I don’t like the phrase, and perhaps that’s incidental to the several pleasures of a small but rewarding new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. “Staging the Self” focuses on six Latino artists who are all representing a sense of themselves, through painting or photography, often heavily dependent on a cast of characters from their past, their family or their community. Art Speak is full of well-worn cliches, and the sense that theater, or staging, or theatricality somehow makes things more complicated, more multivalent, more substantial is one of them. It’s fairly simple, isn’t it? To the extent that we have an identity, it is sum of many parts, drawn from our past, our friends (through imitation) and enemies (through repulsion), and of course heavily dependent on our many shifting loyalties to ethnic, religious, sexual and gender subgroups. That’s all.
But don’t think that sorting through all of this, or even “staging” it through art, is going to get you any closer to knowing who you are. At the end of my review I quote James Agee, who understands the frustration well:
…and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.
There was an idea I wasn’t able to make fit into today’s piece on the art and life of David Wojnarowicz. When the controversy began last week, spurred by the Catholic League, there was considerable comment on the seemingly odd juxtaposition of the The Hide/Seek show of gay and lesbian portraiture (at the National Portrait Gallery) from which the Wojnarowicz video “A Fire in my Belly” was removed and the Norman Rockwell show (at the adjacent Smithsonian Museum of American Art) which has been so popular over the past few months. What two artists could be more in opposition, Rockwell who glorified the simplicity and goodness of American life, and Wojnarowicz who attacked the pieties of traditional culture?
But this does injustice both to Rockwell, who occasionally took stands contrary to popular sentiment, and Wojnarowicz, who deploys some of the same symbols Rockwell uses (the house and home) and is more ambiguous about his relationship to American culture than his detractors will acknowledge.
Looking at Wojnarowicz, and reading his texts, it’s obvious that so-called victim art is premised on a fairly essential assumption of goodness in the audience. It operates by rules similar to non-violent protest: It presumes that people are capable of reforming their prejudices and hatreds. If the audience is not in some way flexible and open, then why make appeal to it? Too many people love Rockwell because he represents a gold standard of American values from which we have supposedly fallen away; but not enough people recognize the essential Americanness in the works of artists such as Wojnarowicz, who is issuing a challenge to some of the same ideals celebrated so facilely by Rockwell.