PRINT May 1993


Dan Cameron

UNTIL THE 1993 WHITNEY Biennial, I used to hope—and maybe, I’ll admit, even take it for granted once in a while—that my work was contributing to a process of progressive cultural transformation, and therefore to the public good. Now the verdict has come down that, as a white male dealing in artistic matters not always emphatically political, I’m actually part of the problem. Unfortunately, once I manage to assimilate this information and am on my way to becoming a better person, I’ll probably still be convinced that the ’93 Biennial was a pretty awful show.

This is the quandary: can an exhibition offer this kind of jolt to one’s sense of identity, yet still never get off the ground? In reply, I’ll offer not just an affirmative, but also an explanation that collapses both conscious and unconscious motives in the past of the show’s chief authors. Everyone is by now aware of the Biennial’s overt sociocultural agenda, and much has been made of the fact that Elisabeth Sussman and Thelma Golden seem to share a personal hatred of anything that might provoke an outbreak of guilt-free pleasure. But what hasn’t been discussed is how these two operations are linked in a profound and even disturbing way. The fact is that under the guise of egalitarianism, we are being asked not merely to bend a little or even a lot where our standards of formal articulation and conceptual rigor are concerned for the sake of having our world views expanded. Instead, we are now being pushed to declare that any overt preoccupations with esthetic principles represent an evasion of the artist’s social contract. Unfortunately, much as I might like lightheartedly to enjoy the fact that I don’t like this show, mediocrity has formed part of my personal hell for far too long to forget that good intentions are invariably the most dangerous motives of all.

Ultimately it is out of respect for the Whitney’s high-minded efforts that I feel compelled to register such a negative opinion of the show itself. If proof were needed that politics and beauty are the latest entry in the art world’s litany of false dichotomies (abstract vs. representational, modern vs. progressive), it is needed no more. I may be happy about many of the changes in the Biennial’s overall structure, but that doesn’t mean that substituting feel-good liberalism for big-gallery clout is going to satisfy anyone’s craving for cultural diversity, at least not for long. Come to think of it, where do I sign up for the backlash?

Dan Cameron is a freelance curator and writer who lives in New York. He contributes frequently to Artforum.