Contributed by Laurie Fendrich / While an artist friend and I were having dinner together after seeing the Whitney Biennial, she suddenly said, “Art is a cult.” For a second, I thought she was joking – I mean, art is truth and goodness, cults are lies and wickedness. Then I realized how much sense it made. Like cults, art rests to a considerable extent on blind faith and culturally incestuous communities. Like cult followers, artists live inside bubbles of their own making. From inside the studio, making art seems an unquestionably good thing to do, but outside things get murkier. For example, this year’s Biennial is “presented by” Tiffany & Co. – not, we can safely assume, out of the goodness of its corporate heart, but because it assesses that sponsoring a Biennial induces the rich, fashionable people who support the Whitney to purchase its bling.
I got very little out of what Biennial curators David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards say in the press release. They claim that “this Biennial proposes that cultural, aesthetic, and political possibility begins with meaningful exchange and reciprocity.” How anodyne can they get? On the other hand, their choice of “Quiet as It’s Kept” as the title for the show is perfect. The words are a colloquialism from the Black community’s warning that people of color must keep their suffering private in order to survive racism. This Biennial comes on the heels of traumas – the murder of George Floyd and other Black people at the hands of the police, the increased salience of the Black Lives Matter movement, the pandemic, and now, albeit by coincidence, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A Biennial ignoring the historic character of this particular moment would be irrelevant.
Visual pleasure qua pleasure, however, is largely absent. This isn’t to say there’s no beauty to be found (there is), but the artists are mostly uninterested in it, or see it merely as a means to an end. The last major critic who argued that pleasure should be front and center in works of visual art was the late Dave Hickey, who, in essays he wrote in the 1990s, pleaded for us to rely on our eyes rather than our intellects when looking at art. He ferociously attacked the idea, in vogue at the time, that experiencing visual art required “theory.” Contrarian provocateur that he was, he deliberately used the discredited word “beauty” – not as some kind of platonic idea or eighteenth-century aesthetic notion, but as the emotional, visceral and immediate experience of a given audience. He saw beauty in a democracy as fundamentally egalitarian. Anyone, anywhere, was capable of experiencing beauty in art, and people far and wide could bond over shared taste.
A lot of people I knew were uncomfortable with Hickey’s attempt to resuscitate and revise “beauty,” but he got tremendous mileage out of it. He gave lectures and interviews, became the subject of several profiles, sat on and held forth from multiple art symposia, and was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. His two most important books – Invisible Dragon (1993) and Air Guitar (1997) – appeared on the coffee tables of art students, artists, and dealers for almost two decades much displayed but often unread – before slowing falling off the radar starting around 2010. Meanwhile, Hickey said he’d given up writing about art because our culture now considers all art as “worthy and interesting,” which leaves no room for criticism.
If Hickey’s idea about criticism was even partially true two decades ago, after seeing the Biennial, I’d say it’s even more true now. I didn’t see everything in the show or look as closely at some of the work as I could have, and caught only parts of the films and videos. But almost everything that I did see – whether film, video, or “still art” – seemed “worthy and interesting.” Yet nothing truly stood out. Behind every work lay an earnest teaching moment, which left me a little cold. Part of my overall blank response derives from the fact that the Biennial always seems a cross between an MFA show and an art fair, where nothing is ever given its proper space. Like many, I go to it hoping to find something striking or outrageous and am disappointed when I don’t.
Hickey also held that the “art world” was a fiction and is actually “multiple communities of desire” that vary tremendously. Hickey’s use of the word “desire” hints at beauty but also emphasizes the irrational and erotic parts of art, which imply longing and neediness. To satisfy these in all their manifestations, there’s everything from the Whitney Biennial and the Venice Biennale, to the art-star world populated by such big-time artists as Damien Hirst, Kehinde Wiley and Simone Leigh, to small-city artist co-ops, Texas bluebonnet painters, California plein air painters, individual graduate school programs, and my own community of abstract artists busy honing and truing colors, shapes and forms.
Yet artists and their audiences aren’t imprisoned in their communities, and anyone who approaches this Biennial with reasonable openness has the chance to gain a perspective that broadens his or her taste. They will also feel the convictions behind the work of the many artists who bring the traumas of their communities to the fore. Sixty years ago, artists and critics famously argued over form; now what counts are the stories behind the forms, most of them here involving suffering. They are meant to be pondered and absorbed, not argued about or criticized. That is noble enough, but the late Irving Sandler thought the end of “polemics,” as he called arguments over art, would eventually lead to aesthetic enervation. I felt some of that here.
I found the two mural-sized paintings by Denyse Thomasos, who died suddenly and prematurely in 2012, to be beautiful abstract paintings until I remembered that Thomasos used abstraction as a means of coming to terms with the horror of the Middle Passage during American slavery. In principle there’s nothing wrong with this, but in practice it’s next to impossible to hold onto the gorgeousness of her pictures while simultaneously thinking about their awful meaning. Having written down that thought, of course, I see how flawed and blinkered it is. Stories accompany all art and render it coherent. Understanding The Last Supper requires some familiarity with Christianity. Fully grasping abstract art derived from Cézanne’s landscapes, Picasso’s and Braque’s cubism, or Kandinsky’s fields of color calls for a knowledge of modern art. It’s preposterous to think art exists in a vacuum – or, for that matter, to regard beauty and narrative depth as mutually exclusive.
Let me end by returning to the Biennial’s title, “Quiet as It’s Kept.” In essence, this Biennial says: “For ages, the only stories that were told in public places like this were the ones White people told. Many of them kept people of color and other marginalized groups down. It’s time now to listen to the stories people of color tell, for this is the only way to lead us to a more just and truer place that includes all of us.” There may not be much visually inventive art going on right now, so let the social politics roll.
“Whitney Biennial 2022: Quiet as It’s Kept,” Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort Street, New York, NY. Through September 5, 2022.
About the author: Laurie Fendrich is a painter, writer, and professor emerita of fine arts at Hofstra University.