Identity is Theft

December 28, 2005 Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments (0) 1141

Felicity Rich and I collaborated on a piece that is currently in the Faculty Sabbatical Show at Betty Rymer Gallery through mid-February. The piece is largely a website ( and we will be doing a gallery talk about it on Thursday, February 9 at noon. Briefly, it is about how we steal elements of our identity from the past, from foreign places and experiences; about how identity is a tricky bit of both belonging and separating. And of course it is about what this blog is about: How history gets denatured into heritage.

Oh, and a big thanks to our overseas consultant. Mark Miller, for making the thing work.

But that isn’t the point of this post, which has more to do with art history. I was at this Marion Mahony Griffin exhibit up at Northwestern seven weeks ago and there were these presentations on Marion and her incomparable drawings, and one scholar dropped a bomb about one of the drawings actually being the work of another person from the Frank Lloyd Wright studio. It reminded me of Marion Mahony Griffin’s late life attempts to reassign credit for various Wright designs to her or her husband Walter Burley Griffin. It reminded me of what a lot of art history devolves into, the sort of hermetic scholasticism Reyner Banham lamented as “how many influences you can balance on the head of a pin” which is not an exact quote, appropriately enough.

The problem with this whole approach is that it misconstrues the creative process.

You see, Felicity and I collaborated on Identity Is Theft. Most of the images are hers, and much of the text is mine. But I also did images and Felicity also did text – including for example the funny testimonials on the left sidebar, which many people assumed were by me.

We worked on this thing for six months. When we opened the show on December 7 I DID NOT REMEMBER who contributed what to various elements of the piece. Not a few weeks later, I, one of the collaborators, could not tease apart who did what. It was a collaborative creative process, like work in an architectural studio. To assign it to one person or the other would be wrong. Even to find a videotape that showed one person making a mark or clicking a mouse would be wrong because that person was collaborating, not working alone!

The attribution of work to individuals in a group setting invokes a sort of magic agency to the creative process. Bolts of lightning from above. The idea of a genius. Is it Gilbert or is it George? Lennon or McCartney? This is silly because it denies context.

One or more of the architects in a certain studio at a certain time may well have influenced the plan or appearace of a certain building more than the others. But so what? The building was produced by the studio within that context and only that context. To say otherwise is to jump outside history into the world of magic agency.

Would “Scrambled Eggs” have become “Yesterday” without Lennon? Answering such a rhetorical question may help in rhetorical skills but adds nothing to our understanding of the work of art because we have left history and context aside.

Maybe that was one of the points of Identity Is Theft – when we say something is our identity, we deny its context: gender, heritage, lifestyle, class, place or experience.

Maybe. But I’m not sure. I’ll have to ask Felicity.

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