America the Primitive

John Haber
in New York City

The American Effect: Looking at America

It could happen only in New York, in an institution devoted to American art. The museum, born when Modernism stood for style and sophistication, calls on nearly fifty emerging artists. It asks them to look from afar at a distant land and a powerful, divided culture. It asks them to imagine native peoples and their violent, seemingly primeval struggles for dominance in an increasingly messy world.

And what the artists find is themselves—their very own image, along with their country, their history, and their values. Only this time they find it all in the United States. Call it America the Primitive. Andrea Robbins and Max Becher, Chief (Sonnabend Gallery, 1997–1998)

The exhibition stands every critique of the avant-garde on its head. Surely it throws the charges right back in Postmodernism's face. Or does it? In fact, its very shallowness serves as a critical sign of America's predominance. It forces one to confront once more the sway of mass culture and museum institutions. It could serve as a rallying point for the art and criticism yet to come.

Playing the victim

It sounds like a classic putdown of modern art. In their imperial sweep, these artists appropriate everything in sight, and they shove it all in one's face. They obliterate the experience of a nation, with a highly developed culture and a history all its own. They level differences in the name of formal truth, social critique, and personal expression. Only this time the artists come from over twenty countries, including many from the developing nations. This time, too, they take as their subject the United States.

For once, the First World gets to play victim of imperialism. For once, with its familiar displays of sexual and political energy, America stands for primitive culture. The last time that happened, Henry James and James McNeill Whistler fled abroad. Just which continent and which version of modernity can speak for refugees?

The reversal of roles all but celebrates America's own self-image in the face of terrorism. Artistically, the reversal appears to vindicate Modernism at its most arrogant. But then, who better than the Whitney to boast of "The American Century"?

In its title and its promise, a forthcoming Web magazine called Primitive Discord raises much the same issues. In its first issue, I have asked whether those hopes still make sense. I ask about the relevance of "the primitive" or indeed of the discordant notes one associates with the avant-garde. I argue that modern art and charges of imperialism both remain vital, but only as long as one sees art and identity, in the West and the non-West alike, as complex and divided. Even Modernism has multiple, contentious histories of its own.

Postmodernism makes the same divisions that much more apparent. Appropriation has no meaning apart from a violent loss of context. On the one hand, it can mean the nasty things that white male artists did to African artifacts and real women. On the other hand, it can mean the only tactic left for art in an age of mass markets and mass media.

With "The American Effect," the Whitney Museum of American Art inadvertently offers vague reassurances and a happy ending for modern art. Anyone can play the imperialist, it seems to admit, from Asia to America, including both sides in the war on terrorism, and any artist worldwide can live here long enough to make the next Biennial—or the 2006 Biennial after that, which explicitly will reach out to European artists. Conversely, from one continent to another, artists can open one's eyes to the knowledge of others. If the art looks mostly shallow, earnest, or downright insulting, all the better. Even that attests to the chance for East and West alike to grow together and to learn.

Primitive humanism

The Whitney certainly does not intend to let anyone off easy. With its first exhibition devoted to foreign artists, it gives the rest of the world a chance for a change. When it asks America to take seriously the perception of others out there, it offers a well-meaning response to racial stereotypes and religious bigotry after Islamic jihad. With what the subtitle terms "Global Perspectives on the United States," the show invites one to look beyond a terrible loss at home. In other words, it starts with a well-meaning liberalism very much like my own.

Lawrence Rinder, the curator, could hardly display more tolerance, short of replacing the exhibition catalog with a call to nondenominational prayer. By the entrance, a wall label claims neither exhaustiveness nor balance. It all but adds "pardon me." Then again, a liberal humanism may itself come as an inheritance of Modernism. Call it a primitive humanism. What can better sum up modernist and postmodern attitudes to cultures and peoples unknown?

The artists duly note the sufferings of blacks and Native Americans. They duly point to American incursions abroad. Ousmane Sow's life-size figures, bathed in mud, stagger in victory and defeat at Little Big Horn. Yongsuk Kang photographs the ruins of U.S. bombing exercises on a Korean island. Danwen Xing documents the subtler destruction of Asian land, with fat piles of discarded computers, far from the more glorious waste dumps of Sophia Al-Maria. Cristóbal Lehyt discovers that Henry Kissinger's coup against Salvador Allende occurred on—tada!—September 11. And you thought art must remain silent after terrible events.

However, the artists identify closely with America as well. One encounters sympathy for everything from the Kennedy assassination to Ground Zero. Bodys Isek Kingelez offers a comic-book skyline, as fantastic as any architect's model, that more than makes up the loss of the World Trade Center, give or take a few dead bodies. (Not in the show, Isa Genzken would add a disco.) In unending videos, celebrities and others respond to that same sad day. They approach no point of view at all.

Gilles Barbier may sum it up best. He also supplies almost the sole moment of humor. In his nursing home for aged, cartoon superheroes, Mr. Fantastic's limbs droop listlessly. Captain America survives on life support. Decades ago, Dara Birnbaum's video of Wonder Woman showed the collision between superhuman expectations and real-life gender roles. At the Whitney today, America seems neither heroic nor threatening, just a tad past its prime.

Obviously, I can make fun of the show easily, and I do not want to pick on one artist after another. European views of politics not in the show, such as those of Neo Rauch and his Leipzig past, are growing trendy, after all, and I felt as much in need of a walker as Barbier's Supergirl myself by the time I hit the museum. I could have fit right in if I had a subscription to TV Guide. Rather, what fascinates me is the rhetoric of primitivism now turned against America itself.

Les Demoiselles de New York

Consider the symptoms of primitivism in more detail. Imagine the show as Postmodernism's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon transposed to the Upper East Side. Call it Les Demoiselles de New York. As for Pablo Picasso, the mundane experience of ordinary men and women hardly counts.

Picasso wanted wild women, not housewives taking out the trash. He pictured titanic figures with totemic power. In the same way, the Whitney shows an America of superheroes and world leaders. The comic strips aside, the plot here comes right out of the headlines. No single figure turns up more often than George Bush, hugging or wrestling with Third World counterparts. Of course, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Jordan put in an appearance, too. Giuliani owes his grandiose pose to Soviet Realism, but even in a Polaroid over the elephant dung that he so hated in the Young British Artists.

As whores or she-devils, Picasso's figures owe their power to transgressive desire, as as Constantin Brancusi rests his very pedestal on dark imagery. They share it with the artist. They impute it to the viewer. The make explicit the dark undercurrent of bourgeoisie and the psychic partnerships of the avant-garde. At the Whitney, as in photographs for Lauren Greenfield, art perceives sex and greed through the filters of nature and consumer culture.

Mark Lewis's video nudes, for example, slip as casually through a California landscape as Paul Kos years before. Arno Coenen's psychedelic journey out of a "summer of love" adds drugs to fast goods. Gerald Byrne reenacts a Chrysler commercial with Frank Sinatra and Lee Iacocca. Bjørn Melhus puts cell phones on overdrive. Maria Marshall fast forwards through ceremonies of gift giving, like an anthropologist explicating tribal exchanges.

All this gives special importance to the primitive—conceived in Picasso as dark-skinned, indigenous, raw, and often female. They confront him as outlaws, and he in turn draws on their power and identifies with their oppression. At the Whitney, blacks and Native Americans mark almost the sole exception to the rule of world leaders. Alfredo Equilar, Jr., can define his culture as oppressed peoples by transposing his compatriots into scenes from black history. Andrea Robbins, born in Massachusetts, and Max Becher, born in Germany, photograph Germans obsessed with dressing up as Indian chiefs. Talk about the misuse of others by white people.

Above all, Picasso creates dizzying perspectives from ripping totems out of their native context and imagining them in western guise. At the Whitney, artists make sense of America by transposing it into their own key. Zoran Naskovski sets John Kennedy's funeral to the drone of a Slavic dirge. Saira Wasim and Hisashi Tenmyouya portray presidential politics, respectively, as Moghul and Japanese miniatures.

America's real effect

It would help if more of the Whitney's artists really did pick up Les Demoiselles. Few have its strangeness or command of scale. Fewer still have its joy in experiment—the humor, sensuality, and tenderness of Modernism at its best. Few indeed identify as ambivalently with the work, the subject, and the viewer all at the same time. All this liberal spirit at the Whitney coexists with a decided smugness. Makoto Aida even manages to turn 9/11 into an air raid of Japanese Zeroes.

Still, the exhibition's very existence stays provocative. Has it salvaged the appropriation of early Modernism by turning it against the First World? In turn, do postmodern appropriation and multiculturalism stand revealed as complacent, imperialist, and downright primitive? Hardly. As perhaps the shows final twist and its most striking lesson, the Whitney highlights the real American effect.

When it comes down it, America dominates artistic perspectives by more than supplying subject matter. One sees powerful leaders without citizens, true victims without victimizers, easy satisfaction and harsh desires. In fact, one sees pretty much world culture as sold in the global media. Back when, Alexis de Tocqueville crossed the country to find his own global perceptions. Who needs that hard work now, now that advertising and press conferences can package it all so neatly? No wonder video unduly dominates the media here, almost always in single channel and in straightforward, documentary style.

The best works—like Barbier, Melhus, and Marshall—know the effect at first hand. Sometimes at least, artists read newspapers. Siemon Allen combs the Washington newspapers for references to his country, South Africa. These artists may inherit Walter Benjamin's "arcades project," a fabled catalog of the world as commerce and art. They know, however, that a catalog would now appear online.

The show's ironies include one last American effect. It unfolds right here in America, in a familiar arts institution. The humble warning by the entrance acts also as a boast of who made the selections. It should not surprise one that so many artists in so many countries now see art and America through the mass media. American curators apparently see the world the same way.

In the end, the show keeps alive the troubled history of appropriation and transgression. It does not pass the anniversary of 9/11 over in silence. It gets one rethinking modern and postmodern strategies and successes, in light of the continued possibility of their failure. It gets one searching for richer, contested histories of the primitive. It gets one searching for divisions in America and the world that the Whitney never finds.

BACK to John's arts home page

"The American Effect: Global Perspectives on the United States, 1990–2003" ran through October 12, 2003, at The Whitney Museum of American Art.


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