Biennials are a strange thing by their nature. Meant to represent the cream of the artistic crop, these biannual events offer an implicit promise for both artistic excellence (however one chooses to define that these days) and sharp social commentary. In this way the art displayed at a biennial serves a dual purpose: to assure highbrow connoisseurs that quality fine art is still being produced, and at the same time to reflect the zeitgeist. This zeitgeist does not belong to the rarified air of the New York art world, however, or the downtown scenesters sipping wine out of plastic cups in the antiseptic spaces of Chelsea art galleries. The zeitgeist is messy. It consists of violent video games, mass shootings, mind-boggling inequality, opiate addiction, racial tension, social media, and a consumer economy based on cheap labor, disposable products, and omnipresent advertising. In other words, it is about as far from 19th century French impressionism as one could possibly get.
But this is position that the biennial occupies, and so every two years it must find the rare gems its curators deem deserving of wide exposure (the 2017 curators were Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks). The selection is always somewhat arbitrary, since there exists no objective mechanism for determining an artwork’s value or importance. Certain lucky artists may even find themselves the Next Big Thing, the subject of an art market bubble, and the artist’s works are sold for astronomical amounts. Sometimes the bubble stays intact, as it did with Basquiat, and the prices continue to rise like a runaway stock quote. Other times it bursts, and those who once proclaimed the artist’s genius must admit that the emperor’s new clothes were a mirage and he was naked the whole time. It’s unlikely that there will be any breakout stars from this year’s Whitney Biennial, but the exhibit makes for heady viewing regardless.
In an exhibit saturated with political subtext (the art critic Jerry Saltz writes in Vulture that “the 2017 is the most politically charged since the 1993 Biennial”),
a rare explicit message comes in the form of An-My Lê’s photograph of graffiti on the side of a New Orleans building reading “Fuck this racist president.” The work is part of a suite of photos called The Silent General examining the legacy of the civil war on Louisiana. Deanna Lawson’s crisp, colorful photographs are more like staged portraits. The photos are intimate but never candid, many of them having been taken in the subjects’ homes as they stared directly into the camera.
The most shocking part of the exhibit is no doubt Jordan Wolfson’s “Real Violence,” which includes an age restriction (17+) and a warning about the violence to follow. The viewer puts on virtual reality goggles and big headphones for an immersive experience. Within seconds, the artist appears wielding a baseball bat, which he uses to crack another man’s skull and continue to viciously beat him into a bloody pulp. Hebrew prayer chants play in the background, a bewildering juxtaposition. The violence is the fake, but it looks horribly real, and the viewer is left queasy and disturbed (if perhaps slightly confused about the point of it all). The matter-of-fact presentation of the violence, stripped of Hollywood stylization, makes the experience all the more settling.
Dana Shutz’s “Open Casket” made headlines for eliciting and, as often follows, increased publicity for both the artist and the biennial. It depicts the mangled face of Emmett Till after his torture and murder – an oil-on-canvas rendering of the infamous photograph that appeared in newspapers at the time and helped draw attention to the scourge of racist violence in the Jim Crow south. Till’s murderers – both acquitted by an all-white jury – were enraged after a white woman falsely accused him of whistling at her.
Over half a century later, the main argument against Shutz seems to be that she, too, is a white woman, and therefore lacks the racial authority to depict such a sensitive subject. In her essay “The Painting Must Go,” the artist and writer Hannah Black went so far as to demand the painting be destroyed: “the painting should not be acceptable to anyone who cares or pretends to care about Black people because it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun.” Her statement cuts against the idea of race as a social construct, conveying a deeply held belief that white people are capable of understanding black pain. Zadie Smith – the celebrated novelist who, like Black, is biracial, and who has children with her white husband, sums it up nicely in Harpers:
When arguments of appropriation are linked to a racial essentialism no more sophisticated than antebellum miscegenation laws, well, then we head quickly into absurdity. Is Hannah Black black enough to write this letter? Are my children too white to engage with black suffering? How black is black enough? Does an “octoroon” still count?
The racial essentialism Smith refers to is ironically reminiscent of white supremacist arguments for biological determinism.
I’d be curious what Black makes of “Strange Fruit” –Billie Holiday’s haunting meditation on lynching, written by a white man by the name of Abel Meeropol. I’d also like to know what Black found “fun” about the painting, since that certainly was not the intention, or how Shutz is profiting from a painting she has publically said she would not sell. And what about that other painting on display right nearby – Henry Taylor’s “The Times…” – which depicts the murder of Philando Castile in 2016. A Minnesota cop shot Castile during a traffic stop in front of his girlfriend and four-year-old daughter (unsurprisingly, the officer was acquitted of all charges). Does Taylor’s blackness allow him to depict the black victims of white racist violence with a tact that Shutz’s whiteness prevents her from doing? If a viewer did not know the backgrounds of the artists while looking at the paintings, would their natural prejudices manifest themselves enough for the sophisticated viewer to guess the artists’ races? I suspect not.
“Censorship Now!” – a text-based piece by leftist provocateur Ian Svenonius– falls flat due simply to its asinine argument against free speech – an argument that echoes the scolding cries of Shutz’s detractors. Nowhere in the piece does the artist address who would enforce his proposed censorship of counterrevolutionary speech if not the government he evidently despises. Svenonius is a veteran of the D.C. hardcore scene and some these words would probably sound good shouted semi-intelligibly over a blistering two minute punk track, but when laid out in big print under bright and unforgiving museum lights, his writing is revealed as empty sloganeering, its adolescent angst all the more embarrassing considering Svenonius is middle aged.
Celeste Dupuy takes herself less seriously. Her bright watercolors, accented with acrylic and gouche, appear at first glance like a painting you'd see on the wall of a bar, perhaps not unlike the one depicted in “It's a Sports Bar But it Used to be a Gay Bar.” On close inspection, however, abstract eccentricities present themselves: jagged angles rendered with a pre-Renaissance use of perspective, contorted facial expressions, figures painted in washed out single colors. She captures the underclass by reflecting its life and verve under trying circumstances, avoiding sentimental clichés and preachy moralism.
In the end, one cannot expect to glean understand what makes 2017 unique from an art exhibit. If an alien were to land on earth and find himself at the Whitney Biennial, he would grasp the essence of contemporary culture no more than if he had been dropped in the middle of a cornfield. But that's not really what the Whitney is about. It's about who's lucky enough to gain acceptance from the New York elite – whether that has anything to do with the public's idea of artistic merit is largely a matter of coincidence.
We live in a world in which consumers can choose from a seemingly endless variety of entertainment beamed straight to their computers via streaming sources like Netflix, Hulu, and Spotify. Entertainment has been largely democratized, with viewers able to decide what to see and when (even if the scope of their choice is somewhat illusory). In such an environment, an art exhibit seeking to capture the crux of modern culture can seem a bit redundant - aren't we all exposed to this culture constantly, through multiple mediums? Then again, the point of art is not merely to reflect the world but to creatively interpret it. At its best, the biennial turns the absurdity and grotesquerie of our world into something beautiful, using an extensive palette of artistic and technological methods to express what makes 2017 so distinct and bizarre. At its worst, it proves the point of detractors who claim modern art is aloof and out of touch, a pointless pastime of pseudo-intellectuals and highbrow wannabes. Much of the exhibit falls in the middle ground between revelatory and redundant - and that's fine. Sometimes art doesn't need to be astonishing, or trenchant, or era-defining. Sometimes a cool-looking painting is good enough.