6.7.17 — White Privilege

As a follow-up to last time on the Whitney Biennial, how could I not turn to this? It has become the occasion for reflection on both racism and the possibilities of political art.

Dana Schutz's Open Casket (courtesy of the artist/Petzel gallery, 2016)What a difference a day makes. One day Emmett Till was just a poor child from Chicago, a polio survivor, visiting relatives in the South. He counted white children as his friends. The next he was the victim of bigotry and a brutal murder. The fourteen-year-old became an emblem of injustice and a spur to the budding movement for civil rights.

Dana Schutz, critics note, has had only privilege—the privilege of a white artist from a comfortable Detroit suburb making it in the art world. Yet she, too, has become a symbol. At just forty, she was among the stars of the most widely celebrated Whitney Biennial in memory. Horrified by police shootings of blacks in the present, she looked back to Till’s death in 1955 and painted him in Open Casket. Reviews singled it out in a singularly political and diverse biennial. For the city’s most influential critic, Roberta Smith in The Times, it “doesn’t picture his wounds so much as the pain of looking at them.”

And then in a day her fortunes, too, had changed. A black artist called for her boycott on Facebook. A black writer called for the work’s removal and destruction. They accused Schutz of appropriating the African American experience for the benefit of a white woman. The controversy erupted into the press and consumed social media—and I have waded more deeply into the controversy in a longer review and my latest upload. What does it say about the role of art in a racist and divided America?

How dare she? The question recalls the furor over The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron, but it is all the more pressing now—for blacks and women alike have little to gain and so much to lose in Donald Trump’s America. The week of the debacle, a white man traveled to New York City with the sole aim of killing African Americans, and women barely escaped a repeal of Obamacare and its provisions for women’s health. It is pressing, too, because has art its own divisions, and many feel excluded. Surely many of the protestors do, and they were acting out that feeling of exclusion in decrying a white woman’s success at their expense. They were demanding attention, and for better or worse they got it.

The question is also pressing, though, because it is so puzzling. No one complained when whites joined in the civil rights marches and when white journalists brought those marches alive—although Dana Schutz herself worked from a photograph in Jet, a weekly founded by an African American. No one complained when protest singers added their voices, including Bob Dylan with “The Death of Emmett Till,” or earlier when Billie Holiday sent chills down the nation’s spine with “Strange Fruit,” by a Jewish songwriter and about a lynching. Rather than telling whites to shut up, blacks are wondering why Trump will not speak up to denounce that murderer in New York. The women’s march after Trump’s inauguration welcomed men, and Jews still decry white indifference that turned refugees back to their death in the Holocaust. What makes painting or, more generally, fiction more open to criticism?

Why should a white artist lose her voice? I hear two reasons. First, Schutz is appropriating black experience for personal profit. Second, she cannot speak for what she cannot experience. I want to argue with them both, although African American artists do indeed have experiences apart that they can communicate, too. I shall have to skip over them here, but the longer article looks at criticism of the painting at hand and dives into those questions about profiteering and empathy, with all their implications for political art.

That seems to leave things where they started, with the enigma of what makes art so different from other ways of communicating. How can people even be arguing about this? Why are they not celebrating Schutz or simply dismissing her? It comes down to two things. First, art is powerful. The protests diminish art as a mere luxury compared to writing, marching, or music, but it sure has them worked up.

Second, art is ambiguous as other protests are not, because it bridges public and private matters. Artists work for themselves and for others, and one person’s expression of grief is another person’s grievance. They are shaped by their art, by their imaginings, by their joys, by their sorrows, by their histories, by race, by class, by gender, and by others as well. Together, though, those factors empower art, political or not. Art alone cannot ensure justice or empathy, but it can awaken both. Schutz can speak to concerns beyond herself, just as African American art can speak to me.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

6.5.17 — All Those People

Half an hour into the 2017 Whitney Biennial, I had had my fill of people. No, not the crowds, for the first biennial ever in the Whitney’s new home, with enough room for them and an often dazzling display. No, I mean the people in the art, only I grew almost to love them—and it is the subject of a longer review in my latest upload.

Dana Schutz's Fight in an Elevator (Whitney Museum, 2015)They fill painting after painting and video after video—dancing, working, dying, or just hanging out, at the Whitney through June 11. They descend from the ceiling and ascend a rope in the stairwell. They take over less palpable museums by networks and financing schemes. They are also relentlessly politically correct. So I sought relief in some elements of landscape that had somehow found their way indoors. Only they, too, are human interventions, and they illuminate the tensions that make the biennial interesting almost despite itself.

The landscaping begins in the lobby, as it happens, before the people get started. Two paintings in a uniform dark brown hang over the front desk, by Park McArthur, like guides to the museum with their text effaced. With their pronounced frames and rounded corners, they could also be billboards along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway—right where the BQE cuts off neighborhoods from the waterfront, mass transit, or one another. The lobby gallery has more landscaping, in a cylindrical fortification like Castle Williams on Governor’s Island or Castle Clinton in Battery Park. What looks like piled stone, however, is clay mixed with hay, horse dung, and Los Angeles River water. Rafa Esparza and others think of themselves as reversing the process of colonization by transporting native American materials to New York.

They cannot help evoking the dark side of that process all the same. Faces in large photos stand out most of all for their anonymity. A page from eBay and a “certificate of authenticity” for their “reconstructed southwest artifact” attest that anything and everything these days is for sale. Upstairs McArthur has more brown billboards, while photographs by An-My Lê present Louisiana as contested territory—flooded by storms, bearing a monument to a Confederate general, and serving as the set for a film about a Confederate Army deserter. On video, Sky Hopinka captures an island in the Bering Sea as home to the world’s largest Aleut population, seabirds, and seals. In its very starkness, though, it no longer speaks a native language.

Each artist dares visitors to enter an empty landscape, and each urges them not to forget those that have left it deserted. That sounds depressing, but the artists are just finding their way around along with you and celebrating those others. Landscape paintings in bright colors, by Shara Hughes, are downright cheerful—while a video by Anicka Yi, about a “flavor chemist” along the Amazon, is downright sappy. Either way, though, the Biennial is all about people, even when they are nowhere to be seen. For the Whitney, it is about “the formation of self and the individual’s place in a turbulent society.” It sounds political, not to mention jargon ridden, and it is, but also urgent.

As for the people, they have roots as far away as Iran and Vietnam, and they run to artist collectives with names like post-punk bands. To get to know them, you must first meet the curators, Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, both Chinese Americans in their mid-thirties. These are people who can start a catalog essay with Bob the Drag Queen rather than art. You know right away that the Whitney is hoping to reinvent the ritual of a biennial for today. You know, too, that it will place the accent on identity and diversity, much like its rehanging of the collection upstairs as “Where We Are.” This is art as a dance marathon—only starting with Tala Madani, who opens one floor with Shitty Disco.

Should a biennial be competing for the youth vote with a New Museum triennial or “Greater New York“? Could that actually make it less representative of the present moment in art, despite tough-minded virtual reality by Jordan Wolfson and terrific painting by Carrie Moyer, Jo Baer, Dana Schutz and Henry Taylor (and my longer review covers them all)? Larry Bell may not fit well here out on the terrace, but someone else from another genre or generation might. Still, for once a distinct point of view comes across—and it comes across as a genuine diversity. You might want to fill it out with a stop at MoMA or the Met for their contemporary selections, or you might want to wait another two years, when the Whitney truly gets the hang of the building. It is already drawing a crowd.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.