Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Okay, more about the Whitney Biennial

March 24, 2008 - 8:29am -- Carol Diehl

“Mr. Michelangelo” in a comment below, requested that I analyze the reviews of the Whitney Biennial, and I'm never one to avoid a challenge. First, howver, I want to say that these are adept essays by critics I admire—my quibble is with the format. We live in a strange world of “balanced journalism,” an insidious concept to begin with because it’s utterly impossible and negates the value of considered opinion. Further, because journalists are called upon to give voice to “the other side”—every positive statement must have its naysayer—fringe groups or opinions that might otherwise go unnoticed are given undeserved respectability. Used as we are to this format in the news media, it’s crept into art criticism as well, so that the critic’s real opinion becomes lost in a sea of alternating positive and negative statements.

I first became conscious of this phenomenon two years ago when I read Jerry Saltz’s review in the Voice of the 2006 Biennial, where he starts off with “ ‘Day for Night’ is the liveliest, brainiest, most self-conscious Whitney Biennial I have ever seen,” while the next paragraph begins, “’Day for Night’ is filled with work I’m not interested in…..” –then switches gears with, “Nevertheless, the show is a compelling attempt to examine conceptual practices and political agency, consider art that is not about beauty,” etc. He talks some more about what he doesn’t like (“The show is not without problems…” “This brings us to an irksome feature of this show and many like it…”) before flipping back to, “A number of artists stand out….” so that by the time we finish we’ve completely forgotten that he’s writing about work he’s “not interested in.”

This is the dilemma of full-time critics—they have to write about a lot of stuff, so they either have to like a lot of stuff or write about a lot of stuff they don’t like and in doing so they don’t want to come off as too dismissive, lest they get a reputation like Hilton Kramer’s.

This year, in “When Cool Turns Cold,” a thoughtful analysis of what he aptly calls “the Art School Biennial,” Saltz makes it almost to the end before falling into the trap saying, “On the upside, [the curators] Momin and Huldisch should be congratulated for mounting a thoughtful show that, while academic, is neither dogmatic…nor sprawling…nor sexist…” and concludes with an upswing, reaching for a “striking moment” or two when, earlier on, he already said it all: “There’s little that’s overtly sexual, shocking, angry, colorful, traditionally beautiful or decorative, almost no madness or chaos. The show doesn’t alchemically add up to more than the sum of its parts.”

Peter Schjeldahl starts off by calling this year’s Biennial “the most poetic I can remember” but gives an example of that only at the end, a work that “enchanted” him, while the in-between is filled with descriptions of things that didn’t, his detailed attention giving them more weight than they deserve. I must say he nails the Rachel Harrison experience, however, when he calls her, “the leading light of new sculpture…[who knows] precisely what she means—and you would too if you were just the littlest bit smarter than you are.”

Holland Cotter (who took no joy in the Armory building itself, calling it a “moldering pile”) does the flip-flip thus: “The 2008 edition is…an unglamorous, even prosaic affair, the installation plain and unfocused” with works that have “uncharismatic surfaces, complicated backstories,” followed by, “There are certainly dynamic elements” followed by, “But again, the overall tenor of the show is low-key…” and then “Hard-liner believers in art as visual pleasure will have, poor things, a bitter slog. But if the show is heedless of traditional beauty, it is also firm in its faith in artists as thinkers and makers rather than production-line workers meeting market demands.”

However, I would posit that if Biennial artists were truly “thinkers and makers” their output would be more engaging. Also I want to point out to the world at large that we, as artists, seek “visual pleasure” not because we’re playing to the market but because we are, ahem, visual artists and therefore, not coincidentally, concerned with things visual.

The Biennial, if not beloved—in fact often called “the show you love to hate”—but which at least used to generate excitement, has been slowly losing gas to the point that it’s become so inconsequential that maybe next time these guys can forgo writing about it altogether and put their talents toward covering events that, pro or con, stir their souls.


Excellent entry. Thank you for taking up my challenge! To the critics' credit, I think some of the flip-flopping/ambivalence is due to the omnibus, please-all-parties nature of the Biennial. What I got from these critics, and what I've myself experienced at the Biennial typically (although I haven't gone this year), is that usually there's some good work, some not so good work, some overly trendy additions, some forward additions that look to the future, and then some musty ye olde favorites. In other words, the hodgepodge nature of the enterprise, which almost always fits this pattern, inevitably produces criticism that mimics its shape like a mirror, even from genius critics. It's neither correct or exciting/provocative to say the biennial is terrible OR great; that leaves just the middle ground, which, alas, is just as unsatisfying...

why do they keep having the whitney biennial anyway ?? and why do we keep pretending that it's important ?? it's always sooooo stupid and weird. it's like going to k-mart; always a dumb choice - they never have what you want.
why not just go to the armory show instead and enjoy good, fresh new art !!

Good points. What's a writer to do to avoid, as you say, being Hilton Kramer?

As an avid art consumer, and perhaps a much less adept writer, I appreciate all these writers. And living the pastoral life in New Bedford, Ma. (O.K., said with irony, but also some sincerity), I also appreciate the ease with which one can keep up with things thanks to the efforts of writers like the ones mentioned. One needs to pull back sometimes though. I've pulled together some new reading to help with this. Among other things:

"Homo Aestheticus, Where Art Comes From and Why" by Ellen Dissanayake. "...the most forceful rejoinder I've read so far to the trivializing pessimism of postmodernist art theory" according to Kenneth Baker.

"Water and Dreams: an Essay on the Imagination of Matter" by Gaston Bachelard. Dreamy, good for the imagination and stoking the metaphor bank.

I also like reading about crafts. Arthur Danto has a great essay in American Ceramics on "Visionary Ceramics". His subtitles in the essay include: "The Heroic Sublime", "Ceramics and Sublimity". Not bad for poor old crafts.

What do you read to cleanse the palette?

Thanks for the book suggestions David, and for the term "cleansing the palette." I'm always on the lookout for new reading, so all suggestions are welcome. What refreshes me most, however, is a good stint in the studio, although intense research about an artist I admire also serves.

As for pntngcollector's request for commentaty about artists at some of the fairs other than the Armory, I don't know how many I'll get to this time around. Joanne Mattera on her blog did a great job with Miami, and I'm wondering if she's planning the same for New York. In January I did write about the things that popped out at me on my gallery tours, dropped the ball in February, but will try to make it a more regular thing. I must save in-depth reviews, though, for Art in America.

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