Getting to a Baseline on Identity Politics

The Marxist Debate

Authored by: Nizan Shaked

The Routledge Companion to African American Art History

Print publication date:  December  2019
Online publication date:  November  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138486553
eBook ISBN: 9781351045193
Adobe ISBN:


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In 2013 Adrian Piper pulled her work out of the exhibition “Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art,” during its presentation at the New York University’s Grey Art Gallery. This raises the question: why would an artist that has made work featuring her experiences as a black woman protest her inclusion in a show about black performance art? 1 As can be seen throughout her art and her writing, Piper’s disagreement with the description of herself by others as a black artist and the concomitant classification of her work through this rubric is not due to her identity, but to her anti-essentialist philosophical disposition, and the demand that her work be read on the terms that it offers. Based on the propositions posed by Piper’s work, I argue that her conceptual approach to identity offers a universalist model. Pointing to how ideas articulated in art relate to politics, this essay will mostly focus on the latter. The goal is to identify what makes a particular phenomenon a model, when specificities can be generalized, or from which concrete situations we can extrapolate abstractions. If we articulate the universal potential of identity politics, we can base solidarity on the intersection of class with other forms of identity-based, or ascriptive, politics. As the Combahee River Collective wrote in their “A Black Feminist Statement” (1977): “We might use our position at the bottom, however, to make a clear leap into revolutionary action. If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” 2

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