A woman I know once agreed to take a young Asian child to visit a school in New York, to which her distant parents considered sending her. The visitors were shown a chapel, no longer greatly used for devotional purposes, but deemed a sight worth seeing. The child was shaken by a picture of Jesus, bleeding and nailed to the cross. “What have they done to that poor man?” she asked, in pained incredulity. I somehow thought of her response to what is after all a standard image in the Western artistic canon when I saw a sign that the Whitney Museum has placed at the admissions desk to Biennial 2000: “Sections of the exhibition present artwork or other material that may not be appropriate for some viewers, including children.” Nothing on view could possibly have the impact on a sensitive child of a routine depiction of Christ’s unimaginable agony. Such a warning sign might far more suitably be placed outside any of the West’s great museums, where images of cruelty and torment are found on every corner. People lined up to buy cappuccino and biscotti at one of the Metropolitan Museum’s convenient coffee bars wait patiently beneath the altogether inappropriate sculpture by Carpeaux of Dante’s Ugolino, devouring his children. Imagine if it were learned that the Whitney was showing a statue of a guy eating his kids!
The fact that the museum regards it as necessary or prudent to post warnings at the threshold of a playful and largely friendly display of contemporary art is an emblem of how fearful of the art of our time we have been made by the forces of artistic repression in our society. It is for just this reason that I find it difficult to be especially upset by Hans Haacke’s widely deplored installation, Sanitation, in which declarations by various politicians, hostile to contemporary art, are lettered on the wall. The lettering, as the media have made it impossible for anyone not to know, is in the spiky Fraktur in which the Third Reich posted its own proclamations. Though as a result Haacke has been charged by some with “trivializing the Holocaust,” it cannot be denied how central a role artistic suppression has played in all the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century. “Hans always goes too far!” someone said–but the presence of the little warning sign at the threshold of the show is internally related to the messages in and of Haacke’s work. There is no internal connection, on the other hand, between any other work I can think of in the show and the warning on the sign, which can only be interpreted as a gesture of deference to the politicians Haacke has quoted.
I wished that there were somehow an internal connection between the sign and the witty work Banner Yet Wave, which the Whitney commissioned from Kay Rosen, in lieu of a banner on its facade. It refers to a banner, and indeed to the only banner with an identity in common American consciousness–the Star Spangled Banner, about which, at the beginnings of baseball games, sopranos always ask whether it yet waves o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave. Jasper Johns’s celebrated triplet of American flags, which the museum used as a logo for its exhibition “The American Century,” perhaps deserves a rest. It appears in two of the works on view–one of them an ant farm by Yukinori Yanagi (“Blurring the distinction between art and entomology,” the solemn catalogue might say), the other Sanitation itself (in which the smallest of the superposed flags has a turned-down corner, like a napkin). Rosen selected certain letters from the phrase “banner yet wave” and distributed them, white on red rectangles, across the stepped tiers of the building’s facade, as if notes on musical staves. A alone on the top stave, A NER on the next one down, BA YE below that, ET WA below that and AVE at the bottom, to the sign’s right. Sign, Sanitation and Banner Yet Wave constitute an unintended political installation–and we may as well enlist the free, brave artists of the rest of the show as a fourth component, collectively answering Yes! to the anthem’s question.
A fifth component might be required to give us a full picture of the state of our art, namely the way the Biennial is represented in the media. Modern art has made good copy since the Armory Show of 1913 handed reporters an irresistible opportunity to crack up their readership–or to appall it–with the antics of artistic nutcakes. Biennial 2000 is not an American “Sensation,” and one almost felt sorry for the disconsolate cameramen prowling the press opening in unrewarded pursuit of visual scandals to spice up the evening news. Haacke’s piece was hardly more sensational in content than the editorial pages of most newspapers when they deplored Mayor Giuliani’s attack on the Brooklyn Museum. Lisa Yuskavage, who paints young women meditating upon their own swelling bodies, provided perhaps the nearest thing to a piquant image with a woman in profile, showing part of a bare breast. Cynics might wonder whether the selection committee might not have gone out of its way to render its warning empty–but in fact Biennial 2000 comes closer than any of its recent predecessors in showing the way the art world of its moment really is. Artists today are an especially serious group of what one ought properly to think of as visual thinkers. Probably even the artists of “Sensation” were bent less on shocking the populace than in pleasing the owner/collector Charles Saatchi. When a reporter asked Chakaia Booker, a handsome black woman in an elaborate headdress, standing proudly in front of her work, whether it bothered her that Hans Haacke had taken all the attention away from the other artists, she replied that she did not think that Haacke had. Her work is an immense and imposing wall-piece of worn and twisted rubber tires, artfully arranged. Why had he not asked her to explain the work, and especially the relation to it of its title, Homage to Thy Mother (Landscape)? Is it a landscape of devastation and ruin, which, even so, the artist has managed to make into something intricate and powerful, swept by pulsing rhythms and graceful arabesques? Hence an allegory of art’s transformative powers?