Level One Identity Art
When I was younger — when I had experienced less life, less world and less art — I believed that artworks and stories that illustrated the aims of identity politics were the most important achievements in culture. I mean, fair enough. Imagine policy that took real people and all our complexities into consideration so that the government we lived under didn’t only function for one kind of person (who happened to be a healthy, non-disabled, rich, white, straight, cis man. Somebody completely untraumatised and lucky enough to not be in need of welfare at all). And then imagine exhibitions full of art that spoke to these nuances in life as we experience them in all our different bodies and circumstances; imagine how rich our understanding of one another might be then, how patient and caring we might all become.
While I can see the limits of this project more clearly now — and while I instead wish for no governance at all — I still believe in the place of identity politics in art to an extent. I still believe it has a job to inspire empathy in a world where it feels like there is none. It’s a shame then that the good, effective stuff is buried below a mountain of artwork that only points at the image of a person from afar. A lot of this art points at identity like a kid telling you a fun fact, except it isn’t fun, it’s normal information. When this metaphorical kid tells me the fact and I don’t react, it falls flat, it’s awkward and it adds nothing to the world beyond the kid’s own satisfaction. And I use this analogy because yeah, this kind of art does feel young. It is basic, fine to begin with, but it is so satisfied with its own premise that it doesn’t ever take the subject of identity any further; I don’t know if the artist realises there is anywhere else to go; and I don’t know if criticism does a good enough job of pointing back at this kind of identity art and suggesting how it might move forward. How it might move on, grow up.
For a while, I’ve been referring to this stuff privately as level one identity art because I got so tired of the genre that I started writing criticism about video games instead (unfortunately, I discovered level one identity art exists over there as well, so I’m back). And I’m thinking about it now because I went to see a play at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool called Our Town Needs A Nandos written by Samantha O’Rourke and directed by Ameera Conrad. It was fine but as I watched, I couldn’t help but think of all the other directions it could have gone in. So maybe it wasn’t fine. I wanted more. I am going to use this play as an example to talk about the drawbacks of creating art that stays at this comfortable level, and I want to wonder out loud why level one identity art continues to be produced, housed and promoted by huge institutions across museums, galleries, theatres and the like.
Our Town Needs A Nandos revolves around five schoolgirls. We spend the opening watching them try to put together a skit about the town they live in for drama class. They flip between ripping the area for having nothing for them to do, to discussing the possibility it actually has exactly what they need, and back again, depending on the character that’s speaking. It’s a mundane beginning that seems to state that there’s nothing for these girls to do and nowhere for them to go, so all they have is each other; in this mundanity, there is no significant action we should expect beyond the world as it revolves around these characters. The play then quickly cycles through highly condensed scenes that introduce the characters in conversations and monologues. It almost offers some drama towards the end — one of the girls is pregnant — but I guess the existence of teenage pregnancy in England is nothing we haven’t heard before, so the wave barely crests and then it’s over.
I got home from the play and tried to tell my boyfriend what it was all about, but because nothing much happened, I supposed it was just about the five girls. The quick pregnancy crisis point had felt like a drama school exercise, as if the teacher off stage had thrown in the subject for the actors to improvise with — it wasn’t properly introduced by the writing, and it wasn’t resolved either. Whenever the characters spoke, the writing just seemed to state their identity and their situation; it never sunk deeper. Beth is a scouse white girl who is naughty in class but she’s a genius; she’s also a lesbian who likes one of the others in the group. The white girl she likes, Rachel, has an eating disorder. Rachel is Welsh and bisexual. The third white girl, Ellie, comes from Liverpool. She has an unexplained troubled home life; she was also sexually assaulted on a night out. Zahidah, the asian girl, was also sexually assaulted back when she was living in a camp for refugees. She is quiet and well behaved. And finally, Chloe, is a black girl who lies to the others while she tries to hide the fact she is living in care. She is new to the group, and she’s the one that gets pregnant.
It feels like the characters have been created with a paper fortune teller — the kind you might have made in school, distracted in class — flipping through the folds to decide the characters’ makeup. I feel forensic listing the characters with these details. The white girl, the asian girl, the black girl. The lesbian, the bisexual. The sexual assault victim, the other sexual assault victim too. I don’t talk about my friends like that. But level one identity art does — it handles people in terms of their signifiers, it presents people quickly and briefly in terms of what they are without talking much about who they are. Sure, the girls have a few arguments with each other, and struggle through some of the tasks in class; two of them get together and break up; the gobby one and the quiet one become friends; well behaved Zahidah steals a brownie; and Chloe lies and lies. A few things do happen, but the entire story is spread thinly across characterisation, character development, action, and even the set, costume and sound design. With 5 characters and such busy, fast scenes, the play doesn’t give itself the opportunity to build anyone or any drama up. This rush was particularly frustrating because Jada-Li Warrican’s performance of Chloe and Chloe Hughes’ performance of Ellie were practically bursting at the seams, both women trying to achieve more than the writing would allow them, writing that was holding back what might be huge talent.
The play has a light touch but in that lightness, it feels like it disregards any genuine humanity the writer and producer could have captured. That leaves the five characters up on the stage flimsy like paper dolls instead of the real people we could have bear witness to.
The problem with level one identity art is that it’s as though the art and the artist are only capable of, or interested in, saying look, this person exists even if you or your government are upset about it; they exist, they exist, they exist! But remember, I’m sat in a classy theatre on a Friday night amongst a crowd of cultured people who do not need convincing. So, what is happening when we politically and artistically reduce people down to their identity and nothing more?
A thin, definition-basic presentation of identity as the only level to an artwork, or a person, tokenises the subject, exoticises the subject, alienates the audience, and it reduces the very promise of identity politics down into simple imagery and rhetoric. I think it paves the way for competitive victimhood, which the right delights in. I think in its brevity, it is also unsympathetic which goes against the values of the whole philosophy. The byline for Our Town Needs A Nandos claims that ‘teenage girls deserve epic stories (and spicy rice)’ which is cute, but it’s not realistic to call anything in this story epic, and it’s not fair to try to persuade the audience that this is what epic means. I have read YA more epic than this, and I have seen tight episodes of Eastenders with better drama. I don’t even mean to go in on whoever did the marketing; it’s just coming from a place of disappointment that this could have been more meaningful than it was.
If we go back to my original level one identity art categorisation: a higher level than one could have seen the play focus in one character, having been written in a way that got to the heart of one person’s life. Everything else could have still existed but been redirected to unpick one girl’s mindset with more rigour, using supporting character’s, more specific conflict, and a better interaction with the whole no-Nandos town setting in order to achieve that. If it had to be about identity, could Zahidah’s inclusion here as a refugee, somebody with English as a second language, a sexual assault survivor, and a girl who cares about learning and following the rules have been refracted through the other characters in order to really see what those characteristics and histories mean in terms of who she is, and in terms of how they see her, or how they assume her to be? A closer look, something that lingers, something that let’s the audience step through the image and into the other side.
A higher level than one could also have released the burden of identity completely. Instead of making it a thing — the only thing — it could have shown (instead of told) us a story about somebody going through something universally teen, who happened to have an underrepresented identity. Identity might have not suffocated the whole point then, but because it was still very much there in the nuances and the acting and the setting, identity could have felt incidental, genuine even.
But can identity even be ignored? Should it be ignored? Thinking about the wider picture, the ideal long-term, what should we be aiming for here in life and in art? The white man I described at the beginning of this essay gets to feature in all sorts of stories; he gets to be written about with a depth of personality that goes beyond the ways he can be described on a doctor’s form. Is level three identity art — or four or five — artwork that achieves identity neutrality? A way of making art about people in which we no longer need to announce ourselves, or pretend we’re not different, but that speaks through a utopia where our identities are not arranged in a hierarchy — where they just… exist. The idea of artwork that does this feels cheeky to me, in a good way. It’s art that will sit at the table even if it’s not been invited; art that smirks to itself while it demolishes the main course because everyone is too polite to ask it to get up and leave. Representative politics is so choked by toxic positivity, I sometimes just want art that relaxes into identity neutrality, because even if it isn’t real, it’s nice to imagine that one day it could be.
Finally, the presence of level one identity art outside of degree shows and small indie events spooks me, because it allows the institutions built around art to capitalise on representational politics. This kind of art is clean, safe. It’s no threat in its content or delivery. It allows the institution to capitalise on representational politics with ease — to tick a few boxes on a funding evaluation, to write copy that hides the fact most of the staff in these places are white, middle class people with more privilege than the artist and the people depicted in their content. It’s an easy win for them. But the very fact that this kind of art is no threat to anybody is what disappoints me, I think. I want it to push boundaries. I need it to. There is still much work left to be done and level one identity art only ever pulls punches.
p.s. (and it’s a p.s. I will continue to update as and when I see this stuff in the wild)
Level one identity art also includes:
- most white girl art
- art about someone with an identity who is a big fan of something people might not expect them to enjoy but here they are loving the thing that they love, lol
- art that relays something bad that happened to someone who has an identity but looks awkward in the gallery and would probably be more effective as awareness-raising charity content
- art that depicts someone with an identity somewhere they wouldn’t usually feel welcome but look at them now, there. isn’t that something