George Orwell is most famously quoted for saying that “all art is propaganda.” That is to say, all art is inherently political. That is to say, there is no form of art that is not inherently both the byproduct and reflection of the time in which it was created.
When the writer for The Art Newspaper Linda Yablonsky described the 2019 Whitney Biennial as missing its “radical spirit,” and that “some artists in the show identify as activists, but there are no revolutionaries among them,” a lot of people, including the artists featured, got pretty mad.
In reference to Yablonsky’s articles and ones similar to it coming after the opening of the Biennial, one of the featured artists, Simone Leigh, wrote in an Instagram post:
“And that is why, instead of mentioning [the historic roots of my work,] I have politely said black women are my primary audience.”
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Leigh, who has done some prolific work for the Highline and won the Guggenheim’s Hugo Boss Prize of 2018, focuses on how material objects are able to communicate cultural values and stories through both the medium of the object and the object itself. Leigh has made it abundantly clear that her audience is singularly for black women.
For one, don’t discount the beauty that comes with “subtlety,” however I would hardly describe the show as subtle. The Whitney Biennial includes a series titled ‘Baby’ from the artist Heji Shin, which shows the portraits of an infant’s head after it crowns during childbirth.
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Also included is a video installation directly attacking the Whitney’ board vice chair, Warren B. Kanders. The video, created by the group Forensic Architecture, targets Kanders’s ownership and operation of the company Safariland, the producer of the tear gas canisters American border patrol agents have lobbed at asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border.
It is in regards to Kanders’s position in the Whitney’s executive administration that critic for WNYC Deborah hit the nail on the head:
“The Biennial would have been stronger if the museum had tossed Kanders off its board on opening day. The show tries, to judge from the curators’ statements, to confront the injustices of the past and to imagine a better future. But how can we take that goal seriously when the Whitney refuses to stand up to acts of hypocrisy and ethical malfeasance within its own board room?”
However, this is not to discount the fantastic work of the artists who were featured. Sure, there were no explosions, no fire-works of challenging traditional authority in every form, no solving of world hunger.
Yes, we as humans are creatures drawn to the symbolic. However, I, for one, consider it unfair a burden to place on artists to solve every problem they face with their work. Sometimes the work has to be done by acknowledging and illustrating the problem before anyone can begin to “fix” it.
This year’s Biennial is the youngest as well as the most New York-centric biennial in recent years. The collection, aimed at supporting emerging artists and established artists experimenting with new forms, is pretty much centered upon American exploitation of minority groups.
Pieces like Janiva Ellis’s brilliant painting Uh Oh, Look Who Got Wet to Jeffrey Gibson’s colorful textile work resembling indigenous ceremonial robes with the embroidered phrases “Stand Your Ground” and “People Like Us” hanging from the rafters were aimed at highlighting American tensions felt amongst minority groups.
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This Whitney Biennial, rightfully, highlighted the voices of women and POC. All art is inherently political. Increased visibility of art being made by those who have historically been undermined by the American system is a crucial (dare I say, radical?) step in the right direction.
I guess what I am trying to say, here, is the phrase “not radical enough” has been thrown around a lot with no real definition as to what the author exactly means by “radicalism” in the first place.
So what exactly do critics like Yablonsky mean when they say that this year’s Whitney Biennial isn’t “radical” enough? She may be referencing the multiple scandals that have risen from the Biennial’s collection in past years.
In 2014, the white male artist Joe Scanlan contributed two pieces centered upon the invented character of Donelle Woolford, a black woman artist. One of the pieces included a performance by the artist Jennifer Kidwell, reenacting Richard Pryor’s final routine of his 1977 television show in a piece titled Dick’s Last Stand.
Also included were a collection of Dick Jokes, collected by Scanlan himself, that were aggressively racist and insensitive. Scanlan’s work was met with media backlash long before, and his interviews.
Scanlan told BOMB Magazine that he created the character of Donelle Woolford when making a series of abstract woodwork pieces, saying:
“I liked them but they seemed like they would be more interesting if someone else made them, someone who could better exploit their historical and cultural references.”
Yeah. He really said that.
In an article written for Disillusioned, Jennifer Krasinski and Lauren O’Neill-Butler wrote about the incredible hurtful implications of Scalan’s work, from the work itself to his intentions in making it:
“Forging a black woman to perform as both a sword and a shield for male whiteness is neither conceptually astute nor politically provocative. It is simply a toxic reiteration of exhausting appropriation strategies that have gone on for too long in American culture, where taking everything from others is mistaken for creating something new for oneself.”
None of these instances (with the exception of Parker Bright’s protest) should be considered as “radical.” They are scandals, certainly. However, to label them as anything more than privileged, white, artists claiming a traumatic history that in no way was–and ever will be–their own is incredibly hurtful to the communities they target.
If blatant exploitation of other people’s trauma is considered “radical,” then I am glad that this year’s Whitney Biennial wasn’t.