What If the Whitney Biennial Really Mattered?

The Visual Arts in a Fragmented Society

by James Romaine

Liz Larner, RWBs, 2005 Aluminum tubing, batting, fabric, ribbons, wire, rope, padlocks and keys.  Collection of the Artist, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles

The Whitney Museum of American Art’s Biennial, a survey of contemporary American art first held in 1932, has become decreasingly relevant for a variety of reasons that manifest a deeper dilemma in our culture. As America seems to be technologically advancing, morally adrift and politically polarized, a vibrant and creative culture that would boldly engage questions of our human condition and graciously transcend our divisions is critically necessary. Yet, if the 2006 Biennial is a measure of the attitudes and aims of a significant segment of contemporary curators and artists, we need to be looking for fresh strategies to reinvigorate our culture. We need to encourage artists to understand and embrace a greater sense of their roles as guardians and facilitators of cultural stewardship and development. The Whitney should organize Biennials that facilitate dialogue on issues that truly matter to the social and spiritual development and healing of our fractured nation.

The Whitney Biennial has become a broken mirror in which a narcissistic art world reflects itself. New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman writes in the opening paragraph of his review of the 2006 Biennial: “I imagine it will provoke much head scratching by uninitiated visitors. This typically huge exhibition is very much an insider’s affair, a hermetic take on what has been making waves.” 1 His remark points up to a basic problem; artists and their public aren’t talking to each other. The initiated art world that Kimmelman describes as the Biennial’s principal audience and the uninitiated public have become strangers passing in the night. Much of contemporary art has abdicated its power to encourage and challenge us to a greater sense of ourselves as individuals and as a society. An art that does not communicate cannot inspire.

If the Biennial is incomprehensible for those on the outside of Kimmelman’s art world, it is superfluous for those on the inside. When it was founded, the Biennial was the preeminent showcase of American art. Today it is one of an expanding glut of international exhibitions and fairs that feature a predictable circuit of artists. (Within a week of the Biennial’s opening there were three other art fairs in New York featuring many of the same artists.) However, market redundancy should not be mistaken for a sense of direction. Adam Weinberg, the director of the Whitney Museum, begins his foreword to the Biennial’s catalogue with a defense meant to head off anticipated critiques of a disjointed exhibition. He writes: “Today’s artistic situation is highly complex, contradictory, and confusing. It is an environment few can make sense of. Despite the proliferation of large-scale, comprehensive, international exhibitions—biennials, triennials, and the like—that aspire to reveal trends and meaning, the current state of affairs seems more complicated than ever given the sheer number of working artists and the morass of seemingly2 conflicting styles, conceptions, and directions. Curators are often at sea as to how to approach the overwhelming task of providing a coherent overview.” His remarks hardly inspire confidence and suggest that the Biennial may have become a Sisyphean task (work on the 2008 Biennial began before the 2006 exhibition opened its doors) whose rationale needs to be reconsidered.

The forlorn state of the Whitney Biennial is not entirely of its own making. In a capitalist democracy we get the politics and the culture that we demand and deserve. The 2006 Biennial reflects a culture impoverished by neglect, insulation and division. Despite the surplus of art schools, museum expansion projects, escalating auction prices and isolated cases of attendance record setting blockbuster exhibitions of celebrity artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Vincent van Gogh, our society seems to be becoming increasingly visually illiterate and imaginatively stagnant, with little comprehension of and less concern about the role art could or should play in our individual and corporate lives. 

This cyclic problem begins with a philosophy that art doesn’t seriously matter, rather that art is an entertaining distraction from the more important, but often tedious, dimensions of life—the first thing to be cut from tight school budgets. Perception becomes reality when this attitude gives artists the license to be self-indulgent and the public permission to be casual consumers. This fosters an art that really doesn’t matter and couldn’t be substantive if called upon. The failure of the visual arts, with the exception of Eric Fischl’s Tumbling Woman, to respond meaningfully to September 11th, 2001, in a public way is evidence of the effects of this cycle.

Breaking this cycle begins with insisting that art matters and has certain specific roles, privileges and responsibilities in the social and spiritual development of our civilization. Instigating a fairly contested public debate—even-handedly including a meaningful diversity of positions, over what these roles and responsibilities are and how they might be exercised—would be a theme of a Biennial that had import. Such an exhibition would reward artists working from a sense of aesthetic proficiency, conceptual ingenuity and civic purpose, as well as develop visually literate and critically engaged viewers. History demonstrates that the direction in which a culture develops defines its longevity. Therefore, we need to encourage purposeful and imaginative artists, and cultivate an art-educated public.

The 2006 Biennial reflects the effect of this cultural neglect in its proliferation of gimmick art which aims to capture the viewer’s fickle attention with shock tactics. Art that patiently cultivates the viewer’s visual literacy, capacity for critical evaluation and spiritual imagination is at a distinct disadvantage with a public gorged on a diet of thirty-second television commercials and celebrity gossip. Yet this is the art that is most vitally needed by such a public. Literacy and imagination are qualities that must be nourished and exercised; otherwise they will be lost to the individual and to the society. Rather than pandering to the lowest common cultural denominator or catering to flamboyant self-indulgence, the Whitney should organize more exhibitions like last year’s Tim Hawkinson retrospective. Hawkinson’s art is expertly crafted and conceptually inventive: it cultivates the viewer’s creative critical faculties. (Hawkinson was also part of the 2002 Whitney Biennial.) Curating exhibitions that don’t depend on slick visual attention-grabbers is a risk, but the Whitney has a responsibility to shape cultural development purposefully.

A high-profile exhibition such as the Whitney Biennial has the potential to address critically, rather than idly reflect, a culture of apathy and egocentricity. Regrettably, the 2006 Biennial evaded this opportunity. The Biennial’s two European curators (Chrissie Iles is British, Philippe Vergne is French) described their goal as, “to capture the artifice of American culture, in all its complexity.”3 The Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Law defines artifice as “a clever strategy usually intended to deceive or defraud.” If you know where to look for it, contemporary American art is as aesthetically and conceptually vibrant and diverse as it has ever been, but little of that fits the curators’ cynical agenda. This Biennial may have been part of the Whitney’s ongoing attempt to shun its identity as an American cultural institution. The Whitney, which is celebrating its diamond anniversary this year, was founded to bring American art out of the shadow of its European counterparts and develop a sense of its own identity and direction. Iles and Vergne’s European perspective stumbles around in an abstruse cul-de-sac of American visual culture, a hermetic bubble insulated from reality and rational thought, where aesthetic anxiety and political paranoia run rampant. This shortchanging of art’s potential to affirm and probe the full scope of our humanity impoverishes our cultural and political dialogue. It also truncates our ability to imagine meaningful cultural development and engage constructively the issues that divide our society.

What is missing at the 2006 Biennial is a sense of hope. Instead the exhibition’s mood is one of foreboding frustration, cynicism and self-doubt. The artist/poet has a rich and noble tradition as a conscience of society with the power to inspire in the viewer a sense of what might be possible, but irate and resentful derision is neither creative nor constructive. Art created from a place of authenticity, humility and charity has unique power to cross ideological gulfs that arguments of logic cannot bridge. America’s divided aesthetic, social, cultural and political landscape desperately needs artists to be cultural reconcilers, to enlarge and reinvigorate our cultural conversation by encouraging us with a sense of possibility.

The Whitney Biennial needs to recapture a sense of purpose. A pluralistic democracy needs an art that imagines new strategies of communicating across ideological and social boundaries by reminding us of our shared experiences and ideals. Pursuing such a strategy might reinvigorate the Biennial as an exhibition of consequence. Even more, such an exhibition might reinstate the arts to a place of importance in our society. As the 2008 Biennial is already being formulated, I hope that the administrators, curators, authors and artists are approaching the exhibition as if it really matters.

Notes

1. Michael Kimmelman, The New York Times (March 3, 2006), p. E31.
2. Adam Weinberg, Whitney Biennial 2006: Day for Night, p. 15.
3. Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne, Whitney Biennial 2006: Day for Night, p 19. (italics mine).