I still don’t know what identity means, and it is possible that I never will. With that much said, I can now confess that I am at long last starting to get a sense of what other people think it means in relation to contemporary art. Okay, maybe thinking is too generous a verb in this context, but if we substitute the word “believe” we are conceding too much to the narcissism of small differences writ momentarily large. So thinking it is, and like all thinking, it invites more thinking that takes the form of questions. Here is the first question: is it imaginable that the complexity of any human subject can be boiled down to a simplistic demographic cipher (which is what most people are unconsciously pointing to when they use the word “identity”)?
Of course not. Even as it is also impossible to ignore the ways in which the conditions of ethnicity, class, and sexual orientation exert powerful influences on the formation of any given person’s subjectivity. This does not mean that those things should be assumed to be the equivalent of or a substitute for a fully formed subjectivity, but they are nonetheless undeniable as factors in those formations, but only up to a point. And that point is crossed when the condition of difference embedded in the term “identity” becomes a tautological goal in itself.
Sometimes the avatars of identity art show a few too many cards, and in so doing reveal a kind of opportunism of reverse entitlement that is simply another form of the same thing. The chief one of these is the capitulation to bureaucratic mandates calling for demonstrations of diversity that can be understood in statistically quantifiable terms.
Where did these come from you might ask? There are many answers, but the one that looms largest is the one that got its start in the early 1990s. That was the time when the political controversy over public funding for the arts was highly pitched, and the defenders of that mode of funding were casting about for allies in a battle that it was doomed to lose. That was the moment when the term “multiculturalism” came into common use, and its cynical purpose was to recruit disenfranchised constituencies into the fray by showing that the Art world was actually a big inclusive tent of democratic responsivity. But no one bought that line of reasoning, including the National Endowment for the Arts, which published its own fact-finding in a document titled American Canvas in 1997.
The conclusion? The art world was every bit as elitist as its critics accused it of being, at least according to the focus groups that the Endowment convened around the country who contributed to the report.
Then came the art market, but not the old art market of genteel picture merchants and bloviating art critics (“Ah, the good old days!”). The art market of which I now speak is the current art market, the one overfed on neoliberal steroids, and the one that presumed to let money resolve the tension between the idea of a common history and the multiplicity of disparate histories that is a far more realistic reflection of how Americans live their collective lives. Couched in the barest of over-the-top over-simplifications, it is the difference between those who would proclaim that there is a fundamental universality in art versus those who would proclaim that difference is the only thing art needs to uphold.
Insofar as finding a consensus on this issue is concerned, money succeeded where artists and critics failed. It succeeded because of its power of sheer expansion, which simultaneously erased and amplified the idea of difference by atomizing and diluting it beyond any meaningful recognition. Instead, what we now get is an Art world that is very much like cable TV: thousands of channels of nothing to see: Facebook writ large.
The most recent Whitney Biennial of American Art was a particularly fascinating illustration of how this new Art world wants to present itself. In general, Whitney Biennials come in two types: most frequently, they fall into the category of “business as usual” biennials, which represent something that looks like a consensus opinion of what the “now” is supposed to look like according to some agreed-upon algebra of influence peddling. More rare are those that strategically disrupt the illusion of that consensus. The two examples that come to mind are Elisabeth Sussman’s 1993 “politically correct” biennial, which tackled the then-thorny issue of multiculturalism, and Larry Rinder’s 2002 “WTF” biennial, which was basically an indoor Burning Man minus the fun. Given this dichotomy, it is clear that the most recent iteration of the exhibition that everybody loves to hate is of the business-as-usual type.
Certainly, it has some novel twists. One of these is that it is really three separate exhibitions on three separate floors organized by three separate curators, all of whom are from outside New York, at least at the time when they were given their tasks. Those curators were Stuart Comer, Anthony Elms, and Michelle Grabner, respectively from London, Philadelphia, and Chicago (soon after being named Whitney co-curator, Comer accepted a position as Curator of Media and Performance Art at MoMA NY).
Everybody and their mother’s mother has already reviewed the exhibition, so I will refrain from doing so here except to say that, like almost everybody else, I too thought that Grabner’s 5th floor was the best of the three, but that may only be the faint praise of someone who appreciated the several examples of “chickstraction,” included therein, especially the piece by Amy Sillman whose title I forgot to write down.
That much said, the dominant impression of all three floors was that of . . . a biennial, which for someone who sees a lot of these kinds of exhibitions, has become a predictably over-stylized curatorial look. I call it the Chinese menu method of curation, where selections are made from column a, b, e, etc.—all of which are deployed to placate various perceived needs of topical and stylistic representation so as to represent a quasi-consensus version of “the diversity of current production.” After one sees about a dozen international examples of such exhibitions, one can start to see how some of the work of some curators start to resemble the way many film directors work, that is, by retelling the same story over and over by using the same actors over and over to play slightly different version of the same roles.
Because Grabner is an artist-writer whose chief claim to curatorial fame stems from her co- organization of a space called The Suburban at her home in Oak Park, Illinois, we can exempt her from the above-mentioned directorial metaphor, mostly because the programming at The Suburban has always been explicitly anti-curatorial in nature—that is, it simply is a space in which single artists are invited to use for site-specific projects. It is doubtful that Grabner will ever harbor the desire to organize another large exhibition at a large institution. Why? Well, the answer lies in a Rashomon-like picture of events gleaned from multiple sources, some of which requiring that I honor requests for confidentiality. The media attention that these events have received has come close to overshadowing the actual exhibition.
Soon after Grabner finalized the selections for her part of the biennial, there was some confusion. It seems that Grabner invited an African-American artist named Siena Shields to participate in the film and video screening that has always been an adjunct program to the main exhibition. At some point between the invitation and the opening of the exhibition, Shields organized a group called The Yams Collective (derived from “How do You Say I Am [i.e. “Yam”] African American?”), which was then given author’s credit for the video, with Shields indicated as director. But when Shields and Co. found out that Grabner’s portion of film and video program was slated to take place in May near the end of the show’s run, she balked. Last minute arrangements were made to have special screenings of the work take place during the exhibition’s openings week (March 3 through 9)—a consideration that was not made available to the other artists presenting in the film and video screening organized by Grabner. It was only after that point that Shields and her collaborators “withdrew” their 54 minute color video titled Good Stock on the Dimension Floor: An Opera in explicit protest of the “white supremacist” ideology of the hosting museum. Alarm bells!
To make matters worse, it became widely assumed that this withdrawal was motivated by another of Grabner’s inclusions, that being one of Joe Scanlan’s Donelle Woolford pieces. Donelle Woolford is a fictitious African American artist created by Scanlan and played off-and-on by two female actors who Scanlan hired and for whom he creates art-props, sometimes taking the form of “self-portrait” photographs. It is easy to see how some might find Scanlan’s project offensive, but as it turns out, that was only a part of what was really going on.
The question that needs to be asked is this: where did Shields get the idea that it would be okay for her take such advantage of the situation in the first place? It bears mentioning here that she recently married Chuck Close, the 74-year-old painter of photorealistic portraits who has been chairbound since suffering a severe spinal artery collapse in 1988 (Shields is 38 years old). Close has rightfully earned an estimable position in the history of American art, and he has had a longstanding, mutually beneficial relationship to the Whitney. Clearly, he is one of the very few artists who could get any director, curator or trustee of that museum to return his call in less than a minute, and that leads one to speculate if such calls might have been made in the case of the recent controversy. Maybe they were, or maybe the situation was born of simple miscommunication, but either way, it seems that Shields was a bit quick on the draw insofar as playing the race card was concerned, especially since she benefited from some very special treatment that was not accorded to other late presenters in the Biennial’s film and video program.
It is not that the Whitney or almost every other U.S. museum has under-represented the contributions of African-American artists as well as those of every other namable non-white male group; of that there is no doubt. It is that making an assumption that one has the right to unilaterally redress that situation without according any of the professional respect that should be due to others, and then covering-up the awkwardness of crying hungry with a loaf of bread under her arm with strident accusations. Bad form to say the least.
We can file this episode under the category of a larger Art world problem. For too long, the discourse de jure has focused on the question of who gets to be an artist at the expense of a failure to address another one that grows ever-more pressing as time moves forward, that being how do we identify and describe a successful work of art as a work of art; that is, as a model organization of experience undertaken for rhetorical purposes?
The threadbare notion that a work of art can be adequately described as something made by an artist grows less and less tenable as time moves on, especially since we now live in a moment where anybody who takes a Facebook selfie can in theory proclaim themselves to be an artist.
Obviously, there are no easy answers here, which is, no doubt one of the reasons why so few are comfortable with the question, but the need for its asking grows evermore urgent. In any event, in fairness to Shields, I am here including an extract from an interview with Ben Davis that she recently gave on Artnet.com.
SIENNA SHIELDS: Michelle Grabner came and visited my studio last summer. And the work that she saw was collaborative in nature. When she asked me to be a part of the Whitney Biennial, I thought about it for a while and decided it would be more interesting to me—and more true to the nature of the work—to participate as a collective. Also, I was pissed off about the history of the Whitney and its lack of any kind of initiative in changing its white supremacist attitudes. So we formalized our collective and group to not only do this project, the movie, but to use this opportunity to infiltrate an institution and to experience firsthand what happens in the art world in terms of white supremacy, to expose how the doors are closed for the majority.