Self Othering in the Art World

This article was originally published in The New Union.

Gay, Black, Feminist, African; these are just some of the labels that are commonly used in the art world in an attempt to reduce complex individuals to a single identifier, whether religious, ethnic, territorial, national, or sexual. In general terms, these labels are not used in order to discriminate, but to attempt to give a voice to marginalized minorities in spaces where such voices are often under-represented or ignored. The result is that we become lost in a sea of terms, which often fail to adequately represent the artists to whom they are being applied. For example, I recently spoke to an artist in Glasgow who expressed concern over how her work was being labeled as feminist even though her creative process was not feminist in any way. Critics can sometimes be too quick to attribute the feminist label to a piece of work simply because the artist is female.

The problem inherent in labeling is revealed by virtue of the artist rejecting a certain label; but then how should we categorize art? The most pragmatic amongst us will claim that we need labels to adequately sort things like exhibitions into manageable groups, and for the most part I agree. However, what I don’t agree with is pigeonholing someone based only on one part of their identity. Names and labels constitute power, and whether we like it or not, these things shape our worldview.

So, for example, what does African art consist of? What common characteristics can you find between the art of a contemporary artist born in Egypt and religious artifacts from a Paleolithic Bantu tribesperson, separated as they are by millennia? And looking more closely at the labels themselves, what, for example, does the labeling someone as a ‘Mexican artist’ convey about that person and their work? The danger in these labels is that they lead us to think in stereotypical ways: when we read about ‘African art’ we expect tribal masks and body paint; with ‘Mexican art’ we might expect a pastiche of Mayan and Aztec themes. Both of these ways of thinking negate centuries of subsequent artistic development in both regions. Even more worrying is the concept of visualizing Africa as a country, rather than a continent composed of 54 independent and culturally diverse countries.

A good example of how this problem affects the education of our young people can be found in the British Museum, where the ‘Ancient Greece and Rome’ section is granular in its categorization:

  1. Greece: Cycladic Islands
  2. Greece: Minoans and Mycenaeans
  3. Greece 1050-520 BC
  4. Greek vases
  5. Athens and Lycia
  6. Greece: Bassai Sculptures
  7. Nereid Monument
  8. Greece: Parthenon
  9. Greece: Athens
  10. Greeks and Lycians 400-325 BC
  11. Mausoleum of Halikarnassos
  12. The world of Alexander
  13. Greek and Roman sculpture
  14. Greek and Roman life
  15. Roman Empire
  16. Etruscan world
  17. Ancient Cyprus
  18. Greeks in Italy

Here we have 18 subdivisions spread across two floors, whilst the Americas, a territory much larger than the Greek and Roman empires combined, also have two, and Africa has only one (also interesting is how Egypt apparently extricated itself from Africa and became its own entity, at least by the canon of Western Aesthetics). In Africa’s one section, every period of African history and culture is crammed together with no recognition for the vast historical and cultural differences between nations, tribes, and other groups. What is perhaps most disturbing is the placement of two contemporary sculptures by Mozambican artist Kester in the African gallery, when compared to the European section, in which there is not a single Damien Hirst or Ulrich Rückriem. What makes it acceptable to include contemporary art from one of the many African countries in an ethnographic collection when we never see the same in European collections?

Clearly the concept of ‘Othering’ allows us to be reductive and selective, dismissing what we might consider to be ridiculous in our white Western world. We understand that Europe consists of individual countries, each with its own identity and sub-identities. Placing a Dali, an ancient Norwegian stone axe and a Gutenberg bible in the same exhibition without any distinguishing curatorial narrative other than labeling them as ‘European’ seems outrageous, and yet this is precisely what happens when non-Western art is involved.

The pernicious effect that ‘Othering’ has had and continues to have on human civilization has been amply researched, from Nazism and the Holocaust, to the modern fear of Islam, the discrimination of the LGBT community, and so on. However, we must ask ourselves, is there a benefit to being considered ‘Other’?

 In my opinion, being labeled is sometimes useful and even beneficial, particularly when the label is self assigned and used in a conscious, sincere and consistent manner. However, using a label for personal gain, whether or not the label fits, such as to exploit a trend in the art market to sell paintings, is an ignoble enterprise. For example, calling oneself a ‘Latino artist’ in order to exploit a particular political situation and sell a few paintings is a despicable thing. Swaying with the wind is not a dignified option. Artists who truly embrace their self-assigned labels consistently produce and promote not only art but also meaningful and emotional causes. Successful examples abound, including the Guerrilla Girls, a female group who describe themselves as

feminist masked avengers in the tradition of anonymous do-gooders like Robin Hood, Wonder Woman and Batman. Over 55 women have been members over the years, some for months, some for decades. They use facts, humor and outrageous visuals to expose discrimination and corruption in politics, art, film, and pop culture. They undermine the idea of a mainstream narrative by revealing the understory, the subtext, the overlooked, and the downright unfair.

 Within their workings we see a constant struggle for equality. None of their art exists for the sake of it; every single piece represents their struggle against a patriarchal system that ignores and dismisses women and other oppressed peoples, and a market run by and for the benefit of rich, heterosexual, white males. The function of their work is not to create nice compositions that match the decor of a rich socialite’s million-dollar mansion, but to expose a system that marginalizes certain artists and denies millions of people access to art because of their social status.

Examples exist for almost any cause imaginable. Voina and Pussy Riot are two Russian groups fighting against a corrupt political system that remains deeply entrenched in the ideals of the Soviet Union. Ai Wei Wei stands against human rights violations and a privileged social hierarchy in China, and has paid dearly for it. These artists are not (necessarily) united by their nationality, ethnicity, or religion. Instead what they have in common (besides being persecuted by their governments) is their unwavering devotion to the values of the ‘political artist’. Their artistic methods are different (Voina is a street-art group, Pussy Riot is a feminist punk rock band, and Ai Wei Wei creates more tangible art installations) but they all share a vision of inclusion and equality.

In the grand scheme of things, ‘political artist’ seems an easy label to use because the inevitable political connotations of being called a liberal or conservative are not particularly insulting when compared to the reaction that gay or black artists might have to deal with.

Identifying oneself as a gay artist, for example, comes with a considerable risk, because it immediately (and often negatively) inform people’s expectations of what your art will look like, often with comical results. Not all ‘queer art’ depicts genitalia and rainbow colors, as gay artists choose instead to use subtle imagery to convey their sense of self. There are artists who reside at both ends of the spectrum. David Hockney, for example, openly explored the nature of gay love in his work, whereas Andy Warhol did not. Other gay artists, including Oscar Wilde, are censored by a society that does not understand and fears homosexuality. The Picture of Dorian Gray was attacked by The Daily Chronicle for being immoral:

a tale spawned from the leprous literature of the French Decadents – a poisonous book, the atmosphere of which is heavy with the mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction

This is a classic example of how conservative forces react to a perceived deviant behavior: by questioning the moral and spiritual values of an artist, a piece of art and its creator are dismissed as a negative influence on society. Nevertheless, these people are often positive role models to other members of their communities, and they challenge stereotypes by proving to others that barriers can be broken through hard work and determination. Artists such as Warhol, Hockney and Elton John serve as ambassadors to the gay community and the wider public. Of course it is not only the LGBT community that benefits, as artists also provide positive role models for members of other minority groups.

Mexican artists such as Carlos Donjuan use paintings as a way to bring attention to the plight of immigrants crossing the Mexican-American border. Although the immigrant narrative (risking their lives in the name of social mobility) can be told by anyone, it gains more credibility when it is voiced by a member of the original community, especially one who has experience of the story they are retelling. The reciprocal relationship between cause-artist and artist-public is integral to the creation of an honest dialogue. Engagement must be sincere, but most importantly it has to be perceived as such. Duplicity, real or perceived, can hurt the artist’s reputation. So when an artist embraces a label, and chooses to face preconceived stereotypes, judgments and abuses, they make a commitment to the public to use this label, not as a means of enriching themselves, but to empower the people they represent.

Ai Wei Wei has been well received in the West not purely because of his skill as an artist but because of his oppression at the hands of the Chinese government. It is arguable that if he had not endured beatings, imprisonment and the destruction of his studio, his cries would have become lost amongst the myriad complaints of other Chinese expats and political prisoners. Instead, his work, combined with his personal experience, elevated him to a position where he could be heard not only by politicians, but also by the public at large.

Ai Wei Wei (although I am sure he would not wish it to be so) has entered the Cult of Celebrity. Just as people will toss money blindly at Africa because Bono commands them to or will refuse to vaccinate their children because a former Playmate says it causes autism, so Ai Wei Wei has become a figurehead of ignorant and often hypocritical Western posturing towards China and the East.

However, it is possible for celebrity culture to wield this power for good. As the examples of Hockney, Warhol, and Elton John have already shown, a modern wave of queer pop culture has helped to normalize the appearance of LGBT personalities in mainstream culture. Television shows like Queer Eye for the Straight GuyWill and Grace, and Modern Family might seem exploitative, feeding as they often do on queer stereotypes, but they have in some ways advanced the cause of the gay community. Although playing the camp fool might be denigrating and insulting, it is surely better than killing gay characters just for being gay, such as in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desireand Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, both of which see gay characters commit suicide. Progress might be slow but it is happening. It took us a long time to understand that owning another human being is wrong, but eventually things changed. New changes are accelerating but they still require powerful voices to make it happen. We need people to fight back against the greedy 1%, to bring attention to the misdeeds of dictators and oppressive regimes, and to give us a direct, personal connection to groups and communities that would otherwise remain alien and misunderstood.

And herein lies the value of ‘Self-Othering’: to personalize a struggle, to bring us closer to the ‘Other’. By becoming a highly visible ‘Other’, the dehumanizing effect of ‘Othering’ can be gradually reduced, revealing the people and personalities beneath the masks that have for so long cast minority groups as faceless entities. For this has been the main purpose of ‘Othering’: to remove identities and characteristics that might otherwise bring us closer. This reduction is useful when there is a need to disempower or eradicate a particular group. It is a technique used to portray the ‘enemy’ as less than human, in which case it becomes easier to deprive others of basic human rights. Assigning a voice, a face, and even a label to minority groups and issues undermines the destructive efforts of the opposition.

As we have seen, choosing to use a label can be dangerous both to the artist and to those who oppose him. It is a double-edged sword, but one that, when used properly, can be beneficial. The price is often high and success is not guaranteed, but when it works, it is an effective tool for an oppressed community to reclaim their identity and establish themselves in an increasingly complex world. If ‘Self-Othering’ can help to bring people closer together, to foster understanding and co-operation, and to end injustice and inequality, then for the time being I say: ‘I am Rene Cepeda, a heterosexual, mixed race Mexican living in the United Kingdom.’

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