Why Does The Whitney Biennial Suck So Much?

Whitney Biennial 2022: Quiet as It's Kept

Well? Does anyone like the Whitney Biennial? Do the artists? Collectors? Gallerists? Advisors? The artgoing public? The fucking curators? I can't discern, from any camp, any real enthusiasm; it has the air of a tired old social tradition that keeps happening only by force of habit, everyone involved having long forgotten what they're supposed to be celebrating or why. The Biennial is ostensibly intended to showcase and promote the current state of contemporary art, which may have once been an exciting prospect but is now so unappealing that it's hard to imagine that a Whitney Biennial could have ever been important, or even good. This is not entirely the fault of the Whitney, to be fair, as they've accurately showcased how deeply uninspiring the art world is at present, but, then again, the narrative being shilled here is a perfect portrait of the mindset that's turned the climate of the art world into an indifferent void.

The curatorial statement makes the usual overtures about how COVID and political polarizing have placed us in uncertain times; a telling line implies that "the widespread questioning of institutions and their structures" is something that didn't exist more than three years ago. Here we have a statement the virtue that art institutions so reliably signal, but, as usual, the actual function of the relationship between art and society is left unaddressed. The closest we get is that the show is in two contrasting parts that reflect "society", one floor has built-out walls which are painted black, the other has no built-out walls and is painted white. The second paragraph of the statement is a series of sweet nothings: abstraction contains meaning, research-driven conceptual art contains information, the personal reflects the social, art can interrogate the idea of the "American," there are some old and deceased artists in the show. The third explains that the subtitle, "Quiet as It's Kept", is a colloquialism used by Toni Morrison, Max Roach, and David Hammons, referring to keeping a secret, although the only significance of the line seems to be that they're able to namedrop three Black artists at once because I fail to see what the art in the show has to do with secretiveness. Although, considering that they also "adorned the exhibition with a symbol, ) (, ... as a gesture towards openness and interlude," which sounds directly contradictory to secrecy, it seems like they just wanted some poetic-sounding branding to punch up the presentation. This hollow affectation of meaning betrays an indifference to content, as if the curators assumed that their audience would be happy as long as they blindly followed the normative rules for contemporary art and didn't have to consider if the works themselves were any good.

If anything, the exhibition could use more secrecy. The concept of the secret is a useful metaphor for art in general in that art's content is always something that resists articulation and remains unstated. But almost every work here relentlessly and explicitly announces its meaning, which not only misunderstands the locus of art's meaning but trivializes whatever content the work might have had if it wasn't so preoccupied with being understood. Take for instance the first thing I looked at, Rose Salane's 64,000 Attempts at Circulation, a collection of non-currency slugs used to pay bus fare that she bought at an MTA auction. They're displayed on tables in classically conceptualist, precisely imprecise piles, and on the wall is a list of the slugs in the classic conceptualist's austere Times New Roman, the duplicate items listed repetitively with the cold, indexical rigor of a classic conceptualist. She has the presentation down pat and the auction lot itself is an amusing pile of stuff, but what exactly is the concept? As the artist puts it, "I am interested in how this set reflects a sample of beliefs, experiences and movements pertaining to masses of people who exist in a city," which is, frankly, bullshit. They're a bunch of tokens and she relates them to the circulation of people and currency, but her reading has nothing to do with the intrinsic qualities of the objects. She could have just as easily used normal coins or bags of recycling to evoke circulation, but coins are a little more boring and trash wouldn't be polite, and it would still be a boring and unmoving gesture. The content, then, is indifferent to itself and seems only concerned with a superficial imitation of conceptuality's appearance. This is just one example, but almost every piece in the biennial asserts value by attempting to appropriate it from somewhere else. Salane exhumes a historical artistic gesture like a pinned butterfly, other artists claim meaning from their heritage or identity, some attempt novelty by using new-ish digital technology, many reference canonical artists in the hope that their invocation will elevate their own art, and the majority of the work is implicitly or explicitly political. This dependency on outside meaning is the most glaring with, of all things, the section of abstract paintings that fill the middle of the fifth floor. Visually, they're mostly serviceable but entirely uninteresting imitations of painting from the middle of the last century, although the wall texts hold a surprise because every single artist was motivated by something other than painting. Rick Lowe, who uses dominoes as the basis of his entire practice, is the most concerning, but others paint inspired by jazz, breath, traditional cultures, the textures of leather, or the unfolding of queerness as opposed to normative endpoints (as if any art ever has an endpoint). In short, they've clung to anything they can get their hands on to avoid the fundamental state of painting, namely, drawing a line or applying a brushstroke and wondering to yourself if it's any good. You know what inspired de Kooning? Paint, maybe alcohol. Or sure, he was "inspired" by women, but it would be ridiculous to speak of his art in that way because in the '50s a painting could still be seen on painting's terms. He didn't have to lean on the idea of woman to bring value to his work, the value came from his use of paint which stretched and reconfigured the possibilities of artistic representations of women. The surface to his approach is what wrought its depth. The art here is so concerned with presenting a depth of meaning that no attention is paid to the surface, and in doing so makes itself ineffectual.

I keep thinking about Ulysses, specifically about how one of the greatest works of literature is the story of a regular day where nothing in particular happens. That isn't to say that art has to be realist, of course, but it does beg the question of content. Just as a dramatic story doesn't make a good novel, a socially edifying moral doesn't make a good artwork. A restaurant is good if the food is good, not because all the ingredients are organic or sustainably farmed. The substance is in the quality of the thing itself, not in what it "means." But, since this isn't what the Whitney's curators think, the sixth floor is dominated by semi-documentary film work. (At least I think it's mostly semi-documentary, I didn't really watch any of them. In my defense, I read three reviews of the biennial to try to make sure, but two only mentioned Alfredo Jaar's Black Lives Matter piece and Jerry Saltz didn't say anything about any of them, so it appears they can't even hold the attention of hacks.) This makes perfect sense because if you valorize art as literal moralizing then that means you wish art worked like a documentary. Documentary as a form tends to neglect the cinematic aspects of filmmaking in favor of a more or less blunt relaying of information; unlike other forms of art, it works as a legitimate form of "consciousness raising" activism, but as such it's barely art. Just as an essay is not poetry, a film that's primarily concerned with didactic information over affective phenomena is only art in the sense that everything in the world possesses affective content and can technically be called art. Ultimately, art distinguishes itself from everything else by privileging affect, which is what makes art "useless" in the sense that it operates on a different level from semantic meaning and conventional utility. The issue with art practices that seek to expand art into the realm of, say, hosting meetings for political groups, or an activist reading room, is that they trivialize the position of art itself, i.e. if these artists care so much about direct action and community organizing, then why are they artists and not community organizers? To that point, the third floor of the biennial is a room filled with readers on various subjects revolving around race and gender. When I was there no one was sitting at the tables or reading anything, and the books seemed as unruffled as the art on other floors, which you're not supposed to touch. I wouldn't expect anyone to use a museum as a public education reading room, and I don't know why the curators or artists would think otherwise. It's a farce to act as though there's something productive or virtuous being accomplished by treating this as art and putting it in a museum instead of an actual educational space like a community center or library, because no one goes to a museum to flip through zines. This, perhaps more than anything, signifies the central issue of the Whitney Biennial, an incorrect ontology of art that causes an overabundance of sentiment and a proportional ignorance of how those sentiments are being communicated.

The biennial's mistake is a confusion of the positions of art's material surface and the depths of its sentiment. Most of the work in the Whitney presumes that the interiority of an imposed significance is where the value of an artwork comes from, but, as in the example of de Kooning, the meaning of an artwork can never be imposed. Significance is only created through the surface of the work and that meaning must operate within the art. Meaning cannot be sutured onto a work by simple facts such as the artist's biography or identity, because such things have no inherent tie to the quality of the work. The entire objective of art is to represent affective phenomena, and if it becomes possible to experience that representation through background details about the artist then art becomes effectively useless. It would be akin to replacing art in a gallery with people telling the story of their life and calling the act of listening to them the same as art. Some may find the two experiences comparable, but those people do not love art; someone who holds a story about Titian's patrons and a reading of his work's symbolic content on the same level as looking at his paintings knows nothing about looking at paintings. This is the point I was getting at with Ulysses, that the content of the work lies in its execution, not its moral. The Biennial tries to sidestep the problem of execution, of quality, of good and bad, by championing art that presents their idea of ideological truth, a moral good versus evil, as though rectitude is what makes a successful artwork. But a perfectly well-intentioned person can make horrible food, and likewise they can make horrible art. All art enacts the artist's notion of good art, like the Kippenberger fanboys who think bad art is good art, but, on top of mislocating the place where art becomes meaningful, the moralist reading of artistic quality also compounds its error by inevitably and devoutly following social norms. I have my own reservations about romanticizing art that is transgressive, but normative art can never accomplish anything. At least in our society, normativity is synonymous with mediocrity, and while artists are under no compunction to make work in any particular mode, they must at least pursue their mode of working with a singular intensity to achieve an emotive specificity that makes the work unique. Without that, the affects within the art will remain conventional and unconvincing. This is why so much of the biennial concerns itself with sentiments that have nothing to do with the work, because activism, nostalgia, and identity are agreed upon as safe topics for emotion, easy outs that are reinforced by the arts establishment. For example, one of the worst pieces in the entire biennial, in a hallway leading to the patio with some of the best by Charles Ray, is Alejandro "Luperca" Morales' Juárez Archive, which collects Google Maps images of streets in Juárez, the artist's hometown, in miniature toy viewfinders. He collected the images of Juárez (points for being Latino) while homesick (points for nostalgia) during the pandemic (points for current events), and made them small to force a sense of intimacy. But the artist's subjective feelings about his hometown are impenetrable, which would make them a good subject for art except that he bluntly presents the objects of his emotions without any concern for involving the viewer's feelings. I see no reason why we should take the step to involve ourselves unless one has a craven liberal sense of obligation to feel the profundity of everyone else's feelings with no regard for how those feelings are being transmitted. Anyway, aside from Charles Ray, Buck Ellison's staged imitations of important moments in Erik Prince's life and Michael E. Smith's hanging bottles with motors were pretty good. Nothing else did much for me.