Some last words on the Whitney Biennial as a cultural labyrinth

Photo from the Whitney 2022 Biennial

I would hate to think I have become an old and conservative critic who believes our best days are behind us. I would rather believe that my structuralist perspective is capable of evaluating contemporary emerging practices and recognize the social, cultural and political value of these tendencies. What brought this on is having recently seen the 1962–64 exhibition at the Jewish Museum. This show examines how artists living and working in New York during this three-year period responded to rapidly changing social and cultural conditions, by questioning what was considered to be art’s normative forms and subjects. This post-AbEx generation was concerned with creating aesthetic configurations that would result in novel perceptual modes and political subjectivities.

As a result, it was during this pivotal period that Neo-Dada, Colorfield, Pop, Minimalism, and Fluxus emerged. The 150 works including painting, sculpture, design, photography, dance poetry and film by well-known and under-known artist seems to still hold their edge. Yet, when I visited the 2022 Whitney Biennial: Quiet as It’s Kept, which is also meant to reflect the period of the last few years, in which sorrowfully, the social and political issues facing us now are not dissimilar to those of the 60s, I was left with the feeling that I had entered a time in which few artists display a shred of originality, or even a fresh slant on older genres and forms. After speaking with a number of younger artists, critics and curators seemingly my feeling is not generational.

What the Biennial lacks is any sense of an intense intelligence throbbing beneath its surface. What we are given instead is a summation of contemporary art that consists of little more than cookie-cutter derivations of a limited number of forms and subjects, which indifferently accommodate one another. Gone are the debates meant to challenge existent core values and aesthetics positions—instead making art now takes precedence over questioning its practices and means. This is reflected in the exhibition design for the Biennial, which consists of skeletal display structures, seatless cubby-hole black box theaters, theatrical lighting, gossamer scrims,, whose effect has all the charm of an art fair, a swap-meet and high-end boutiques all combined. Ironically given the lack of a way of finding a system to help viewers navigate the resulting maze, more suspense and anxiety are generated by the installation than the works presented.

Looking at these two exhibitions, 1962–64, and Quiet as It’s Kept, also confirms my view that since the 60s, commodity fetishism has come to be the dominant aesthetic and as a result the realm of contemporary culture is no longer a truly contested territory, but instead has become merely another realm of production driven by market forces. Not only might we fault the abandonment of experimentation, intervention, and self-criticality on the institutions and NFPs that nurture post-Modernist culture in the name of accessibility and inclusivity, but also on an educational system with its professional practices programs that advance the idea of having a lucrative career over that of being a critical success. Gone are the days of the historical, and institutional biases and philistine tastes that provoked producers to envision themselves as revolutionaries, resistance fighters, or at least visionaries engaged in a polemical battle that was a matter of life and death. This Biennial truly confirms that even the dream of being vanguard is dead.

Given there are no conflicts of vision, ideology, or even aesthetics, it’s no surprise that the Biennial appears to be is little more than a collection of random stuff, rather than an index of the differing practices and ambitions that make up contemporary art. Perhaps as an egalitarian gesture the Biennial’s curators have put everything on an equal footing, even the few older or dead artist’s provenances do not guarantee anything significantly different from the work of the living and younger artists. This new sense of culture as being made up of just stuff, serves to devalue all things including the Biennial itself. So, while the works in all media are made with great technical competence (at great apparent expense), most of what is presented, despite its theatricality, lacks any distinctive character, inventiveness, or extraordinary ambitions.

It is as if all of these makers and creatives are unprepared for the self-criticality and self-reflection necessary to realize and sustain a critical and aesthetic discourse at best can only eke out the meager content typical of the cognitive and social discord faced by so many Millennials. Consequently, the Biennial organizers can measure their success by the fact that 2022 Whitney Biennial: Quiet as It’s Kept has lived up to its name in that it has generated no scandals or controversies or debates. Clearly many of these producers don’t think about the deep structure of values that they are replicating, instead they appear to be overwhelmingly concerned with sustaining the cultural malaise and directionlessness that that they are a product of. This is especially true among those working with video and photography, who are trapped in the documentary tradition made so popular by Netflix, while the painters seem more concerned with how their work will reproduce.

None of the faults I’ve identified are intentional or by design. The scary part is that they are the culmination of an on-going process in which one petty accommodation leads to another until there is nothing left to concede and to everyone’s surprise all that is left is a less than mesmerizing combo of augmented genres, decorative flourishes, and repetitive social commentary. That is because the sensibility and forces at work include a tremendously effective sense of alienation whose growth inevitably will, in the name of progress, lead to the denigration of any, and all criteria, which may be based on analysis, self-reflectivity and judgement. This we can attribute to the reification and entropy of corporate capital’s instrumentality and its mythology. As such, this Whitney Biennial actually indexes cultural decay while ignoring the potentiality of there being a new dynamic culture that will prepare the world for the ideas and visions. But for it to do so means abandoning the present cognitive discords and readymade complaints that presently order their priorities, aesthetically as well as psychologically. Subsequently, given what the Whitney presents under the rubric of contemporary art and culture, like much else in our society, 2022 Whitney Biennial: Quiet as It’s Kept is meant to have a short shelf life.

Saul Ostrow

August 18, 2022

Saul Ostrow is an independent curator and critic. Since 1985, he has organized over 80 exhibitions in the US and abroad. His writings have appeared in art magazines, journals, catalogues, and books in the USA and Europe. In 2010, he founded along with David Goodman and Edouard Prulehiere, the not-for-profit Critical Practices Inc. as a platform for critical conversation and cultural practices. His book Formal Matters (selected and revised) published by Elective Affinities will be launched Fall, 2022. He served as Art Editor at Bomb Magazine, Co-Editor of Lusitania Press (1996-2004) and as Editor of the book series Critical Voices in Art, Theory and Culture (1996-2006) published by Routledge, London.

Here is a link to the Whitney Museum trailer of Quiet as It’s Kept