The Whitney Biennial: Contemporary Art is History

When the Whitney’s Biennial opened a few weeks ago, the critics came with hands on holsters and left, by and large, pleased, even ecstatic. “Winningly theatrical” (The New Yorker); “an exciting, powerful case for art” (The New York Times); “aesthetics are alive downtown” (The Wall Street Journal). No doubt, the young curators (Christopher Lew and Mia Locks) put together a display that showcases enormous and diverse talent. But if the Whitney aimed, as it says, “to gauge the state of art in America today”, what it shows is that contemporary art — at least insofar as it is represented by the Biennial — has not yet adapted to today’s world. Whereas contemporary art was once edgy, thought-provoking, and moving — forcing its audience to confront a new world in new ways — the work of the Biennial seems more lost and adrift, as bewildered by today’s world as its audience.

(Disclosure: the Whitney is one of my favorite museums — I’ve made and will continue to make small donations to their cause, so this discussion comes from the perspective of a “concerned citizen” intending to spark discussion.)

It’s particularly tragic because its audience is desperate to be engaged. You can see them dutifully reading the plaques and staring at the pieces, as though waiting for a feeling — for some sense of profoundness, a thought or an emotion, something, anything, to swell through them. As though if they pause for a moment longer, the art might reach out and pinch their shoulders in just the right way, casually releasing the stiffness caused by sedentary city life. The question of what causes that feeling is one of the great mysteries of art. The yearning to feel is constant, and yet at the Whitney’s Biennial, feeling something is the exception. The experience is decidedly unlike, for example, visiting the 9/11 Museum, where many museum goers are often moved to, and beyond, the point of tears. (While the 9/11 museum deals with an inherently tragic and moving subject, so too does much of the art in the Biennial.)

Many museum-goers are reluctant to admit they don’t “get it”, afraid to be outed as some intruder who doesn’t belong in smart society. And there are plenty of contemporary art’s advocates on standby, ready to make people feel that way. But truth has a way of bubbling up. It shows in the basic economics of art. The Whitney, for example, reported under $15 million of admissions revenue in 2016; the Museum of Modern Art — one of the largest collections of modern art — reported just under $33 million of admissions revenues in 2015. By contrast, the Empire State Building’s observation deck generated $53 million in the first six months of 2016 alone. (While it’s not entirely fair to compare a museum, fixed in one place, with the movie industry, it’s worth noting that more than 100 movies released in 2016 made over $15 million in revenues, many of them significantly more — with Finding Dory bringing in over a billion.) This is not to say that either the Whitney or MoMA are struggling. The Whitney’s total endowment assets (which includes money donated by donors who restrict its use to certain causes) exceed $300 million; for MoMA, the number is north of $380 million. But unlike movies or other tourist sites, modern art museums depend on the largesse of a few, rather than the small contributions of many. In this way, they echo the contrast between political candidates who rely on a few wealthy donors versus those who can boast that most of their money comes from small contributions. Both reflect a failure to connect with a larger audience. As the poet-novelist Ben Lerner put it in Leaving the Atocha Station, “I had long worried that I was incapable of having a profound experience of art and I had trouble believing that anyone did, at least anyone I knew. . . . I was interested in the disconnect between my experience of actual artworks and the claims made on their behalf; the closest I’d come to having a profound experience of art was probably the experience of this distance, a profound experience of the absence of profundity.”

This shortcoming traces in large part to the art’s failure to ask whether its medium — be it oil or acrylic or mixed media, whatever — is a particularly compelling way to deliver the impact or message it’s hoping to deliver. The question has only gotten more complicated because now there are more mediums than ever, with artists going as far as dabbling in horticulture to make a point (Asad Raza’s exhibit features twenty-six trees with worldly possessions at their bases, all growing under UV light). And there are more purposes now than ever. The Whitney’s art is trying to do all it used to do (we see this in the stylistically familiar paintings of Shara Hughes, Dana Schutz, and Henry Taylor — all done with incredible expertise), and more. Much more. For example, Cameron Rowland’s exhibit includes proof that the Whitney museum has invested $25,000 in a social impact bond (basically, it invests in an initiative to “reduce recidivism among medium to high risk offenders”, and the Whitney makes money if the program is successful — i.e., the offenders don’t go back to jail).

Yet this seems to have only obscured that all-important question, art’s elephant in the room — why art? The best answer, when it’s an honest answer, is that art delivers its message or impact in a unique or particularly compelling way. But it’s also important to note that the answer — i.e., what is compelling to its audience — changes over time, in response to all sorts of things, including technology. The work of paintings changed, for example, with the advent of the photography, venturing further and further from literal depictions of subject matter (hence the rise of impressionism and, not long after, more abstract art). Even portraits had to adapt, using their medium in ways that create an effect not captured as well by a simple photograph. The good ones did — still do — exactly that.

The Biennial’s art, while demonstrating laudable technical expertise, brings this question to mind. Take for example the photographs (like Deanna Lawson’s) that depict enduring economic injustice, or the photograph of graffiti that reads “FUCK THIS RACIST ASSHOLE PRESIDENT”, or the paintings taking on the subject of race in society (notably Henry Taylor’s painting of the shooting of Philando Castile, with its perfect title: THE TIMES THEY AINT A CHANGING, FAST ENOUGH!). The audience looking at these works is more exposed to the world — in terms of access to news and information and travel — than previous generations of audiences, which raises serious questions for artists. What can an oil-or-acrylic on canvas depiction of racial violence do — what effect can it have, and how can it have that effect — in a world where many of us have seen, on the home pages of major news outlets and elsewhere, pictures and YouTube videos literally depicting the killing of black citizens? Is a picture of graffiti reading “FUCK THIS RACIST ASSHOLE PRESIDENT” a particularly moving or thoughtful way of expressing dissent in a world where that sentiment (and many others, in many forms) are ubiquitous online, on our Facebook feeds, in comment sections, all over Twitter — in a world where nearly four million protestors rallied during the women’s march, many of them holding signs with creative ways of expressing dissent? Is anything in the Biennial more moving than videos depicting hundreds and thousands of citizens showing up to airports around the country, in response to the Trump travel ban, all singing the same thing loud enough to be heard through walls — is it not fair to compare art to real life and if so, what a commentary on art and life, that art can’t even aspire to keep up with the year we’ve had.

This is not (at all) to say that art can play no role in major political or social discussions, but rather that doing so requires artists to more carefully consider how they use their medium — how to do something that’s not already being done, in a world where a lot is being done. It’s doable. Look at “Beasts of the Southern Wild” — a wildly successful movie made on a shoestring by a collective in southern Louisiana with handheld cameras and untrained actors. It uses its medium to create an otherworldly, magical and yet telling and tragic depiction of a swampy territory separated by a levee from the rest of the world — and in doing so, it tells a story with themes from Louisiana’s bayous that nothing in the news media or YouTube or anywhere else was telling, or could tell, even with all the coverage of Hurricane Katrina. And in the world of painting, it wasn’t all that long ago that Fernando Botero used his whimsical style to create simple yet haunting depictions to draw attention to the absurdity of violence and injustice in Colombia, portrayed in a way that other mediums couldn’t quite do.

To be clear, the problem extends beyond art dealing with political subject matter. Take, for example, Oto Gillen’s exhibit, a 107-minute silent color HD video depicting photographs of people in New York. Is the exhibit more powerful or better organized or better in any conceivable way than the Instagram account, “Humans of New York”? It’s no answer that neither Gillen nor the Biennial seeks to compete with “Humans of New York” (which has 6.7 million followers now). The question, whether the Whitney or Gillen want to confront it or not, is why would anyone want to sit through a portion of this, much less the entire thing, when they can simply access “Humans of New York”?

In many ways, the times are changing. These works, far from avant garde or subversive, seem like the last horse to cross the finish line — an autopsy confirming what we all already know, what we have seen over and over again. If anything, it often feels like much of the Biennial’s art was created almost as a matter of bureaucratic necessity, on the theory that if it’s important, it must be painted or photographed or something — and it should probably be in the Biennial, how could it not. More cynically, the art seems to be depicting important issues — like those relating to social justice, which are inherently interesting and important and moving — as a way of staying relevant. It’s not bad work by any means, but it’s a sad station for a medium that, not too long ago, pushed our boundaries in terms of how to communicate about the human condition.

Now that pressure is coming from elsewhere. It’s not just possible but virtually certain that the volume and quality of art produced by everyday people today exceeds in creativity and spirit the earnest work of professional artists. Social media has changed the landscape. Even the line between artist and audience has been reformulated. Today, anyone can be Ansel Adams, and the images that move people are almost certainly out there far in advance of a museum’s ability to get to them — take, for example, the recent picture of a 70-year old man smoking a pipe and listening to music in his destroyed bedroom in Aleppo. More than that, the incredible ease of sharing makes art more available now than ever — if the Whitney’s art is a series of confined statements, mediums like Snapchat are the much louder and more democratic noise of modern conversation. As Snap, Inc.’s Founder and CEO put it, “People wonder why their daughter is taking 10,000 photos a day. What they don’t realize is that she isn’t preserving images. She’s talking.”

The Biennial doesn’t ignore that conversation, but it is noticeably conservative about it. John Riepenhoff’s work, in which human legs made of papier-mâché hold up television screens, questions the humanity of our social media world. Taking that concern to its logical extreme, Frances Stark’s exhibit is literally a room full of text calling for artists to take control of censorship — pushing the idea that liberty is actually harmful to art. The exhibit is of course not entirely serious, but its power doesn’t come from its solution (let the artists censor the masses); it comes from its sense, probably shared by much of its audience, that there’s a problem in need of solving in the first place. The idea that there is virtue in living as people did before the latest technology, or before electricity, or before any particular change, or that something is wrong with “this new world” is not, itself, new — but it’s an ironically conservative criticism coming from a medium that was itself, not too long ago, at the cutting edge of communication. It sounds strikingly like an industry worried about being displaced by the latest thing — the old painters faced with impressionism, cab drivers faced with self-driving vehicles. (One floor of the Biennial welcomes you with a series of inexplicable banners, one of which reads, quite aptly, “we were never meant to survive”.) At a minimum, in the age-old debate about whether art is “ahead” of society or a lagging behind, the Whitney’s Biennial is a powerful exhibit in favor of the latter.

Part of the shortcoming is that art has become deeply divorced from intellectualism. By intellectualism I don’t mean facility with the absurd glossary of terms one needs to know in order to read through most descriptions of modern art or art history (post this, post that, neo this, etc) — a regrettable but understandable characteristic in fields like law and medicine, but truly frivolous in the realm of art. I mean that much of the art is failing to seriously grapple with its subject matter on a rigorous intellectual level.

It shows. Take the Occupy Museums exhibit in the Biennial. It is an entire wall dedicated to blaming Blackrock and its CEO, Larry Fink, for the 2008 housing crash, and depicting the work of artists deep in debt. You could imagine this being very provocative. It is criticizing the socioeconomic order of a society that finances itself and its activities through debt, and it’s hard to imagine a demographic more benefited by that order than the audience at the Whitney. Here there is confrontation between the art and its audience and yet it doesn’t feel like a clash — certainly nothing as dangerous and provocative as Picasso’s Guernica, a huge mural created in response to fascist bombing of Basque country, unleashed in 1937 as fascism was spreading in Europe. Far from it. The Occupy Museums exhibit lacks any kind of moral clarity, or discernible social or economic argument. It comes across as naïve at best. It does not explain the relationship, if any, between Blackrock and the mortgage crisis, and ignores that Blackrock, whatever its faults, has cut the cost of investing — its trillions of dollars of assets are not its own assets, but those of real, working people, who now have more access to public markets than ever, thanks to the innovation of passive, low-cost investing. For those looking, there are better culprits, and quite a few of them. It’s an incredible irony that artists would focus so much attention on financial innovation that breaks down the old walls and lets everyday people invest alongside the wealthy — and that they would do so to highlight artist debt without even explaining why the artists are in debt. Is it their own choices? Were they misled? Is there a solution? No answers come from this exhibit. It’s hard to shake the feeling that this reveals some broader complacency, even laziness, when it comes to engaging with complicated issues; that nowadays more and more people, artists included, are punching the bag called corporations, objecting to inequality and unfairness, demanding social justice in the vaguest terms, and then calling it a day. It’s not good enough. Now, more than ever, we need more.

Which brings us back to the question: what can art do? The social impact bond — which at least attempts an answer — is money given to an important cause, but it’s less a triumph of art than its repudiation; its power hinges on proof of a good deed outside the art world, rather than a work of art. It is, to put a slight twist on an old and pretentious criticism, pretty derivative.

Jordan Wolfson’s exhibit — a 90-second virtual reality video of a man bashing another man (a very real looking doll) to death with a baseball bat, beginning with the tune of a traditional Hebrew prayer — is another self-repudiating failure. It is the contemporary art equivalent of what filmmakers do in torture porn movies like the Saw series: dealing with an audience more numb than ever, this genre tries to elicit feelings — shock, horror, anything — by resorting to extreme violence. In this way, it is the philosophy of Milo Yiannopolous — the former Breitbart editor who rose and fell through his willingness to say anything, no matter how offensive — taken to its violent end.

Thankfully, this is less a failure of art or the modern human condition than the failure of this artist, and the Whitney for giving him a platform. Wolfson’s video stands in notable contrast with the work of better artists who demonstrate that power and subtlety are not mutually exclusive. To take an easy example, Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (in Berlin) is a haunting series of black concrete slabs that evoke the overwhelming magnitude of violence against Jews in Europe. Or for those who prefer the artistic value of violence in film: in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, the protagonist burns down and kills a theater full of Nazis enjoying a propaganda movie about the exploits of a Nazi sniper. That too is gruesome. But as we — the audience — rejoice at the destruction of the Nazis, we might also worry that like them, we are in a theater cheering on violence. Obviously there is a difference, but the parallelism is masterful, subtle, and thought-provoking. Wolfson’s was none of the above. It is unfortunately more likely to be appreciated by neo-Nazis and anti-Semites than any sensible museum goer.


We live in the age of binge consumption. It shows in sales of substances — vodka sodas, prescription drugs, the ever-growing list of legal and illegal concoctions. It shows in how much TV we watch (over five hours a day for the average American), how often we have the radio on, our headphones in. We see it in modern dating, where singles sign up on apps and swipe left or right on hundreds or thousands of potential candidates for dates. We see it in the endless news cycle. And we keep looking for more. In Anicka Yi’s 3D video, a prospecting mission in the Brazilian Amazon searches for a mythical plant useful for the pharmaceutical industry, another thing to help us feel.

Searching, yearning — “longing,” as the poet Robert Hass wrote, “because desire is full of endless distances.” We will go anywhere for it. But the Whitney Biennial, in its survey of contemporary art, just proves Lerner’s point — that it’s hard to believe the stuff of art museums is giving anyone a particularly profound experience. If anything, it raises a mirror to all of us, and what we see is a society that needs something it’s not quite getting — not in life, and no longer, if ever, in contemporary art.