Identity as a Zero-Sum Game

I visited the Guggenheim Museum last weekend and viewed the Carrie Mae Weems retrospective. Weems is a photographer and videographer who deftly manipulates her instrument with what is deservedly called a powerful voice. If you live in the area, go see it now: it closes in mid-May.

My thoughts this week continue to coalesce around the idea that forming and achieving American identity is a zero-sum game, that those who hold an image of #BeingAmerican must struggle to maintain their identity real estate, and that becoming more inclusive means diluting what people have. I know this sounds counter-intuitive, which is the point. We have all been raised with the cultural myth of the melting pot: disparate populations coming together to form that savory, balanced stew that nourishes the most exceptional nation in history. I suspect that, in our moments of sobriety, all of us recognize that the myth and the reality are quite divergent.

Of all the moving imagery I saw, there are two in particular that I wish to consider here. They might not be the most memorable or popular images, but they carried the message of zero-sum identity politics.

The first image — a still-life of a living room end table — appears in an early portfolio, Family Pictures and Stories. The print itself is stunning, a dark image with a brilliant range of tone and balanced composition, lustrous wood contrasted by the stark light of the side lamp. On the table, next to the lamp, is a pair of “Chinaman” figurines. My initial reaction was very mixed. I am almost as old as Weems and therefore grew up in the same era, familiar with similar items in either my home or those of my extended family. But orientalism has always made me uncomfortable: it suppresses a true understanding of other cultures and allows one to avoid confronting prejudice by transferring that behavior to what is not real. So why were these types of icons so prevalent? Establishing a hierarchy of identities through stereotyping allows us to claim and hold that identity real estate we need to be American, to prove we are integrated into the whole. Instead of the melting pot being inclusive, we seek to join and remain American by excluding others.

I am not making this observation to excuse it, but merely to identify a weakness that we all share.

The second image — or images — were so powerful they brought me to tears. Weems overlaid a quadtych of four antebellum slave portraits with the words House, Kitchen, Yard, Field. Yes, we are to feel shame. Yes, Weems is making a point about dehumanization. But I also think there is a contrary force in motion here: the base labels take away a basic value for all of us, thus we must confront the consequences of an exclusive identification process throughout our history. To take something away imparts value to it. Denying people identity recognizes its importance. Even [especially] today, the exclusive politics of #BeingAmerican creates a hurtful, counterproductive, and unnecessary process of cultural assimilation.

If you want to know how important a cohesive American identity is to people, look at how white Protestants are responding to the demographic shifts in the United States (don’t forget one of my “favorites”, David Barton.) By seeking to deny American identity to people who are not white, male, and Protestant –okay, maybe I’ll give you Christian — we force the perpetuation of the zero-sum identity game. A game at which Carrie Mae Weems has proven a formidable opponent.

My Day At The Art Institute

Tuesdays are flexible for me: the dog goes to daycare, and I don’t have any client obligations, so sometimes I find plenty of time on my hands. Today I decided to head downtown to the Art Institute of Chicago and check out the Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibit."Louis Sullivan Exhibit" Cartier-Bresson was a singular force in modern photography, and his career spanned five decades before his retirement in 1975. Exhibits like this are why people live in big cities.

As usual, the Art Institute did a fabulous job, and I got a little lagniappe when I automatically went downstairs to the photo galleries and found a wonderful tribute to Louis Sullivan, the famous 19th-century Chicago architect and mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright. In addition to some lovely graphite sketches of variations on building ornamentation – done by Sullivan – the exhibit is comprised of silver-gelatin prints from three artists: John Szarkowski, Aaron Siskind and Richard Nickel, who came together in the early 50’s at the Institute of Design. The three of them documented Sullivan’s work throughout Chicago, at a time when many of the beautiful buildings were being demolished for urban renewal. Szarkowski went on to replace Steichen at MoMA, Siskind was an influential photographer in his own right, and Nickel – a favorite of mine – remained in Chicago to pursue the documentation and preservation of Sullivan’s work. Sadly, he was killed in 1972 when a stairwell at the Chicago Exchange building collapsed while he was salvaging precious ornamental work before its demolition. In all, about 50 images comprise the exhibit; don’t wait too long to see it.

Cartier-Bresson’s catalog stretches from the early 1930’s through the mid-70’s, and the Art Institute has many examples from each important period. The first gallery includes early works from Spain and France, as well as his travels into colonial Africa. There is an entire gallery devoted to the portraiture of many celebrities and intellectuals, and significant space is given to his work in China and the Soviet Union. Cartier-Bresson was known for his ability to photograph ‘in the moment’, to capture the essence of the interaction between subjects, including the audience. This exhibit does a magnificent job of highlighting that ability, and because of that it is an emotional experience that is most enjoyable.

One thing that I learned today was that Cartier-Bresson was not enamored with darkroom work, and did not print his own negatives. He only cared about the image itself, and could not be tied down with the technicalities of the darkroom. Interestingly, that made my examination of his work different than the previous exhibit, for I didn’t examine the nature of the print as much as I sat back and viewed the image more holistically. Given the nature of this artist’s work, I think that is the best method.

The show runs through October 3rd. Whatever you do, don’t miss it.