7 Mar

ArtBTheatreTitleMore dramatic readings of the worst artist statements, gallery press releases and art criticism every week, except when I don’t do them every week.

Last time, we discovered that having a baby makes a woman magic and gives her special insight into the very fabric of reality. Sorry, I should have written “giving life”, not “having a baby”. This week, a call for presentations and conference papers, but only if they reinforce the organisers’ prejudices that certain very narrowly defined types of gay men and lesbians are also totally magic!

International Art English tropes in this episode of Artbollocks Theatre, rated on a scale of one to five stars

Tongue twisters *, pseudoscientific claptrap *, bad grammar, typos or misused words *, telling us what we see or think *****, spurious appeals to art history (0), art world jargon ***, pretending artists are more [superlative adjective] than people who are actually [adjective] ****, justifying nothingness or lack of work (0), [gender or sexual identity/motherhood/minority status/nationality of the artist] is magic *****, everyday object, technology or phenomenon presented as if the artist is a virtuoso for being able to use it (0), “between [random noun] and [random noun]” (0), artist is unique **, body horror ****.

Performing Identity: The Relationship between Identity and Performance in Literature, Theatre and the Performing Arts 

(As part of the Second Global Forum of Critical Studies organized by Euroacademia in Prague, Czech Republic)

Identity is often seen as being a controversial topic. Whether it is fictive or real, (de)politicized and/or aesthetic, gendered or engendered, identity is often seen as being a powerful political tool and an essentially social construct. It also allows individuals to define themselves. In a sense, we perform our own identities everyday – or, perhaps, we perform a wide range of different identities at any one time. We implicitly live in a society which constructs various definitive identifications, and which often sees the rigid maintenance of hierarchical systems and exclusive ideological constructions of gender, identity and sexuality, or what Judith Butler defines in her work Bodies that Matter as an ‘exclusionary matrix.’ This has often resulted in the displacement of any discursive systems which resist these exclusionary systems. 

This panel seeks to give voice to discursive systems which have so often been displaced by exclusionary systems of identification. The main exclusionary focus in culture and the arts has often been on the white, heterosexual and supremacist male (or female). To rectify this oversight, this panel seeks to address any works of art and culture which are directly and explicitly related to the performance of identity from a different standpoint – that is, one which is not exclusively heteronormative and heterosexual.

Let’s just recap: today we’re apparently not interested in hearing from white people, heterosexual people, men who identity as men, women who identify as women, or any combination of the aforementioned. Even if you somehow escaped this carpet bombing of almost every type of opinion as far as the eye can see and you also like to be told your point of view doesn’t matter, there’s no need to feel left out. Soon they’ll get around to excluding plenty of LGBT people too! From an event that’s more or less about LGBT people, no less. Bravo.

When you’re “giving voice”, it’s not a winner takes all proposition. The great thing about genuine free speech and expression is that there’s no need to deprive other people of theirs in order to have yours. Incidentally, excluded people and minority voices don’t need or want academics to patronisingly grant them an audience. They’re quite capable of speaking for themselves.

We welcome any papers which focus on the following topics:

1. Identity as a performative and political tool and/or as a site of political resistance and change.

2. The work of gay/lesbian or drag performance artists who do not form part of the white, male/female and heterosexual/heteronormative matrix.

Wait… You’re excluding heterosexual and heteronormative drag performance artists now too? Weirdly overspecific to the point of insanity… but conceivably topic 2 makes some kind of sense, although it’s a bit of a stretch. I’ve occasionally been in the same pubs as rugby teams. Those fellows are mostly straight but they do love wearing dresses and checking out each other’s bodies. There’s also Eddie Izzard and Grayson Perry to consider. In other words, not all people who deliberately mix up gender norms do so because of their (homo-, trans- or bi-) sexual orientation or because they want to change their biological gender. But heterosexual and heteronormative gay or lesbian people? Um, no. That isn’t a thing. This sentence is what educated people– e.g. the kind one might expect to work in academia– would call an oxymoron. They seem to be saying that heterosexual people who are homosexual people (or vice versa) are not of interest. I would say au contraire, this is very interesting in the same way that other logical impossibilities would be if they were somehow able to exist; a miniature giant, for example, or a violent pacifist.

The people behind this conference just actively excluded Grayson Perry from consideration because he’s heterosexual, male and white. Little girl’s dress-wearing, blond wigged, alternate (female) persona having, prize winning, critically acclaimed contemporary artist Grayson Perry would not be interesting to them in the context of discussing sexual identities in the arts. Wow.

Thinking about it, surely homosexual + heterosexual = bisexual? Not that they’re mixed up from ingredients like a cocktail.

Unless of course topic 2 is really intended as a thinly disguised snipe at any gay man or lesbian who’s just getting on with their life in the contemporary manner instead of being “performative” and making a big fuss about the completely normal and unremarkable fact that they are gay. Lesbian living happily and angst free with your civil partner or spouse? GTFO. Or do they mean that if you are sexually orientated towards your own gender, or you identify as something other than your biological gender, that’s still not enough; you’re only interesting or worthy of consideration if everyone can immediately tell that’s the case, i.e. you’re “performative” and not “heteronormative”? I’m confused. But not as confused as the person who wrote this crap in the first place.

Secondly, even tabloid newspapers nowadays usually remember that bisexual and transgender people are worthy of consideration in any discussion of minority sexual identities. That’s what the B and T in LGBT stand for, in case you were wondering. At no point in the whole text are they directly mentioned, except perhaps they’re obliquely intended to be included via the old fashioned, potentially slightly pejorative (and in many cases not even accurate or cogent) term “drag”. If you’re going to set out your stall in this neighbourhood then I suggest you get your shit correct and most especially don’t be exclusionary yourself. Or avoid creating a hierarchical system and exclusive ideological construction of gender, identity and sexuality that puts people on an exclusionary matrix, if you prefer to put it that way. Don’t you think LGBT people have enough to deal with, without anybody setting themselves up to be the judge of who can be it properly and how, when or why they do it? It doesn’t matter whether you consider yourself part of the constituency you’re discussing, you still don’t get to tell other people or even so much as imply that they’re performing their sexual identity wrong. Doing so makes you as bad as the people you’re criticising and deriding as exclusionary or supremacist. Perhaps the people running this conference might like to read GLAAD’s very clear guidance on plain English, non-judgemental, non-defamatory usage and style when writing about this subject, especially if they’re affecting to be critically engaged in the subject?

I’ll make it absolutely clear that I am not in any way denying that white and heterosexual people, especially men– collectively and individually– need to examine and discuss the ways in which they perpetuate and benefit from privilege or the power of majority status. But it’s not helpful or productive for them to do so entirely among themselves and without engagement from or towards the people on the other side of the equation, i.e. those who experience genuine hardship or distress from lack of privilege, or because of widespread social injustice and discrimination. Nor is it progressive or constructive to take the approach that this symposium appears to; excluding the people you see as problematic so you can talk about them without interruption or contradiction. As is the case for many of us out here in the real world, I am both a beneficiary of these privileged structures and impacted negatively because of things about me that are not of my choice. It’s not necessary to be a raging, racist, misogynist arsehole for a white man to benefit from the unfair structure of our society because– as many people have pointed out– he can often benefit without actively doing anything at all, merely by virtue of what he is. Conversely, women or sexual and ethnic minorities know very well that they can be subjected to abuse, injustice and occasionally to physical violence merely by virtue of what they are, or what other people imagine them to be.

That said, it doesn’t help anybody to wag fingers or use disdainful language towards people who didn’t choose to be white or heterosexual, just like other people didn’t choose to be black or homosexual. Nor does the closely related (and mostly well-intentioned, “positive”) practice of pretending that minorities are magic because they’ve suffered so much or because you’d like them to be so as to assuage your guilt. See also Spike Lee’s demolition of the “super-duper Magical Negro“, which is definitely one of those things that you’ll see everywhere once you’re familiar with the concept. Making a victim (or a martyr) of yourself and emphasising your differences may have served a purpose in previous stages of the struggle for equality, but it instills a divisive siege mentality. Everybody needs to be involved and engaged for equality to work.

3. Identity as a fluid and shifting construct in the theatre, the performing arts and literature generally.

4. Cultural and literary works or works of art which resist fixed identifications and engender performative meanings/ways of ‘reading’.

5. The abject as a site of identification.

A grown adult who really identifies with abjectivity or thinks their body is abject needs to attend a doctor or a psychotherapist ASAP, not an academic symposium. I’m well aware that there are artists who apparently do so quite strongly, and this is very much reflected in the work they do. Obviously they can do what they like but I feel very, very sorry for them because they’re tragic. It’s a relatively severe personality disorder, not a well thought-out intellectual position or the basis for good art. Here’s a reminder of what the word really means:

abject, adjective 1 (of something bad) experienced or present to the maximum degree. (of a situation or condition) extremely unpleasant and degrading. 2 (of a person or their behaviour) completely without pride or dignity; self-abasing.

Ooh, sex is rude and dirty. Mummy said I shouldn’t show anyone my mucky bits, and I sort of hate mummy because she told me what to do and I didn’t want to do it, so now I’m going to act out and show you my nasty wee wee, my horrible bum bum and my dirty pillows, even though I’m 35 and mummy isn’t even around to be shocked. Sex education classes made me giggle. I must be the only person who ever felt like this ever, you grown ups just don’t understand, you’re so old, I hate you. Is my body normal? Why don’t I look like an underwear billboard? Does this outfit make me look fat?

Grow up. Your body is probably normal, the sex you’re having is probably mostly normal if it isn’t making you unhappy and it’s not doing yourself or anyone else serious harm. Stop being such a “performative and political tool” about it.

6. Gender and identity formation

Is this like the Red Arrows? Flying lesbians, like in Goldfinger?


7. Sexuality as a performative and identificatory construct or mode of identification.

Oh, obsessed with sex much? There are numerous other aspects of identity and personality that relate to all the incredibly interesting things that go on above the waist, but one wouldn’t think so from the type of papers they were asking for. I’m sure when these numpties all got together they fixed white heterosexuality right up, and they didn’t all just sit around jabbering in deadly seriousness about the finer points of factional academic trivia, confirming each other’s biases and pet theories while having a nice jolly to Prague on their university’s expense account. The most vicious disputes between professors and whatnot are invariably occasioned because certain individuals subscribe to ever so slightly different varieties of Marxist or feminist (or gender, or postmodernist, or whatever, ad nauseum) theory to one another. I’ve seen it first hand, and it’s bizarre. It’s like the academic equivalent of deliberate friendly fire, professorial fragging. They’d rather pick apart somebody’s slightly differing variation of their own category of opinion rather than solve problems and engage with genuine intellectual adversaries, because that involves too much effort and the possibility of having to compromise or change their minds.

Most of them are probably rich white heterosexuals who’ve never done anything outside of academia anyway. They’re just about the only people with the luxury of having time to fret about identity and sexuality so fruitlessly and at such tedious length, then harangue the rest of us about it.


  1. erickuns 11/03/2014 at 5:48 AM #

    This is the same sort of stuff they were peddling when I was in grad school over 20 years ago. I guess the cutting edge hasn’t moved in decades.

    • Alistair 11/03/2014 at 10:27 AM #

      Yes, exactly. The cutting edge of gender studies (or whatever they call themselves) is very dull and rusty. This kind of theoretical wittering is dealing with the political and social conditions of a quarter century past or more, not the present. Nice and easy to get on your high horse, though, when your quasi-political posturing doesn’t pose any danger of actually changing anything…

  2. Alistair 19/03/2014 at 6:23 PM #

    Reblogged this on Alistair Gentry.

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