Visual Art 6-17-2006

Whitney Again: What Does It Do?

Lightsey Darst essays another look at the Whitney Biennial; read this and then use the links at the article's foot to read more . . .

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Despite all the negative press it had received, despite even my colleague Michael Fallon’s bitter criticism, I was prepared to like the Whitney Biennial, because, generally speaking, I like art. I like the challenges it offers and the unexpected drops, touches, views that I feel or see in its presence. And though I began with the art of the past, I also like contemporary art; I like its irony and brains, I like its wide range, I like its sense of emerging from that time from which I also emerge, as if we were twins separated at birth.

However, I would not be very fond of a twin with nothing to say, nothing to talk about, or a twin so busy posturing that her conversation was utterly empty. In this case the shared origin becomes a grievance. You are misrepresenting us! I want to say to contentless, loud-mouthed art of my own time. What are you doing on that wall? Why are you wasting my time?

Unfortunately, great swathes of the Whitney Biennial called up this reaction. Chewing gum on canvas, large graffitied rocks (with no interesting slogans or graffiti artwork), an installation like a dulled garage—beauty or craft seldom redeemed the banality of content, of concept. Perhaps more discouraging was a series of dark, mysterious photographs that on closer investigating turned out to depict stacks of folded dress shirts. What, I began to wonder, do these artists do with their time? Have they no interests, no fascinations? When confronted with an installation consisting of many jars of pickled film, I feel irritated, I have to confess, annoyed at the dream of privilege in which someone thinks pickling film is a worthwhile contribution. Please, Mr. or Ms. Artist, go to the library, read a book, ask your neighbor for a story, examine the grass in your yard, do something, and then come back and talk to me.

Instead of content, most of the Biennial’s works had atmosphere—an atmosphere of torture, trouble, what your mother would call sexual perversity, a feeling of aftermath. What it was the aftermath of, no one bothered to explain. In fact, the mood of violence began to seem, like Marilyn Minter’s grimy fashion photos, merely a fad, a hip idea. We are artists, some works (Billy Sullivan’s slide projection, for example) seemed to say, and therefore we live on the edge.

Lack of real content seems to encourage artists to latch onto passing fads, just as it urges them to mystifying titles—“Equal is Better Than Even”—and that inscrutable artform, the installation. Not that installations are an invalid form, but they can be—particularly the busier, more enveloping kind—great places to hide lack of vision and lack of discipline. The viewer wanders off, thinking maybe he or she has missed part of it, but can’t be bothered to go looking, and then the artist exclaims against the viewer’s inattention—everyone wins.

The hidden irony of installations is that they pretend to be different from “art on the wall,” art in the museum context; they pretend to reclaim the all-enveloping power of churches, landscapes, or especially creepy basements; they want to leap away from the fixed, impenetrable permanence of (for example) painting. But, as it turns out, museums love installations (the Whitney Biennial in particular can’t get enough of them). Not only that, but museums remain the only place for installations: ordinary people can imagine hanging a Van Gogh on the wall, but they cannot imagine sparing the space for an installation.

The popularity of installations is merely an example of the modern museum’s wide-ranging appetite. Once, in some far-off period, museums were conservative, enshrining works of the past and featuring works imitative of past styles. Artists, like pace rabbits, ran ahead of the institutions of their world. They may have started to run out of necessity (in reaction to the conservatism of institutions), but soon that avant-garde tingle became indispensable, and now we think of artists as naturally transgressive. Unfortunately for the artists, the museums now have caught up with them, have embraced the idea of artistic transgression, and the result (at least at the Whitney Biennial) is an asymptotic escalation of hostilities, or embraces (an effect certainly exacerbated by the curators’ decision to let artists choose the work for the Biennial). “Eat shit and die!” the artist yells at the system (yes, this childish insult appears on several works at the Biennial); “Back atcha!” the museum’s didactic labels effectively reply.

The commodification of art: what I’m saying is hardly new, and I’ll leave the aerial view for someone who knows the systems at play, but let’s return to ground level. Back to the Biennial. A tour group wanders the rooms, composed of well-dressed women whose stiff hair appears to have been cut the day before, all with careful smiles on their faces. They are being instructed in how to like what’s before them, or, more accurately, in how to talk about what’s before them, how to discuss the Biennial with their in-the-know friends. The atmosphere is intensely stuffy. Didactic labels kill any delight one might accidentally have (is Paul Chan’s lovely 1st Light, with its delightful floating/falling objects, really reminiscent of 9/11? please, I hope not). Guards watch over the newly canonized art works while museum-goers passive-aggressively push each other around, the better to quail before the palpable scorn of the artists.

The Biennial hasn’t created the problems; it merely concentrates the most problematic trends in one place. Seeking refuge from the cacophonous Biennial, my husband and I retreated to the Whitney’s permanent collection. Here people were wandering about in the same manner as on the floors below, cruising the labels, casting looks of boredom or incomprehension on the works themselves. “This is extremely famous,” a man remarked to his female friend, waving his hand at one work. At MoMA and the Met (which we also visited while in New York) the situation was similar: blank-eyed people in search of the famous works which will—what? uplift them? cast illumination on their lives?

The often-maligned therapeutic idea of art is, at bottom, valid. Art does help. Art does lift us out of our lives, does expand our ideas. But it doesn’t do this by mere contact, passive looking. Instead, a discussion, an interrogation, a living interaction is necessary. I’m thinking of the interaction I saw in commercial galleries in Chelsea, where reverence sometimes appeared, but only as a final reaction after curiosity, examination, and consideration. Or take the interactions one sees at the Walker, where visitors are often on their second, third, or hundredth trip through the galleries, and have acquired familiarity (and sometimes contempt, and sometimes friendship) with the work.

For the Biennial’s offensive banality, we have, perhaps, ourselves to blame. When people with pretensions to culture feel ashamed not to be up on the latest and brightest, but have no grounding in the history and no sense of independent judgment, when art is an item of fashion (like food or clothes), what will we get but frustrated art and angry artists? At least they are angry; some good may come of that.

To return, briefly, to the Biennial, it wasn’t all bad or contentless—and, more interesting, the content was often similar. What I saw, in work after work, was mysticism, yearning, ecstatic vision. Mathias Poledna’s film of country dances, cropped such that all you see is the swaying of skirts, the faint movements of unoccupied hands; the photographs of Angela Strassheim, Hanna Liden, and Amy Blakemore, their odd tableaux glowing with otherworldly power; Matthew Monahan’s totem-heavy installation; Urs Fisher’s suspended, slowly spinning branches with their dripping candles and (underneath) circles of wax; even Rodney Graham’s projected chandelier, the chandelier impossibly sharp and glittery, the giant projector that makes the image noisy and dull, functions as a joke on the theme. This longing for meaning is something to watch.