Featured in
Issue 202

The Corrosiveness of Identity Politics in Art

Is censoring art the solution to divisive politics? Art historian Susanne von Falkenhausen doesn’t think so

BY Susanne von Falkenhausen in Opinion | 15 MAR 19

In January, I read that Finnish artist Jani Leinonen’s sculpture of a crucified Ronald McDonald, McJesus (2015), inspired violent protests by Christians in Israel, where it was shown at the Haifa Museum of Art. Sanctions were called for, then blocked by Israel’s attorney general, who determined that the work was protected under freedom of speech.

The pattern is known; imagined communities act on it. Censorship and the events it begets have a long history based on religious taboos and lèse-majesté. It astounds me how, in secular democracies, art is singled out for its supposed importance within public negotiations on discursive (and political) power. This assumes the ‘power of the image’ as a legitimizing truism for iconoclasts and iconophiles alike. However, I don’t think much of the power of images. Images are bestowed with power by individuals, institutions of sacred or worldly power or imagined communities. And although I am sceptical of the inherent power of images, I do take very seriously the conventions, imaginations, phantasms, rhetorics and politics that drive image production and circulation.

Calls for censorship arise out of presumed offences against norms, sacrality, taboos, individual or communal dignity and institutions of power. Strictly speaking, sacrilege and taboo belong to societies where a religious or political caste has the monopoly of defining them and the corresponding sanctions. Russia and Saudi Arabia are just two current examples of societies where such a caste uses its control over what’s declared blasphemous to bring the unruly to court. ‘The taboo prohibitions lack all justification and are of unknown origin. Though incomprehensible to us, they are taken as a matter of course by those who are under their dominance.’ That’s Sigmund Freud’s enlightened view of it in Totem and Taboo (1913). So, why has public debate around images that hurt feelings in democratic countries – where rules, norms and sanctions are a matter of public debate and an independent jurisdiction – reached a pitch which resembles the urgency of sacrilege and taboo-breaking of old?

I admit I have a hard time empathizing with such hurt feelings. This may well be because I am a woman and, as such, have had many reasons to feel hurt. But I am also agnostic, non-essentialist and – as a white, European intellectual – privileged. I experienced something similar during feminist debates on pornography in the 1970s, when I was caught in a dilemma: I could empathize with feeling personally objectified by pornographic images, but would I agree to censor or even attack or destroy them? Back then, the debate took place between partisans of essential versus socially constructed womanhood; it centred around the difference between bodies real and represented. Today, the difference between image and reality seems to have vanished completely from the debates. Now, the dominating factors determining claims of censorship and iconoclasm are affect and identity; images create victims. Feminists of old would have called this ‘victimism’ and sought to go beyond it.

Identity – once the object of political and social debates in terms of difference, hybridity and the demand for mutual respect – has become static. Diversity takes the place of difference. Identity becomes a property to be defended, legitimizing its owners to strike and to silence trespassers. Affect in this setting becomes the watchdog – not only sounding the alarm but attacking everyone who allegedly climbs over the fence of these sacred grounds of identity.

Identity politics as a strategy for emancipation and self-empowerment was flawed from the beginning because identity is an exclusionary concept. In the 1970s and ’80s, theorists like Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Stuart Hall attempted to make it hybrid, fluid and adequate for the times of global migration and the multiplication of diasporas. But today, identity politics and the tactics of outrage have been successfully usurped by, among others, white nationalist and far-right, so-called identitarian, movements in Europe and the US, which exploit identity’s basically exclusionary structure.  

In the US – a culture which is as practical-minded as it is paranoid – the National Coalition Against Censorship, founded in 1974, developed a whole catalogue of ‘smart tactics’ for curators to resist censorship. Subtitled ‘Curating Difficult Content’, it was published in 2018. It is not so much the courts they worry about these days but the members of local communities. They work with them ‘to resolve censorship controversies without the need for litigation’. In their report, they observe the ‘emergence of a new global culture of silencing others’. A global #usermilitia – to borrow the coinage of Jimmie Tiptree Jr (a.k.a. artist Jesse Darling) – has become indistinguishable from local plaintiffs. Censorship battles have become glocal in real time. Laws and courts have lost their status as arbiters and mediators. An imagined vox populi has taken over.

McJesus was ultimately withdrawn on the order of the city mayor. It seems that the local administration’s move to censor it came after ‘consultations with church leaders’, though without mediation between the parties involved: ‘We regret the distress experienced by the Christian community in Haifa, and the physical injury and violence that followed.’ Is, then, feeling victimized by an image enough to claim the moral right to physically attack the art institution, to destroy or remove the source of this cause for offense from the public eye? Does this not mean giving up that moment of reflection which makes it possible to go beyond affective reaction? But precisely this affective moment is now acted on – ‘smart’ tactics indeed. 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 202 with the headline ‘Smart Tactics’

Main image: Jani Leinonen, McJesus, 2015. Courtesy: the artist and Zetterberg Gallery, Helsinki; photograph: Vilhelm Sjöström  

Susanne von Falkenhausen is an art historian and professor emerita of modern and contemporary art history, Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany. Publications include Kugelbau­visionen (2008) and Praktiken des Sehens im Felde der Macht (2011).