Several of the recent Whitney Biennials have aspired to something more than a display of "the latest in American Art," to cite the phrase used to advertise the current show. They have advanced various theses on the state of American art, and of the American soul, so to speak, so far as that can be inferred from changes in artistic practice during the previous two-year period. This can really be the only justification these days for restricting a show to American artists. For there is otherwise not a lot today to distinguish between the art made by Americans and the art made by anyone anywhere else. The art world has been globalized like the rest of life, and the kinds of things one sees at the great international exhibitions seldom divide along national lines. This year, the opening of the Whitney Biennial co-incided with the so-called Armory Show, installed on two long West Side piers–a kind of mall where upscale galleries from various countries displayed the artists they represent. The artists came from Germany, Scandinavia, China, South Africa, Latin America and elsewhere, as well as from the United States, but their work was on view primarily for purposes of acquisition. The Biennial seeks, by contrast, to spotlight talent, especially the sort of talent that has yet to achieve recognition, and so only a few of the artists in Biennial 2004 were in the Armory Show (which closed on March 16). The Biennial artists of today are the Armory Show artists of tomorrow. The current Biennial, however, sees itself as "reflecting what may be seen as a reinvigoration of contemporary American art at a moment of profound change in our cultural landscape," according to the museum’s press release–and for that one must confine oneself to American artists, who in every other respect are part of the global scene, and whose work fits seamlessly into art fairs like the Armory Show, as well as into biennials in Venice and Istanbul, Johannesburg and Havana, São Paulo, Sydney, Shanghai and beyond.
Let me briefly review some recent Whitney Biennials. The 1993 Biennial is the paradigmatic case of a show that engaged the moral consciousness of its visitors by emphasizing art that challenged it. The show offered a scathing depiction of American society, singling out for attack the injustices of class, race and gender. The most memorable display was the already famous tape of Rodney King being beaten by members of the LAPD, and the spirit of the show was embodied in the controversial admission tags designed by Daniel Martinez, which bore all or part of the message, "I can’t imagine ever wanting to be white."
Since the brave though flawed 1993 show, the Whitney has advanced its arguments less stridently. The 1995 Biennial was noted for a heavy representation of works exploring sexuality and the body, implying, again, that these reflected preoccupations in American society as a whole. The 1997 Biennial was far less monolithic and far more cosmopolitan than its two predecessors, and conveyed no message about America that I recall. The defining work of the 2000 Biennial was a somewhat heavy-handed installation by Hans Haacke that assailed Rudolph Giuliani for attacking the Brooklyn Museum, and compared him to Hitler. But the revelatory piece in the show was by Thornton Dial, a widely respected African-American "outsider artist" from Alabama, who was represented by part of a large multimedia work called The Death of Princess Di. What was interesting was less the fact that an outsider artist was included in the show than that no one would have known that The Death of Princess Di was by an outsider artist. It was perfectly imaginable that the same work could have been executed by an MFA candidate from Yale or RISD–not because it was so polished but because a lot of contemporary art had the raw, obsessive quality of outsider art. Since art schools no longer teach skills and MFA candidates have the option of making art any way they choose, the boundary between the self-taught and the highly taught artist has all but evaporated. And so there was little reason for the show’s curators to call attention to the fact that Dial was an outsider. The 2002 Biennial, for its part, was largely composed of little-known artists, selected because they were engaged in one or another quest for spiritual meaning, which reflected the mood of the nation after 9/11. Taken together, Whitney Biennials have not merely shown the latest in American art but provided a register of changes in American attitudes over the past decade, as seen through our art.