Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Native Informant paradigm

Put in an EXTREMELY simplistic way: the native informant assists anthropologists who come to a community as outsiders, sometimes acting as translators. To some, this seems like an apt parallel with the role that some curators or art historians are asked to play, or, purposely play. Thus the thread in this blog, which refers to an article about this very problem. And to another, this one by Mari Carmen Ramirez where she spells out the role of a curator who acts as a "broker" and there the financial markets analogy is apt.

Then there are artists who are given few options other than to perform the role of native informants themselves. A very brilliant curator and art historian who sadly died 10 years ago, leaving the artworld and my world much worse off as a result, wrote something that I think states the difficulty perfectly. In an article titled "Asian American Exhibitions Reconsidered" Alice Yang discussed the problematic aspects of grouping artists according to geographic categories in the context of late 1980s and early 1990s identity politics and multiculturalist paradigms. (which, as we see in exhibitions such as the Caribbean-themed show at the Brooklyn Museum, seem to be having a revival) She wrote:

Group exhibitions that showcase artists from the same racial group have become, for not only Asian Americans but many artists of color, the main venue for their work's exposure. Indeed, these exhibitions can help to increase the artist's visibility and are laudable in this regard. Yet, in the end, they perform a circumscribed role, often serving an institution's interest in balanced programming more than the artist's need for in-depth, criticial evaluation. While such exhibitions can be instructive, they are also panaceas for a broader problem- the failure to integrate Asian American artists more fully into a wide range of exhibition formats and other cultural discourses that cut across racial discourses. They reveal a tendency toward rigid classification along racial lines that can contribute to an ossification of concepts of identity." (....)[Then she writes about contestatory shows that challenge stereotypes]: "While this oppositional approach forms a major part of the postmodernist enterprise, it also treads dangerous waters. For identity is defined here as a form of negation, in opposition to notions of the "norm" or the "stereotype." In the end, reduced to the logic of a closed circuit, this approach grants such tropes a kind of elaboration that only affirms their centrality."

So this is the "double-bind" and the reification of the invisible norm. And I had to be sarcastic about it after the hideous art fair and the Caribbean exhibition, and not to bash Brooklyn but there they did also the Feminist show, which claimed to undo sexist categories only to reinscribe them, and, most problematic of all, relegated most of the non-Western artists or artists of color to the section on "IDENTITY" as if Whiteness, or Westernness were not an identity.

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