Biennial Exhibition 2000
Whitney Museum of American Art

There are really two Whitney Biennials. The first and most exhilarating is printed on the wall plaques. Here is heady socio-critical rhetoric to shame the booboisie and point us toward the perfected future age. The other, infinitely tamer Biennial is the stuff on show. Cultural policy MFAs and PHDs, specialists in the marketing potential of intellectual pretension, know this. That is why the press packet includes a 70-page reprint of the walled pensées but no reproductions of the work.

Sententious plaques — part manifesto, part consumer guide — aim at an audience susceptible to blurbs on book jackets. These are the same simple souls who transferred their trust in the tooth fairy to faith in the cutting edge. Blinkered by soft-headed notions of creativity, they cannot see the clockwork driving the wreckage. Kiddies eating chips and right-thinking pigeons who seek moral hope by shopping at Benetton will do just fine at this Biennial. They can wander reverently from one statement to the next, blessedly ignorant of the cynical disjunction between what they read and what they witness. They view art they way they watch TV, prospecting for images. No matter if what they see is silly, reductive and dishonest.

Or even sad.

Watch Carl Pope’s video installation of his own disfigurement, Palimpsest, 1999. We see a black man being being surgically cut and branded, tattooed with the words of a poem written by his sister. We watch the welts rise, painful and indelible. Here is self-mutilation in the service of … what? The politics of grievance, obviously. The wall plate explains that Pope is using his own body "to address the history of dehumanizing inscriptions — both literal and figurative — on the black body." Using himself as a writing tablet, he intends to "transform his body into a defiant rebuke of racist myths and practices."

Which myths are dispelled here? Whose? Jews in Nazi concentration camps endured being stamped with numbers; but were American slaves branded in like manner? If so, was it routine? The practice goes unmentioned in Roll, Jordan Roll, Eugene Genovese’s magisterial and authoritative history of slave life. Pope seems not to know that scarification is a traditional African practice, its intricate designs a mark of beauty, not humiliation. The graceful calligraphy of Pope’s tattoo artist is, visually, more evocative of African practice than of the bitterness of slavery.

No matter. It’s the stance that counts. If you cannot actually create something, you can always display yourself as a victim. Victimology is an art in its own right. And it does not wear off.

Much of the exhibition was devoted to what I think of as post-industrial folk art. On occasion it floats free of any effort at significance whatever. Stop under Sarah Sze’s installation, a whimsical, meandering raid on a hardware store. Aluminum ladders are suspended from the ceiling and strung together with step ladders,clamps, feathers, light bulbs, sponges, flotsam from every bin in the shop. Why? The "just-for-fun" defense does not go very far if you compare this to Calder’s Circus, shelved somewhere in the Whitney’s basement.

More typical is Rina Banjeree’s folk art lament over the AIDS crisis in India. On the wall is solemn assurance that this hodgepodge of medicine cabinet and playroom junk — more feathers and light bulbs, Silly Putty, plastic tubing, fake eyelashes, Vaseline, turmeric, incense sticks, Spanish moss, et alia — "confronts disease." Does it now? Judging from the slapdash, skills-deprived manner of her mawkish entertainment, it is reasonable to to guess that Ms. Banjeree has no clue to what rigors are involved in confronting any disease whatever. Fourth grade science projects display greater intellectual effort. Her uncertain map of migration and transmission reveals no knowledge of the fact that there are three different strains of AIDs. Only one of them is peculiar to this country while the other two have begun to mutate. Confront that, dear Rina. Can people at risk sleep sounder because you are into art and crafts?

AIDS is a terrible thing but it is only one terrible thing among many. Are there artists who have heard of any other diseases and conditions? Malaria, anyone? Tuberculosis, alive and also mutating? Malnutrition? Tay Sachs, for which there is no cure? Do we hear it for cholera? And do homosexual men have prostates? Indeed, isn’t there something obscene about this picking and choosing among diseases? It is politics, not human suffering, that determines which illness is artistically interesting. It is a squalid game for museums to play.

You are waiting for me to get to the Hans Haacke thing, aren’t you. Sorry, but it really is not worth the effort. Besides, every hack between here and Benetton’s anti-capital punishment ad agency is already intoning over the carcass of this latest dead horse. In an omnium gatherum of dead horses, one less is a mercy. Just do not go away thinking that the episode has anything to do with free speech. It does not. It is an illustration of the hypocrisy of a curatorial agenda that discriminates against authentic achievement while it pretends that any act of prudential judgment (e.g. saying "no thanks" to Hans Haacke) constitutes a fascist suppression of free speech.

Our cutting edge bigots have certainly discriminated against painting. There is bit of camp, a bit of girlie-girlie, some trompe l’oeil, the obligatory melange of no-style. Overall, the message is clear. Painting is a dead end street. Caput. Sayonara. This should be a liberating relief to every serious painter across the country. No more worrying about getting a Whitney curator into your studio. Free at last!

Why spend any more time on this? No amount of mystifying hype can plug the hole in the heart of the Whitney. Poor Gertrude.

Dear Reader, spare yourself the entrance fee. Do the laundry instead; go out for a smoke; get a hair cut; open that riesling; check your-email. And, if you really want to feel outré, counter-cultural and subversive, go write a check to Giuliani.


April, 2000

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