So thank you Nathaniel and thank you Mr. Hughes- your criticism kept me sane.
A Fiesta of Whining
It is an axiom that next to running the National Endowment for the Arts, curating the Whitney Biennial is the worst job in American culture. Every two years, the dread summons to represent the most vital and interesting currents in American art looms before the museum. Its curators do their stuff, and the result is nearly always the same: abuse from the art world and the fanged calumny of critics. "Every time I award a state commission," some 19th century French Minister of Culture was heard to sigh, "I create one ingrate and 20 malcontents."
During the 1980s, the Whitney was content to take dictation from dealers and collectors, so that its Biennials tended passively to reflect the fashions of the art market without showing more than an occasional glimmer of independent judgment. The 1993 version is different and scaled to a chastened art world. The sour taste of the collapsed '80s star system has galvanized the "new" Whitney, under its new director David A. Ross, into a veritable transport of social concern. This Biennial, assembled by a team of curators under the supervision of Elisabeth Sussman, is not a survey but a theme show. A saturnalia of political correctness, a long-winded immersion course in marginality -- the only cultural condition, as far as its reborn curators are concerned, that matters in the '90s. The aesthetic quality (that repressive, icky word again!) is for the most part feeble. The level of grievance and moral rhetoric, however, is stridently high.
Instead of the Artist as Star, we have the Artist as Victim, or as Victim's Representative. The key to the show, the skeptic might say, is its inclusion of the tape of the police bashing of Rodney King taken by George Holliday, a plumbing-parts salesman not known for his artistic aspirations before or since. The '93 Biennial is anxious to present all its artists as witnesses, just like Holliday. Witnesses to what? To their own feelings of exclusion and marginalization. To a world made bad for blacks, Latinos, gays, lesbians and women in general. It's one big fiesta of whining agitprop, in the midst of which a few genuine works of art and some sharp utterances (mainly in video) manage to survive.
The bulk of the show is video, photography, installations, a few sculptures and words on the wall. It contains enough useless, boring mock documentation to fill a small library. There are only eight painters out of 81 artists (Holliday brings the count to 82). But that's because it's more or less given that painting is a form of white male domination, implying "mastery." Indeed, the catalog presents quite a riff on this subject when it reflects on what might strike the unprepared visitor as the wretched pictorial ineptitude of such artists as Sue Williams, Raymond Pettibon, Mike Kelley and Karen Kilimnik. (Williams can't draw at all, although her installation The Sweet and Pungent Smell of Success includes a dandy splotch of plastic vomit.) Their work, says the catalog, "deliberately renounces success and power in favor of the degraded and dysfunctional, transforming deficiencies into something positive in true Warholian fashion." Presumably if they weren't vigilant with themselves, they might turn into teensy Titians, engorged with mastery.
No sodden cant, no cliche of therapeutic culture goes unused. If we are at the point where any attempt at aesthetic discrimination can be read as blaming the victim, is there any use in choosing anything over anything else -- or in holding a Biennial at all?
Much of the art on view conforms to the recipe for postmodernist political utterance set out, with lapidary accuracy, by the art critic Adam Gopnik a couple of years ago. That is, you take an obvious proposition that few would disagree with -- "Racism is wrong" or "One should not persecute gays" -- and encode it so obliquely that by the time the viewer has figured it out, he or she feels, as the saying goes, included in the discourse.
An example is the collaborative piece by Hillary Leone and Jennifer Macdonald, which fills a whole room. It consists of a few canvases (actually bed frames covered with muslin) adorned with elegant arabesques burned into them with hot irons. The branding irons, 55 of them, hang from the ceiling. The squiggles they produce, one learns from the wall label, are in fact Gregg shorthand symbols, by which means the artists have filled the canvas with replications of multiple-choice answers from a survey on sexual behavior -- "More than once a week. Once a week. Two-three times a month . . ." Rarely has such a prolonged setup been followed by such a dim punch line.
Some work, but not much, gets above this level. Kiki Smith's sculpture Mother -- a pair of ghostly, transparent feet, before which lie scattered dozens of glass drops, large and small, which might be tears or babies -- has an unforced and melancholy poetry. Charles Ray specializes in weird dislocations of scale; his 45-ft.-long red toy fire truck parked outside the museum is an arresting street presence, while his naked nuclear family inside -- father, mother, daughter and son, all exactly the same size -- is distinctly spooky in a way that derives from Magritte. Byron Kim's Belly Paintings, 1992, representing six different hues of skin, each a gracefully swollen sac of solid color, are beautiful metaphors of the human body.
The found-object assemblages by the Cherokee artist Jimmie Durham -- parodic weapons made out of rusty gun parts, salvaged wood, plastic pipe -- deal with race and cultural resistance, but do so by imaginative, not merely rhetorical, means. Even Janine Antoni's sculptures -- a big cube of chocolate gnawed by the artist and a fairly repulsive mound of lard chewed up by her, flanked by a vitrine or mock reliquary displaying chocolate cases and lipsticks made from the residue of both (link between bulimia and beauty cult, get it?) -- have a sort of Monty Pythonish looniness that makes them almost endearing as traces of obsessive effort.
Of course this show isn't the end of civilization as we know it, but it's glum, preachy, sophomoric and aesthetically aimless. Indifferent to pleasure, it becomes college-level art for college-level thinking about civic virtue. Part of the trouble is that the Whitney, like a swimmer clutching a spar, still clings to the romantic avant-garde idea that visual artists get to sense things before anyone else, that they are uniquely equipped with social antennae that tell us what's wrong with the world before other folk can cotton on to it. Apart from a small number of gifted exceptions, all dead, there is very little evidence for this piety. What supports it? Picasso's Stalinism? Josef Beuys' mystagogic vaporings? Certainly nothing in this Biennial, whose political messages contribute nothing fresh, and little of intelligence, to America's quarrels and complaints about gender, race and marginality.
The catalog confirms the academic bent of the show, with essays of such jargon-filled obscurantism that they go beyond parody. Thus Avital Ronell: "What impresses itself upon us is the fact of finitude's excessive nature, not only because of the inappropriability of its meaning but, as the experience of sheer exposition, because of the way it refuses to disclose itself fully." One would bet $5 that neither David Ross nor anyone else connected with the Biennial could say what such gibberish might mean or translate it into clear English. But that would be a hegemonic transgression on the integrity of marginal language, right?