... In their own ways the artists studied here have tackled, challenged or critiqued assorted and decidedly prescribed notions of identity. It is the vexing and formidably prescribed notion of racial identity, however, that Smith takes as her starting point. Smith, whose father is black and mother white, opens her study with considerations and questions of how her parents' identities were negotiated or navigated in world obsessed with racial difference, a world in which that obsession carried and carries no end of devastating consequences. It was the persistent and corrosive effects of these lopsided notions of racial signification that led Smith to undertake this study. As she notes in her fascinating Introduction: "Despite its shifting lines of definition, blackness continues to be associated with emotionality, the body, urban culture, the primitive, overt sexuality, poverty, and heterosexist masculinity... The racial category of whiteness, by contrast, presents itself as ordinary, normal, and decidedly unraced" (11)
...Hegemonic society enacts an age-old strategy of perpetuating its own existence by effectively cloning itself, with those deemed ‘different' put at a distance or otherwise socially quarantined. It is in this context that boundaries of identity – black/white, male/female, homosexual/straight, affluent/poor, etc, most often come into play. Notions of identity must remain rigid if precious societal gene pools are to be kept pure. As Smith suggests, "'Black,' like its supposed opposite ‘white,' is imbued with a set of foundational narratives and essential characteristics that, despite their elasticity, lend the category a sense of history, stability, wholeness, and authenticity" (10-11). In different ways, Antin, Lee, Piper, and Smith have sought to dismantle or at least storm these barricades of identity. Furthermore, it is the space in which seemingly exclusive spheres of identity collide that provide these artists with a fertile terrain in which to operate.
Because of the spans of time over which these artists' practices were executed, and because of the reader's ever-present sense of Smith's awareness of the importance of broader, as well as more specific, historical contexts, Enacting Others offers a nuanced history of perceptions of, and attitudes towards, race and representation, particularly in the later decades of the twentieth century. Smith seeks to circumvent the debilitating ways in which the term identity politics quite rapidly became a way of reducing, dismissing, and further compartmentalizing the work of artists of color. This was, as Smith rightly suggests, "a tactic of neutralization and disempowerment." She uses instead, the decidedly subtler inversion of identity politics – the politics of identity. Smith advances the notion that as a term, politics of identity, "suggests a larger discursive movement which prioritizes the idea and addresses the myriad ways that identity is a valid and significant platform from which to motivate political action and to create and consume cultural products" (5). And because nothing can reasonably be divorced from the contexts in which it occurred, existed, or was produced, Smith "historicizes the politics of identity by exploring each performance in relation to the discourses prevalent in the United States at the time of its development" (back cover). She is attentive to how the artists manipulated clothing, mannerisms, voice, and other signs to negotiate their assumed identities.
This is a book of tremendous importance that will do much to advance our understandings of not only the four artists under consideration but also the cultural, artistic, social and political particularities of the moments in which their work was produced. In a society seemingly obsessed with the debilitating compartmentalizing of its citizens, this book contributes a much-needed critical understanding of the strategies, and the consequences, of a privileged sector of society assuming the right to determine the identities of those it deems the other – even as that privileged sector of society assumes a corresponding right to regard its own identity as somehow universal. (This spurious sense of certain identities regarding themselves as universal is instead, as Smith pointedly remarks, "revealed to be white, heterosexual, upper class, Christian, and male" .) In simple terms, society privileges certain people, assigning them the right to prescribe the identity of others. Consequently, those on the receiving end of such treatment must live their lives having been compromised by society. In this context, artists who seek, within their practice, to bridle against such societal machinations are perhaps amongst the most subversive and socially disruptive elements of the art world.
The full version of the above book review of Cherise Smith, Enacting Others: Politics of Identity in Eleanor Antin, Nikki S. Lee, Adrian Piper, and Anna Deavere Smith, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011, was published in Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art, 32, Spring 2013.