to self but a formation from the individual origin. Conversely, equally true each artist will have decided for a personal identity based upon some systems of values either by adoption thereof or by a rejection of the status-quo. It will be important for the artist has come to grasp this understanding in which they identify for the betterment of their medium, but also to manifest a clearer articulation of the voice by which they chose to speak.
I didn’t know that. Off course not, no one ever told you. (false foundations)
For a moment, let’s pose the question in relation to how it is we find ourselves at this juncture, and present social conflict. Could we say that if there is a problem in societal identity (culture wars) the fix must ultimately address the source/origin from where it systemically came?
There is little disagreement on what the acute issues are cited by Pat Buchanan who “captured the spirit of the growing backlash … decried the across board assault on … Anglo-American heritage. He said the combined forces of open immigration and multiculturalism constitute a mortal threat to the American Civilization.” (p119) However, counter Buchanan perspective which finds great populous with certain demographics it is not reflective of a growing majority of the American citizens who find the new multiculturalism uniquely American and core to a maturing of national identity.
Beginning with the civil rights movement, and continuing with Feminism, Gay rights, and gender issue, immigration, disabled persons, etc. the list might seem endless. These social injustices have been largely litigated with broad public discourses. Unfortunately, most approached to resolving them are bandage solutions because it is almost impossible to correct them without addressing the underpinning issues upon which Western Civilization was constructed.
A closes point of clarity and refinement might be construed by Adrian Piper Article the Triple Negation of Colored Women Artist. Although she is specifically addressing a matter concerning black women artist, issues she raises have a much broader implication. She contends, “American society (keep in mind it is built upon the foundation of Western Civilization) is now imposing a Euro-ethnic, Christian, heterosexual male ethos on all of us to maintain a uniquely American identity against the incursion of other, … similarly, the art world is reasserting a Euro-ethnic, heterosexual male aesthetic on all of us to resist the incursion of gays, colored, and practitioners of outlaw sexuality into the inner sanctum”. v Her terminology is slightly dated but her focus point targets to the core of the issue. The inherent male dominance of all Western society. Some have called this the male gaze. It’s the prism how persons condition in the west view the world.
In this context, we need them to ask what will it take to correct this misconception? How did we get this way?
Every undergraduate should remember taking History of Civilization as part of their core curricula. They will have learned that the three pillars of Western Civilization are, the Greek City/States, the Roman Empire, and the advancement of Christianity. These three formed the triad upon which American society stands. From the Greeks, we get our democratic ideology, the Romans individual citizenship, and unity through brute strength, and from Christianity our authoritative moral underpinning. “To the Graeco-Roman world, Rome was the Eternal City.” The apex of this moment in time might be characterized when Rome was dub “The City of God” 410 A.D.(C.E.) “it was St. Augustine who, in the wake of the Visigoths capture of Rome devised the phrase to represent the rise of a new Christian society … that the community of the Most-High would endure through the greatest city on earth had fallen.” vii (p121)
What if one of these three has not been represented correctly? What if the paradigms of Christian morality are not representational of true Christianity. It is my contention that the male ethos to which Piper addresses is a possibility the results of the moral imperative being prejudicial and inconsistency with the Biblical narrative. And, if this is so the process of correction must be at its core origin. Therefore, we need to deviate momentarily and look at the biblical account and decide for ourselves if the Christian morality and the male’s promenades have been faithfully transmitted to contemporary society. The process and understanding may give a stronger argument for those who are endeavoring to correct any imbalance in today social structures.
Whether you agree with the biblical account of the origin of species it is irrelevant to this discussion. In a discussion on Christian dogma Christian Theology, by Millard Erickson a renowned conservative contemporary Protestant theologian he writes in the subsection The Universality of Humanity, referenced Both Sexes I provide the following redacted account.
“Women have at times been regarded as, at best, second-class members … While to some extent the Old Testament (Christian “Holy Bible” and “The Torah” for Jewish persons) did not overturn this situation (the interpretation of the sacred writings has been by mortal human being, thus here a miss guided understanding became a perpetual ideological paradigm) from the beginning there were indications that in God’s sight women have equal status. These indications increased as time went on and the special revelation moved to progressively higher levels.
Already in the creation account, we find an indication of the women’s status … Genesis 1:26-27 … (the) emphasis, seemingly to ensure our understanding that women possess the image of God, just as does the man. … Karl Barth and Paul Jewett contend that we have triadic parallelism …
A second noteworthy feature … Genesis 2:18 … (some have implied) she is a helper to him as if this term implies some sort of inferiority or at least subordination of the women to man. … The expression helpmeet, used in some older versions, actually translates two Hebrew words nֲֲeged, means corresponding to or equal to … The word
rendered help “ezer” is used by God in several places … This would suggest … not inferior in essence … Rather, the helper is to be thought of a co-worker. …
Donald Shaner has summarized well Jesus relationship to women: It is striking that Jesus did not treat women as women but as (a) person. He took them seriously, asked them questions, encouraged their potential, and lifted them up to the dignity they deserved. “ viii (pp 563 – 566)
In an analysis of Erickson writings, I am suggesting the current conception of the male-dominated society linked to the bedrock of Western Civilization and at its origin is not to be found in core Christian teaching if we are to be true to the narrative. We must ponder with what the difficulty it is to move forward. An ardent feminist may never accept anything less than an all-out assault on religion of any sort; however, within this backdrop, an artist might find and enlarged a social hypothesis from which to address age-old issues of injustice, racism, and discrimination etc. An identity must find ways to address the inconsistency of arguments set forth by the status-quo while quilling the Euro-ethnic mainstream as Piper has expressed.
Where do we go from here?
To thwart the agency of the American imposition previously noted Piper now set forth a threefold outline as a path forward specifically as it related to the CWA; but, we may also extrude a broader inference to the populist at large and contextualizes it intentionality applicable to artists in general. She cites, “a CWA who expresses political anger or protest political injustice in her work may be depicted as hostel or aggressive.” Equally true, “a CWA
who deals with gender and sexuality in her work may be represented as seductive or manipulative”. The broader application here being what is arbitrated toward CWA artist is often implicated of all artist who does not conform to the given ethos of any period which proves the point. “When the art itself stymies the imposition of such stereotypes, the Euro-ethnic viewer is confronted with a choice … which will naturally require a concerted effort of discernment otherwise the variant will return to the comfort of Euro-ethnic stereo-type” thus rejecting the work as reprehensible. ix (p241
The great fear here is while all women (and all disenfranchised people groups) have made great gains across a broad spectrum of society there is ever present those forces which would reverse this course. The compendium she offers could serve a guide to keep the focus on the necessity to be ever vigilant all the while acquiesces that in some fashion women have of necessity engage in the zero-sum game of the Euro-ethnic art tradition.
In addressing head-on mainstream self-perpetuation, she offers the following perspective specific to the CWA. “First, this work has no halcyon past to mourn. Instead, it offers an alternative art progression that narrates a history of prejudice, repression, and exclusion, and looks, not backward, but forward to a more optimistic future. … competing for the truth. Second, it refutes the disingenuous Euro-ethnic postmodern claim that there is no objective truth … (or) testimony of the truth about prejudice, repression, and exclusion. Third, it belies the Euro-ethnic postmodern stance that claims the impossibility of innovation, by presenting artifacts that are, in fact, innovative relative to Euro-ethnic tradition – innovative not only in range and use of media they deploy but also in social culture and aesthetic content they introduce.”x (245 – 246)
What do we see
David Salle author of How to See might be an appropriate entry point. In his introduction he says, “Art is more than a sum of cultural signs: It is a language both direct and associative, and has a grammar and syntax like any other human communication.” xi So, when we look at the work of William de Kooning xii What is it that we are looking to see, learn, know, understand?
In his work Door to the River, (1960) what probes the mind. Let’s state the obvious first. Its genre is abstract, and its style is abstract expressionism. It is an oil painting in which the artist has employed impasto. I frankly am quite fond of it and for obvious reasons is why it’s the point of discussion though in many ways I am more interested in de Kooning as a person.
Of himself, he says, “I’m not interested in ‘abstracting’ or taking things out or reducing painting to design, form, line, and color. I paint this way because I can keep putting more things in it – drama, anger,
William de Kooning, Door to the River, 1960
pain, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas about space. Through your eyes, it again becomes an emotion or idea.”
“Heavily influenced by the Cubism of Picasso, de Kooning became a master at ambiguously blending figure and ground in his pictures while dismembering, re-assembling and distorting his figures in the process.” xiii
The work in question here is not obviously controversial or is it, yet we must ask place ourselves in the work to understand the work. What does he mean, door to the river? Where is the river? Is the river a noun? If so, is it beyond the door or is it running through the door? Are we in a river town and through this door we go to the river as opposed to another door which might go to the road. It’s abstract so we are to allow our mind to wander. Or are we viewing this from a Euro-ethnic perspective trying to press this work (maybe all his work) into our stereotype box which we have been precondition do? De Kooning’s work doesn’t want to fit into our nice little-compartmentalized box. It must be bad, so we should shun it just like the work of CWA.
We have viewed this work in the context of ekphrasis which is to say the image causes us to view the work as a rhetorical activity of an adjectival nature, It is a graphic, and dramatic piece of art. But perhaps for the viewer in the 21st century, it is not enough information provided yet his use of impasto, could it be some hint or carryover from his sculpture inspirations?
We should consider a more formal analysis based on the visual structures. The work has balance points and coherence of color palate. He used a large brush and leaves an impasto surface texture. This quality is an enabler for reflexive light. Compositionally, he has followed the conventions of good painting. Point is met with a counterpoint. Volumes and contours are declared boldly. The sight line evidence but not obtuse. His process conveys good perception with the visual intent.
I see this work as not just the door to the river but the door to opportunity. Where did the river come from and where does the river go? Perhaps the viewer is being enlisted to journey on the river to some distant place. Or perhaps passage through the door is an escape from something amenable. What we see here in the work is that contemplation will require a decision.
Herein then is identity, the work an artist reflects is the expression of self through abstraction, but for art to be real there requires a viewer to engage and become part of that identity, thus we see ourselves.
iv Chang, Jeff. Who We Be, The Colorization of America, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2014, Print
v Piper, Adrian, The Triple Negation of Colored Women Artist, Chapter 28 pp 239 – 246 Manchester: NHIA MVF803 Seminar 3 noted supplied by the instructor. June 2017
vi The male gaze is a concept coined by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey. It refers to the way visual arts are structured around a masculine viewer.
vii Wallbank, Walter T., Alastair M. Taylor, and Nels M. Bailkey, Civilization, past & present, Fourth Edition, Glenview: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1975, Print
viii Erickson, Millard J., Christian Theology, Second Edition, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1983, Print
ix Piper, Adrian, The Triple Negation of Colored Women Artist, Chapter 28, Manchester: NHIA MVF803 Seminar 3 noted supplied by the instructor. June 2017
x Piper, Adrian, The Triple Negation of Colored Women Artist, Chapter 28, Manchester: NHIA MVF803 Seminar 3 noted supplied by the instructor. June 2017
xi Salle, David, How to See, New York: W. W. Norton, 2016, Print
xii William de Kooning was a Dutch-American abstract expressionist artist who was born in Rotterdam, Netherlands and moved to New York in 1927