Art May 2017
The Whitney’s identity problem
On “Whitney Biennial 2017” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
It did not take long for “Whitney Biennial 2017” to go off the rails.1 Or so we might be led to believe.
The early headlines for this year’s survey, the museum’s seventy-eighth installment, and the first in its new downtown headquarters, were certainly laudatory. “Why the Whitney’s Humanist, Pro-Diversity Biennial Is a Revelation,” began Roberta Smith in The New York Times. “The 2017 Whitney Biennial Is the Most Politically Charged in Decades” and “the best of its kind in some time” purred Jerry Saltz in New York Magazine. “All the Cool Kids Were at the 2017 Whitney Biennial x Tiffany & Co. Party,” Vogue declared. “Revelers sipped Moët & Chandon through paper straws with a Tiffany-blue swirl while taking in the volume of works spanning three floors.”
But then, seemingly overnight—and it was, in fact, overnight—the exhibition became embroiled in controversy. The object of attention was a small painting called Open Casket (2016), by the forty-year-old painter Dana Schutz. Depicting a figure with an unrecognizable face, wearing a dark suit with a gash cut through the built-up paint, the work, as we were informed by a wall label, was Schutz’s response “to a photograph of Emmett Till in his coffin.”
In 1955, Emmett Till, a black fourteen-year-old boy visiting Mississippi from Illinois, was infamously abducted, mutilated, lynched, and sunk in the Tallahatchie River by members of a white family, who had accused Till of whistling at a shopkeeper’s wife. For his funeral, Till’s mother requested an open casket to bear witness to the atrocity.
What we are seeing now is a meta-Biennial.
The murder of Emmett Till became a galvanizing event of the American civil rights movement. Yet at the Whitney Museum, the ire of protest was not directed at the perpetrators but at the artist who chose to depict the trauma. As early as the Biennial’s opening day, protesters had formed a human chain to block museum-goers from viewing the painting, writing “no lynch mob” and “black death spectacle” on their shirts. Soon thereafter, an artist named Hannah Black published an open letter to the museum’s curators and staff, co-signed by nearly fifty other writers and artists, “with the urgent recommendation that the painting be destroyed and not entered into any market or museum.” It continued—
Although Schutz’s intention may be to present white shame, this shame is not correctly represented as a painting of a dead Black boy by a white artist—those non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material. The subject matter is not Schutz’s; white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.
Since this controversy broke in March, the episode has transformed the Biennial from a mere recurring exhibition into a seemingly spontaneous flashpoint on issues of race and censorship. “Should Art That Infuriates Be Removed?,” wrote Roberta Smith in a return to the show. “Censorship, Not the Painting, Must Go,” replied the artist Coco Fusco on the website Hyperallergic. “Why Dana Schutz Painted Emmett Till,” ran a profile by Calvin Tomkins in The New Yorker. The View turned the episode into a topic of daytime talk-show conversation. Even the article you are reading now, I should acknowledge, is a consequence of the controversy.
Yet as the drama has evolved, I have come to see it, not as some unexpected rupture, but as a continuation of the Biennial’s supremely engineered and, to me, cynical public deployment. Drawing on its own identity-politicized history, what we are seeing now is a meta-Biennial, a self-conscious display designed to turn an exhibition of art into Entartete Kunst of demonstration and spectacle—an assembly both to trumpet institutional inclusivity and to fan the flames of discord and censorship.
This is not to suggest that Hannah Black, the petition writer, is indeed a “Russian plant,” as the critic and painter Walter Robinson (jokingly?) proposed at a roundtable discussion organized by the website “Artcritical.” I do not doubt the sincerity of her motivations, even if this British-born artist, who issued her proclamation from residence in Berlin, is a recent graduate of the Whitney’s own Independent Study Studio Program. Nor do I question the more local protesters’ commitment to a form of racialized fascism with their symbolic, at least for now, attacks on what they see as degenerate art, even if their attention came to focus with laser precision on a single painting within hours of opening. It would also be a step too far to suggest that the Whitney’s leadership calculated this particular contretemps—even if Scott Rothkopf, the Whitney’s new chief curator who oversaw the Biennial organizers Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, cut his teeth on a retrospective of the master showman Jeff Koons.
Yet you do not have to be a Biennial truther to see the false flags of an exhibition so concerned with its own aggrandizement, with an entire range of work geared for its provocative and thereby publicizing potential: a controversy in search of a cause; a trolling in search of a phish; a tail in search of a dog to wag. On the same floor as the Schutz painting, for example, there is an entire room dedicated to an eight-panel series by Frances Stark called Ian F. Svenonius’s “Censorship Now” for the 2017 Whitney Biennial (2017). Anything if not direct, the work consists of canvases that are six and a half feet by eight and a half feet each, reproducing the pages of a 2015 book of the same title by the “punk musician, cult figure, and author.” Here the polemic begins “we need censorship” and concludes with the words, heavily underlined in Stark’s painting, “to stomp out the grotesque subliminal mind control and hate speech of modern culture, media, news, politics, and art. . . . Censorship until reeducation! Censor the state! Censorship now!!”
An assembly both to trumpet institutional inclusivity and to fan the flames of discord and censorship.
It could be argued that the extremity of such statements reveals their insincerity. But such insincerity can itself be insincere—and the book and the painting mean what they say. Radicalism is a joke until it isn’t, a pantomime of violence that rehearses the real thing. I suspect this work was selected precisely because it acts both ways, both as an object of expression and as an advocate of suppression—a work in protest of itself.
Something similar might be said for Real Violence (2017), a virtual-reality video by Jordan Wolfson. The resources that the Whitney deployed for the presentation of this one piece—four separate museum employees to warn and hand-hold visitors, and to keep those under seventeen years of age out—reflect the value placed in the high-tech work. Fitted with headsets, viewers are instructed to stand at a table and hold onto a railing as an urban street scene tumbles into view. For three minutes, the image of the artist may be seen beating another figure with a baseball bat and stomping him—an exceedingly explicit virtual reality that, we may only later learn, is accomplished through special effects.
The real takeaway of the 2017 Biennial is that identity politics sells.
“Wolfson is interested in violence as a rupture or distortion of our everyday consciousness,” we are informed by a wall label. Yet the extreme violence of the work calls out for its own suppression through our natural aversion to it. For added effect: a Chanukah prayer, which plays in the headphones during the beating, hints at Jewish culpability in the fictitious atrocity. It seems to serve no other purpose than to needle another identity group, which so far has not taken the bait.
Such antagonism of identity is the sole purpose of a large sculpture by the artist named “Pope.L aka William Pope.L” called Claim (2017). Consisting of 2,755 slices of dripping, suppurating bologna pinned to a grid, “each slice has an image portrait of a purported Jewish person pasted to its center,” as Pope.L describes it in a document included in the work. In fact these images were collected with no regard for individual identity, as he goes on to explain, and were simply based on a calculation of the total number of Jews living in New York. Of course, the singling out of Jews has an evil history, and Pope.L hedges such finger-pointing with what you might infer from the inclusion of “baloney.” At the same time, the work operates through an aggression on its Jewish subject matter, with an overall effect that is decidedly not Kosher.
The organizers of the 2017 Whitney Biennial know how to shuffle the deck of their political messaging. This survey of sixty-three individuals and collectives makes many claims but ultimately stands for nothing in particular but itself. It is an exposition of institutional clout more than an exhibition of works of art. The cacophony also drowns out the softer voices that have more than just one thing to say and the countless that are not included at all. I wish more attention would go to the elegiac videos of Maya Stovall, positioned just next to Schutz’s offending painting. Called “Liquor Store Theater,” the works consist of street interviews conducted in Detroit about the value of art and culture to local residents, with a pair of dancers spliced in the mix. The same could be said for Jo Baer’s paintings of prehistoric sites and rituals, where negative space is used to haunting, spectral effect. And finally I wish Henry Taylor’s powerful images of black life were receiving more attention than Schutz’s George-Condo-like confections, where Taylor’s expressive paint-handling and use of scale truly reflect the life, and death, of his subject matter.
No one atomized the salon radicalism we see in exhibitions such as the Whitney Biennial better than Hilton Kramer. As he wrote in “The Age of the Avant-Garde,” his seminal essay of 1972, collected in his anthology of the same name:
The ideology of the avant-garde wields a pervasive and often cynical authority over sizable portions of the very public it affects to despise. That it does so by means of a profitable alliance with the traditional antagonists of the avant-garde—the mass media, the universities, the marketplace—only underscores the paradoxical nature of the situation in which we find ourselves.
At the Whitney, such avant-gardism is deployed in the service of the museum’s ever-growing interests. Those individuals who become exercised about its displays must realize their energies ultimately fan these institutional flames. “Black pain as raw material” has become the fuel for everything from Pepsi ads to museum memberships. At the Whitney the same might be said of the “courtesy of” lines on the wall labels that direct us to the blue-chip galleries out to peddle the art on view.
The real takeaway of the 2017 Biennial is that identity politics sells and has now been subsumed, alongside the old avant-garde, into the rhetoric of establishment culture. Perhaps this is why I have always been fascinated by the corporate sponsorship of this supposedly radical exhibition series. It used to be Philip Morris. This time the underwriters include J. P. Morgan, Sotheby’s, and Tiffany & Co. Private funding may be unremarkable on its own. But attached to the “challenging” art of the Biennial, such corporate underwriting must be more than a peripheral consideration. It is a primary concern, and explanation, of the true nature of what has become a sociological and largely extra-artistic enterprise.
1 “Whitney Biennial 2017” opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, on March 17 and remains on view through June 11, 2017.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 9, on page 49
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