Modes of Knowledge-Making and Identity Politics

Adrian Piper, Catalysis III, Documentation of the performance,1970, Photographs by Rosemary Mayer, Collection Thomas Erben, New York © Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin; via whitehot magazine.

What follows are my lecture notes for my class on Contemporary Art at Georgia State University. During this class we were discussing Carrie Mae Weems, Kara Walker, Betye Saar, Pat Ward Williams, Lorna Simpson, Adrian Piper, and Cindy Sherman. I’m relying on the syllabus and slides that Dr. Susan Richmond prepared for her own Contemporary Art classes at GSU and I thank her once more for this opportunity to work with the excellent students at GSU’s Welch School of Art & Design.

Today we’re considering Bridget Cook’s essay “See Me Now” and the overarching theme of our class meeting today is to discuss how contemporary artists have demonstrated their concerns with what we call “identity politics.”

It seems to me that part of the problem facing us when we think with Cook’s essay is that representation is misleading.

Cook points us to Roland Barthes’ thinking about professional wrestling because in Barthes’ observation of professional wrestling he diagnoses something indicative of our contemporary lived situation. We live, as Guy Debord argued, in a society oriented around spectacles. So, what kind of agency can we have when we as individuals are seen as spectacles, forced into having our actions read by audiences with preconceived notions and expectations of what our bodies are supposed to mean when we go about our daily quotidian peformances?

As Cook points out, the appropriation of racist (and let’s extend this to misogynist) imagery, there is the danger that the artist doing this appropriation will inadverently reinforce the negative meaning of the original imagery. When this occurs, and it does occur, this is considered to be a failure on the part of the artist or author of the work.

But we are left with the dilemma: as typified by the reactions of the RISD custodians who went on strike upon viewing Weems’ exhibition, Ain’t Jokin’. Cook asks us to consider the following question, how does the our reception of a work of art transform when we become aware of the race/gender of an artist? In the case of the RISD custodial staff it was obvious that not all participants in the strike were not placated upon finding out that Weems is a Black woman (one member of the strike quit rather than return). Now, it could be that person quit for extenuating reasons, but we can easily imagine that among the returning workers the question of how appropriate this exhibition was lingered in the minds of many.

Cook frequently discusses the relationship with knowledge and these appropriated images. So, I want to suggest that part of what is at play here is the difficulty that arises when two modes of knowledge come into proximity of one another. Since we’ve been discussing judgment and the need for art criticism to provide a reliable method for evaluating art objects, let’s look at how expertise comes to be.

There are at least two ways of understanding what is true. Tom Kasulis presents us with what he refers to as the “correspondence theory of truth” and contrasts it with what he coins the “assimilation theory of truth.” I believe that we can extend the lessons of Cook’s essay by considering and then acting from insights we gain when we understand Kasulis’ thinking on the matter.

The correspondence theory of truth is the dominant model of how we claim to know something. In this model it is assumed that the world out there exists independently of what I think about the world. Through my observations of the world out there I come into a relationship with the world and the name of that relationship is “knowledge.” Kasulis points to Galileo and his “discovery” of Jupiter’s moons to illustrate this relationship. There are three parts to this externalized relationship:

  1. (A) The preexisting reality (those moons were there long before Galileo was thinking about them)
  2. (B) Galileo had a theory that they might exist because he observed something strange when he looked at Jupiter through his low-quality telescope
  3. (R) the verification testing (the mathematics of orbits) that confirmed his idea—thus we say he “discovered” knowledge of the moons.

With this model of knowledge it is assumed that anybody, properly positioned will be able to have the same knowledge about the reality of the world around them. But that’s not really how the entirety of the world works.

Consider the concept of the “painter’s painter,” this figure that often goes unsung for decades or more and then suddenly bursts onto the stage with significant gravitas. How does someone come to be understood as a “painter’s painter”? The answer is that painters have a common practice and it is through this common practice among painters that they come to judge the quality of their peers’ works and deem some of their peers to be truly exceptional, “a painter’s painter.”

Kasulis uses the example of the Olympic diving judge. He asks us to consider how it is possible that judges of sports like diving come to agree on the scores they assign to competitors? As he points out, these scores are spontaneous assessments and often there is significant agreement in the scores (it’s rare that an athlete gets three scores of 7 and then one person gives the athlete a 2). These judges don’t convene and compromise or come to a consensus through discussion, yet they each appear to have arrived at a common understanding.

Kasulis argues that this is the case because these judges (or in our case, painters) don’t use a correspondence theory of truth. Instead, our judges are demonstrating the assimilation theory of truth. In this model, what is knowable is a matter of interrelating between a person and the world. The knowledge one gains is acquired through practice. Kasulis names this “assimilation” because of the term’s meaning in physiology: assimilation in that context refers to the way in which organisms gain nourishment from the food it consumes. Those nutrients from the world out there become actually in-corporated. It becomes part of their body.

So is it with expert judges, especially of performance-activities like dance or painting. Expertise in these domains is a matter of coming to embody the knowledge one has gained by practicing the materials and techniques over and over again until these become a second nature. In this model of knowledge-making, we find ourselves transformed by what we learn and the world itself becomes transformed by our relationship with it. Critically, this knowledge is not contained only within the individual, but is a communal knowledge. This communal knowledge is exercised through specialized language that communicates to the initiated that they have a common body of knowledge, and also serves to delimit the boundaries of the community. If you don’t understand the word we’re using, it’s because you don’t belong among us. This is literally how code switching functions.