Sunday, May 11, 2008

From bleak to bliss

Friday night I went to David Cohen’s Review Panel at the National Academy Museum to hear Cohen, R.C. Baker, Carly Berwick, and Peter Plagens discuss the Whitney Biennial.

The most interesting thing about it was how uninterested the panelists were. Baker happened to mention that he hadn’t read Berwick’s feature-length article in New York magazine, none of the panelists had seen the installations or performances in the Whitney’s adjunct space at the Armory, and I’m guessing they also didn’t bone up by reading about the artists on the Whitney’s Web site, since it seems unlikely that anyone could encounter the verbiage I cited and refrain from commenting on it.

I’m not as interested in the Biennial as I am in the phenomenon of its dwindling cachet. On her blog, Joanne Mattera asks, “What if they gave a Biennial and nobody went?” That may already have happened.

Past Biennials, at least, generated controversy and discussion, which is always good for art, while the universal reaction to this one is shrugged shoulders.

Reasons given by the panel revolved around the Biennial’s abject subject matter and “bleak” atmosphere (“try bland,” the woman behind me muttered) and competition with art fairs. To my mind, however, it’s more about a segment of the art world that’s lost touch with its purpose and audience, and signifies a definitive break between idea-based art, as promoted by many art schools, and practice-based art—that which evolves from a more intuitive long-term exploration (where “work comes out of work” as Richard Serra has put it and I more recently heard Julie Mehretu say) as well as being grounded in visual experience.

When did we lose the “visual” in “visual art”? It's a long story, that goes back to suspicions about “beauty” that emerged during the 20th century, but I think there’s another component that comes out of my observations as a teacher--which is that many attending art school and going into the art professions today are not driven by an interest in things visual as much as they are in experiencing a creativity and autonomy (and lack of rigor, I might add snarkily) they don’t see offered by other professions. Add to this the “gathering tsunami of newly rich, clueless collectors infatuated with bright, neatly-made vision-free art” (as Michael Kimmelman put it in his review of the 2006 Biennial) and you get the current Biennial and art fair scene.

However I’m optimistic when I think about the enthusiastic responses Olafur Eliasson at MoMA and PS1 is generating, and how much intelligent, visually satisfying art I’ve seen this season in Chelsea galleries, of all places, by mid-career artists as well as new faces, much of it based on loose variations of pattern and geometric abstraction: Chris Martin, Juan Usle, Dan Walsh, Ann Pibal, Roberto Juarez, Thomas Nozkowski, Valerie Jaudon (this list is off the top of my head, so I may have left out some important examples).
When I mention this in conversation, people say it has to do with the economy, with buyers wanting to invest in substance, to which I say that the decision to show this work was made at least a year ago, at the height of market frenzy and long before it was clear that the economy was going to tank. Not only that, it seems unlikely that all the dealers got together and decided to push geometric abstraction as their winning ticket.

To me, it’s symbolic of an important cultural shift, one that includes, yes, Obama. How do I make that leap? I keep going back to something my son, Matt, surmised and which I wrote about in January, that 2007 signified the cultural beginning of the new century, much in the way the Sixties, as we indentify it, really began in 1964. We’re over the negativity, fear mongering, hype, and anti-humanistic values of the last century. We want intelligence, substance, inspiration, and HOPE. We no longer want to be told what’s good for us, we know what’s good for us, and given a choice, we’ll choose that which uplifts us. Keep that thought.

Roberto Juarez, Whale (2008), at Charles Cowles Gallery through May 17th.


Anonymous said...

That's a keen observation.

I have yet to see the Biennial and part of me just isn't interested. When I go, it will simply be because I feel I have to as a critic.

Anonymous said...

Excellent observations, Carol, and though I'm a Clintonian adjusting reluctantly to new realities, I should say, in your conclusion, uplifting observations, too. Readers of artcritical and attendees of the Review Panel will see familiar names on your list of visually satisfying mid-career artists- most of them have been covered there. And I do wish the mutterer behind you had spoken up in her distinction between bleak and bland. I think that did actually come across a bit in our discussion, as at first it sounded as if Bob was saying that the FORM of the Biennial art was bleak, whereas on probing further it turned out to be more the content that he had more in mind.

Pretty Lady said...

I totally agree with this. I'm feeling that intuitive shift, as well, and I think it also has a lot to do with the Internet. We're no longer forced to swallow whatever the Big Institutions tell us is Important Art; we can establish our own platforms, even if we're obscure painters working in an unfashionable style. And our little-guy influence is growing exponentially; when I panned the Biennial on my blog two years ago, it floated there without comment. This year, I found myself linked to several Biennial-review websites, along with a lot of others who agreed with me.

The Internet is also how and why Obama managed to trounce the Clinton machine. Hooray!

Anonymous said...

Oh, horrors, you mean the critics might actually wish to see the exhibition or have thought about it before appearing on a panel to discuss it? I know I have a certain self-interest here, but it was chastening nonetheless, and I'll be boastful and say it is part of what motivated me to get started in the first place as a writer.

One could easily put it down, too, to the particulars. A biennial is often a chore for anyone. The Sun is a conservative paper, which perhaps explains why its critic prefers estimably restrained modernism, which an eye to some very fine shows at Elizabeth Harris. R. C. Baker is a superb gusher, which has its limits, too. And so on.

But I do hope we can keep demanding more. NAD has really made itself a more valuable institution in just a few years, and the series is evidence. Still, a panel I saw, the only critic who pushed himself hard was Arthur Danto, who of course made his mark in a different and particularly demanding discipline.