In a recent essay “How Identity Politics Conquered the Art World, An Oral History”, Jerry Saltz and Rachel Corbett strive to make sense of our current pluralistic era of contemporary art by constructing a narrative in which the 1993 Whitney Biennial marks the establishment of a new direction for art-making, a movement they describe as “the art of the first person”.
“After the ’80s, we seem to have lost the reflex to recognize or name new art movements — maybe because in the sprawling new art ecology there were so many isms sprouting at once; plus we’ve always categorized things by formal, medium-based, and geographical attributes. But something has happened here, over the last 25 years, that I am sure will be recognized with great clarity by art-history students very soon. Art in this era has veered dramatically toward an approach that hasn’t been seen in the West for more than 1,000 years: a concerted urge, almost a rage, to be totally communicative to the largest possible audiences, addressing cognoscenti, novices, and newcomers in the same register, telling stories of social, political, and philosophical conditions. Of course, not everybody today is making this kind of work. But taken together, it does constitute a real aesthetic movement, one that is biographical, autobiographical, personal — the art of the first person.”
In this narrative, "the art of the first person" is the product of an increased focus on identity politics in contemporary art. The ‘93 biennial was “reviled” with an intense rejection of the perceived abrasiveness of its political works, but Saltz and Corbett describe a significant shift that occurs in the 90s as a result of what was underlying a new approach to thinking about art and identity.
“For the first time, biography, history, the plight of the marginalized, institutional politics, context, sociologies, anthropologies, and privilege have all been recognized as “forms,” “genres,” and “materials” in art. Possibly the core materials.”
The history that Saltz and Corbett lay out is elaborate, well researched, and very compelling. However, there is a crucial piece missing where the emergence of “new forms” and “materials” derived from marginalization and identity is conflated with the “Rage, to be totally communicative to the largest possible audiences”; that missing piece is "Neurodiversity". This concept, which has been used in recent years to describe the goals of disability rights advocacy, often goes unmentioned in the identity politics discourse. In an essay regarding identity politics and disability studies Anna Mollow writes:
Paradoxically, the construction of disability as a minority identity is often impelled by the desire to gain recognition for disability as a concept of universal importance: Siebers, Davis, Thomson, and other disability scholars have called attention to the marginalization of disability within academic conversations and then argued powerfully for its inclusion within these conversations. Following their example, we must continue to foreground academic inattention to disability. At the same time, we must insist upon the relevance of disability to a wide range of contemporary theoretical and political discussions. (source)
The concept of Neurodiversity emerged in the late 90s from the Autism Rights Movement and its intention to catalyze the recognition and acceptance of those who are neurologically divergent from the majority of the population. Furthermore, it asserts that neurological differences should be respected as a marginalized social category equal to those of ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. What Neurodiversity proposes, though, is much broader and more profound than autistic self-advocacy or even disability rights advocacy. It sets a new standard for what it means to appreciate the tangible power and value of diversity, leaving no room for the concessions or weaknesses of past identity politics movements. Neurodiversity doesn’t permit the possibility of assimilation; it requires that individuals in our society not only coexist while being essentially different from one another in profound ways, but actively strive to accommodate those disparities.
The context of Neurodiversity allows us to understand that "the art of the first person" is actually art made for a “broader” audience as a consequence of making art for an “other” audience. It’s not necessarily the case that an “other” artist aspires to appeal to a “broader” audience, but a “broader” audience becoming more diverse as it includes “others” that has the effect of making the their audience broader. An “other” artist appealing to an “other” audience was an “outsider” artist, so the “the art of the first person” works toward dismantling the possibility of outsiderism.
David Hammons, described by Saltz and Corbett as the godfather of the identity politics movement, has created work that addresses a broader audience in as much as it engages social issues that we're all familiar with. At the same time, though, it expresses concepts that people of color can understand and experience, but that white viewers can only speculate about. This sets a precedent for including artists who are engaging concepts that not all viewers can experience equally, or with the same directness, which permits a new way of thinking about the work of artists like Thornton Dial or Lonnie Holley (who are still marginalized and lumped into outsider categories) - no longer as artifacts from a separate world, but work created by an artist who is present and participates in our world, which we appreciate across a significant disparity of mind or circumstances. While the marginalization of Dial and Holley is the result of race, class, or geography, in the case of artists with disabilities, it's due to brains that function differently.
Whereas, artists like David Hammons actively strive to create a bridge to a broader audience by making works that appeal to mainstream contemporary art (the broader audience) that simultaneously speak in distinctly black voice (to the “other” audience). On a deeper level ,the inclusion of this work isn't driven by social justice alone, but rather the drive of contemporary art to rethink and break down its boundaries in search of ideas and practices that are more deliberate, absolute, innovative, and unrestricted by convention or culture.
Often described loosely as an outsider by critics and dealers due to his ambivalence toward and rejection of art world protocol, Hammons has always been open about his appreciation for self-taught artists and the influence they’ve had on his work. Outside Insight, a ground-breaking yet under-appreciated 1988 exhibition at MoMA’s Clocktower (that Hammons co-curated with Ed McGowin), championed the work of outsider artists that they sought out in rural North Carolina.
Although “Outside Insight” has received relatively little critical attention, the exhibition captures an important chapter in the development of Hammons’ artistic sensibility. “Outside Insight” evinces his identification with vernacular African-American cultural forms, self-effacing relationship to authorship, and profound sense of the value of everyday objects and gestures. (source)
Creating compelling contemporary work now requires an extreme abandoning of convention due to the expectation of producing “art of the first person”, which requires contemporary artists to fully re-invent art for themselves - finding new ways of thinking and being while teaching themselves within this new context (such as Theaster Gates' urban planning research).
Strangely, progressive art studios aren’t recognized as fitting into the increasingly popular social practice/socially engaged fields of art, even as artists who come from this radical model (notably Judith Scott, Marlon Mullen, William Scott, Helen Rae, and Julian Martin) are being represented by and exhibited at prominent galleries and museums. Unlike Hammons, many contemporary artists seem hesitant or uncomfortable citing these artists despite obvious influences in their work, or worse, find it unnecessary. Critics, with the exception of Saltz, David Pagel, and a few others, are hesitant to write about current work by self-taught artists, especially through the lens of contemporary art. As a result, the art historical canon still doesn’t accurately reflect the contributions of these artists (especially those with disabilities).
Understanding the emergence of “the art of the first person” is incomplete without including the convergence of outsiders into the mainstream, as well as the shifting focus within outsider art to living artists, especially self-taught developmentally disabled artists facilitated by trained, neurotypical peers in progressive art studios, where the most extreme disparities between the contemporary mainstream and the “other” are simultaneously transgressed and maintained.