Susan Cianciolo's Untitled (2000), watercolor on paper (a chosen artist for WB 2017)
The paragraph below is taken from Brett Sokol's recent article for the NYTimes entitled Whitney Biennial to Miami Artists: It’s Not Us, It’s You. Throughout Sokol's piece Miami curator Gean Moreno basically explains why no Miami artist has been chosen for the Whitney 2017 Biennial.
They simply didn’t fit into the curators’ vision of engaging the social moment,” he said. “It’s not that there aren’t good Miami artists, but the determining factor was art that addressed the social upheavals of the last six years, from Occupy to Black Lives Matter to all the thinking around climate change and sea-level rise.Isn't it essentially conflictual for art to have to express "X" or "Y" social issues to be selected for a Biennial?
Not to take Moreno's words as litmus test (Moreno is a personal friend whose instincts I trust), but isn't "social moment" arbitrary as criteria for art selection?
Here's Whitney's mission:
As the preeminent institution devoted to the art of the United States, the Whitney Museum of American Art presents the full range of twentieth-century and contemporary American art, with a special focus on works by living artists. The Whitney is dedicated to collecting, preserving, interpreting, and exhibiting American art, and its collection—arguably the finest holding of twentieth-century American art in the world—is the Museum's key resource. The Museum's signature exhibition, the Biennial, is the country's leading survey of the most recent developments in American art.Is the word "social" or "political" anywhere in the mission?
Isn't the Whitney Biennial supposed deliver the most relevant trends in contemporary art in the United States?* And by which criteria one defines "contemporary trend"?
Back to Sokol's article:
“Who are the artists in Miami working on these issues?” Mr. Moreno asked. “It’s been taken up by the scientists at universities here, some journalists are addressing it, you’re seeing civic responses from some mayors. But I couldn’t name one local exhibit that has taken climate change seriously.”Why would artists have to address "climate change" as a topic?
As anyone knows, artists work in their particular themes, be it political or social or formal, as a result of years of development. Changing one's language, style or topic, is complicated —and just to fit a museum's criteria, may seem even opportunistic.
Is climate change an aesthetic property?
It's not news that The Whitney is perceived as partisan, a fact which Sokol recaps:
In years past, many critics of the Biennial have felt that agitprop has dominated at the expense of truly transcendent artwork — so much so that the Whitney’s own publicists embraced the controversy and once cheekily promoted the Biennial as “the show you love to hate.”Is The Whitney not perversely revisiting an American version of Socialist Realism?
Chemi Rosado-Seijo’s Salón-Sala-Salón, 2014 (a chosen artist for WB 2017)
For example, one of Socialist Realism's influences is Narodism, the populist land movement of end-of-Nineteenth-Century Russia. Here is a quote from apparatchik Georgi Plekhanov (an important ideologue behind Social Realism) addressing the artist:
... (he) strives to alter the social relations…he is a protester and fighter by virtue of his position. His attention is totally absorbed by struggle…therefore in his case social interests dominate all else…purely literary questions are of little concern to him…He is concerned not to give artistic form to his works, but to grasp and convey the social meaning of the phenomena which he depicts. There can be no doubt that art acquired a social significance only in so far as it depicts, evokes, or conveys actions, emotions and events that are of significance to society."Social" and "political" concerns remained the favored criteria for art under Zhdanov's reign in the USSR.
Why is this comparison between Social Realism and The Whitney's social criteria relevant?
Polish art theorist Stephan Morawski in his Inquires into the Fundamental of Aesthetics mentions Zhnadov as responsible for the evolution of social realism towards what he calls its "institutional version" around 1936, with the publication of "A Chaos of Sounds instead of Music." Morawski writes:
What strikes us in this article is that instead of entering into a discussion with the artist, it simply pronounces an anathema permitting of no appeal. The principles feasible and discussable were offered without an offer of justification. It was official now that socialist realism was the only permitted current in the Soviet Union.Back to our present, The Whitney's extraneous criteria remains inappellable in the sense that curators already entertain their choice based on institutional consensus —which (as we'll see ahead) they refer to as "the conversation."
I don't want to get too much into this theme of ideology vs. the arts, which also has counterparts in the Nazi's Reichskulturkammer and Fidel Castro's "Palabras a los intelectuales."
On the other hand, a Whitney advocate may argue that on the contrary, the institution is not imposing anything on American artists, the institution and its curators merely decide what topics are relevant for inclusion—given the constantly changing social contexts. Let's not forget that The Whitney was accused as being "too white" during the 1990s, a perception that this more recent consensus is set to change.
But that's a naive assumption. The Whitney advocate may retort that no matter how inclusive the institution is, people left out always complain. Point taken. Social or political straight jackets don't represent artistic merit, a deserving aesthetic property successfully expressed in the art —whether abstract, formal, conceptual, social, political, or whatnot.
The Whitney is the foremost American Museum to show American contemporary emergent talent. One thing is to be inclusive, the opposite is to stereotype standards of inclusiveness as implicit forms of exclusion.
More worrisome: is The Whitney not stirring art tendencies by telling artists what to do if they want to be paid attention to? Isn't this a form of art depletion?
The disconnect is more pronounced when Sokol brings the voice of The Whitney's chief curator Scott Rothkopf:
“I don’t want to say what Miami’s artists are doing is irrelevant. They just weren’t the artists our curators were most interested in bringing into the conversation,” he explained. “Because I’m involved in the process, what I’m aware of is that as much as the curators hope to represent the breadth of the country, the diversity of different art forms and art makers, at the end of the day, with 63 spots, some boxes will be left unchecked.”The statement in yellow above is a sad case of curator hubris, what I call Whitney's Castor Oil criteria of inclusion.
My advice to Miami artists: No matter what you do, be true to yourself. That's success enough.
* If an art trend is a fact of society, what needs to be done is to show it, not to stereotype it and enforce it into a overarching criteria.