Last weekend I went to see the Whitney Biennial, the exhibit that is supposed to be about cutting edge art in America. And as much as I wanted to write a comprehensive post about the work I saw, I have been grappling with doing just that since last Saturday. I thought that if I let it all sink in, I would come to see the wonder and brilliance of it all. I didn’t.
The easy part first. The exhibit spans three floors of the museum and each is assigned to a single curator from outside the Whitney. This decision alone has been criticized in the local press, seen by some as the Whitney shirking its responsibilities and taking the easy route by letting someone else do the work. I didn’t see it that way; to me it promised different points of view and different conversations between the floors. At least that is what I thought before I saw the exhibit.
I guess what bothered me the most about the artwork was the fact that I was disappointed in myself for not getting why most of it was so revered. It all made me think I have no business in the art world; that my art education and my exposure to art is totally inadequate; that to ever think of myself as an artist is outlandish because I don’t even know the password to get into the club. But when I got past the self-bashing, it just made me mad.
It was all so precious, so self-indulgent and so pretentious.
I went looking for trends, trends that might define where art is headed, but since so many of the artists represented were either already well along in their careers or already dead, it only served to show trends in curation, if that.
One floor seemed to be about deconstruction. This is not a new theme in art, although it was presented as if it were something quite extraordinary rather than so cliche. Fragments of words or numbers, pieces of broken ceramics contained in larger pieces of ceramic, works made out of other things that presented interesting dualities of the materials themselves. Nothing new there.
The other two floors were more confusing with no thread of continuity that was apparent. Oh, I read the curator’s statements, lots of art-speak and elaborate musings that said nothing in the end. What made up these two floors were lots of sexual imagery—not erotic or sensuous or even good art, but raw images of genitalia that seemed to move beyond shock value, they felt obsessive and spoke more of personal inadequacy than art. Lots of works that claimed to be about some social issue but more often than not, so obscure it lost any impact it might have had, could have had or should have had. Lots of artworks that relied on another work of art, be it music or literature or poetry or other visual artwork to make its point—which felt like the artist snubbing his or her nose at those viewers who lacked the familiarity with the original work. There was work that served as an indictment of the very art world in which the artists were being elevated; or of technology and the digital world; and work that required too much complicated and referenced explanation. Nothing that made me think, or change my perspective or even admire the connections. The signage that accompanied the artwork was often even more confusing and less elegantly executed than the artwork itself.
Concept has become the point and the destination in so much art today–some lofty concept that apparently does not need to be realized in a way that shows any mastery of one’s chosen genre, or even a well executed finished product. I get that art is about process, I tell that to my students all the time; but by the time it hangs in a museum as a pinnacle of American Art, it should look better than a haphazardly edited selection of preschool artwork pinned to the wall with pushpins and justified with a whole lot of overly embellished phrases that mean as little as the artwork it is meant to explain.
Whatever happened to learning how to use one’s chosen medium? Whatever happened to artistic skill sets and the language of art itself? If I have an obscure or obscene concept is that enough to make it art? Apparently.
I am no prude, nor do I consider myself too deeply rooted in art of prior centuries to “get it”. Yes, there were a few pieces I quite liked, some concepts that were quite intriguing; but overall I just couldn’t move past feeling as if there was nothing there to get. No new ideas, no wonderful way to present the material, no idea or concept presented in a way that was mind-blowing or inspirational or even beckoned me to look further or deeper or longer.
The whole thing felt so manipulated, so mocking, so totally self absorbed. I guess the NY Times is never going to hire me as their art critic.
I guess I can live with that.