Identity Redux: A Conversation

Written By: Aaron Van Dyke Constellation 20 6.1.12

As editors, we knew the subject of identity’s role in art was bound to stir up controversy. The challenge was to find contributors willing to take all kinds of stances, not only the ones we have come to expect. We asked Aaron Van Dyke, Midway Contemporary Art’s Director of Eduction and long-time mcad adjunct instructor, to weigh in on the subject because we hoped Aaron’s roles as a practicing artist, a studio  and critical theory instructor, and an art historian would allow him to bring an interesting set of issues to the table. Then, there is also Aaron’s history of successfully playing devil’s advocate in any number of settings. Christina Schmid started out the conversation–but, as you will see, there are any number of open, unresolved questions, lots of bait, in other words, to spill over into the comment section. Be forewarned: both parties took the liberty to rant, share anecdotes, and raised more questions than were answered.

Christina Schmid (CS):

Aaron, we were wondering what you think about the recent re-surgence of identity-themed art and exhibitions. Of course, some artists and galleries have never stopped focusing on artists who identify as part of a particular community that’s defined around cultural, communal, or racial identity–Obsidian Arts or Two Rivers Gallery, for example–but what inspired us to tackle this topic is the recent return of “identity” as a relevant marker in making, exhibiting, and discussing art–even if that identity is understood as fluid, fragmented, and only on occasion “strategically essentialist.” (It’s been a long time since I used Spivak’s term, I realized).

For the sake of providing some context, here are two of the gender-specific local exhibitions of the last year that come to mind: first, Karen Wirth’s Intersections: Women, Leadership, and the Power of Collaboration at mcad. I don’t know if you had a chance to see the show, but the basic premise was that Wirth invited female department chairs from art schools around the Twin Cities to collaborate with one of their former students. The differences in these collaborative projects were fascinating–and to be expected. I thought it was a very smart show and, for lack of a better word, unapologetically feminist: it is still more unusual to see women in leadership positions than men, especially the higher you climb up any institutional or corporate ladder, and, if you think of the Gorilla Girls’ re-counts of solo and group shows by women in the art world, well, not much seems to have changed since their first tally.

The second show, equally gender-themed, was the Leaders of Design exhibit at the College of Visual Arts last fall: after a lecture by three generations of influential designers who happened to be women–Sue Crolick, Cynthia Knox, and Kelly Munson–the gallery exhibition presented work by 23 “industry-leading women.” This was the first time the annual event featured women as speakers and put their work on view.

On a national level, feminist art and ideas have enjoyed a renewed popularity, too: last year’s keynote address at the College Art Association’s conference was about feminism, and this year, a plethora of panels on cross-generational feminism and gendering the post-human followed.

Now, obviously, someone’s identity alone will not make any difference in whether the art that someone makes is good or bad, memorable or entirely forgettable, or somewhere in the nondescript middle. Not everyone will choose to make art that explicitly tackles issues of identity. So my first question for you is this: do you think it is important, or even makes sense, to consider an artist’s identity and its traces in someone’s art? Does identity and the way we define it historically, culturally, and theoretically, matter when we consider art as a manifestation of a time, a place, a specific context? Are there some artists where you’d think the issue more relevant than others?

Aaron Van Dyke: (AVD):

One thing I think is funny is the Women, Leadership, and the Power of Collaboration show, which I did see, covered almost every art department in the area (if I’m remembering correctly), and almost all of them have women chairs. What is remarkable is that even that has not changed things. This is a big problem, because I believe that these problems still exist, but even women in power seem not to have solved them. That means it is a deeper problem than “gender” as we typically conceive it—or at least that is what I would like to propose. One might argue that women just don’t occupy enough positions of power, which I will agree with, but I’m not sure that even if they did, it would solve the problem. Yes, that may sound like I’m saying solving the problem isn’t solving the problem, but that is because these are two different problems. (Maybe they aren’t even related!)

This is complicated and tangled, but the result is women still don’t have something that they need, whether it’s power, money or (and this is the most immediate problem to me) simply to be taken seriously. Some things seem to have obviously gotten better (seem to have obviously!) with more women as department heads, presumably they have more power and money. Part of the problem is that these things don’t attach themselves to women, but only come with the position. Young women are often not taken seriously, and I see those people dismissing them coming from all age groups, not just young or old. Or, if a man and a woman artist are partners, the male partner will get the majority of attention, even if the woman is the better artist. This is an old problem, a known problem, and it’s disturbing that people don’t see through it.

We have really gone backwards in many ways in the last two or three decades. I know many people who can’t say “feminism”, at the very least without a dismissive adjective before it. In the media you often hear conservatives say “radical feminists” or something similar. Often it is just left as “femi-nazi”, and that’s one I hear on the street, by women and men, not just in the media. It is as if there are no legitimate issues confronting women that might unify a political project. Don’t get me started with the use of “girl”; it’s ubiquitous. This is not the same appropriation of language as “queer” for example, though there was “grrl”, which lasted about six months in the early 90s. I once brought up the use of “girl” with a female student who didn’t understand what could be wrong with it, until I said it was infantilizing a person. That’s not a sign of how tuned out the student was, or how tuned in I was (it has a lot to do with my age), but how pervasive and unconscious the use of “girl” is.

Maybe now that I’ve ranted I can address some questions more directly.

Question: So my first question for you is this: do you think it is important, or even makes sense, to consider an artist’s identity and its traces in someone’s art?

I always go back and forth on this one. The context the artist is working in (and “identity” is part of that context) helps create the work, but it also doesn’t do much to make the work good or bad. I think my answer would have to be something like: art historically it matters, art-wise, it doesn’t. Good art is made in many places, by many people, but to understand it you should know its context.

Question: Does identity and the way we define it historically, culturally, and theoretically, matter when we consider art as a manifestation of a time, a place, a specific context?

This questions answers itself on one level. Yes, identity is part of the context. I think we get confused and think identity has to be put in the work—it doesn’t, because it’s already there. Art doesn’t have to be “about” identity. When you ask what work is “about”, you are often asking a bad question. You are certainly putting a set of demands on the work. Art doesn’t have to be “about” something—it can be, but it is not necessary. You don’t have to lash your work to a subject. This is confusion, bad thinking in the wake of theory. “Things should be explainable. Art should be about something.” That is extremely limiting and it just isn’t how it works. Art is radically, disturbingly free. No one knows where the next good art will come from, what it will be, how it will be made, or who will make it. Art has to be allowed (it will be allowed) to open up into this unknown. Art cannot be reduced to words and can never be fully explained. Art has been likened to philosophy beyond language, and I think that is a pretty good way of putting it.

If you want art to be about something, if it has to explain itself, it seems to me like you are limiting yourself to representational art. You essentially cut out abstract art, or at least you put a leash on it. I’m sure there are examples of abstract art that could be “about” something, but requiring this is putting constraints on the art that I don’t think should be there. You wouldn’t really believe in abstract art in that case. (I’m talking about non-representational work here.)

Question: Are there some artists where you’d think the issue more relevant than others?

No, not in the way I’ve laid out this argument, because all artists have identities (apparently) and no one subject, or subject at all, is required in a work of art. That being said, I think Jimmie Durham is one of the most consistently interesting artists working over the last several decades, and you could make an argument that identity has sometimes been a subject in his work and that his background is an important and intriguing part of the context of his work. His writing is brilliant and meandering, sometimes addressing the subject of identity, as he is often forced into this position, forced to address the “Native American-ness” of his work. He no longer comes back to the United States and doesn’t participate in exhibitions here, though his work sometimes does and he doesn’t fight that. This struck me as the right way to handle this situation.


Let me start at the periphery and worm my way back to the central questions—an appropriate strategy, somehow, given that so much of the rhetoric surrounding identity revolves around invisible, paradigmatic centers and the fertile margins from which to see and make sense differently:

I saw some work by Jimmie Durham—St. Frigo and Stoning the Refrigerator—at the Swiss Institute in New York last year. Unaware of his withdrawal from the US, I did not fully appreciate the fact of—and the irony in–seeing his work in that venue. But I could not agree more with what you say about his work. In part, it is smart and disturbing (in the best possible way) because it does not care at all about anyone’s expectations and, in that exquisite carelessness, challenges what ‘we’—the implied audience—bring to the work: our expectations of what a Native American artist’s work should look like, our perceptions of whether it “fits the bill” or not. And of course there is continued interest and a market for work that caters to those expectations and perceptions: regardless of how cloyingly sincere or politically predictable it may be, ‘we’ like affirmation of not only others’ identities but our own relationships to those identities as well. And it seems there is some comfort to be found in predictable—even predictably radical—positions, a kind of comfort that should, I think, unsettle us more.

For instance, all the gender-specific shows I mentioned and your observation that, even though there was no shortage of women to invite to the Women, Leadership, and the Power of Collaboration show, that number alone still “has not changed things.” In part, the problem here seems to be one of expectation: the expectation that promoting (or in the case of affirmative action, admitting) some members of a historically and currently disadvantaged group will somehow change the cultural conditions, the very context, that gave rise to the disadvantages and, in some cases, oppression. It seems that that’s a lot to expect from “identity,” which is such a fraught and complicated concept anyway.

And it seems there is some sort of a catch-22 at work here as well: by performing and conforming to the identity of disadvantaged, marginalized person, does the performance perpetuate the condition it is supposed to undo? When you consider this question in the context of gender, then a position of authority will not automatically result in your giving up the more insidious characteristics of the gendered identity in question: women are still socialized to please, to not take up too much space, and have absorbed an understanding of femininity that casts too much competence, assertiveness, confidence as “un-feminine”—and I can see how some of my students struggle with trying to make sense of becoming an authority—in and on their work, for instance—while still adhering to the constant diminutives (“girl”) on the other. It is a precarious balancing act, where different sets of demands clash. And the more invested someone is in conforming to one set of standards, e.g. gender, the harder it becomes to live up to the professional expectations of asserting oneself. And the expectations are rigged. Still.

Sometime last year, I observed a panel discussion, split, almost evenly, between male and female artists, moderated by a white man. Just visually, before anyone started speaking and confirming the initial impression, the difference between the gendered performances was striking: the women were carefully kempt and put together to look “professional;” the guys, well, most of them, were performing idiosyncratic versions of the unkempt genius: wild hair and stubble beards, baggy sweaters or T-shirts (I don’t remember the time of year). Not that there’s anything wrong with either look—my point is simply that, for the women, the occasion demanded a different set of behavior than for the guys. To be taken seriously, to convey authority, their performance followed a set of different standards that meant they could not get away with the disheveled, careless look. They showed that they cared—but somehow that still ended up working against them, presumably, because it was not cool to care. Sitting in the audience, I was annoyed by the dynamics, the lack of awareness on display: who was comfortable in the situation (and why), and who was not—that was more memorable and revealing to me that night than anything anyone said about the work in question. Nothing about this experience was surprising, but that alone fueled my irritation: that we’re still here, still making these observations, that so little has changed. And yet, as you also point out, a lot has changed. (Did you see the piece Marianne Combs recently did on African American artists in the Twin Cities? The tenor of the piece—maybe even the title—was something like “how the Twin Cities have changed—and not changed—for African American artists.)

Which brings me, in a scenic, round-about sort of way, back to your anecdote with “the girl:” the words we choose, the public performances of identity we put on for each other (and ourselves)—they are not innocent or independent of the larger cultural narratives unfolding with us as (un)witting actors.  These narratives will leave their traces on the work we do, whether we are aware of them or not, engage with their presence or not. My question: is awareness—and a trace of it—better than oblivion? For artists as cultural producers, isn’t it important to understand the way they contribute, undermine, or seek to re-write those narratives? Whether we choose to engage these issues—or not—will add up to the next chapter, eventually.

Let me linger with the “not” for a bit and start this train of thought with an obvious point: how we come to this subject of identity, its importance for the art we make or encounter, has everything to do with how we understand and perform identity, how fixed or malleable we experience who we are. In a way, the very ability to ignore or set aside issues of identity—socially constructed identifiers that we have little control over (how we are perceived in terms of gender, race, age—things like that)—is a luxury: who can afford to not be aware? Or, to put a slightly different twist on this question, who can afford to be aware of the issues and choose to not address them? As Nate Young suggests in his essay for this constellation, “The Exoticization of the Standard,” what would happen if we started ‘reading’ the work at the Walker, the MIA, or really any arts venue, in terms of whiteness and masculinity? And American-ness and..? Would we simply be shackling the work to a set of reductive political and cultural signifiers, and instead, should we applaud the work for its radical, disturbing freedom from such concerns? Isn’t that freedom another way of saying privilege—that yes, ideally, everyone should have it, but since we’re not there yet, does it makes sense to curtail the freedom of those who do have it?

Now, at the risk of poking at the proverbial hornet’s nest (never was able to avoid a cliché or a hornet’s nest), let me end this unexpectedly lengthy response by putting the last set of questions into a slightly different context. One of the questions that informs our thinking about this issue—and I have to credit Ana Lois-Borzi for planting that particular question in my head—is the deceptively simple question of who is the artist? How do we define the artist’s identity? What does the artist do, professionally and culturally? Does the artist have a responsibility to think about his or her practice as part of a cultural narrative, and consider this contribution as having something resembling a point and purpose? Or is the artist free to make whatever he or she may consider art to be—and that alone would be the point and purpose, an ode to individual freedom (and identity?) and pushing the boundaries of what art can be, following Boris Groys’ understanding of art as “a field strictly structured according to the logic of contradiction”?

The problem I am trying to get at here, without too much incendiary rhetoric: the cultural identity of the artist and the oft-observed phenomenon that the more obscure and self-indulgent some of the “anything goes” practices become, the louder the complaints of artists about lack of proper funding, attention, and respect become. If we think about the artist’s identity in this way, does its significance to the work change?

I know, I’ve ended up a long way from where we started… but with such bait, I hope you’ll have lots to say.


I wonder about “artist as cultural producer”. I think it is a misinterpretation. It gets thought of as one of a number of things: someone who works in the medium of the social (as if “the social” is a ball of clay, or paint; this is very problematic) or someone who has special ethical responsibilities to the social. I think both of these are false. Artists don’t work with “the social”, they work in the social. (I know this term “social” is a little strange here, but I think you know what I mean.) Artists don’t have special ethical imperatives, you have ethical imperatives as a citizen, or social actor, or whatever term you want to use. By this I don’t suggest that there aren’t “ethics” in the art world (though whether they are followed is another matter), but being an artist doesn’t require one to be a super-citizen. We don’t have obligations to the environment (for example) as artists, but we do as citizens. I think being a bad environmental actor in your art practice is, at least largely, a social wrong, not an aesthetic or artistic one. I recognize there is some blurry overlap here, but I’m trying to be concise.

Saying artists have some special ethical obligations is wishful thinking. It is exactly like me, as a teacher, wishing that the “best” students (who are smart, hand everything in on time, participate fully, speak eloquently, etc.) were the best artists. I want these things to be true, but they are not. Sometimes pretty poor students make the best work.

As far as identity and experience go, I think it is important to have art made from many experiences. I don’t know what that art will look like, and I don’t think we should (if it’s predictable, I think that is a problem), but I think it is important that art be made from the widest, most diverse possible perspectives. I can’t prove that this diversity matters, but I feel it does, and it makes sense to me because art is radically unpredictable so it follows that its sources would be as well.

You mentioned the problem of gender roles; I’m specifically thinking of women being ostracized for being too “aggressive” and the like. This still exists. It is still a ridiculously pervasive problem, and it frustrates me to no end that people are still this stupid. However, I think there is something beyond this that I’m trying to get at. A way that gender or race and power or authority can be split inside a subject even when, for example, a woman is the head of an art department. Maybe part of it is that women can’t inhabit that role as women, or that power doesn’t cross this threshold between authority and gender role. I guess if we think of gender as performative, maybe a woman department head has to perform twice, or the performance is doubled, but there is a certain way that women can’t simply inhabit that role as women. There is a way in which the problem hasn’t been solved for women and women haven’t solved the problem: institutions haven’t changed (enough?) as a result of women inhabiting these roles. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I don’t think institutions have become more ethical as a result of allowing women to share power, and that was the promise. You mention that this is a lot to expect from “identity”. Maybe so.

Question: These narratives will leave their traces on the work we do, whether we are aware of them or not, engage with their presence or not. My question: is awareness—and a trace of it—better than oblivion? For artists as cultural producers, isn’t it important to understand the way they contribute, undermine, or seek to re-write those narratives?

Undermining a political narrative is important for some work, but not for all. Again, I don’t think art complies with any particular politics, even if I wish it would. That being said, an artwork can promote a certain political position and be a good work. It has that freedom.

I think understanding a work in the way you are talking about happens after the work is made. It’s important, but it’s important to critics and art historians, not necessarily artists, because they often don’t or can’t know these dynamics when the work is being made. You really don’t know exactly what you are going to get until it is done.

I don’t know what to say about privilege, except maybe that it’s a good thing some people have it. People have said that it’s a privileged position to be able to sit around and think about philosophy. All I can say is I’m glad people are doing this—if only more were! As far as being able to “ignore certain issues”, I think artists have this opportunity if they choose. As I said, I think art should be made from diverse position, so I think it is important to have work that engages “identity” or social position. And, yes, there are people who, due to social or political circumstances, not only can’t ignore social position, but can’t even make art. However, this is a political responsibility people face, not an artistic or aesthetic one. Artists who have the means can and do and should continue to make art if they choose to. It would be nice if they also advanced progressive politics, but that isn’t a requirement for making art.

As far as “reading” at art from different positions, I think this can be very fruitful. I think critical experimentation is incredibly important. Though again, this is the domain of criticism and art history, which can be inhabited by an artist (problematically, as I’ve found out). We are not shackling the work unless we demand a certain way of reading it. I suppose the work is always shackled due to our limited critical vision, but that is why experimentation is important in criticism as well as art.

Question: The problem I am trying to get at here, without too much incendiary rhetoric: the cultural identity of the artist and the oft-observed phenomenon that the more obscure and self-indulgent some of the “anything goes” practices become, the louder the complaints of artists about lack of proper funding, attention, and respect become. If we think about the artist’s identity in this way, does its significance to the work change?

I think there are a lot of problematic assumptions in these questions. I seldom understand the criticism of someone being “self-indulgent”. It usually means someone is demanding something specific from the work that they are not getting. That is just an unreasonable expectation. If you don’t like something… how can you be upset at an artwork? What does it owe you? Can you demand all work satisfy a specific criterion? I think this is bad faith criticism. There are reasons to criticize work, but it’s not because it doesn’t meet a set of expectations. That’s a good thing, usually.

I also don’t know what “anything goes” means, or further, why it would be a bad thing. Finally, I actually hear less complaints about grants and funding from more experimental, “anything goes” artists. They are usually younger and are often suspicious of the grant/fellowship system.

To wrap it up, I’m suspicious of the idea of “identity”, at least as it is often used. It is used to fix positions, to pin someone down, sometimes to oversimplify in order to “understand” something. It is another instance of essentialism rearing its head. I do like the idea of identity as performative and malleable. However, identity isn’t entirely up to the subject. Social situations can pin an identity (even a false identity) on a subject. There are definitely limits to the performance of identity, sometimes terrible limits.

I think “identity” (I might always have to use it in quotes) can be part of assessing quality, if it is part of the work. I get twisted around thinking about these things sometimes, because it turns into one of those “it’s important if it’s important” arguments. If identity is an important part or subject of the work, then it’s important when considering the work. I’m really just saying there are no requirements to base a work on “identity”, or to not base a work on “identity” (or any other subject for that matter).

We also have to remember that the artist is not their work. The idea of “self-expression” is neither here nor there. Art isn’t “about” self-expression. You might express yourself (whatever the hell that means now) and make good art, but there is no correspondence between the two. The idea of art as self-expression is very naive and I really don’t know where it came from (probably that awful movie Fame from 1980). I don’t think art can or should be reduced to a biography, so there is a detachment here. The biography may be part of the context, but it might also not be a very important one. This is criticism’s task to sort out and experimentation and a variety of approaches is what I would champion.


1.) Jimmie Durham, St. Frigo (1995).
2.) Jimmie Durham, Ghost in the Machine . (2005)
3.) Jimmie Durham, artist poster, 2007.

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