Identity Politics

Is “Identity politics” destroying beauty and truth in Art? Writer and art critic Sohrab Ahmari argues particularly trans and gender variant issues are clogging galleries with worthless pieces.

Why is there identity politics in Art? It is a reaction to failings in the art world. All art is political. I love The History of Art by EH Gombrich, but it has only one work by a woman. Here it is.

Women’s art addresses issues important to women from a woman’s perspective. Men will benefit from seeing this, by gaining empathy and understanding. Almost ignoring women’s art, Gombrich missed out the perspective of half of humanity. Artemisia Gentileschi’s rapist said she could recover her honour as a woman no longer virgin, by marrying him. See the glorious contempt her female subjects have for the men:

Ahmari says political work is not beautiful. Identity politics is fundamentally opposed to free speech and free thought… art that deals with race, gender, sexuality, power and privilege dominates the art scene. He contrasts this with a Caravaggio:

The beauty of Italian art in the 17th century is clear. Both these paintings show real people, in complex poses. Their faces are expressive. The boy reaches out for fruit, and is unexpectedly bitten, perhaps a metaphor for a dose of the clap.

Ahmari wants art to describe the world as you really see it rather than putting everything through a political frame. Yet the experience of unwanted sexual attention is the world as Gentileschi experienced it, and any man should see is widespread.

It is not clear that the “identity politics” work, dealing with the women’s issue of unwanted sexual attention, is less beautiful. However, the skills of representation are so widespread now, when many illustrators could show a wide variety of facial expression and human posture, that art has moved on. Gombrich shows how the greatest painters learned them from scratch, over centuries, but now they can be taught in amateur sketching classes.

Contemporary art is beautiful in a different way. Charlotte Prodger’s Turner Prize-winning piece is beautiful. In her video she talks of being misgendered. I relate to it. My experience is in her art. It may not be Ahmari’s experience, yet art about how trans and gender variant people experience the world directly speaks to us, and enables others to see our point of view- it enlarges their empathy and understanding.

Ahmari claims not to be criticising autobiography in art, using one’s own life, but you need to say something about the human condition as well, not just about yourself. Well, Ahmari does not get misgendered, but he probably gets misunderstood and misrepresented. If he approaches Prodger’s work with empathy and imagination rather than judgment, he would see the universal message in it.

In the programme, Alexander Adams says publicly funded art tends to have a very narrow political view. There should be art that is critical of multiculturalism, critical of immigration, critical of transgenderism. If he can point to any good art critical of immigration I would like to see it. I am reminded of the Great German Art exhibition, running concurrently to the Degenerate Art exhibition. We hear again the idea that the Trans Lobby is fantastically powerful, shutting down debate, and yet here are all the free speech advocates, endlessly inveighing against us.

All art is political. It either underpins or subverts current power structures. It either silences or gives a voice to disempowered groups. In the programme, Tiffany Jenkins says I think the arts have been asked to solve social problems. So they’ve been asked to improve the lives of communities by raising their self-esteem, by making them feel good about themselves. I don’t think the arts can do that. But I loved the exhibition Art in the Age of Black Power: Black people, standing tall and proud despite oppression. Seeing these heroes must have inspired Black people looking at these works, and I, with my white privilege, can delight in that heroism and resistance.

Ahmari mentions the controversy over Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till. He ignores the point that Black artists are underrepresented in white-run art galleries. When we are equal, we can share each others’ stories, but the powerful should not use the stories of the weak for their own gain.

My experience as a trans woman is generalisable to universal human experience- of the tension between being yourself and fitting in; of feeling and hurt and delight. Art by trans people seen with sympathy can enlarge the understanding of its audience. It is not “identity politics” to show art by gender variant people, but simply Art- seeing the universal in the particular, enlarging our understanding of what it is to be human. As Ahmari says, probably most of the art created now will not be around in fifty years’ time- but the best will survive, and will include art by minorities. Because not only white western men can be artists.

Will Skidelsky

If I were to write for money, I could find a worse role-model than Will Skidelsky. Here he is on cleft palates, treatment in England and India, and his own experience of his son’s cleft palate. The main focus of the article is Mr Skidelsky himself: “I” and “we”, for he and his wife, or he and his family, are common words, and the first paragraph is about his shock at the first diagnosis. He tells us his wife Gudrun feared setting eyes on their son, with this blemish. Feelings are paramount as he investigates the condition: confusion, trust, distress. Fortunately, on seeing their son’s face for the first time, the cleft was part of him, and so something to love.

The photo is of Will looking adoringly down at the baby, while his wife looks with amusement, I think, as well as Love, at him. Then, there is a bit about India.

Gosh, what a gig, eh? Off to India, long feature in the Observer magazine, colour photos of himself? I am so envious.

He discloses early that his wife had to have a late abortion, previously, because her child would not develop internal organs, and could not survive birth. This is a main subject of his book, “Federer and me”. In the Guardian, Julian Barnes eviscerated it. Perhaps most people would think that the partner’s proper position is as a support of the mother. She carries the child, she has to go through the termination. Instead, he runs away. My girlfriend, understandably grief-stricken, wanted closeness, intimacy. But I ran away from my feelings – and, by extension, from her. As ever, I sought refuge in tennis.

Understandably, things with my girlfriend had not been good, and one senses this may be understatement. Finally, he manages to accept his feelings, at Federer’s match with Djokovic.

This is a kind of writing I could emulate. Writers mine our own feelings for subject-matter, and while few have a hare-lip, most parents could relate to seeing the child for the first time, and falling in love- though some could not, and get pain from that. And most could relate to stories of desperate wishing the child would JUST SHUT UP!!!! and feelings of shame, or relief that temptation to hurt the child was resisted. There, you see, I am entering imaginatively into the experience of others which I have not had, but have heard of. Barnes does not think much of Skidelsky’s emotional intelligence: though he is able to identify and refer to emotional states, his ability to evoke them, characterise or colourise them, let alone follow through on their consequences, feels remarkably limited.

Richard observed drily that it can’t hurt that his father is a peer of the realm. Will was privately educated; we noticed at University that the “Yahs”, as we called them, had ineffable self-confidence. Will has had contacts, breaks, I have not had, but also clear talents which he has developed. Richard quotes Philip Pullman saying that most published authors earn less than the median wage- perhaps less than the minimum, we wonder? However, looking up at this vertiginous cliff- Pullman, with most people in Britain knowing his name, then Barnes, a long way above Skidelsky, a vast distance above me (Ooh! 10,000 page views for one blog post!) I wonder if my writing could ever be more than a hobby?

Caravaggio, John the Baptist

Marlene Dumas

There is a crisis with regard to Representation. They are looking for Meaning as if it was a thing. As if it was a girl, required to take her panties off as if she would want to do so, as soon as the true interpreter comes along. As if there was something to take off.

-Marlene Dumas The Artwork as Misunderstanding 1991

The image of the girl taking her panties off, required to appear to like it however she really feels, makes the quote memorable, though the idea of an art work having many meanings or none is commonplace enough for me to take it for granted. Who are “They”, Marlene? The oppressors, I imagine, though that is me imposing Meaning. I become more politically aware, and realise: that idea is commonplace but not universal. Meaning is like understanding, something discrete, limited, comprehended, which ends possibility.

She afflicts the comfortable, and comforts the afflicted. There is a little girl, with a “feminine” cringe on her head, and a little-girl hairstyle, but fire behind her eyes, where she is free. At least I see her that way, and do not care if it is facile. Art is not a mirror. Art is a translation of that which you do not know. I have wanted to state Myself, and if that is unacceptable to anyone I have been hurt- self-acceptance in hostile surroundings is different. She moves me, that girl, with new possibilities, though I would not find their necessity pleasant. She considers the ‘amoral touch’ very important in the creation of a work. Yes. She observes, rather than praising or condemning.

There are Orthodox Jews by a wall, and I realise with a shock it is not the wailing wall but the separation barrier in the West Bank. So she can play with expectations. There are the heads of black people from photographs from the 19th century, to show the colonial masters the inferior beings they governed. Dumas painting their portraits shows concern for their individuality. For an exhibition in Russia, where the “promotion of homosexuality” is illegal, she painted a series of “Great Men”, all gay.

She paints after pornographic images, including a woman holding her vagina open with her fingers. We are all depersonalised, naked, inspected, sometimes.

She paints St Lucy dead after Caravaggio, and this is shown beside the head of the killer Ulrike Meinhof, painted from a photograph of her corpse.

After my 24 hours with the Trident protesters, and the war photography, and now Dumas, I come away with this thought:

The world is weird
however vile it is
I am still free

Simple, perhaps- yet realising it is not.

Stern 2004 by Marlene Dumas born 1953

Who do you say that I am?

Francesco_Buoneri,_called_Cecco_del_Caravaggio_-_The_Resurrection_-_Google_Art_ProjectIn response to Jesus’ challenge, Douglas Gwyn and others give widely differing perspectives and further challenges, in the Quaker way. Frank Parkinson quotes Philippians, “Have the mind that was in Christ”, which is the heart of Quaker practice, and a Sufi rule of Rabia Basri, “Don’t complain”, which he finds an effective discipline in de-selfing the self.

Gwyn challenges all of us, in our Quaker camps. To non-theists, who include atheist Quakers, he says, Who is the Christ you have outgrown or find incredible?… Are you prepared to grapple with the deep paradoxes and troubling ironies of a mature Christian faith? They have dispensed with not only the old man with a beard in the sky, but all transcendence.

Transcendence? God transcends, is beyond, all things… the transcendent otherness of God in Christ [minimises by comparison] any human otherness. Direct knowledge of God comes from the immanent presence of the Spirit. The Resurrection is true, because for two thousand years people have had direct experience of the risen Lord.

He identifies a Quaker paradox. From George Fox, we affirm that the Light is in all people, at all times, whether or not they are Christian. Turning to the Light, anyone can lead a blessed, redeemed and enlightened life. This is more than Paul said in Romans 1:19- For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Initially, we identified this Light with God as known to Christians and revealed in the Bible, but now either we are Christian, and doubt its universality, or are Universalist, and doubt its specifically Christian explanation.

Early in the 20th century, John Wilhelm Rowntree and Rufus Jones moved Quakerism from the Evangelical beliefs of our specified Christian doctrine towards a mystical religion of experience, until only knowledge from experience mattered. This makes us a religion of right practices. For Gwyn, there is no pure experience: we frame our experience in terms of what we believe to be true. Likewise, there is no pure process or method of discernment which is not attended by beliefs and frameworks of explanation. Quaker faith and practice at its best is an interaction of beliefs and processes that constantly interact and refine each other…. As Quaker beliefs have become more diverse and fluid, process is the one thing to hold Friends together; but it cannot sustain a coherent Quaker witness to the world.

Perhaps that needs testing empirically. I would say that one could believe it possible through Quaker processes to set aside the ego and seek the Good; and that the “promptings of love and truth” in the heart of a social species which has learned to live together in agglomerations of millions are sufficient to find that Good.

Then there are personal experiences. Thomas Swain writes that he knows Christ in himself. The important thing is learning to live in the unfolding life of this Presence within that transforms me again and again. I now have a friend. I now have a teacher that guides me and continually transforms my life as I learn to use my spirit-given gifts.

Leaflet “But Who do you say that I am?- Quakers and Christ today”.

Truth and perception is truth?

Two articles in The Friend, just before meeting, wound me up. One attacked a postmodern view of history: history is what happened, and not a view someone wants to put over. Its purpose was to criticise David Boulton’s argument that non-theism was in the Society of Friends from the beginning. One said that truth is indivisible: “my truth” and “your truth” is meaningless.

I went into meeting churning with these ideas. Also there was Arkenaten‘s dispute with Chi-Alpha girl: can I show that religion has value as more than a way of producing hypotheses about how the world works?

I had definite ideas about what having “heart and mind prepared” looks like: being calm, and able to listen; and if I say it could also mean being churned up, and seeking Answers that may be a rationalisation because otherwise I was Doing it Wrong this morning. Doing it Right matters.

A rationalist view of the world certainly has value. Proposing theories and testing their validity and predictive capacity helps us find truth. It can even make useful statements about how human beings observe and interact with reality, and how this affects our search for truth. Treating the Bible as such a hypothesis, as a fundamentalist would- the Earth is <10,000 years old, it is the centre of the Universe– gets in the way of this search for truth. Yet my spiritual searchings help me to relate to other human beings, and understand myself and my motivations, even if I cannot articulate how.

It is possible to be wrong, deliberately or carelessly, but “my truth” and “your truth” can still differ even if both of us are attempting to be as truthful as possible. The way we see, and the way we think about things, can lead to us talking past each other, and liking different kinds of history: finding how much the Darien adventure cost, and what proportion of Scotland’s capital it destroyed; or seeking to empathise with the feelings of those involved.

I went into meeting distressed about these conflicts, and wanting them smoothed over. (This is an important part of my self-image now, as a conciliator.) And after three quarters of the Meeting, I thought, this is how it is, these different views, different people striving for Good in their own way. And that may be a religious experience, a Vision of the Goodness of the Universe, or a simplistic rationalisation, or giving up in the face of overwhelming difficulty: but right now it feels good.


IFile:Michelangelo Caravaggio 018.jpg feel I have wasted my life.

So a friend wrote, on an email. I hope anyone who has paid full attention to this blog and its comments over two years, or is an attentive “friend” on facebook, cannot identify him/her, and will not try; and perhaps it is such a common feeling that you may imagine many people who have thought it at some time recently. This set me off. Well: what do you imagine you might have used it for? What have you actually done with it, and how might you have done more?

I read my diary entry from December 2012, and it seemed that I have not moved forward at all, from there. Anything I can say about my spiritual development and my spiritual plight is there. I need to love and accept myself, get on with goals, etc.

Ridiculously, I still feel a pang when I come across U’s name. I don’t think about her every day, now, not even every week, but some reminders pull me up, take me aback. So I can think, well, it is not ridiculous, it is my reaction. Breathe. It is alright. Delete the word “Ridiculously”. Or-

I too feel I have wasted my life. I feel I have not used or developed my talents, or taken my opportunities, or filled the unforgiving minutes with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run. Writing in my journal is the place to do this, not here: here I will simply announce that I intend File:Davide con la testa di Golia (particolare).jpgto compose my own indictment. Precisely how have I been useless, fuckwitted, cowardly, wicked, worthless, a waste of oxygen? What in me is worthy of my hatred and contempt? For that is what I feel.

I have been running from my feelings, burying myself in social networking sites and television, and I have airy spiritual plans: a Vipassana retreat, perhaps, or using my solitude here, now, as my own silent retreat. Not touching the computer, but meditating and reading and doing stuff useful to me- keep the house tidy, say, do my washing promptly- working out and rectifying my spiritual malaise. When I do come across the depth of my feelings, anger frustration resentment and fear, I realise how necessary that running away is- and the anger is still there, anger with the necessary running away itself.

So. An indictment. Why do I deserve my anger and contempt? For I have them, in full measure. Why am I worthy of Hell? I cannot forgive myself, if I cannot see all that could possibly need forgiveness.

The aim is self-forgiveness: but I do that by going through my anger, rather than repressing or denying it.

Wine and anger wine helped me find my anger.

I am angry at my father, and usually I would just suppress it. I woke at 1.30am, in misery at his loss, and woke at nine feeling miserable, lacking in energy, and thinking that I should not drink wine at all. It is important for me to Be Positive. How can I help my father, now? I felt anger at his lack of judgment, and in that found my own miserliness.

Fortunately, I am at Will’s house. I need held, while I scream and weep. Screaming is negotiable- dratted terraced houses- and I could control it even if it is good to let it out. I talk of the situation, and Will notices how I get continually distracted. That thing on his wall- yes, that is beautiful. That thing on the window is beautiful too. The Apple corp symbol- it is all circles, you know, the bite is a true arc, the apple is such a rich symbol from Adam on-

I find things to distract myself, ideally pretty things I can delight in. And Will notices I go still, and stop breathing. This is the small child’s reaction, feeling anger and needing to suppress it, and be perfectly still. Perhaps I could find a better way to be, as an adult. feels good, after. I have said it, and been heard. I feel present in my body, and powerful: open body language, feet slightly apart and arms loosely by my side. This is all so difficult- whether this is “masculine” or “feminine” is a question for my agonising- and I am getting there, now. We talk more generally: Will learned a Gurdjieff technique of Presence, naming to ourselves what we notice in the moment. I remember the bird- one eye staring at the ground, looking for the sign of worms to eat, and one eye aware of as much of the world around as possible. For me, the awareness of the World seems the spiritual experience, for it is the less common one- a balance between focus and wide-awareness might be a step further.

Thinking of transference. Something angers me which I cannot express, and then I am reminded of it and my old anger comes out at the new stimulus- possibly an anger completely out of proportion. And of wine- it is a risky way of finding anger, out of control, but if my inhibitions are too strong I have to get round them somehow. It is a good job I do not drink to escape.

At the course, we milled, and said to the person I face, one of these three:
I feel that I can trust you
-I am not sure whether I can trust you
-I do not feel that I can trust you

When I see someone embarrassed, who says “I feel that I can trust you”, it seems, out of a desire to placate, I feel I cannot trust. I would rather tell the truth, perhaps slightly negatively, and worry about others’ feelings later. And it is their stuff, not mine, if they call me trustworthy or untrustworthy. I know I can be trusted to do my best, even if not to be “perfect”.

Of Sin

One of the tortures of being human is that we do not do all we feel we ought. One New Testament Greek word for this is hamartia, missing the target. Paul lamented that he did what he ought not to do, not what he ought. We have a very high target: we say we are made in the image of God.

A healthful Christian response to this is to look back at my day or week, see where I have missed my ideal, and ask forgiveness for it. Our dogma is that forgiveness is available when asked in faith, unlimitedly, though the consequences of ill-doing may linger. We seek to do well, and forgive ourselves for not, and keep trying, and that seems a useful psychological tool. “Sin” is a way of recognising where we have not done well. The Anglican confessional is better than the Roman: sometimes one needs the assurance of forgiveness from others, but this is not necessary all the time.

We can take it too far, as with certain 17th century Scottish Calvinists: being Elect, they knew anything they did was forgiven, so they could permit themselves anything. This is antinomianism, contrary to John’s definition of sin, 1 John 3:4: sin is lawlessness.

Problems arise when we note the sin of others, and in blog homosexuality debates I get this quoted at me, I Cor 5:

9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people – 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11 But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister[c] but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.

12 What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked person from among you.’[d]

That footnote d refers to Deut. 13:5; 17:7; 19:19; 21:21; 22:21,24; 24:7

But in 2 Cor 2, Paul gives his own answer to this: 5 If anyone has caused grief, he has not so much grieved me as he has grieved all of you to some extent – not to put it too severely. 6 The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient. 7 Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8 I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.

Hebrews 6: 4-6 limits forgiveness: 4 It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age 6 and who have fallen[c] away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.

But the Church rejects the clear implication of that passage taken alone, in our creed: “I believe in the forgiveness of sins”.

Writing this I started from my own memory, but quickly went back to William Barclay, with CS Lewis my most beloved source of popular theology. Tomorrow I shall take from his summaries of the various words for sin in the Bible.

Polemic and Eirenic

I got compared to a rapist. Umm, no…

Start at the beginning. Here is a feminist explaining how trans anti-discrimination laws should be drafted, if they are to be fair to persons of the female sex, which she defines. She supports females, that is, persons with female reproductive organs, against repression by patriarchal culture which restricts the expression and roles of those persons based on their reproductive organs. Hooray! So do I! Indeed, when I express myself female I am ripping that repression apart, getting rid of all the conventions which impose such restrictions. Let us join together in common cause.

Read her post to find why this does not appeal to her.

She asked if I liked violating boundaries, and I said yes, knowing that I was walking into a trap. I was not sure what the trap was. She replied,

Violating a boundary Females set is what Rapists do. It is oppressive. Learn respect.

Er, um. Rape is a unique violation, of a vagina by a penis. You would not like it if men compared themselves to rape victims. Yes, you feel violated by patriarchy, but a rape victim has been traumatised, uniquely, on top of that. And while I may have benefitted from patriarchy at various times, even oppressed women, I have not oppressed women in that way.

Here is a little rhyme I learned at MCC:

He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In!

She may think she is making a rational argument, I think her argument is affected by her anger. The argument is whether trans women should be included in women’s space. She says not, because “females”, those with female reproductive organs, say not. So, her definition should trump mine, because she is a real woman. I call that oppressive, and, yes, bigoted. Even her “compromise”, that if I can show evidence that I have had some medical intervention towards transition such as taking hormones, requires me to prove I am allowed in women’s space, restricts some trans women, and treats me as less than the Normal people.

Of course expression and roles should not be defined by reproductive organs. She does not like the word “kyriarchy”, it is a prick word- no, it recognises that people are oppressed as well as oppressors, like black men who say “Don’t compare your sin to my skin” as an argument against gay rights. It also takes the word “patriarchy” and twists it, so that it no longer only refers to the oppression of women by men. It says other forms of oppression are important too.

Actually, I love the following from that second site, its defiance, its “If you think I am unreasonable that is not my problem”-

Please leave a comment, but be aware that if it contains the words “cis”, “intersecting”, “sex-positive”, “dialogue” or “constructive” it will be deleted automatically.

No, she does not have to listen to me: she is quite entitled only to engage with people who agree with her, if she wishes.


File:Caravaggio - Taking of Christ - Dublin.jpg  Why a picture of Jesus? Because he did what he thought was right, and was always entirely himself- and he got killed for it. I really do not want to draw attention to myself, because it will be hostile.

OK. That makes no sense at all. It is not my experience. At the office where I volunteer, a man gave me a box of chocolates because what I did with him came good. That is grateful, rather than hostile. However it is a reason why I wear a mask.

This maskedness produces a deep self-loathing- I am a coward and disgusting hypocrite.

Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago:
In following him, I follow but myself;
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so, for my peculiar end:
For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In compliment extern, ’tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.

-“Iago”, Othello, Act i scene i.

Here I am in a quandary. How to be, what to do, now? I do not like this way of being. I do not think it sane or healthy. How may I ameliorate it?


Here’s what to do:

I asked, How do we take the step? What about- by fearing not taking it more than taking it?

Singingbones replied,

yes, or you could say, by taking yourself firmly in hand and finding the courage inside to do the thing you are fearing. Once I was about to do something which I wanted very much, and also feared very much. I couldn’t sleep that night, and called a wise friend to ask for advice. She told me to imagine the worst thing that could happen if I went ahead and did the thing. And once I could see through my fear all the way to the end, I saw how it was a huge illusion that I was fearing. That was good advice which I have used many times since.

What’s the worst thing that can happen? There is a far greater threat from not taking a risk than facing it. As she says, “Life is challenging and constantly demanding courage, forgiveness and patience”. What she says is simple, and with my learning style I still benefit from her giving a concrete example. And “see through the fear all the way to the end” is beautiful.

So that is what to do. Take risks. “Feel the fear and do it anyway.”

However, a variation. I am going to respect the depth of the problem, and the courage I have shown so far in facing it. I am going to celebrate the risks I have actually taken, and those which I take- for I habitually discount any virtue in myself, and I need to acknowledge the virtue. The steps I am taking are the steps I am taking. I have the time to take them in.