IN 2008, NEWSWEEK ART CRITIC Peter Plagens asked if the photographer Catherine Opie had become too safe. Opie made her first big splash at the 1995 Whitney Biennial, where she offered “Self-Portrait/Pervert,” in which she appeared in a black leather mask and pants against a glowing rococo-patterned cloth, her arms pierced by 46 eighteen-gauge needles, the title “Pervert” carved into her skin over her breasts. “When a real live publisher, studio or museum delivers unto you readers or viewers you didn’t have before, your palms get a little sweaty,” he wrote. “You feel obligated to give them something a little more accessible, a little more mainstream than the eccentricities that got you noticed in the first place.” What LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy had called “Losing My Edge,” Plagens was calling stage fright.
Opie’s new book, Inauguration — composed of photos shot on and around January 20, 2009, when Barack Obama became the nation’s first black president — likely will not change his mind. What could be more accessible, more mainstream than covering, as Deborah Willis puts it in her catalog essay, “a ‘day in the life’ of one of the most anticipated [events] in U.S. history”?
This book arrives at a time when the culture wars are flaring up again, questions of identity are resurging, and another struggle over the meaning of America awaits in the agonizing electoral season ahead. Disillusionment with Obama is widespread. His unsteady governing has tested the once hopeful. Obama’s own “eccentricities” seem to have been sanded away. If Plagens is to be believed, Obama and Opie could be mirrors of one another, the one in politics, the other in the arts.
But it’s not quite so simple. The Occupy protesters, whose encampments numbered over 900 at their peak this fall, now embody the desire for change. At Berkeley High — where the first urban slang dictionary was compiled, and whose students joined the militant Occupy Oakland, Occupy Cal, and Occupy Berkeley protestors this past winter — there is a new term of derision: “1%.” Working definition: “Someone whose actions or thoughts are socially unacceptable, usually involving deception and/or theft.” Usage: “I called shotgun but Isaac took the seat anyway. He’s so 1%.”
Not long ago, Obama appeared to be the figure who might bridge divides, end the culture wars, and usher in a “post-racial” era. Instead, the polarization has intensified. Despite his best efforts to appear self-effacing when he could have been proud, pliable when he could have been firm, he still became the image of fear, the specter of all the things that “we Americans” are not. Immigrants, college students and youths, and David Wojnarowicz once again became targets.
Opie’s Inauguration, like William Eggleston’s 1976 Election Eve series, depicts the President and the First Lady only by proxy, as flickering dots on mobile LED video screens. Instead she places her faith in the crowds. Lines gather patiently. People smile. They sell t-shirts and calendars. They mug and hang from the White House fence. They pose beside the building nameplate for the National Council of Negro Women. They greet the anti-war protestors and the people protesting Guantanamo with cameras, not jeers. The tone of Inauguration is one of calm anticipation.
We’re still waiting.
Opie and Obama were born in the same year, 1961. Both came of age in the crucible of the culture wars. It is impossible to discuss their careers without arriving at questions of identity and how they chose to answer them. But where the biracial Obama has played quicksilver with his identity — see the carefully calibrated “Race Speech” as Exhibit A — Opie has committed unapologetically to hers. “I am an American photographer. I have represented this country and this culture,” she has said. “And I’m glad that there is a queer, out, dyke artist that’s being called an American photographer.”
The culture wars of the 80s began with right-wing attacks on gays, lesbians, and people of color, and arguably had their most dire, enduring impact on the arts and on artists. But rather than mount a sustained defense, an influential wing of the left represented by folks like Plagens, Robert Hughes, and Todd Gitlin abandoned artists and the rest of those alt- and sub-alt subjects once collectively known as the Other. They blamed the movement’s weakness on the so-called “politics of identity.”
Art critics, a mildly liberal and almost uniformly white bunch, fought the good fight against the likes of Jesse Helms and Reverend Donald Wildmon until the 1993 Whitney Biennial asked them to side with radical multiculturalists and identity renegades. Then they too turned, driving themselves to such hysterics that the ’93 Biennial gained the distinction of being both the most diverse and one of the most derided exhibitions in the history of American art. To them, “identity art” threatened the aesthetic foundations of the Western world.
The culture wars were thick with shock and awe, and Opie’s debut was particularly shocking and awe-inducing. The 1995 Biennial was meant to be a retreat from the multi-culti incursion of its predecessor, but Opie didn’t get the memo. Her work, concurrent to ACT UP and Gran Fury, arose from a deeply held commitment to her community. As she revealed in a 1993 self-portrait — in which a friend had used a razor to cut a child-like picture of two mothers, a house, and a cloudy sun into the skin of her back — this blood commitment was an extension of a deep longing for a family she could call her own. Opie’s appeal was based on a willful misreading: her anti-identity admirers could argue that the masochism of her content overwhelmed her claim for community.
But she had always wanted more than to make formally powerful work. Opie’s righteous rage was directed not only at elected and religious demagogues whose homophobia had mobilized queer resistance, but also at gays and lesbians who called for “normalizing” themselves in order to appeal to the mainstream. Opie wanted to valorize her “royal family” of the S-M community, to represent the most marginal of the marginalized, to make a visceral art of representation.
By the lost decade of the 2000s, concerns over representation seemed quaint. Identity was contained, consumerism was patriotism, art was a party. A new generation came to know Opie through the TV show, The L Word, which cast her in a cameo and featured her breakthrough 1991 series, Being and Having, in its opening credits. For her part, Opie was now photographing high school football players and Malibu surfers, communities not traditionally thought of as marginal. Domestic (1995-98) featured gay and lesbian families, including her own, looking very, well, normal. Plagens was unimpressed.
But his nostalgia for the younger Opie was born of a peculiar amnesia. In 1993 Plagens had famously dismissed the Biennial, saying it was “as close as a museum can get to a Salon of The Other without becoming an outsider art festival.” Fifteen years later, in September 2008, as the market collapsed and Obama headed to victory, he was misty for the transgressive fires of 90s identity artists. It was a weird time for these guys, a kind of a reckoning. Without any irony, The Atlantic‘s Andrew Sullivan, once the champion of Charles Murray’s anti-black, neo-eugenicist tract The Bell Curve, argued that Obama’s rise heralded the end of the culture wars: wars that Sullivan himself had helped start. How 1% is that?
Then — surprise! — identity politics helped elect the first black president. And almost prevented it: whites were the only group that did not give a majority to Obama, giving the lie to the idea that identity was only the fixation of the Other. Whiteness was not invisible and universal, it was simply another identity. Meanwhile, young whites were going ham for hip-hop, writing ironic blogs about the stuff they liked, even orchestrating high-profile same-sex kisses and doing songs about them. And — surprise! — the aesthetics of a new generation of “post-black” and “post-identity” artists became the hot topic. Representation really had meant something after all — a point that ex-haters like Joe Klein (who had once denounced Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing), and Arthur Danto (who had shredded the 1993 Biennial) eventually conceded.
Art did not stop with identity. Identity was where one began. Opie moved from the series Being and Having and O to Domestic and In and Around the Home (with bracingly beautiful formal stops like Freeways and Ice Houses in between). Why wouldn’t one who spent her youth living, loving, and defending her tribe find a similar depth of feeling in others? As Holland Cotter wrote on the occasion of Opie’s Guggenheim mid-career exhibition, evoking the 60s black art group Spiral, “Difference, in short, is the point of cohesion, the center of her art. And its circumference, on the evidence of this survey, keeps widening.” Identity radicalism, at its best, was about growing the circle.
Enter Barack Obama. In 2008, he became the picture of HOPE, The Outside coming in, a black and white man rendered in red, white, and blue. The election loomed as the representation of community writ national — the Other absorbing the center in a New Cultural Majority.Inauguration, both the event and its document, is a culmination, the crossing of a threshold not just by one but by millions. Willis writes that Opie’s photos “convey a sense that black, white, Asian, and Latino Americans feel that they are part of the same government for the first time, like they are a part of history.”
Opie has always asked to be written into history. Inauguration invites comparison to Robert Frank’s photos of the 1956 and 1984 Democratic National Conventions and to Eggleston’s 1976 journey “Election Eve.” Her shots of Navy honor guardsmen and campaign operatives recall the immigrant Frank’s almost anthropological fascination with American democracy’s secret players, its disciplined functionaries, and the beseeching and indifferent masses. And Opie’s photos of the rows of VIP chairs unfurling in the morning light before the Capitol Building grandstand, the flatbed 18-wheeler carrying portable barricades, the single souvenir flag floating above the crowd at daybreak-all echo the Plains, Georgia dreamscapes of Eggleston’s elegiac work.
Opie approaches her work with wit and self-deprecation, which may surprise many who believed that identity was as serious as the cancer they thought it to be. There is a dramatic shot of the Washington Monument thrusting into the Inauguration Eve night sky, perhaps a Lacanian inside joke referring back to Being and Having. There is a close-up of post-Inauguration garbage on the Mall, with newspapers featuring football headlines.
The book opens with a visual pun — an Obama cardboard cutout placed in front of a Virgin America banner — and they don’t stop. There is a photo of tuxedoed black and white guests, presumably Democrats, sipping champagne in a National Museum of Natural History gallery beneath a blaring mammoth, the ancestor of the Republican mascot (if one believes in evolution). Best of all, there is a mischievous class of middle-schoolers sitting on a bleacher first covering their faces with George Washington masks, then Obama masks. (How’s that for identity queering!) In a poem that accompanies the photos, seemingly composed of overheard conversation fragments, Eileen Myles writes:
any of us
could be a future mask
There are pundits and celebrities here, but they are surrounded by barricades, separated by glass, they stand apart. Opie’s eye belongs to the crowds, the 99%. One woman wears a shirt that reads, “I AM IMMIGRANT AMERICA.” Another wraps herself in a homemade quilt she has made of pictures of the Obama family. An interracial couple, facing away from the lens, lock in a tight embrace against the morning cold. An Asian American man and his daughter sit beside a freckled biracial woman on a low wall and they wait.
Crowds fill the Mall. When Obama takes the stage, they smile, shout, wave flags, snap photos. Myles repeats a line: “I’m certainly not alone.” And after? A marching band plays. A drill team member does a backflip. A three-generation black family takes a picture at the hurricane fence by the VIP zone. A homeless man, head-to-toe in camo, carries away his belongings and his tent. And Myles writes, “Everyone already wants to know what afterwards looks like.”
In December, our dining table was occupied by a group of Berkeley High sophomores, a precocious Babel of pre-, post-, and in-between identities, fiercely arguing over Obama and their future. A group of young women angrily and with impressive detail denounced Obama’s spinelessness before the banks. A young man countered that even Abraham Lincoln did not free the slaves out of the goodness of his heart. Presidents and politicians, he said, are so 1%. These young hearts burn to create new worlds.
Opie’s last photo is of two carved ice blocks sitting beside a riser in the winter shade. On the right is one chiseled into the MSNBC logo: liberalism commodified. Carved into the left block is the likeness of Obama that poster artist Shepard Fairey placed above the word HOPE. Opie must have been chuckling when she snapped this photo. Hope melts. The longings are larger, and will mass into history.