A little over a year ago, the call came. “We therefore call upon the Whitney in its centennial year to end the biennial,” the Arts & Labor working group wrote in an Occupy Wall Street statement. “As the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City states, ‘We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.’ Art institutions have come to mirror that ethos.”
It’s hardly the first time someone has questioned the relevance and function of the Whitney Biennial. One of the biggest challenges over the past few years has been the Brucennial, posed by the Bruce High Quality Foundation, a group founded in 2004 that has created its own mythology and origin story. The name comes from the fictional Bruce High Quality, an artist who, according to the group’s mythology, perished on Sept. 11, 2001.
The circulating ringleaders of the frequently irreverent but astutely critical group maintain anonymity, but are informally known as the Bruces and are widely assumed to be Cooper Union graduates. The organization also runs the BHQF University, which provides free art instruction to over 700 students.
“We don’t think the finances of the art world are synonymous with the art world,” wrote one Bruce in an email. “Artists have all the power if they choose to use it. We hope that projects like The Brucennial and BHQFU help to make that more obvious.”
When a Goliath like the Whitney, which did not respond to request for comment on the issue, funnels funds for its trendsetting from high-gloss names like Sotheby’s and BCBG Max Azria, however, it’s not hard for artists to dismay.
It’s tough to be the Whitney. It’s not just part of the establishment—it is an establishment in its own right, and The Man never wins with art school kids.
The Biennial is the Whitney’s hallmark event, but it is rarely well received. It follows the lead of other showcases; it’s curated by art insiders for insiders; it panders to the masses; it isn’t daring enough; it tries to be daring and ends up boring; it’s too careful, or too careless. In short, you can’t please everybody, especially when you try.
Even when critics approve of a Biennial, they do so with caution: “In liking this show a lot I’m not saying that it is perfect, or that I like all of it. ... It is, after all, a Whitney Biennial,” Roberta Smith deadpanned in the New York Times review of the 2012 exhibit.
Perhaps the most consistent weakness, however, is that the Biennial rides on its selected curators and their vision of what contemporary American art is, leading to a naturally restricted field of sight. To organize a cohesive and comprehensive exhibit—though the show is rarely either—without some oversights is nearly impossible.
The museum acknowledges the futility of trying. “What a fool’s errand that must be!” Adam D. Weinberg, the Alice Pratt Brown Director of the Whitney Museum, joked at the press opening of this year’s Biennial on Tuesday.
Less forgivable is a lack of inclusiveness in a show dominated by white male artists, a bias that has been consistently protested throughout the Biennial’s history, including notable campaigns by feminist art group Guerrilla Girls in the 1990s.
“The Biennial challenges us to be open, alert, alive in the moment, and to consider the art of the present,” Weinberg said to the press.
But for all the emphasis on newness there is little emphasis on youth or the art to come. Much of the featured art interacts with digital media in a way that feels more like grasping at the future than manipulating the present. Even in analog works, relevance can seem tenuous. What space do pages from the late David Foster Wallace’s notebook have in an exhibition of contemporary art, for instance? Several of the featured artists have passed away of old age in the run-up to the exhibition.
When it comes down to it, the Biennial attempts to be forward-thinking but fails to be progressive. Diversity is negligible. Just under a third of the artists are women this year, and Kim Drew, founder of the Black Contemporary Art blog, tweeted her disgust at the racial homogeneity of the Biennial: “i take back all of my
@whitneymuseum excitement. did a count 9/103 artist are black...NINE. And one is a fictional black person BYE.”
That fictional black artist is Donelle Woolford, a character created by Joe Scanlan, a white male artist.
It’s perhaps this history that is the driving inspiration behind the latest Brucennial, which also is the burgeoning BHQF’s last as the group diverts its resources to support the BHQFU. As their parting shot, the Bruces decided on an all-female show, featuring 633 artists. The organization has decided against talking about their decision to the press, stating that the choice will “speak for itself.”
Bruce couldn’t resist a comment on the overarching issue, however.
“As to the larger question of gender parity and other questions of representation in the art world, we don’t think there is a magic bullet. But what we think we can do, specifically in regards to BHQFU’s activities, is to include as many different kinds of people as possible in every aspect. Cultivating difference expands artistic freedom,” Bruce said.
It’s a statement that elegantly avoids pointing a finger at but clearly indicts the homogeneity that confounds each Whitney Biennial.
Irony has pervaded the relationship between the two events: BHQF was featured in the last Biennial even as the Brucennial raged downtown, and now, the Brucennial conjures the kind of rock-star crowds the Whitney is too stodgy to attract. (Exhibit A: The disorganized line to get into the Brucennial’s opening night last night that wrapped around the corner of Washington Street and down the block—for several blocks.)
The Brucennial has a very different atmosphere to the Biennial, though it attracts much of the same obtusely arty audience. Free PBR languishes in trash cans placed around the exhibition space, and one corner smells strongly of weed, a composition that could only enter the Whitney under the label of performance art.
Per Brucennial custom, the selected artists range from starving artists to veritable stars (a Marina Abramovic, for instance, hangs unassumingly near the entrance). Past shows have featured Joseph Beuys and Cindy Sherman. The Brucennial does away with the idea that these names are important, literally disposing of the customary plaque in favor of simply scrawling each artist’s name on the wall in graphite.
“If someone is looking at a Cindy Sherman and thinking about her celebrity more than the work in front of them and the body of work and ideas it comes from, we think that is too bad for them,” Bruce wrote. “They’re doing themselves a disservice. The important thing for us is that ALL these people, no matter how famous, are engaged in the most human pursuit there is, the making of metaphor.”
For some at the show, though, the metaphor was explicit in more ways than one.
“A lot of vaginas, that’s all I have to say,” one woman cried to her companion at the Brucennial’s opening on Thursday night. “Everywhere I look, a lot of fucking vaginas.”
The lackluster first reviews of the current Whitney showing seem to indicate that perhaps Occupy Wall Street wasn’t all wrong in calling for its end, though ironically it’s the Brucennial that is drawing to a close. The institutionalization of the Whitney’s process likely forbids the ability to access the energy or originality that the Brucennial generates.
As BHQF primes itself to move into increasingly formalized territory with the expansion of its university, however, the Bruces aren’t worried about falling prey to bureaucracy.
“It sounds hyperbolic, but our project is really about the expansion of freedom. Freedom isn’t something that gets ‘established.’ It has to keep working, to keep growing, to keep including more people and ways of thinking, or it isn’t really freedom,” Bruce wrote. “So that is what we have to remain focused on. We will attempt to grow sustainable infrastructure for BHQFU, but only insomuch as it is in the service of greater freedom for artists.”