Dissent and identity at ABMB ’08

Note: A modified version of the post can be found at artreview.com

Saturday evening during Art Basel Miami Beach, really the final evening of the event, is often given over to more measured reflections upon the circus one has just passed through.  “Good” seemed to be the universal assessment from the dealers (though this was quickly recognized as an elastic term, signaling everything from bravery in the face of financial destitution, to just this or the other side of breaking even, to turning a small profit but not wanting to gloat).  “Good” seemed to do it for everyone else as well, except, that is, when it came to the Rubell Collection, the Rubell family’s private museum, which has now been open to the public since 1996 and is nearly universally regarded as one of the more exceptional contemporary art exhibition originators and venues in the US.  The Rubell Collection was not “good”; it was “great”.

But then it always is, isn’t it?  Quickly I found myself asking, “Can anyone be against the Rubell Collection?”  My question was more rhetorical than interrogatory, because it didn’t seem to me that anyone could be–against the Rubell Collection, that is.

I don’t shy away from admitting that it is the current show, 30 Americans, which raised the question.  It is a show of art made by African-American artists, and it is a strong one, strong because it foregrounds the complex problem that identity is–and also, apparently, the problem we still have in using identity to identify people (or to identify ourselves), as this closing statement from the exhibition’s introductory wall text makes apparent:  “As the show evolved, we [the Rubell Family] decided to call it ’30 Americans’.  ‘Americans’, rather than ‘African Americans’ or ‘Black Americans’ because nationality is a statement of fact, while racial identity is a question each artist answers in his or her own way, or not at all.”

On first glance there is nothing false about this statement, of course.  In fact, it looks to get the problem of identity perhaps more right than it wants to, because as a “statement of fact,” nationality has nothing to do with the “question” of “racial identity,” just as it would seem to have nothing to do with the question of “national identity” either, insofar as these terms indicate something of what it is like to be a certain race or of a certain nation.  As a statement of fact, “he’s an American” applies as much to an eight-month-old boy of Pakistani descent born in Dearborn, Michigan, as to an 88 year-old, decorated World War II veteran born in Fresno, California, as to, say, Christopher Hitchens, now a naturalized US citizen born in the United Kingdom.  Each, of course, is an “American,” though I don’t doubt that each has, does and will “identify” with that concept in very different ways, but this has nothing to do with the facts.  And here we see that the notion of being an “American”, in contrast, say, to being a “US Citizen,” is loaded with more than just factual content anyway.

In naming their show 30 Americans, then, the Rubell’s want identity both ways; they don’t “identify” the artists they’ve gathered together in their show, because the “question” of “racial identity” is one each artist answers (or doesn’t) all on his or her own; yet rather than using how the artists answer that question (or don’t) to make the decision about who to include, the Rubells have nonetheless used identity, “black” or “African American,” as a necessary (though obviously not sufficient) criteria for their selections.

Now, pointing out the specious logic behind the Rubell’s decision to name their recent show 30 Americans rather than, say, “30 Black Americans” is not what I mean to get at when I ask “Can anyone be against the Rubell Collection?”  What it does point out, however, is the problem of “identity” that attends the Rubell Collection (as much as it attends other publically accessibly private collections as well).  Here the distinction is not between the “fact” of “nationality” and the “problem” of ” racial identity” as it is between the problem of identity itself and something like the “fact” of “ownership.”

As the Rubells state, this time at the outset of the same introductory text, “We only show art we own.”  This of course means that, without exception, all of the art is theirs.  And thus, in some way, to criticize the art is to criticize the Rubell’s themselves.  Of course it will be objected that this is not to be against them, the Rubell’s, so much as it is to be against their “tastes in art” or their “intellectual interests” or their “curatorial conceits.”  But one can have such things without the intermediary of private ownership.  This is what museums do after all: show a wide range of work, some which they own (and buy with both private and public funds), some of which they do not.  And there is a rich history of people being “against” museums, to which the codification of “institutional critique” itself attests.

Perhaps the problem arises then when institutional identity, “The Rubell Collection,” becomes so closely aligned with personal identity, “the Rubell family,” and the explicit “fact” of “ownership” becomes a revolving door between the two.  Here, criticizing the Rubell’s Collection is seen as petty as criticizing someone’s choice of home décor; we do it of course, just not necessarily in public, because to criticize someone’s personal choices is tantamount to criticizing them.  But to criticize the “Rubell Collection” as an institution is seen as petty as well, because as a publically accessible but fundamentally private museum, it stands as a supremely generous gift, and so remains beyond reproach.

This is what I mean when I state that one cannot be “against” the Rubell Collection, at least in any justifiable sense, because such justification will always be aiming at a moving target, and one will always risk appearing petty (as I may be doing now).  My point of course is not to finally find a place from which to stand “against” the Rubell Collection, but to explain how this conflation of personal and institutional identity keeps one from taking a stand at all.

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