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In Response to Darren Jones, “Is it Time to End the Whitney Biennial”?

Al Jirikowic

I think there are many facets to the question Darren poses – but off hand my response is YES, end the Biennial – but with a great caveat. A caveat which inspires me to think we must question the real purpose of the Whitney, MOMA, the Guggenheim et al, with respect to the powerful role the cathedrals of art actually play in our art world of ‘crisis’ – for Darren is certainly hinting at crisis. And a crisis it is.
And ‘play’ is the operative word here. For this is ‘playtime’ for those financial elites, the .01% of the population who control the Whitney or Met or MOMA etc., as The New York Times so explicitly points out. The NYT reveals the makeup or controlling composition of the various boards of directors as ‘The Structure’ (my word), of these veritable institutions. This is soundly their turf, they paid for it so it is theirs and make no mistake about it. The NYT makes no mistake about it. This may seem like a revelation to some, but we already know this to be hideously true, for not only is there an absence of democracy (art has always been an elite game?) but more importantly this shield of board members guarantees there can never be a more open process in art/cultural/input/society/exhibition. This structure is hardened air tight.

Brian Belott: Untitled (Fan Puff) 2016, at the 2019 Biennial. He was born in 1973.

So the average person, i.e. the art loving public, will never have any sense of say in the total operation of these museums, and that is quite obviously intentional. The average person could never pony up to get into this club and why should they? This is rarified air only to be breathed by those who have expressed interests in joining the cadre. Yes, there is a massive quid pro quo in terms of status, write-offs, prestige, influence. This governing structure is the apex of financial elite control expressed in the world of these cultural cathedrals of art. They set the tone, the fashion, the accepted, the current, the included or excluded in what is to be considered art. These institutions are the highbrow pervaders/purveyors of art, the standard of what is in the air of art at the apex of cultural discussion and discourse. These institutions legitimize or organize the viewing of art as they see fit for whatever reason. The reasons may be obscure, hidden, or blatant, but the synthesis of this decision making process is very controlling. This is all power play. Byzantine. Strange, secret determinations. This is how ‘they’ operate and what the public expects and assumes as settled art in and of our time. Or is it? Darren seems to think not, he sees the Whitney as having worn out its mission. Of course I agree with him, but more because this is endemic to all the cathedrals of art.
Secondly, our question entails a vast soul-searching psychological proposition that will be quite difficult for the art world to entertain. We know the institutions of art are never going to be encumbered by doubt or revision of criteria or purpose and hence will never question their fundamental role in our society. It looks like they exist for them. But that question really then lies with us. Can WE begin to openly question the various filters and strainers, determinations and standards, processes and criteria that these institutions deal with in terms of providing the show of art that we are then ‘allowed’ to ‘see’? And therein lies the rub that Darren only alludes to. This illustrates the crisis of art we really do not contend with. That openly stated is: do we agree with who calls the shots in the cathedrals of art? Do we really want to question this and what it implies? Or is that done anyway but to no avail? I really do not sense that, although the art world is terribly ‘busy’.
We are torn. We look to these great institutions to provide us with guidance, instruction, reference for art. But we are in conflict with them because they are structured in such a fashion that they can only serve their own best interest, whatever that might be, whether we are conscious of it or not! As Darren points out. Think about it – how is art determined? Is it merely the decisions of others? How can art emerge beset by such control and agendas set in the maze of corporate yes–men and stultifying bureaucracy? Especially when power-ego-money-image-service-politics-fantasy is so encompassing that these institutions are like black holes where art light will never escape, let alone develop. Art is entirely purposed in this setting. These are very high walls with shark-infested moats, so dangerous disagreement with the standard line sees you banished to the rotten lands of irrelevancy. So you end up marching to the tune of the Cathedrals if you wish to enter. Kiss the ring, art pilgrim.
And that structure of choosers designated according to financial and elite pressure – through taxes, grants, charity or sales – drips down into the myriad smaller museums and galleries, dealers and art fairs, alternative spaces or community art places. There is some sort of ‘expectation of performance’ on them. The curating of art answers to a set of rules specifying what can be seen as contextually correct for any given space. That space may launch an artist or keep her/him on a set level, but that artist is usually set on a given path that is well traveled, whether to success or status-on-hold. The sad thing is there is usually little surprise one way or another, and certain places are dead ends where no art statements arise and flourish. Shall we call it the institutionalized art distribution system as the shadow mimicry of so called art life? Is this mimicry spread across the board so that as we descend down the art distribution system all (exceptions lurk) institutions are inherently basking in their own best interest, as innocent or corrupt as that may be? I think Darren Jones would acknowledge this ongoing state of things at the Whitney, as ongoing ‘Whitney culture’ and in so doing he would certainly characterize it as a ‘dysfunction of sorts’ – that has persevered despite criticism and other art world influence. This is to say we are stuck with this ‘creature’ of the Whitney as the Whitney. We are left shaking our heads asking “whose art world is this anyway”? Certainly not the public’s… but the patron’s, the investors, the board – we can see the true domain of the Whitney. But this is where we find ourselves now, sadly. Hence cancel the biennial of the Whitney because it could never be what it pretends to be and why kid ourselves? The cathedrals of art that sanction perception, as a management-permission that allows some to float while others – who knows who – sink. So the real question in respect to the perceptual sanctions that occur on a daily basis no matter where you look, is where are our artists who do not want to play along with the fabricated norm of the art world? Where are our challenges to the walls of art/norm? Where are our lost artists and their voices? Or is the art world no better than a catalogue of choices of whether we like it or not? Will the Whitney Biennial bring us to what we sense we miss? Not now. How?

Installation view of the 1973 Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Art
(Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, January 10–March 18, 1973). Photograph by Sandak, Inc.

In the past, serious questions and doubters have critically and courageously confronted the Academy or the norm or the Church or the State or the man/woman on the hill. This could be done when time itself was on a different scale within a less mediated population or group. This was before the post-modern condition of mass culture, when time and people were scaled together, not in conflict, when time was a dimension of humanity – not the other way around. When time was slower, scaled differently, with more spatial head room, a smaller population, a bigger world, without the social pressures of today. Of course we will never go back and that is fine. When some daring artists challenged the norm and upset people they were sometimes burned at the stake, tarred and feathered or banished into the wilderness. Today they are ignored or unseen. The art world consumes winners and losers. Aspiring artists depend on being discovered or hyped. This entire dynamic of artists’ plight and the art distribution system is inhuman and needs to be addressed in a very conscious way. Can we?
There is no solution for the undiscovered artist, but there can be an awareness of our art distribution network that the viewer can begin to adopt. There is no art place where the public should not question a few of the filtering standards or ideas, ask why that institution exists and what we should expect from it. We should always examine the context of how art comes to the fore. We should be aware of the social process that goes into it. We should doubt the veracity of large art institutions the most, the Cathedrals of Art that claim to provide or pretend to answer our aesthetic wilderness. We should have the courage to claim our hearts when meeting new art, not automatically buy in with what is provided for us. I think I will never think of the Whitney in the same way and that is just one of the first to be called on to the carpet.
Stick around.

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