PRINT May 1993


Thomas McEvilley

UP FRONT, AND IN BRIEF, I am friendly and favorable toward the current Whitney Biennial, both the curation and the work. This year’s show, as everyone knows by now, has turned away from the survey idea to provide a more intensive inspection of a single theme that the curators and director seem to feel deserves this special attention because of its comparative neglect in the past. The theme in question is, of course, politically motivated art emphasizing ethnic, cultural, and gender differences. I’m not interested in second-guessing the curators about precisely which artists or pieces they should have shown. Suffice it to say that most of it strikes me as serious and focused work that deserves to be leveraged into mainstream awareness. It is significant that, in the midst of the “culture wars” that began with right-wing attacks on the NEA in the late ’80s, a major museum has weighed in and come out swinging on behalf of these socially motivated efforts.

The Biennial is clearly an attempt to implement the notion that the museum should be used as a social instrument, and in this respect it is both determinedly post-Modern and more ideologically self-conscious than “Magiciens de la terre,” and perhaps even than the “Decade Show.” Indeed it is the fact that it has refocused a discussion that is at least ten years old, bringing many of the repressed ideological dispositions embedded in the rhetoric of previous efforts into the foreground, that distinguishes this Biennial, rather than its being particularly up to date.

To me the most conspicuous problem is the puritanism of the show. Post-Modernism is postpuritanism—accepting impure and conflated modes as truer to life than puritanical ones. It is a doublespeak (or double code, as Charles Jencks calls it), not a single-minded obsession with one idea to the exclusion of all others. But in this Biennial we encounter only a single voice, a single code. Ironically, in an exhibition devoted to the theme of difference, there is no difference, just the same rhetoric of difference repeated again and again as another unitary position.

The problem is that a statement so single-mindedly conceived lacks dialectical resonance. It fails to sublate itself, or to rise to a higher plane by incorporating the antithesis. By being somewhat sophomorically provocative, confrontational, and strident, this show seems to preach to the converted, and runs the risk of provoking the unconverted to renewed hostility rather than attempting to sway them through argument and dialogue.

Thomas McEvilley is a contributing editor of Artforum. His most recent book is Art and Otherness: Crisis in Cultural Identity, published by McPherson & Co. of Kingston, N.Y.