Every other year, the Whitney Museum’s Biennial Exhibition promises to put its finger on the pulse of contemporary American art. Curators look for the latest and the greatest, the up-and-coming work, the cutting-edge stuff. It’s then gathered and put on display at the Whitney’s concrete fortress on Madison Avenue in New York.
Some friends made faces when I told them that I wanted to take a look. These days, “contemporary art” tends to serve as a synonym for the radical chic that has become a cliché: chocolate-smeared performance artists, piles of trash in the corners of rooms, ideological pronouncements spray-painted onto police barriers, and so forth. But I was not deterred. Every age has bad art (though no doubt bad in different ways, according to the perversions of the times). So, recently on furlough from my professorial duties, I crossed the drawbridge into the Whitney.
The Biennial is a big show. It features dozens upon dozens of artists on three full floors of the museum. There is a wide range of media: film, photographs, installations, paintings, music, video, and many combinations presented in different ways. Whatever one thinks of contemporary artand the clearest conclusion to draw from the show is that thinking only one thing is wrong-headedthe Biennial is a very efficient way to form impressions of the current scene.
There is a fair amount of what I call clever-idea art, which rarely is either. Other reviewers have noticed the banality of the giant blue kitty-litter box installed by Amanda Ross-Ho. Life is all about managing waste? Daniel Joseph Martinez gives us a room of more than ninety simple yellow panels with the names of perpetrators of wanton destruction: Martyrs Brigade, IRA, Lord’s Resistance Army. The resulting wall of shame testifies to an honorable moral sentiment, but it hardly rises above ordinary aesthetic or ethical standards. Fia Backstrom provides a room that shouts: “Black people are captive to white ideals of beauty.” Gee, now that’s a new thought.
There are a number of other disappointments. Karen Kilimnik has produced traditional canvases of no particular interest. One installation amounts to an inexpensively decorated teenage basement room with a good sound system. At another location, an artist uses the Time magazine person of the year cover that has a mirror where the portrait ought to be. Yes, friends, you too deserve recognition. Yawn. Olivier Mosset gives us Mark Rothko without taste or passion. Surely somebody in America is doing something more interesting and beautiful with color. The Pottery Barn catalogue offers better.
In a couple of instances, I felt as thought the artists were taking batting practice for design jobs. Jedediah Caesar clearly has a future providing bold synthetic countertop material to remodelers, and Carol Bove’s studies in metal seemed to me like floor samples that help architectural clients make decisions about how to outfit ground-floor reception areas. Good luck to both in their future careers.
Yet the Biennial does not simply disappoint. The official description of the 2008 show by the curators, Henriette Huldisch and Shamim M. Momin, emphasizes the lack of a single movement or sensibility. “In dealing with the art of the present,” they write, “there are no easy assessments, only multiple points of entry.” Some doors open onto genuinely compelling possibilities.
James Welling has a series of photographs that use ordinary wire-mesh screening material and light to evoke the form of the human torso. These photos, especially Torso 3, are entrancing. The actuality of the wire mesh and the possibility of living human reality interplay with nearly perfect balance. The imagination is gently guided but not compelled toward the beauty of the body that has long been the foundation of Western art. I’d love to have any of these photos on my walls at home.
For very different reasons, I wanted to walk out with the haunting, hovering, white sculptural compositions by Charles Long. These objects are based on the natural streaking of bird droppings that Long photographed on concrete river embankments in Southern California. With these found designs, Long created sculptures with found objects by the riverside. This discipline has produced apocalyptic figures that are recognizable as vaguely worldly beings that have been desiccated and distorted by a wrecking, primeval wind. The objects would be frightening to have dominating the corner of my living roomtoo frightening, perhaps. But I felt that they compelled attention and rewarded contemplation, not as three-dimensional ideas or concepts, but as liminal realities in their own right.
Some large installations work a degree of magic. Mika Rottenberg has fabricated a stylized barnyard with multiple video screens that show “Cheese,” a short, storybook-style tale of the miraculous powers of water, luminous hair, and female fertility. Edgar Arceneaux has set up a video installation with nearly a dozen screens playing overlapping but distinct content. We are hurtling forward in a media saturated world, and I found the installation a useful experiment in visual and audio saturation. One walks the razors edge of overload but nonetheless feels a unity of experience. The drive of the human mind toward coherence is reassuringly powerful.
As I retraced my steps across the Whitney drawbridge and turned the corner toward the Lexington Avenue subway line, I found myself thinking that a young person with artistic vision is entering a world these days without any particular demands or expectations. The profound heterogeneity of the Biennial shows that there is no avant-garde, no consensus about what counts as cutting-edge and contemporary. Perhaps this is because the bourgeoisie world of Old Lyme and New Canaan against which modern art long defined itself in opposition now champions its nemesis, and has for decades. It’s hard to be avant-garde when hedge-fund collectors whom you went to college with come to all the important openings and love your work.
Doubtless this demoralizes some. There is nothing like a Radical Cause and a Revolutionary Movement to make life feel important, even a life so self-centered as that of an artist. But neither was on offer at the Whitney. I’m sure that other, more knowledgeable critics can question the curators’ judgments. Maybe they should have found better work by more interesting artists. All the same, the message this year was clear: There is no settled orthodoxy in contemporary American art. There’s no there there.
That’s not true in the contemporary American university, where the high priests of theory rule the humanities. Yet my experience at the Whitney gave me hope. Artists often mouth puerile political, philosophical, and moral platitudes, but as artists I trust them. They are canaries in culture, and they’re often the first to sense and give witness to shifts in collective sensibility, even as they continue to talk the old talk of the avant-garde. At this moment, the canaries at the Whitney testify to an emerging situation: creativity without a cause. Perhaps this is a harbinger of larger changes, and the ideologically rigid po-mo crowd in academia will eventually be unseated from their endowed chairs.
Yet, as I walked on, my hope was mixed with anxiety. Culture cannot exist without orthodoxies, because freedom cannot give itself the obligations necessary for its own perfection: the ordered liberty of assent to that which is greater. Creative freedom we seem to have, but for what and toward what? The same question holds for intellectual, moral, and political freedom. It is one thing to be free from the false dogmas of the modern avant-garde; it is another to find the true dogmas that humanize. For the sake of our creative culture now freeing itself from the long reigning pieties of the modern avant-gardeand for our culture more broadlyI hope God sees fit to open some new eyes to see old truths.
R.R. Reno is features editor for First Things and professor of theology at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.