written, May 15, 2014.
Contemporary Art Daily (May 7, 2014) has done something a service, by resituating the Whitney Biennial in a nonetheless exhaustive format in three parts on their site, for those who did not see it to catch up, and those who did to look at it again in some greater detail. But there is also something shocking in their review: it too is absolutely excruciating. If, that is, you choose to view as a virtual version of going through the Biennial top to bottom it is absolutely exhausting. And I know why, and what the culprit is. In the modern period, the artist at last wrested full agency and power from patrons and kings and bishops, to become the sole arbitrator of their creativity and art. On the strength of this, many great artists emerged. But at the same time emerged conceptual conclusion jumps of the same thing, as Duchamp and his train of artists felt that if the artist was now God then everything he created as worth looking at. Then, too, among those artists that became great, and renowned, they were fortunate in their death to die so soon before the full-fledged emergence of the field of art history which fetishized their every utterance and drawing and every aspect of their life. I suppose some folk still live in the cult of the God artist, artist against the world; and go to exhibitions formatted that way, for worship, and read bios and studies and monographs all the servant art historians and servant critics paying homage to the great genius of the god artist. But in the postmodern age, the god artist was reduced to a mere demigod, yet somehow the idea that everything that an artist did was art lingered on. In a part of art history that segwayed off of the mainstream, and entered into a gap history, taking ideas given life in earlier markets to their rational or irrational ends, ideas that once had a constructive purpose began to become exercised in their own right, unhinged from history. And so the artists of the late modern period, the 70s and early 80s and 90s, overburdened by the weight of the history of the god artists of the modern period, began to lead their creative life as if making the final work for the market was less important than just being creative per se. They began to, in other words, live posthumously, assuming, in their decadence, that they would be famous and their archives would be valued, so they better get to work doing their paperwork for posterity, because someone down the road is going to want their archives. And this kind of cart before the horse, death over life view of art in the late modern decadence began to favor marginal expressions of creativity over the creation of finished products for the market, works of art, abiding by laws and rules established by successive generations of artists as to what or what not a real human being might be able to absorb of a work of art in a passing encounter with. Both Greenberg’s criticism and then too the criticism of the minimalists, on one level, involved tailoring works of art to the new emerging contexts of a multimedia world in which people would be less able to devote the kind of unique attention they once gave to it to art. But in the meantime, as the mainstream trimmed the sails of art, for it to maintain its position in the world at large, a documentary impulse, building up in the gap history of late modernism, outlying the development of postmodernism, lingered on, and so artists began to fetishize notebooks, and archives, and research, and study projects, and community projects, and any number of other project with a skim of art cast over them, for funding purposes, and theses, and theories, and then too with video went straight to documentary, and this or that research, all of which was classified as a kind of conceptualism, but which was actually a posthumously retrospective fronting on life evinced in a work of art and presented as if it was a work of art.
Cut now to the Whitney Biennnial, 2014? why, I wonder, does it always get bad reviews. It does so because of the show’s format is at odds with a late modern documentary conceptualism of art in a way that in fact cancels out art. In the late modern age, (not the postmodern age, where people have adjusted to less individualist nature of the world), every person is a universe of wonder, every person is a princess and prince and genius and everyone is the Da Vinci of their own life. They begin to elicit wonder from their adoring parents at three and it keeps up until they are 30 and for that reason they are sure to keep every single thing they ever do and like a crazed parent to themselves and their own caretaker after their naturally expected posthumous fame keep every record of their work, and then they decide at some point that their work is actually their paperwork. But, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of where the self is in the current world, it is a decadent hangover of an obsolete vision of the self, which is created by a testy posthumous view of the living as dead. For example, you see a girl on the subway, and, if you are male, and attracted, and have some stuff in you, you strike up a conversation. There is only so much of that person that that person will let you have of her in that first encounter, and then if there are other encounters, there will be a bit more, and then more, and only then, but, then, maybe never too, will you ever get involved enough to know so much about her that you actually do get to understand the vastness and intricacy of her personal universe, which is the entire world and everything in it filtered through her perception. It is likely that most human beings ever get to know another one at the universe level, four or five times in one’s life, or maybe never. For example. I suspect that I remain gunshy in love at my age because I have gone to the universe of the inner self of another (and yet did I really know her after all? that’s another whole question), I did a lot for her, I gave a lot to her, it’s called marriage, and for that, whenever I see another woman I wonder, yikes, am I to have to get to know that universe of views and opinions and wonders and creativity too? The prospect seems daunting. I get exhausted just thinking about it. And for me to then resist that natural human activity because I have developed a hesitation based on having gone to the end once or twice, for me to look at a new beginning end around first from the perspective of another ending, is not only curmudgeonly of me, not in tune with life, but posthumous as well. I judge the living potential of a real human being that I encounter through the prism of my disappointed outcome of a voyage to the inner universe of another once before. That is, I see the end before I even start at the beginning, I focus on the death of it before I live it, which is the very definition of decadence.
And yet at the Whitney Biennial, there is such an emphasis, by all the curators (two more than the other), that the visitor, walking through the museum, is asked to engage with artists on the level of their paperwork, to such an extent that it provides entry into the unedited fullness of their private universe. One does not get from them a message from that universe, reasonably condensed in a work of art, one gets all the jottings, and the ongoing daily creative flow of it, one gets their documentation, one gets evidence of all their interests, hell, in one installation, one got pictures of every zig and zag of the relationship of two human beings with another, and you are expected, somehow, in an art gallery, to absorb all that. It is NOT POSSIBLE. No real human being can possibly attend a Whitney Biennial where you have fifty artists screaming at you like beggars in the marketplace to listen to their every single utterance and to hear every single one of their secrets, right now, right there, listen to me, I’m talking to you, over and over and over again. It is NOT POSSIBLE. It is like going to a party and not only picking up every girl of the 50 girls at it but not only that having sex with them and even marrying them and learning every damn little thing about them, even going to therapy, if there is a problem, and then to move on, at the same party, and do the same thing to the other 49 women, all before midnight. It is NOT POSSIBLE. It is not even close to being possible. It is IMPOSSIBLE.
Worse, to create, through this fundamental misunderstanding in the late modern overlap period (which is not, again, the postmodern period, but the lingering of the late modern prejudices under the surface, in a hidden gap history; ie living in 2014 like it is 1974 plus 40 eventless year; or, if you have been taught by an instructor living in 1974 plus 40 eventless years, living in 2014 like it is 2054 minus 40 years of failure to come), this demand, to insist upon it, in a single exhibitional space, is INHUMAN. I am therefore calling in this note the practice of uber-documentary exhibition multiplied times many artists in one exhibition space an INHUMAN practice, a kind of curatorial waterboarding (actually, it is by this sort of media bombardment that terrorist groups prime their killers into a limbic state of hypnosis before sending them out to kill). It goes against everything we know about what a human being can reasonably ergonomically absorb in one sitting or viewing or standing or whatever. Movies know this, that’s why most of them are under two hours. TV shows know this, that’s why they are half an hour or an hour (I wont discuss the current marathoning fad). Books, they don’t know it, but maybe they do, since maximalist books are obviously made to be the bibles of people who read one book per summer a little bit at a time (in fact, art has caught a disease literature caught 50 years ago, posthumous deformation of text, which American literature has never recovered from, a situation so posthumous today that if you don’t take at least a decade to write a novel it has no chance of being taken seriously). Art knows this too, most of the principles of the New York school were developed to perfect and stabilize this knowledge. Most generationally developed formal art having absorbed the principles of the New York School, which were all about these rules of hygiene and address after all, know it. But somehow in the academic world or in the studios of artists with their now prepackaged and presumed disappointment in the life of the arts, their readymade cynicism superimposing over their lived life a posthumous regard of that life, artists think that, no, I have to stop and make everyone listen to me, and they have to listen to everything I say, and listen to every goddam thing I want to say to them. It is, I repeat, not just bad art, it is INHUMAN practice.
I mean how do I take in the hundreds of photographs installed in the works of a number of different artists, and then come to Joseph Grigeley’s outrageously presumptive installation of the fricking archives of the art critic Gregory Battock, and does he really expect me to spend more than ten minutes leaning over every little piece of paper, not only that, every article! does he expect me to read any of that article? Does he expect me to peruse programs and catalogs from shows of the minimalists in the 60s? Am I supposed to be impressed that Battock knew Martha Rosler and wrote letters to her and here are the envelopes to prove it? Why do I need to see this? I am not doing research. I am not BEING PAID to write an article on Battock. I am not BEING PAID to write a book on him. I am not doing anything with this archival material at all. Why is it of interest to me? If I want to know about Battock, there are scholars who do this, they are the ones who spend years going into the archives of artists and making sense of it all and then summarizing it in that thing that is called a BOOK. A BOOK is precisely the intelligent and critical condensation of all this detritus, to come to an understanding of it through research, so that I DON’T HAVE TO DO IT. I have no interest in becoming a half hour scholar of the life of Battock. None. I do not wish to turn my viewing into research. And I’m an art critic. I simply do not understand the motivation or conceptual basis for the inclusion of such a thing in the Whitney Biennial. The only thing I can think of to justify or rationalize this is that Battock knew a lot of the early conceptualists and ended up knowing all the movers and shakers, which makes me think that ultimately the Battock inclusion is just another example of perverse art world insider narcissism (—well that would be including Gary Indiana), but even I am not that interested in (until, that is, I am interested, and I will chose the time).
But I know whereof the late modern self, and its documentary impulse, is, as I came of age in the 70s. I began to personally keep a journal in the eighth grade; I began to keep a formal intellectual journal when I was twenty. I have probably left as residue on paper in some format or another 20 pages per day of my thoughts and writings. That’s 20 pages, 41 years, 365 days, that’s 299, 300 pages of archival material, which, if you wish to know the wonder of me, the full universe of my vast mental reproduction of the world as I knew it, that is what you must do. Why I could fill a hundred Biennials with the glorious wonder of me. And this does not even count the many other boxes of papers I have which contain the sort of art world thing that the Battock archive includes. It must be 40 boxes full (of a 80 plus box archive), every article, every note, every opening card, press release, letters, gifts, etc etc etc . Who the hell would want to do that? Not even me (most of my papers are in an unvisited storage unit). So I know of the disease–I would gladly, if I could, publish a full blog entry every single hour of every single day, I would write every article in every issue of every art magazine in the world in a month (and I tried that once). But at least I now know that this is a disease of time and place, a cultural disorder, living as if already dead, living as if viewing one’s life from 50 years after one’s life; it is a disease given to me by grumpy early postmodern instructors (again, the 70s is the villain), from which I have tried to cure myself for my whole life.
And so, finally, here’s the rub: here’s the intellectual illusion that builds up as you go through the Biennial. Again, human beings can only absorb so much, in so much time, after that, they begin to flag, there is no getting around this: we are who we are, we have our natural limits. But to include a number of documentary type artists in the same exhibition? Highly problematic. So, you dig in to the first collection of artist god wonder material in mass profusion, and you are diligent, you do your best, but maybe you actually absorb 10% of it. Because it is simply not possible in one’s first encounter with even the documentation of another human being to really make much sense of it. And then you move on and, to your surprise, you are hit over the head with another archive of this kind of thing, and you are expected to take in as much of it as you did of the other. And you try again, but, having already worked to absorb 10% of the former, you are less agile and alert than you were ten minutes ago, so maybe you absorb 6%. And it goes on, always trending down (even if you pause to get second wind), 4%, 2%, then we into the .003% and even the .0005%. This is not because you are not a curious human being, this is not because you are a lightweight, this is not because of bad spatial curating, or a feel for craft or whatever, this is not about taste, what you like, this or that, whose a better curator, what the Whitney Biennial is, this is because the exhibition is grounded in an obsolete notion of the late modern self as contra mundum universe of documented opinionation, the self as the very essence and basis of all meaning in life, all of it wonderful, a veritable kunstkammer of inner wonderfulness, and it is simply not feasible, not possible, not human to expect a human being to engage with that much material in that short of time. As a result, as you move on, the gap between what you can absorb and what you have absorbed, yawns wider and wider, and there does come a point, where, as I phrase it (and I am brutal on this point, I allow no one to belabor my interest beyond the point of my being interested), my eyes just ‘blinked shut’ or I ‘just started walking.” That is, not so much that I am bored, not so much that I do not wish to fully respect and explore the work of these artists, not so much that I don’t like the art (I suspect the Grabner floor garnered the most artist accolades because, though with some serious documentary lapses, it at least communicated in more valid visual art, therefore absorbable ways), simply that I do not have the capacity as a human being to absorb any more (and this again from a critic who has gone the long haul often). I am done. And as a result of the fact that as you leave the Biennial the proportion between what you have been able to absorb and what you did absorb has yawned to appalling numbers, in the .0000010% range, you step out the door with a strange surreal sensation of having SEEN NOTHING. Of having seen so much, but seen ALMOST LITERALLY NOTHING. You have tried to see a lot of art, what you get instead is a lesson in the vast stretches of empty outer space between the inner worlds of individual-universes today, vast empty spaces, universes of inner selves, to be locked away, never understood, invisible to all but a few, and inadmissible in a public space (I also believe that the fashion to wear black has emerged and become the new norm precisely in tacit acknowledgement of the gap that has opened up between highly interiorized people, but that is another article). But, in fact, in proportion to what is there, and in proportion to what you were exposed to, and had to pass my eyes over, and walk by, what you actually saw and worse what you actually absorbed was that very little amount, maybe, if you are lucky, .00010% of the Biennial. It is appalling.
Artists, you are not god, you are an artist, you are not your own archivists, you are not students anymore writing a thesis with just the right answer, you are not activists leaving documentation of your good work, you are not going to save the world by making a study of this or that, but through works of art, by that particular and peculiar form of visual address, which is a distinct language, you may make a mark. I am only interested in your works of art, knowledgeably tailored, by principles of ergonomics developed by cultures the world over over the past centuries, to be able in exposure to be grasped and made sense of by the species called homo sapiens. I am NOT INTERESTED IN YOUR PAPERWORK. I do not want to see your every jotting, I do not want to see your little books while you think this or that over, I do not want to see your notes or your notebooks, I do not want to see the production notes of your video or your sculpture, I do not want to your picture downloads, I do not want to see musings on your research, I do not want to see anti-documents or deconstructed documents, I do not want to see parts of your art collection repurposed conceptually to comment on collecting, I do not want to see your pencils, I do not want to see your emails and your letters, etc etc etc., I do not want to see any of that, I am not interested in the inner bureaucracy of creativity that surrounds your art, I WANT TO SEE YOUR FINISHED WORK OF ART. As I went through the material of the Biennial, the mantra built, and the pace quickened, I DO NOT WANT TO SEE YOUR PAPERWORK! I DO NOT WANT TO SEE YOUR PAPERWORK! To claim as finished all of the preliminary utterances of the artistic process and every little scribble of that process is not process art or conceptual art or any other kind of art, it is PAPERWORK in advance of art. Postmodernists get this, late moderns do not: they live a living death, they are undead in art, vampires of their own presumption of failure in life, salvaged through art, rather than living in art they live to secure through a kind of pre-art their posthumous fame where they may finally be understood as the remarkable wonders that they are. I am sorry: the only way for an artist to be appreciated after his or her time is to learn how to make art that can be appreciated in his or her time, and that means abiding by tried and true rules of address based on fundamental ergonomic and anthropological principles of the limits of human attention (I say this in the broadest possible way), and work from there. Somehow, in the last 15 or so years, this fundamental message has been lost, with the result that, in galleries stuffed to the gills with art, the 2014 Whitney Biennial looks to me to be the loneliest Biennial ever–all the art talking to itself ad infinitum, the public unable to hear a .00010% of what they have to say.
And if the god artist talks, and all you hear is silence, that surely is proof that the god artist is dead.
(PS postmodern artists work modularly in a flux between popular and high culture as kind of loose commentators, all of it in their completed art; since the mid 1990s the communal millennial generation has developed a much less interiorized, subjectivized, modernist self, working in groups or collaboratives, which is a whole other issue—it is not them I talking about, it is those artists who have somehow, in some way, absorbed a toxic mix of late modern individualism and millenialist casualness, resulting in the art favored by at least two curators in this Biennial).
PS 2. I also relate this fundamental misunderstanding to exacerbating influence of the bogus elements of the internet, where everybody now can “publish” their own book, and their blog, without an editor, and yet if you want your post to be anything other than you being stuck in an elevator with exactly three people who stop by now and then you have to personally go out onto the internet and sell your book or article copy by copy. Imagine: bookstores abolished, and writers to wander the streets stopping people trying to foist their books on them, it’s a bazaar mentality, and it’s bizarre—but I will not pursue this point; though there is also the problem that sometimes in the nonproprietary internet the world has rejected libraries and index systems and tables of contents and all the systems of knowledge organization developed over the last five centuries for just winging it from scratch through the universe of knowledge and building up something called knowledge from there, odd. (Note: I have been raging against “book on a wall” exhibitions since at least the mid 1970s, and still it goes on. I repeat: If I want to read a book, I will buy it and settle into a nice chair and read it, as I will, as I can, I am not going to stand and cram in a book in ten minutes in an art gallery—why can’t curators get this?).