Without a doubt, the most scandalous museum show in New York City right now is the 2019 Whitney Biennial. The notoriously tempestuous survey, which closes on September 22, was off to a particularly turbulent ride this year when one of its planned participants, Michael Rakowitz, announced three months ahead of the show’s scheduled opening his decision to leave the show in protest of the Whitney’s vice chairman, Warren Kanders. In late July eight artists requested their work to be withdrawn from the show but retracted their withdrawal following Kanders’s resignation on July 25.
The Biennial is a survey of contemporary American art and also, according to the Whitney’s Alice Pratt Brown director Adam D. Weinberg, is a defining force for the museum. In his press-review for the opening, he commended Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley, this year’s curators, for their vision – to represent America’s current mindset while steering away from the dominion of the art market, focusing instead, on authenticity.
The task of scouting unspoiled talent that authentically represents an American mindset is not an easy one to tackle. And it doesn’t help that as a public institution that is not, however, financed by the state, the Whitney (and many other American museums) must navigate a minefield balancing its dependence on private donors while maintaining its grip on the independence of taste, judgment, and expertise. Whitney, as the champion of contemporary American art, is hit the most by this controversy, which is sharpened by today’s political climate.
Kanders’s resignation is a consequential event in the private donor crisis that, with the onset of the anti-Sackler campaign, besieged many major museums, including the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Louvre. The dissent took an even sharper turn for the Whitney Biennial, not only because Warren Kanders’ active role as the museum’s board member, but also because transgression is written in this show’s DNA. Since its inception in 1932, when the Whitney Museum, then a year-old institution, abolished juries and prizes and allowed its participants to select the work they wished to exhibit, it has pushed the boundaries of the status quo and sharpened the critique of the coeval culture and society. The motivation, as it’s often tacitly understood, has always been the renewal of art’s language.
The museum’s ordeal was amplified by the lukewarm—and in a few instances disparaging—critical response to the show. The exhibition was called “tender and deliberately reserved,” “safe,” and “considerate.” Most of the commentators, amid reporting on the controversy related to Whitney’s leadership and donors, lamented the show’s lack of radicalism. But we who live in glass houses should refrain from throwing stones. We have noticed how the word “radical” became just a placeholder – a required buzzword that carries little or no semantic meaning. Bemoaning its deficiency only attracts attention to the ambiguity of its usage – it is unclear where said radicalism was found lacking–in art or in attendant social message.
That said, the Biennial’s edginess was considerably blunted by its intentional didacticism, which was pushed onto viewers by way of the wall labels that hastened to explain the artwork. Did curators worry, for example, that without clarifying that Jeannette Mundt, in visually fragmenting the figures of the USA women’s Olympic gymnastics team in her Born Athlete American series, “hints at the complex systems–nationalist, sexist, and technocratic”, the viewers might fail to recognize the works’ social purpose and, perish the thought, self-interpret the art? One suspects that “trying too hard” wall labels betrayed the curator’s anxiety that is rooted in the challenges that go deeper than the controversy with the Whitney’s former vice-chairman.
Because, contrary to the opinion of many of its detractors, the 2019 Biennial edition didn’t exactly fail as a hallmark of change. On the contrary, the entire enterprise–from protestors outside of the museum to the inner workings of its layout, including the solicitous wall labels–illuminates the paradoxical state of affairs that situates contemporary and, as it happens, politically charged art within the iinstitutions of the culture that this art is struggling to subvert.
We are now over a century past Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain and the time when avant-garde politics were synonymous with avant-garde art. We live in a different world now, but who is to say that the time is not ripe to shake up the establishment in a entirely new, until now unknown, way.