return to 2004

The Whitney Biennial

by Miles Mathis

[The Whitney Biennial is an exhibition of contemporary art put on every two years by the Whitney Museum in New York City. It is a review of what are considered to be the most relevant recent works. It is one the largest and most highly regarded reviews in the world, probably matched only by the Venice Biennale. The artists chosen by the board of the Whitney tend to be younger artists and the Biennial is an important barometer not only of the current fashion in visual art, but also of market potential. From the beginning it has been a show for and by the avant garde. The criteria are socio-political and theoretical, and no art that adheres to the old definitions has ever been considered. No exhibition of traditional art exists in the US, or indeed in the world, that approaches the importance of the Whitney Biennial and the other reviews of the avant garde for determining the market and setting the standards of current art theory.]

One good thing can be said about 2003: there was no Whitney Biennial. We did not have to look at it; even better, we who would never be tempted to look at it did not have to dodge reading about it. We did not have to shy away from all Art Sections, at least for that reason. No, we could shy away from art sections, month to month and week to week, due only to reviews of modern dance and theater—the variously flavored Vagina Monologues of the moment.
      Another historical curiosity: that art reviews and art sections and art magazines should have become physically painful to the eyes of artists, and artists especially. It would be like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar avoiding the sports section, for fear of seeing his sport publicly degraded. The art section has become a sort of Dorf on Basketball, except that Dorf is occasionally amusing—especially after a shot or two of something long-fermented. But by my own experimentation, one cannot imbibe enough whiskey to find anything in the art section either mentally or visually stimulating. I always wonder what sort of person the articles are intended for, and what sort of 3D glasses they must have purchased to make it all look fascinating. Personally, I would very much like to be entertained—I am in as desperate need of daily titillation as the next person; but to be honest, the only joy I can discover in the art section is a joy of enmity. The joy in the discovery of the existence of an actual hell to my own heaven, of a dark to my light, of an east to my west. Sometimes, one is unsure of ones own ground until an opposition acts as a border to it. Eden was not a place until there was an East of Eden.
      One temporary encampment East of Eden is the Whitney Biennial, and it will be upon us again in 2004. To take part of the sting out of this I have decided to return to the Whitney Biennial 2002, decoding it and demystifying it. This will act like a flu shot: a small dose of old serum will innoculate us from new disease. We will be able to hear of the Biennial 2004 with a chuckle and snort and will spend no time in bed convalescing at all.
      What makes this even less painful and dangerous is that I will not have to show you any pictures of works, or even explain them to you. As any of you know who went to the show, not a single work was worth looking at or explaining. The entire benefit of the show was conferred by the catalog. No, even that is saying too much. The catalog was a montrosity of bad writing and poorer thinking. One needs to go one further remove to even find anything worth responding to. That is, one must go to what the critics said (about what the catalog said) about the show. That is where the entire interest, of those who are interested at all, lies. The big museum shows are tolerated only for what they allow the cognoscenti to talk about at parties—and when they bump into eachother at Starbuck's or Saks Fifth Avenue. Without the articles in the press, no one would begin to know what to say to eachother beyond the weather and politics. Fortunately, the clever people at the New Yorker and the New York Times and a few other highbrow places have started the conversation, and the well-dressed are allowed to add small variations in public conversation as long as they don't stray too far from the party line.
      To continue to be as efficient as possible, I will go to the surest voice of the party line of contemporary art, that being The Nation and their critic Arthur Danto, who speaks it without the lightest slur or stutter. Unlike Robert Hughes, say, [the critic at Time], Danto has never taken violent exception to any modern work ever created. He is a master of politeness and inclusion. About the closest he got to taking exception, that I remember, is in blaming Saatchi Gallery in London for promoting artists (like Damien Hirst) beyond their critical value. But even there, he was not attacking the artist or the work as much as the gallery—and that for being insubordinate. His point might have been clearer if he had pulled the manual from his pocket and actually enumerated the hierarchy according to Clement Greenberg: 1) art critic, 2) museum or gallery, 3) artist. Saatchi was out of order, you see.
      Another good thing about Danto is that he is transparent to his enemies. Completely opaque to his friends—which is how they like it—but clear as thinnest glass to his enemies. For my benefit, he comes out and says in the second paragraph of his article, "As it happens, my own sense of the state of the art world is reasonably congruent with that of Lawrence Rinder, who bears chief responsibility for Biennial 2002." Well of course it is. How else do you think Danto and Rinder got where they are? They did not get to positions of power by disagreeing with anyone. Artists in the 19th century may have been ahead of their time, but that is all in the past. No one gets known for being ahead of his time anymore. The idea is an absurdity, the media being what it is. If you miss your fifteen minutes of fame, you miss them, that's all. And this is even more true of critics than artists. Artists leave behind artifacts that may become famous later. Critics match the zeitgeist exactly or perish. That is, they offer fodder for the lines at Starbucks, fodder neither too strong nor too sweet, fodder just interesting enough to sate the thirst of the day, or they do not get published.
      The precise taste of that fodder can be shared with a single quote from Danto's article, a quote that was perspicaciously chosen by the editor to be the bullet for the text: "Art really is a mirror for the culture, but it requires risk and bickering to get that image to emerge with any degree of precision." A perfect word-capsule of 20th century thinking about art. A veritable masterpiece of neo-bourgeois art-speak. Art as a mirror of culture, not nature, notice. And, perhaps even more importantly, that gerund "bickering," which implies that the definition of art is a constantly changing democratic process, requiring a public conversation. That is what the reader so desperately wants to hear. That he is an equal partner in art. That his opinion is the equal of any and all. That art will be defined by talking about it—so convenient for critic and reader both. Their talking about it is important. The coffee-drinkers and party goers are not just talking about someone else's achievement, like that freak Tiger Woods. No, they are helping to define art. There will be a vote at the end of the party, and the ballots will be sent to the Times.
      But back to "art as a mirror of culture." Think for a moment. Was there ever a work, in the whole history of pre-20th century art, from Lascaux to Van Gogh, that could be defined primarily as a "mirror of culture"? I can't think of one. Art was never created or received in that light until the 20th century. Even the Impressionists, with their shopgirls and whores and absinthe drinkers, did not see art as a mirror of culture. Degas, as an example, chose these subjects for their pictorial qualities, not because he was politically progressive. He would have considered the idea of art as a mirror of culture to be vulgar. The cheapsheets were mirrors of culture—art must be something entirely different. One might say art was the exact opposite of that. Art was everything that was least banal, least vulgar, least quotidian, least political (politics, whatever else it might be, is always of-the-day). Degas did not paint whores because they were vulgar. He painted them because they were pictorial—and perhaps because they were eternal—but most of all because they were a fresh subject. Their pictorial and aesthetic qualities could be investigated without any fear that the audience might think he was illustrating a text or championing a moral code. In seeking to be aggressively amoral, Degas was mistaken for being immoral. But notice that his intent was just the opposite of the modern artist. Degas was fleeing a cultural interpretation, not begging one. The same can be said of all the other artistic progressives of the time. Rodin was not sculpting ugly Helmet Makers' Wives to be vulgar or to be political. The last thing he wanted to do was mirror culture. The truth was beautiful to Rodin not because it "set us free" or because it made us humble, but because it allowed us to touch nature directly. This concept can hardly be understood by a country that gave up its transcendentalism with Emerson and Thoreau, but it stands nonetheless as one of the foundations of pre-modern thought.
      Art as a mirror of culture could have been understood by pre-20th century artists only in the broadest possible terms, that is, as a truism. All art is a mirror of culture in the sense that everything cultural tells us something about the culture it came from. But this definition has almost no content, and it is not what "art as a mirror of culture" now means. What Danto means is that art must be a consciously manufactured reaction to some specific current cultural action or opinion. Art must be timely and art must be relevant. The content of the work must be capable of being translated into socio-political terms, for cultural + relevant = socio-political. Even figurative works, like those of Philip Pearlstein or, more recently, Eric Fishl or John Currin, must be read as attacks on the status quo. The status quo is the old bourgeoisie, the imperialist right, rather than the new bourgeousie, the corporate left, but the old terms have been kept since they paint such vivid contrasts.
      Danto admits that this interpretation of art is what he is after. He says, "Any sample drawn from the art world would yield much the same profile of artistic production, so long as it consisted mainly of artists... who have been formed in one or another of the main art schools and keep up with the main art periodicals." You see why I love Danto as an enemy. Could a man leave his flank more exposed? What we have here is a bald admission of an inner sanctum (aka an avant garde status quo) followed by a bald admission of the primacy of the periodicals. Artists must keep up with the journals—how else could they know what is timely and relevant? Oh sure, they might get an inkling of what is going on politically from the Times, but for those formal and philosophic updates they have to go to ARTnews and various other manifestoes. They have to know who is choosing what to go in what museum and why. That is the important information.
      And that is the information to take from the Whitney Biennial. Let those with empty lives memorize the names in the catalog and the high moral purpose of each. Let them pretend to be stunned at the political implications of some and the shocking impertinences of others. Let them go home and do nothing regardless, even if each and every "artist" at the Whitney damned them to eternal hell in the surest of words and visions. I myself have work to do, and asking what Danto or Rinder or a plurality of New York City would like to see is no part of it. One does not need mirrors in order to see what is in front of his face.

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