Think Slow

Why do debates on art get mired in arguments about identity politics? This year’s Holberg Debate offers some clues.

Cornel West, Simon Critchley, and Judith Butler. Screen shot from this year’s Holberg Debate.

This year’s Holberg debate, devoted to “Identity Politics and Culture Wars,” began with the American philosopher Judith Butler noting that it is not always as easy to grasp what those who use the term “identity politics” take it to mean. The ensuing conversation primarily sought to nuance the content and function of this controversial concept. Also featured in the broadcast from The New School in New York were journalist Glenn Greenwald and philosophers Cornel West and Simon Critchley, the latter in the role of moderator. One may well assume that part of the reason why the Holberg Committee chose to focus on the term identity politics has to do with its widespread use in the public sphere, where it often connotes a state of crisis where institutions and public discourse kowtow to a plethora of incompatible requirements from different interest groups.

Butler countered such views by reminding us that the historical causes, strategies, and demands of liberation struggles on the political left are heterogeneous, and thus cannot be conflated into one political mass under a singular label. The various liberation movements are of use she said, not primarily to untangle an ever-growing number of identities, but to rethink basic democratic principles such as equality, freedom, and justice. 

The last point is often overlooked, certainly in those cultural debates that get bogged down by accusations of identity politics. The exhibition Call Me by My Name shown at the old Munch Museum earlier this year is an excellent case. It asked the audience to think about how Black people were seen in Norway in the first part of the last century, not only by presenting works by Edvard Munch, but also a large body of documentary material: documents, photographs, and descriptions. Accusations that the museum was indulging in identity politics created a debate that got stuck on subjects such the use of the Norwegian word “neger” (or ‘Negro’) in everyday use, because the museum elected to revise the titles of the work (unproblematic, in my opinion), and perhaps most wrong-headed of all, whether Munch may have been a racist based on the paintings in the exhibition. As such, the paintings were reduced to imprints of Munch’s moral character and transformed into banal symbols through a biographical understanding of art.

Edvard Munch, Cleopatra and the Slave, 1916. Oil on canvas. Photo: Munch Museum.

Butler is known for her theory of gender performativity, which has had a major impact on how we talk about gender categories in everyday life. She is also known for her precise analyses of right-wing populism and neoliberalism. West, like Butler, is American and an influential public intellectual. He is known for his Christian Democratic approach to justice, rooted not only in the civil rights movement in the United States, but also the struggles of groups to which he himself does not belong, such as the Palestinians. West expressed the view that the optic of identity politics blinds us to the fact that not all identities have moral or ethical content. He argued that what different liberation and rights struggles demand is protection, attachment, and recognition, needs that are universally human. What kind of traditions do we need to cultivate spiritual, intellectual, and moral integrity? For West, the answer seems to be that the world has to be seen through a moral lens that emphasises solidarity with those who are persecuted and oppressed.

Many will probably know Glenn Greenwald as a journalist. Greenwald obtained classified intelligence documents from Edward Snowden, which in 2013 revealed the disturbing extent of the United States and Britain’s electronic surveillance of the British newspaper The Guardian. Participating via video from Brazil, Greenwald’s contributions to the conversation were on journalism and identity politics debates in social media. One could assume that he was invited to include examples of the concrete use and effects of identity politics in the public conversation – and because he is known for making counter arguments and holding unpopular opinions that attract condemnation on social media.

Greenwald explained that in his view, the concept of identity politics has become a political strategy that creates unfortunate exceptions to the idea of ​​universal rights. Greenwald gave several examples of how a focus on identity can divert from ideological issues. He pointed out, for instance, that Barack Obama’s presidency was celebrated as a victory for the civil rights movement, but in practice helped to cement the neoliberal establishment’s hegemony over American politics. Later in the conversation, he also offered that a focus on identity can lead to ignoring the issue of class when looking at who is represented in the public sphere. West followed up by saying that the quality of the public conversation matters. It is important to include different voices, but diversity should not be turned into a counting game. For example, should we talk about white supremacy as a form of identity politics and thus legitimise the monstrous actions it advocates? We have to address hatred and brutality directly and not cushion it with soft concepts, West claimed.

Glenn Greenwald. Screenshot from this year’s Holberg Debate.

The contrast between Greenwald’s concept of identity politics and that of Butler and West – who are closer to each other, but not entirely in agreement – offers some indication of why discussions on identity politics tend to become heated. Those involved are concerned about different issues and have divergent perceptions of the concept of identity and how it works in society. At the same time, the Holberg Debate was – as expected – a thoughtful affair in which all respondents had plenty of time to refine their reasoning. Disagreement does not have to preclude an interesting conversation. To me, it seems like most people agree that society benefits from having different perspectives find expression. Perhaps the lack of nuance is incentivised by a 24/7 news cycle that rewards the latest hot take, shock, and indignation in the pursuit of ratings, clicks, and time investment.

The Holberg Debate’s slow approach may be a useful lens on more local issues. Earlier this year, the Oslo National Academy of the Arts (KHiO) saw several debates linked to the concept of identity politics in different ways. It all began with an open letter in which several doctoral research fellows expressed a desire to remove the artwork vb.48 721 (2004) by Vanessa Beecroft from the school on the grounds that it is racist. Getting rid of Beecroft’s photograph, which depicts a group of thin and scantily clad women whose skin has been painted black inside a palatial setting, was not the only demand. A letter written by a group of students shortly afterwards called for more teaching on decolonisation and intersectional feminism. A small group of KHiO students countered this with a letter published in the newspaper Morgenbladet, claiming that “identity politics weakens academic integrity and restricts academic freedom.” In an interview in the online journal Khrono, they request – somewhat less polemically – “subjects that are directly related to art, such as art history, philosophy, or aesthetics.”

By peeling away the concept of identity politics and concentrating on each group’s specific demands, it is possible to argue that there is no implicit contradiction between more teaching on critical theory and more teaching on aesthetics, philosophy, and art history. Rather, it seems that the teaching offered at KHiO is insufficient with regard to the high degree of theoretical orientation required to succeed in establishing oneself as an artist today. This might provide interesting subjects for discussion: What sort of artists should the art academies train? How much of the education should be about navigating the discourses around art? What effects would different educational models have on issues of diversity and recruitment? If we accept the premise that the desire for more critical theory in the curriculum is the same as identity politics, these important questions are overlooked.

Towards the end of the Holberg Debate, Critchley raised a submitted question about the far right’s appropriation of texts from classical philosophy. Our current moment in history has arisen in the wake of European culture at its worst and at its best, argued West; Plato grows no less valuable for our understanding of the European project simply because he is read by right-wing extremists. Butler supplemented his point by explaining that courses in classical philosophy at universities do not always communicate that the foundations of Western civilisation exist in the canon, but that such courses can also problematise slavery, democracy that excludes women, the relationship between law and justice, and more. The classical tradition does not in itself belong to the right or the left, she further claimed; the crucial factor is how it is used. Perhaps it is also possible to think this way about artworks?

Vanessa Beecroft, vb.48 721, 2004. Photograph from a performance at the Palazzo Ducale in Genoa in 2001.