By Ariana Lee
“[A] landscape can be a place, if explored, or remain a landscape, if simply observed.”
– Lucy Lippard, Lure of the Local, 1997
In 1948, my father and mother’s parents immigrated from China and Iran respectively. Although both families had planned to return, they ultimately decided to stay in the United States after postcolonial conflicts erupted in their homelands. For their children and grandchildren, China and Iran became haunting historical presences—places that would at once define us and remain unknown.
My family’s immigration story touches on themes now familiar to contemporary art audiences. Hybridity, in between-ness, place, and loss have become something of a genre— “identity-based art”—embraced by galleries, museums, and art schools across the country. Indeed, it was the prominence of these narratives and their resonance with my family’s history that encouraged me to pursue art professionally.
However, the cultural ascension of diverse voices in the art world has not been without its complexities. In art school, it was unsettling when people whom I respected recommended I “exploit” my identity to advance my career, suggested that I gloss over my family’s history, or met with uncomfortable silence my discussions of the racial dimensions of my work. Just as I received these disquieting responses, I was enrolled in a critical theory course where I read Roland Barthes’ 1967 essay, “Death of the Author.” It was with concern that I considered Barthes’ observation that the reading, or in this case viewing, of a work was what gave it its full meaning. Rather than the artist’s intentions, he argued, it was the viewer’s history and thoughts that completed the work. Therefore what did it mean that the readership of my work and that of my peers of color often felt offensive and dehumanizing?
The questions of viewer agency and artists’ intentions led me into museum education where I hoped to facilitate challenging and significant interactions with subaltern art. Not long after taking my first museum education job, however, I realized the futility of my plan. Standing in the gallery, I witnessed crowds of mostly white visitors admiring materials and forms used by non-white artists, but dismissing the ideas behind the work that challenged dominant narratives of race, nation, and class. In the span of my first few months, I watched visitors disregard wall texts after taking selfies with art about ghettoization and the legacy of slavery. I cringed when I overheard one couple remark that a painting about slavery and the Black diaspora would look wonderful over their bed. I struggled to keep silent as others remarked that Black artists should stop producing work about slavery because it was “irrelevant,” or condemned identity-based work for having too much of a “back-story” and insufficient aesthetic or spiritual dimensions. Racism displayed itself in more covert forms as well – such as the times when visitors would repeatedly comment that works about colonization or slavery were “interesting” without ever showing any legible emotional response.
Whether overt or covert, however, notice the theme of these comments: they suggest that the artist’s voice was speaking out of turn, ruining a trip to the museum with their disturbing ideas. Once again, Barthes came to my mind and brought with it another disquieting question. If the work gained its full meaning with the viewer, and the viewer found it meaningless, did it become so?
One afternoon I gained a better understanding of the indifference I was witnessing when a woman commented to me that while she enjoyed the exhibition—a retrospective of an artist exploring the intersecting narratives of Black, Jamaican, and American nationalist identities—she would not call it art. How did she define art? “Art is something that makes me feel. This makes me think. There are so many symbols and back stories. It’s overwhelming.”
I understood why she was overwhelmed. Identity-based art often uses cultural symbolism that may be unfamiliar to viewers outside of the group. Unfortunately, museum educators often restrict their explanations of works to “translating” these symbols, failing to help visitors connect emotionally.
The inadequacy of museum educators’ explanations and visitor apathy are reflective of ingrained historical, social structures that define every institution in American society, including those of the art world. For example, although the museum that I was working in regarded itself as a platform for diverse voices and radical ideas in contemporary art, its staff and visitors are almost completely white, excepting cleaning and security employees and a handful of museum educators. Because there was no critical mass, the few educational and curatorial staff of color had little incentive to speak up and challenge racism in the museum. Furthermore, divisive social hierarchies aggressively discouraged cross-departmental dialogue, making unlikely the possibility of the predominantly white curatorial team ever encountering critiques from, say, museum educators of color like myself.
On every level of the museum, from the director’s office to the galleries to the security desks, “diverse voices” were not activated towards meaningfully shaping visitor encounters with exhibitions. Thus, the inaccessibility of the artist’s work for the aforementioned viewer did not result from intrinsic complexity of the work itself. Instead, it lay in the ways that she, the museum, and society define non-white narratives as Other, which in turn renders identity-based art as simultaneously extraneous and potentially threatening. Viewership shapes meaning, but social structures shape viewing such that—to recall Lippard’s words—identity-based art is coldly observed rather than explored, reflected upon, or put more simply, felt.
The separation between the gallery space, where families and individuals leisurely ingest ideas, and the “real world” is fictitious. Identity-based art, the viewers whom it does not reach, and the museums and galleries who fail to reflect on their social structures exist together in the tangled knot of material, social, and historical problems in the United States.
In this conflicted environment, viewership remains a potent site of meaningful resistance, where one can strive to explore stories that are not one’s own. The movement of identity-based art makes available a polyphony of perspectives on how histories live within individuals, defining their politics, self-image, and relationships. The viewer is, to return once more to Barthes’ framework, the locus of these ideas, the place where these narratives – so often dismissed – can be acknowledged, or put more simply, felt.
(This article has been edited from a previous version that was part of Crossing Borders, an exhibition curated by Judith Tolnick Champa and Jocelyn Foye.)
Ariana Lee is a museum professional, artist, and dreamer investigating how art institutions systematically marginalize narratives of color. She received a B.A. in History from Brown University before completing a Post-Baccalaureate degree at School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University. She is currently working on a podcast that critiques the institution of the art museum through the lens of critical race theory. Ariana lives in Boston, MA and works for the Museum of Fine Arts. Feel free to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.