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american art's adolescent identity

by Donald Kuspit  

Catherine Opie

Nancy Graves

Barbara Kruger
Untitled (We Will No Longer Be Seen and Not Heard)

Carl Andre
Twenty-Ninth Cooper Cardinal

Robert Colescott
The Three Graces: Art, Sex and Death

Jeff Koons
New Hoover Convertibles Green, Blue; Double-Decker

Ana Mendita
Untitled, from the
series Fetish

David Hammons

Jimmie Durham

Susan Rothenberg
Holding the Floor

Lari Pittman
Untitled # 16 (A Decorated Chronology of Instsistence and Resignation)

Ellen Gallagner
Afro Mountain

Mike Kelley
More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid and The Wages of Sin

Ashley Bickerton
Stratified Landscape #1
   Thus, the nature of the identity conflict often depends on the latent panic or, indeed, the intrinsic promise pervading a historical period. Some periods in history become identity vacua caused by three basic forms of human apprehension: fears aroused by new facts, such as discoveries and inventions (including weapons), which radically expand and change the whole world image; anxieties aroused by symbolic dangers vaguely perceived as a consequence of the decay of existing ideologies; and in the wake of disintegrating faith, the dread of an existential abyss devoid of spiritual meaning.

-- Erik H. Erikson (1)

I have totally separated my political and social life from my moral and poetic one and in this way I feel at my best...Only in my innermost plans and purposes and endeavors do I remain mysteriously self-loyal and thus tie my social, political, moral and poetic life again together into a hidden knot.

-- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (2)

Since it has come into its own, with Abstract Expressionism, the problem of identity has haunted American art. Nothing has changed in the last quarter of the century, except that the problem has become more urgent and exasperating. As is suggested by the art in this exhibition -- "Art at the End of the 20th Century," organized by the Whitney Museum and appearing in Athens, Barcelona and Bonn over the last year -- there are too many artistic identities, each of them claiming to be authentic. It is as though we are faced with the 22 Jesus Christs of Ypsilanti, each of them claiming to be the real Jesus Christ.

Which work is more authentic: Barbara Kruger's Untitled (We Will No Longer Be Seen and Not Heard), 1985, with its feminist ideology and self-righteousness, or Keith Haring's witty untitled graffiti work of 1983-84, with its horror vacui and perverse nihilistic figurines -- a work which, ironically, has the "spread-hide" appearance that Clement Greenberg attributed to the "American-type" abstract painting of Clyfford Still? (3) Both are graphic and populist but altogether different in mood and method.

Does Carl Andre's Twenty-Ninth Copper Cardinal, 1975, with its detached simplicity and pristine geometry -- its pretentious purity and hermetic perfection -- speak the artistic truth, or does Glenn Ligon's seemingly personal statement, Untitled (I Am Not Tragically Colored), 1990, speak a more important psychosocial truth? The former is all art -- depends for its very substance on a certain notion of artistic integrity; the latter uses art -- the increasingly blurred, infinitely repeated text -- to communicate a complicated consciousness of self, arising in response to the social reality of racism. Which are more to the artistic point: the repetitive squares of Andre's work or the repetitive words of Ligon's work? Or are both simply a subtly hollow, unwittingly self-mocking rhetoric -- the singular terms of an artistic discourse nullified by their own repetition, their meaning neutralized and aborted by their redundancy?

As Theodor Adorno once said, works of art don't live in comfortable closeness, but compete with each other to the death, each asserting its difference at the expense of the other -- each declaring its authenticity, and the other's inauthenticity. I recall quite vividly a major conceptual artist sweepingly dismissing all of '80s art as "boutique estheticism," while upholding his own politically correct art as the real thing. Who is to say his self-promotion is wrong? Partisanship and self-advertisement are necessarily rampant in the art world, because values and standards are unclear. Can one really decisively come down on one side or the other of the many divides that unbalance the art world?

There is no clear answer, no sword to cut the twisted Gordian knot of contemporary American art -- and that's just the point I want to make: taken as a whole -- a no doubt clumsy, unwieldy whole -- it is the conflicts, indeed, irreconcilable differences, that are important, not this or that artistic position. It is the splits in attitude that count -- between Kruger's dead seriousness and Haring's carnival humor, between Andre's formalistic grandeur and Ligon's ironical pathos -- not the hierarchical ranking of the artists in some imaginary history. Even the differences in technique reflect differences in attitude: the ironically rough and ready paint of Robert Colescott's The Three Graces: Art, Sex and Death, 1981, and the slick, glossy magazine look of the paint in David Salle's Splinter Man, 1982, speak very different emotional languages. The social sycophancy evident in Jeff Koons' commodity exhibitionism -- he displays his New Hoover Convertibles, Green, Blue; New Hoover Convertibles, Green, Blue; Double-decker, 1981-87, just the way they would be displayed in a department store for the consumer -- is it at odds with the exhibitionism of Jack Pierson's Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?, 1994, with its more intimate objects? His towels seem clean and new and unused, but they are implicitly contaminated by personal use, as the worn case they are locked in suggests.

Catherine Opie's Mike and Sky, 1992, are altogether different people -- have an altogether different attitude to the world -- than Ana Mendieta, buried alive, as it were, in the untitled 1977 photograph that forms part of her series, Fetish, and Jimmie Durham, who stands exposed to the world in his 1986 Self-Portrait. The Cuban-born Mendieta and the Native American Durham are victims and American outsiders, the lily-pure white Mike and Sky are bullies and American insiders: within the abundant figuration of the exhibition there are startling differences in attitude, major contradictions, which reflect the contradictions in American life.

The distance between the killers in Leon Golub's White Squad I, 1982 -- they could be Mike and Sky in uniform -- and the isolated figure in Susan Rothenberg's Holding the Floor, 1985, and in Charles Ray's Puzzle Bottle, 1995, seems enormous, yet they are both representative of an American experience. On the one side, the painful reality of Chris Burden's America's Darker Moments, 1994, and the gun of Mel Chin's HOMEySEW 9, 1994, and on the other side, the bizarre decorative facades of Lari Pittman's Untitled (A Decorated Chronology of Insistence and Resignation) and Fred Tomaselli's Octillo Nocturne, both 1993, their ironic glamour, subliminally lurid, hiding the suffering just under the surface of American life. Violence and isolation, grim reality and pleasurable illusions, are the substance of American society, along with the compensatory consumerism.

Similarly, there are decisive differences within the abundant abstraction of the exhibition: the distance between the delicate, introspective grid of Agnes Martin's untitled 1977 work, with its subtle chiaroscuro, and the blatant colors and manufactured-looking geometry of Peter Halley's The Acid Test, 1991-92 -- the whole work has a hi-tech designer's look -- seems unbridgable, yet they are both characteristically American. The poetry of the former points to America's earlier inner-directness -- the piety and search for inner freedom that motivated the first American settlers (together with the wish for wealth) -- while the latter acknowledges its contemporary outer-directness, that is, an America in which spectacle has become substance. Halley shows us that even the esoteric substance of abstract art has become facile spectacle.

Does the grid in Ellen Gallagher's Afro Mountain, 1994, with its ironic inlay of African lips (making it oddly aggressive, if passively), displace the asocial, transcendent grid of Agnes Martin's work, making it seem outdated? For Gallagher, the grid is a springboard to a social meaning -- an ironical foil to it -- not a higher end in itself. Does the messy linearity of David Hammons' untitled 1992 sculpture -- the flexible lines are like so many (African?) hairs -- makes the clean geometrical lines of Sol LeMitt's wall piece seem old-fashioned, a historical relic from a past, already remote epoch of art, that from Hammons' ideological perspective seems inconsequential because of its apolitical character? Do Gallagher and Hammons debunk -- discredit -- Martin and LeWitt? Does the social awareness and ideological symbolism one finds in much recent American postmodernist art make it more important than earlier American modernist art, with its more strictly esthetic, insular, transcendence or do they find it both "impossible" and beside the point in the current social situation of America?

Has formalist, esoteric art seen its heyday -- from a long-term perspective it seems like an elitist interlude in American art -- and been replaced by a socially engaged art? Its "social realism" is more traditionally American, however much the new postmodernist art of social engagement incorporates seemingly unconventional -- but they have become academic -- abstract methods. It may appear unusual, but it is typically American in its social concern -- its reference to a troubled society.

I am suggesting that there is a serious split in American art -- a serious difference in opinion about what is artistically credible, and even about the purpose of art. I think the split has always been there, implicitly or explicitly: American art has been in a perpetual identity crisis from the start. If one follows out Erikson's psychologic, this means that it has always been more adolescent than adult -- more concerned with enactment than autonomy. It is no accident that Harold Rosenberg, in his famous essay "The American Action Painters," describes the abstract expressionist canvas "as an arena in which to act...what was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event."(4) And it is no accident that the alternative to and art of raw action is, as he says, art in the service of a social cause or art "from the standpoint of The Community,"(5) which, as Rosenberg writes, is "an ideological substitute for [individual] experience," a collectively "Ready-Made" belief system or dogma "suitable for packaged distribution."(6) Action -- blind externalization -- is the adolescent way out of inner conflict; and ideological commitment -- the uncritical (and unself-critical) commitment to fixed, unquestioned beliefs -- is the adolescent idea of adulthood, indeed, the adolescent idea of taking a considered stand.

Adolescence involves "enactments midway between the play of children and the ritualized aspects of adult society,"(7) enactments which involve the expression of and projection of "a newly mobilized and vastly augmented id" -- this is what occurs in action painting -- experienced as both "a hostile innerworld" and an inner outerworld."(8) The enactments end -- one might say stabilize -- in headlong, blind, unthinking engagement with an ideology, regarded as a panacea and ego identity -- a panacea because it gives the adolescent a conflict-free ego identity. Instead of being enacted, id energy is projected into a ready-made ideology, which -- along with its representatives -- seems radiant with charisma: instinctive intensity becomes intensity of belief and conviction, making ideology the ideal, consummate object of adolescent gratification.

Id energy is subsumed in the ritual expression of ideological faith. The apparent transcendence of enactment through ideology is in effect re-enactment under the auspices of ideology: id energy is channeled into ideologized purposiveness, bringing a gratifying sense of ego identity in its wake -- almost as a kind of epiphenomenon or mirage. Ideology, then, becomes a way out of adolescence -- an adolescent way of seeming to escape adolescent enactment, but really a transformation and socialization of it -- and of entering pseudo-adulthood. What we see in American art is an oscillation between "sudden impatience," as Rosenberg calls it -- "a gesture of liberation" and "grand crisis" in one, involving a "private myth" of "true identity" -- and a "code to obey."(9) In other words, it oscillates between grand adolescent gestures, misread as a critical nonconformity, and pseudo-adult conformity, misread as falseness to oneself.

Erikson describes ideology as "a system of commanding ideas held together...more by totalistic logic and utopian conviction than by cognitive understanding or pragmatic experience."(10) Its values seem universal, and it is worn like a uniform: instant, simplistic collective identity becomes a substitute for the difficult achievement of individual identity and complexity. Even more subtly, adolescent enactment is misunderstood as individuation, which is what Rosenberg does. In any case, the distinction between the improvisational stylelessness of authentic American art and the uniformity and stylization of inauthentic, un-American art -- but it also flourishes in America, as he acknowledges -- is basic to Rosenberg's thinking, as "The Parable of American Painting" makes clear. American Coonskinner art "springs from the tension of...singular experiences," while in British Redcoat art ostensibly universal ideology controls artistic identity, thus obliterating individuality.(11) Indeed, the individual artist is sacrificed to a collective idea of art -- to the belief that art exists to mirror collective ideals and concerns. Art is totalized, and becomes a ritualized practice.

For Rosenberg, the ideal American artist works "on the borders of the act...court[ing] the undefined...keep[ing] his art and identity in flux."(12) He is not " rule," but weaves a "web of energies...between his painting and his living [which] precludes the formation of any terminal idea."(13) The American "actor-artist," as Rosenberg calls him, regards any terminal idea as ideological, which is why the definite identity it brings seems like the kiss of death, a sign of personal and artistic failure, a fatal loss of energy. The hyperactive adolescent artist cannot imagine that a definite identity might not be ideological and entropic, but the result of a decisive commitment to a perspective or position, based on cognitive understanding or pragmatic experience, to recall Erikson's words. This, of course, goes against the grain of adolescent enactment.

To enact -- to put one's energy before one's mind -- is adolescent, while to take a stand, after critical thought and calm reflection, is adult. But then the adolescent inevitably confuses belief -- unconditional commitment to a comprehensive system of thought that claims to be able to solve all problems -- with critical and self-critical thought. Rosenberg once wrote that identity was the issue of modern art, but in modern and postmodern American art identity has become immature and problematic -- permanently split and adolescent.

If we look at the artists in this exhibition, we see that they seek their identity on one side or the other of a great divide: some, like Mary Kelley, Sue Williams, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, are heavily into adolescent enactment, which however ironical still makes a regressive point, while others, like Nicole Eisenman and Martha Rosler, turn their enactments into ideological statements, ostensibly critical but in fact predetermined in their damnation of existing society. Unlike Goethe, none of the artists in the exhibition successfully integrates, on the innermost level, their social, political, and moral concerns with their poetic, esthetic, and formal concerns. This is not to say they don't try -- Gallagher's ironically understated application of the socially symbolic lips to a poetic surface and Golub's appropriation of the red color field of Barnett Newman's Vir Heroicus Sublimis, 1951, as an esthetic background for his politically charged scene are two examples -- but they do so in a superficial, token way.

Gallagher's lips are moralistic ornament, Golub's red background, meant to underscore the ironic heroism of his macho figures, is quasi-esthetic ornament. Their pictures offer the facade rather than substance of subtle formality: what was poetic in Newman and Martin -- the color field and grid, respectively -- has become pseudo-poetic, almost farcical, in the politically correct art of Golub and Gallagher. In both cases we see a facile dialect: the nominal assimilation of a rejected pole -- the disdained opposite -- that does nothing to heal the split. Thus, we are left with the appearance rather than the reality of a whole art. Both remain partial artistic identities -- each has only half of what would make for a complete artistic identity -- for all their efforts to be artistically whole. Not only is the attempt to integrate the sociopolitical and formal -- to make an art that is at once poetic and moral -- unconvincing when it occurs in this exhibition of American art, but it seems to compromise rather than illuminate the partial artistic identity there is.

Why, then, are these American artists only partial artistic identities -- why are they artistically unbalanced? Why are they, artistically speaking, adolescents: why do they offer adolescent esthetics and an adolescent view of the world? Why is there so much fun and games, so much easy irony, whether formally, as in Elizabeth Murray's Children Meeting, 1978, or conceptually, as in Shigeko Kubota's Meta Marcel: Window, 1976, and Sherrie Levine's "La Fortune" (After Man Ray: 4), 1990? Why is there so much labored playfulness -- the ironical presentation of art as children's play, as in Dennis Oppenheim's Lecture No.1, 1976-83, Nicholas Africano's Sprained Ankle, 1977, and Christian Schumann's Hoot (Crit), 1995 -- when, subliminally, the artists clearly find nothing to laugh about?

I think the answer has to do with American society: it is impossible to have an art that envisions unity -- that is at once esthetically sublime and socially wracked by fears, anxieties, and most of all by existential dread of emptiness. It is impossible to make an art that is spiritually adequate in a society that is spiritually inadequate. The adolescent youth culture that dominates American society and the youth culture of modern art -- already in 1925 Jose Ortega y Gasset observed that "all modern art begins to be comprehensible...when it is interpreted as an attempt to instill youthfulness into an ancient world"(14) -- converge into contemporary American art. To be young is both quintessential American and quintessential modern, which is why America, with its perennial pursuit of youth, is thought of as the ultra-modern society, and why American art struggles to always be new, that is, young and modern, which means to never build or build upon tradition. My thesis is that this doubly young art -- this art desperate to be as eternally young as America and as young as modern art is supposed to be -- is at once a symptom of the fears and anxieties that unavoidably pervade American society (and of the spiritual void that underlies them), and a defense against them.

America, as Erikson wrote, "subjects its inhabitants to more extreme contrasts and abrupt changes during a lifetime or a generation than is normally the case with other great nations."(15) It is a country of "contradictory slogans" -- "outgoing internationalism and defiant isolationism; boisterous competition and self-effacing co-operation," for example -- that bewilder the individual, and never allow him more than a tentative, incomplete, and thus invariably insecure identity. "As the heir of a history of extreme contrasts and abrupt changes," the American is always in some kind of identity crisis: he struggles to integrate "dynamic polarities," but he can only combine them tentatively.(16) One or the other pole tends to dominate, and the American often vacillates indecisively between them. Thus the American's identity always seems contingent and in-the-making, never essential and definite. It is always in anxious flux and forced to face new fears, which make it spiritually unsustainable.

Behind the American celebration of pluralism and multiculturalism -- it is apparent in the art of this exhibition -- lurks uncertainty about what is the correct identity to have. America's motto is "one out of many," but it is unclear which one. In such a situation, one feels young -- there is always a new opportunity for a new identity (it is no accident that the concept of the protean self developed in America) -- and hopeless at once. One is always threatened as well as lured by the possibility; one doesn't know what to believe in, or else one defiantly clings to one's beliefs. This is the adolescent ways of identifying oneself. One either insists on one's absolute identity, or one has no identity.

America, then, is a hard place to grow up in -- a difficult place to be an adult in. One may become older, but not necessarily wiser. The flux of identity that Rosenberg celebrated as a sign of authenticity in art is the flux -- indecisiveness -- of identity that exists in American society. Whether the artists in this exhibition identify themselves through their formal or social concerns, their identity is unconsciously informed by the concern they never adequately developed, which often exists in vestigial, marginal form in their art. Social concern, for example, exists in atrophied form in the public wall on which LeWitt displays his drawing, and formal concern is residual in the coloration of Komar and Melamid's A Suite in Chrome Yellow. A Suicide in Bayonne, 1993. The artists know that whatever identity they have created for themselves, they have somehow failed to find the proper identity, because they are surrounded by alien identities, which are abortively incorporated because they seem to have the really right stuff. In America, the identity one does not have always seems younger and fresher and more vital and ideal than the identity one has. In America, change has been reified, which is why it seems easy to change one's identity; all it requires is artistic magic.

"Art at the End of the 20th Century: Selections from the Whitney Museum of American Art" was organized by Whitney Museum director David Ross and curator Eugenie Tsai and appeared, in slightly different form, at three museums in Europe. The exhibition debuted at the National Gallery, Alexandros Soutzos Museum Athens, June 10-Aug. 18, 1996; and subsequently traveled to the Museu d'Art Contemporanei, Barcelona, Dec. 18, 1996-Apr. 6, 1997, and the Kunstmuseum Bonn (where the title changed to "Multiple Identity," June 1-Sept. 1, 1997). The text presented here was originally delivered in conjunction with the show's appearance in Germany.

The images here were taken from a catalogue published in conjuction with the exhibition's appearance in Athens, with an essay by Johanna Drucker, that is available from the museum bookstore for $10.

DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.

1. Erik H. Erikson, Life History and the Historical Moment (New York: Norton, 1975), p. 21
2. Quoted in Heinz Lichtenstein, The Dilemma of Human Identity (New York: Jason Aronson, 1983), p. 237
3. Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture (Boston: Beacon, 1963), p. 224
4. Harold Rosenberg, The Tradition of the New (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965), p. 25
5. Ibid., p. 41
6. Ibid., p. 42
7. Erikson, p. 205
8. Erik H. Erikson, Childhood and Society (New York: Norton, 1963), p. 308
9. Rosenberg, pp. 17, 30, 31
10. Erikson, Life History and the Historical Moment, pp. 206-207
11. Rosenberg, p. 18
12. Harold Rosenberg, The Anxious Object (New York: Horizon Press, 1964), p. 124
13. Ibid., pp. 124-125
14. Jose Ortega y Gasset, The Dehumanization of Art and Other Writings on Art, Culture, and Literature (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1950), p. 46
15. Erikson, Childhood and Society, p. 285
16. Ibid., p. 286