Credit to The Whitney Museum of American Art
Compared to 2017’s exhibition, this year’s Whitney Biennial seems, at first glance, to be lacking. In fact, many in the art world are saying that this year’s biennial is “anodyne and boring,” “a crapshoot,” and “beating around the bush.”
While these are all valid points to consider, they miss the beauty and maybe even the point of the exhibition. The 2017 biennial was full of drama and outcry, condemnation and laudation, controversy and compliment. It became sensationalized, and in many ways, The Whitney itself overshadowed the art it was displaying. 2017’s exhibition was dripping in artistic and social politics inside and outside the museum. It yielded as much protest as it did praise and has since become a fascinating case study for the museum world today.
One clear student of 2017’s biennial was The Whitney itself. It is clear that the criticism it has received over the past two years has battered The Whitney down. At first glance, this year’s exhibition seems to miss the mark. It doesn’t quite live up to the intense emotionality that its predecessor did.
The palpable anxious and stress-riddled energy that exists in this country seems to cut out once you enter the museum. It’s difficult to get riled up about any of the pieces on display. There aren’t any works like Dana Shutz’s portrait of Emitt Till entitled “Open Casket” or Henry Taylor’s piece “THE TIMES THAY AINT A CHANGING, FAST ENOUGH!” to prompt debate or protest.
The show offers a wonderful platform for voices that have been marginalized by the art world and society forever to be heard and to experiment on a publicity packed platform. There are some hard-hitting pieces about the problems of the past — like Alexandra Bell’s piece about the Central Park Five. Compared to the previous biennial and what we see on the news everyday, there’s nothing that really punches you in the teeth the way Cauleen Smith’s “In the Wake” did in 2017.
This biennial doesn’t have the same heat to it that made 2017’s so challenging and consequential — which is why it’s so amazing. This year’s show offers a view of the present that, in contrast to the previous biennial, is in control. The anxiety of 2017’s exhibition was its defining feature, but in 2019, things have changed — at least according to The Whitney. The curators, Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley, make a clear statement that we have not forgotten the past, we are not denying the present, and we are in control of the future.
The America that The Whitney is setting before us in this exhibition is the America many forgot could exist: the America which promotes cultural exchange, isn’t looking to argue about anything and everything, and wants to listen more than it wants to speak. This biennial is respectful of the art it displays and gives everyone the chance to be interested and interesting. The Whitney isn’t pulling focus from the art it is displaying by bogging itself down in controversy, and so, contrary to 2017’s show, the star of this year’s biennial is the art itself. This biennial is steeped in the traditions of reclamation and experimentation. This biennial is exactly what we all needed.