Thread: Identity Politics Economics
by Elisha Lim
In 2012, an artist I admire curated a highly anticipated exhibition of 101 Toronto artists, and 94 of them were white. I was so incensed that I wrote an MFA thesis about it. “Why,” ranted my thesis, “doesn’t Canadian art reflect national demographics? Whose art history is canonical? Who truly owns the gallery space?” Within just five years, my paper was outdated. In 2017 the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) unveiled Every. Now. Then: Reframing Nationhood, a retrospective deliberately honouring Toronto artists who are Black, Indigenous and people of colour. The same year the gallery inaugurated the formal position of Indigenous curator, first appointed to Wanda Nanibush. She radically established Anishinaabemowin as a third language on most AGO wall texts, a groundbreaking precedent for a major Canadian cultural institution, and in 2018 the AGO’s JS McLean Centre for Canadian Art was renamed and reinstalled to include and integrate Indigenous art.
How did cultural priorities change so drastically in such a short time? It’s an unprecedented pace even to generations of local activists, and it wasn’t accelerated by belligerent MFA papers. A major enabling factor has been social media’s voracious pace. Online movements drive social change in what feels like dog years, and one activist month on Twitter is equal to one pre-internet activist year. In the United States in 2014, for example, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation released a diversity report confirming that American art galleries are disproportionately programmed by rich white people. What would normally pass as a tedious and obvious statement collided for the first time with an empowered 2014 blogosphere almost instantly. It was the year that Black activists organized viral international protests against the shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri police. Inspired by this call, a “Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers and Colleagues on Ferguson and Related Events” circulated, demanding racial diversity in the top ranks of museums and galleries. It blossomed with the hashtag #museumsrespondtoFerguson and a rapidly expanding collaborative Google Doc of relevant resources. It blossomed parallel to empowered online movements globally, including widely circulated inquiries into the exclusionary practices of the art world in Canada.
As contagious as #Oscarssowhite, online movements rapidly effected what marginalized artists had demanded for decades. In just the past handful of years, we’ve seen more young racialized staff members hired to entry- and mid-level curatorial positions in art institutions in both Canada and the US (though leadership positions are still predominantly white). Hell yes, I thought, watching in awe as the swell of marginalized voices mobilized online to grasp a fistful of power. Social media movements shook the idea of who the art-viewing public is. The activists propelling these movements became poised to emerge as the new owners of contemporary museum discourse.
But who owns social media movements? And what happens to social movements when they join the building blocks of corporate business models? This question struck me as a junior curator. My MFA cohort appointed me to be on the class marketing team. We co-curated art exhibitions, and I was in charge of promoting them. I would start by spending $12 on a Facebook ad. Ad Manager would then prompt me to choose a custom target audience from a drop-down menu. Did I want my audience to be from downtown Toronto? Under 40? Interested in art? Yes, I did. Then the options would get more refined. Did I want my audience to be liberals? Liberals and likely to engage with political content? Liberals and likely to engage with political content relating to art and travel, who lived alone, used a Mac OSX operating system, and had friends of the opposite gender whose birthdays were in the same week as our exhibition? Yes, I did. A sidebar would announce the size of this Facebook audience, usually in the hundreds of thousands.
This astonishing precision is social media’s billion- dollar asset. With the help of its subsidiary platforms Instagram and WhatsApp, Facebook is one of the world’s leading providers of razor-sharp custom audiences. Contrary to popular belief, the corporation doesn’t technically own our data: it owns our public-facing attitudes, indexing our belief systems into niche markets. Once our identities enter into these data sets they become merchandise, merely options in a drop-down menu labelling our potential taste in products. In other words, when I declare my political beliefs on social media, I am sorted and shelved into specific consumer tastes, which enables corporate social media platforms to metabolize #wokeness—or any political inclination—into an invaluable brand. We see the effects of this rippling across newly tailored television plots, news angles, political campaigns, apparel ads, university courses and, undoubtedly, museum programs and hiring policies. All of this embodies a shift from identity politics to what I call identity economics. I’m so incensed about it that, now, I’m writing a dissertation.
Identity economics galvanizes social movements indiscriminately. The same signal boost that drives the decolonization efforts of the AGO also spurs the right-wing movements of Ontario Proud and Faith Goldy. Facebook, most conspicuously, is blamed for having a hand in the rise of extremism, violence and the implosion of democratic elections worldwide. Facebook changes the world for the worse at the same time as it changes it for the better, breeding xenophobic intolerance at the same pace as it enables social justice takeovers. The same crowdsourcing that rallied behind the first Black American president also catapulted Republican white-lash years later. Within this framework, anti-racism is as much a viral movement as xenophobic nationalism. In both cases, social media platforms algorithmically promote their users and their ideologies in order of their engagement, popularity and user influence. Headlines rage about threats to individual privacy, but for most social media users privacy is neither realistic nor precious. The “personal privacy” panic obscures what is happening to us as a collective: platforms teach us to police and enforce opinions only to polish us into an advertising bull’s eye. Leftist social justice grows in unison with violent extremism because, for their host platforms, they are equal parts of a thriving business model.
This is a far cry from the origins of identity politics. In the ’60s Black civil rights activists called for radical solidarity in the face of white supremacist systems of power, demanding a dramatic material redistribution and systemic transformation. But now, online, expressions of identity politics are ranked by likeability and virality, baiting social capital that drives exclusive brands and individual careers. They foster a profoundly alienating status anxiety at best, and at worst, they feed dehumanizing mobs and real-world violence. These are two sides of the same coin, minting highly lucrative razor-sharp commercial targets. Identity economics, in essence, contradicts the original goals of identity politics.
What does it mean when museum policy is determined by callout culture? When identity politics are immersed in Facebook’s logic of supply and demand, they risk becoming tokens of publicity and branding— which is exactly what marginalized artists had previously protested. When contemporary art galleries build their reputation according to what—or who—is in fashion, they’re bound to overlook marginalized local artists. Identity economics, meanwhile, only reinforces this capitalist approach to art—hashtag movements have simply proven to be as stylish as a biennial. When Andrew Hunter, one of the co-curators of AGO exhibition Every. Now. Then resigned from his senior curatorial position, he lamented that these bold interventions into Toronto’s historically white canon served as a mere marketing ploy. He published his resignation letter in the Toronto Star, stating that “engaging with diversity has to mean more than just expanding an audience for an established model.”
What will be the fate of the progressive changes made in recent years at the behest of viral social media demands? Will they be replaced by the next trending topic? Will they be sold out by activists themselves in the name of career advancement? How do we steel ourselves against the distortions of identity economics?
Identity economics is a masterful act of alchemy: corporate social media platforms spin solidarity into a cold hard currency that can be amassed and accumulated for more institutional or personal capital. In other words, this neo-liberal cacophony entices us to desire, to influence and to own. Originally, identity politics demanded the opposite. Audre Lorde’s idea of solidarity is unglamorous. “Survival is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled,” she wrote in her bedrock essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” It is “to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish.” As marginalized artists, critics and curators, we have to work to outlast the cold currency of identity economics. As fast as social media pays lip service to justice, it metabolizes ideals into saleable units. But diversity isn’t a brand— it’s an effort to understand how our fates are deeply intertwined.