Is the New Museum Slipping?
The biennial problem is perennial. The Whitney Biennial has been difficult to deal with for years, so now as punishment for our art sins, the New Museum will offer another survey of “new” art every three years. The Whitney has already complicated and partially reformed its offerings by going global, using guest curators, and even augmenting its space in ’08 with an off-site venue— the magnificent Park Avenue Armory
But last year when I was feeling more benign I wrote:
And how many curators? Alas, this Biennial gives me the feeling of too many cooks. Only a committee could include photo-realist painter Robert Bechtle, photo-conceptualist Louise Lawler and abstract painter Mary Heilmann. There are too many lookalikes and almosts. Could this be because Henriette Huldisch and Shamim Momin, the curators of record (both Whitney staffers), were “overseen” by chief curator Donna De Salvo and advised by Thelma Golden, Bill Horrigan and Linda Norden?
But that was all before the fall — the fall of the art market. Leading to? Yet another global survey. You were hoping for the end of hegemony?
No, the NuMu is not slipping. It has very little to slip from. Last year Massimiliano Gioni’s “After Nature” was o.k., but little else has been up to snuff. True, galleries have sprouted around the ungainly stacked cubes of its fake building, but that has been the NuMu’s only real success: real estate.
And we all know where that’s going.
So why bother trying to copy The Biennial? The Whitney is NuMu director Lisa Phillips’ alma mater and the institution that spawned Marcia Tucker’s New Museum (by giving her the boot).
More Boring Than the Buddha
The NuMu “The Generational” has an attention-getting but foolish extended title: “Younger Than Jesus”, which seems to mean that all the 50 artists from 25 different countries are younger than The Christ when He was crucified. I find this truly offensive. And I am not even a Christian.
Will future titles be equally insulting? How about: More Boring Than the Buddha; Bossier Than Moses; Louder Than Luther; Madder Than Mohammad; More Baffling Than Madame Blavatsky?
The Whitney Biennial of ’06 had a title too: the irrelevant, but perhaps anti-cinema “Day for Night.” Since the Whitney insists upon including established artists with the newbies, thus pleasing and puffing up the latter, the downtown Whitney wannabe can’t do that. On the other hand, the Whitney Biennial has, as already mentioned, gone global, the NuMu Triennial must be global too.
Well, yes, art is indeed global. But so is late capitalism and so is tuberculosis. In spite of transnational trends like the Renaissance, the Baroque, the Enlightenment, and then Modernism, it was once thought nations were little, much cherished pockets of stylistic development, language tics, and even aesthetic surprise. Not so anymore.
But wait. I take it back. Currently art is not global; but art education is. The stress-free Generational feels like, looks like, smells like any MFA thesis show that one might happen upon anywhere in the world.
Even the three curators (Lauren Cornell, Massimiliano Gioni, and Laura Hoptman) cannot make head nor tales of their 50 choices, selected from 500 artists, all born after 1976 and – hold onto your seat belts—nominated by “150 curators, writers, teachers, artists, critic, and bloggers worldwide.” This methodology must have sounded really clever in a curatorial meeting or graduate seminar, but the results are dismal. Artists over 33 never innovate? Matisse’s late works are his best. And how old was Duchamp when he finished Etant donné?
Furthermore, you are asking for it when you call something “The Generational” and the demographics don’t add up to anything really important. Even the curators can’t explain what’s going on.
If you think the 500-word labels in the exhibition are mind-boggling, here are some pungent quotes from the catalog essays, each title in large letters. The curators herewith reveal that they have set themselves not an art problem, but a packaging problem.
New Age Thinking
The elusive state of relevance, in which art becomes worthy of attention, is informed by intergenerational tension. Practices of emerging artists call older or less-well-known ones into prominence. People hit their so-called strides when receptive forces are favorably aligned, and artists, in general, glean and reject ideas from different movements and moments.
[Say the first sentence over and over until you levitate. JP]
We Are Too Many
In his classical study on generations, sociologist Karl Mannheim constructs a mental experiment that has almost a dark, science-fiction tone to it: What would our societies look like if one generation would live forever? What would we remember? How would we forget? How would we expand our knowledge? And who would fight out wars or pay for our peaceful retirement?
[What? Well, at least Gioni got to drop Mannheim’s name.]
I am a visitor to this Millenial Generation, a generational tourist, come from the far end of the previous generation, which is now pretty well on in years, and also studied, packaged, targeted, and even historicized. There is no doubt about it: Generational parameters are flawed, even arbitrary tools for the analysis of contemporary art. In terms of art, a generation, particularly on a global level, cannot be defined by the visual culture it consumes, but only by what it produces.
[And if it produces nothing of value?]
We Are Tested Again
Artopia is supposed to be optimistic. So here are two positive responses:
- At least the Triennial is not every two years. Or every year.
- Five out of 50 artworks are excellent (A+), which is the same as the usual 10 percent in any given large, nonthematic survey, such as the dreaded Whitney Biennial.
I am afraid the Triennial follows the 10% rule, proving that even curatorial transparency of “methodology” (which would please any ill-informed art professor) does not make a difference.
The whole shebang is no better than random. You would end up with the same percentage of good artworks by pulling names out of a hat. That 10%, by the way, is not just an Artopian percent. Even if one had conservative taste or just liked bad paintings or only abstract art or were a sucker for anything video or digital, the average would still be 10%.
What would make a difference?
A consciously developed theme. Focus, focus, focus. And, oh, yes, better curators.
Our clever curators have, after the fact, spotted the following themes and chosen artists from “The Generational” to illustrate same:
*IMAGINING THE FUTURE: Possible worlds and fantasies of identity.
*THE ROMANCE OF OBSOLESCENCE: The artist as archeologist.
*REWRITING THE PAST: What do we remember? How do we forget?
*DOCU-FICTION: Storytelling and reportage.
*THE IMAGE-MAKING MACHINE: How can art cope with the explosion of images in the digitalsphere?
The assignment of artists to each category is so arbitrary, so off-base, I will not bother you with that part of the listing.
Freshman Assignment: Find artworks in any Whitney Biennial since 1962 that will illustrate these themes equally well, merely changing the neologism “digitalsphere” to “realms of mass communication.”
Themes that the Artopian researcher found:
*AVOIDING THE FUTURE
*THE ROMANCE OF TUMESCENCE
*REPEATING THE PAST
*THE MONEY-MAKING MACHINE
Sophomore Assignment: Make up your own subtitles for these “themes” and list the sorry “Generationals” in each category.
To the Head of the Class
But before I forget, here is the Artopia 10%, A+ List, which of course is at the top of the grade-inflated, good-taste heap:
Liu Chuang (Beijing): Buying Everything on You (2006-08). The artist approached people in the street and bought “everything on them,” all of which is here displayed; wallets, items of clothing, etc.
Loris Gréaud (Paris and Ho Chi Minh City): Nothing Is True Everything Is Permitted, Stairway Edit: A multivalent, free-standing, revolving metal spiral staircase to nowhere.
Cyprien Gaillard (Paris) Desniansky Raion. Russian fight-gang mobs, a Paris housing project being blown up, and then an aerial view of a Kiev apartment block. This video (with music by Koudlam) is virtually the only artwork that screams “Generational!” Even the curator is inspired by the spectacle:
In his videos Cyprien Gaillard portrays buildings of the ’60s as if they were the submerged ruins of ancient civilizations. In Desniansky Raion — his best-known piece — Gaillard juxtaposes these sublime landscapes with scenes of violence among hooligans. Seen in this context, they are transformed into strange rituals of an extinct people.
Andriana Lara (Mexico City): A guard eats a banana everyday and drops the skin on the floor. Is this in homage to Warhol’s Velvet Underground album cover-art?
Chu Yun (Shenzhen): A woman, utilizing sleeping pills, passes out under a white comforter during museum hours. She is being paid for her efforts and is not the artist. Does Andy Warhol’s Sleep one better. When I saw it, a dainty foot and a hank of hair peeked out from under the comforter.
And now , courtesy of YouTube, is the first part of Gaillard’s chic video:
* * *
So why are we plagued by these surveys? One template is the ancient Academic Salon of yesteryear, really yesteryear — like, you know, around the time of Louis XIV. But now we have commercial art galleries! In any case, the Impressionists, in their anti-establishment battles, proved that the academic salons were pointless, right?
But, unlike the self-congratulation of the Salons, the Whitney Biennial, according to an ’08 press release, once had at least two forthright, albeit contradictory, goals: providing a forum for contemporary American artists “struggling to free themselves from the prevailing art and culture of Europe” and aiding “the advancement and assimilation of modernism into the traditionally realist tradition of American art.”
Times have certainly changed.
Later, paranoids in the latter part of the last century complained that Whitney curators simply swept through the art galleries on a kind of shopping spree and/or were doing the recruitment work for the art outlets — because, it was clear, by the time the Biennial opened most artists were represented by dealers.
Now it may be that because of the economy we will have fewer galleries next fall. Chelsea will be a ghost town. Soon we really may need biennials and triennials and institutional salons in order to see any art at all.
Some sages, nevertheless, have opined that even if all the galleries keep their doors open, we will still need these turgid, pointless, blockbuster surveys as excuses to get together.
But can’t we have parties without bothering about the art? Aren’t we all on FaceButt? Can’t we just watch videos on YouTub? Can’t we complain about art without the Whitney and the New Museum? We do not need either to learn about new art. There is no new art!
The Artopia Manifesto
- Art is on vacation.
- Art has been destroyed by the investors.
- Art has been crippled by the mandatory MFA, now visible on every artist bio in every Whitney Biennial and now in the NuMu Triennial, making them both Academic Surveys, not unlike the Academic Salons of ancient France.
Surveys in museums should focus on art that because of ageism, sexism, racism, geographical origin, difficulty, and/or lack of commercial viability cannot be seen in commercial galleries. We want to se biennials and triennials that are not business as usual.
The official Artopia doctrine is that art has been done in by a fatal disconnect from poetry and from the metaphysical. Whatever art was, it is being continued somewhere else.
We must take the china shop by its horns.
We must throw out the baby with the bath.
We must no longer look both ways before crossing the street.
We must abandon all ships.
We must sink before we can swim.
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