ART / Still alive, but only just: Andrew Graham-Dixon takes the pulse of modern American art at the 1993 Whitney Biennial and wonders what to tell the relatives

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The Independent Culture
THE WHITNEY Biennial is not just the world's largest regular exhibition of contemporary American art, but also one of the more conspicuous examples of American cultural jingoism. Unlike the Venice Biennale or the Sao Paolo Biennale, the Whitney Biennial is dedicated to the art of just one nation. No concessions to internationalism are made and the implication, in the past, has been that there was no need. American art was international art, and the Whitney Biennial existed to prove the fact. It was a celebration disguised as a survey.

The 1993 Whitney Biennial opened last week at its usual venue, the Whitney Museum of American Art on New York's upper east side. The opening was attended by the usual large crowd of dealers and critics and curators from all over the world, who had gathered in the hope of detecting something like a zeitgeist animating the work of the 80 or so artists filling the museum. But the usual talk about vital new tendencies, new trends and new departures lacked the usual conviction. These are depressing times for the New York art world, and a mood of virtually eschatological gloom about the future of American art seemed to hang over proceedings. The exhibition itself did little to lift anyone's spirits. In recent years, the Whitney Biennial has seemed less like a celebration than a hospital bulletin. And if this year is anything to go by, the patient is on the critical list.

Even that may be an optimistic diagnosis. This is the DOA Biennial. It is an exhibition devoted to art that careers between the twin poles of trivial novelty and theory-laden portentousness. But at least it is thorough. No expense has been spared in the attempt to bring contemporary American art of the utmost banality to the widest possible audience.

The largest and most elaborate work in the 1993 Whitney Biennial might also serve as its emblem. It is an installation called Fist of Light, by Chris Burden. It consists of a vast, entirely sealed stainless steel chamber said to be lit within by a thousand or more 500 watt bulbs. Burden's installation is rigged up to a complex air-conditioning mechanism, yards and yards of steel ducting devised to carry away the heat generated by all those unseen light bulbs. Fist of Light is described by the artist as 'a visual metaphor for nuclear fission' but it is really a visual metaphor for the 1993 biennial: an impenetrable object producing lots of hot air and no visible illumination.

Burden's piece also runs uneasily counter to the polemical, moralising curatorial rhetoric that bulks out the catalogue accompanying this exhibition. There is something more than a little odd about a show whose curators protest so vigorously against the materialism and profligacy of modern American culture, yet feel happy to spend tens of thousands of dollars commissioning a work of art so conspicuously devoted to wastefulness. You wonder how the curators might explain the virtues of Fist of Light to, say, a citizen of Sarajevo.

If this is the DOA biennial it is also the PC biennial. According to a notice that greets visitors entering the exhibition, 'the works of the 82 artists selected confront critical issues that are altering the fabric of American life. In particular, the artists raise important questions about the role of the artist in society; the politics of representing racial and sexual difference; the boundaries between art and pornography; the function of art as a sociopolitical critique . . .'. A whole catalogue of worthy intentions.

When they talk about art that 'the function of art as a sociopolitical critique', the curators of the exhibition presumably have in mind such witless objects as Janine Antoni's enormous, partially gnawed cubes of chocolate or lard. These are said to 'explore consumer fetishism by establishing a performative relationship between raw material and commodity', although this overlooks the fact that anyone, anywhere, who buys and eats a bar of chocolate might be said to be doing the same thing. Admittedly, not everyone would think of exhibiting the left-overs of their gourmandising in an art gallery, but it has to be said that this particular gesture is not terribly new. Chewed art has been done before, and doubtless it has been done before in the name of anti-consumerist polemics. This is a regurgitation.

And when they talk about art that investigates 'the politics of representing racial and sexual difference', the curators of the biennial presumably have in mind something like Glenn Ligon's Notes on the Margin of the Black Book, which is less work of art than illustrated commentary or aggrandised scrapbook. Ligon's enterprise consists, simply, in hanging the late Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs of black gay men interspersed with framed fragments of commentary by various writers on the implications of those same photographs. Ligon's work is lightweight and unoriginal and mediocre, in a manner endemic in American art now. He employs one of the chief strategies of American artists of his generation. Questioning ('critiquing' is the preferred term) the images created by others has become a substitute for creation in its own right.

The Whitney Biennial is full of art that aspires to the condition of commentary. Bruce Yonemoto, Norman Yonemoto and Timothy Martin contribute a fibreglass model of an Easter Island idol on to which they project banal moving pictures drawn from contemporary American television. The ensemble is called Land of Projection, which makes it sound faintly exotic and other-worldly, but in fact this is terribly familiar territory. It is themed art and its theme is an old staple of PC thinking: the destruction of old cultures by modern, televisual culture; the way the West merely 'projects' (geddit?) its own fantasies when it attempts to embrace the idea of primitive communities.

Land of Projection illustrates what may be the most common technique of what passes for an avant-garde in America today. The method is simple. Take a received idea (any idea will do: colonialism is a bad thing, perhaps, or entrenched interests are truly responsible for inner-city violence) and then turn it into modern art code. Your audience will then decode the message, agree with it, congratulate themselves on their own perspicacity and liberalism and commend you for your right-on thinking.

It is not the sentiments expressed that are objectionable but, rather, their transmutation into art of such predictable dullness. And the satisfaction to be derived from such art is no greater, in general, than the satisfaction got from completing a crossword puzzle. Look at Byron Kim's hundred or so monochrome panels of differently mixed pinkish-brownish-yellowish paint, realise that they refer to the potential colours of human skin, decode the message (isn't it a pity we judge people by their colour), nod in wise agreement - and move on. The art has done its job and so have you. Transaction completed. Anyone who asks the awkward question - shouldn't art do more, sometimes, than present you with truisms in disguise - is clearly not welcome here.

The exhibition culminates, on the top floor of the museum, in a reading room. It is one of those bare, ascetic spaces beloved by the modern breed of politically aware, theoretically conscientious American exhibition curators: a room lined with workbenches set before tables on which lie chained copies of books with worthy titles like Women, Aids and Activism or Race, Justice, Gender, Power.

Nearby, there is a commentary book in which visitors are invited to inscribe their opinions of the exhibition. Not many had bothered, and by midday last Thursday the book contained only one, hurriedly scrawled, entry: 'So this is what happened to all the grad students who managed to get thru art school without learning to paint / draw.' Not that long ago, this would have been easy to dismiss as a reactionary slur, no more profound than that other old chestnut of the anti-modern art brigade ('My two year-old daughter could have done that'). But now it begins to look almost true. Perhaps the Whitney Biennial 1993 demonstrates the shortcomings, not just of American art now, but of American art education over the last 20 years or more, progressively liberalised to the point where technical skills are virtually untaught. Teach art students that thinking is more important than making and this, eventually, is what you get. PC art. DOA art.

Exhibition continues at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, New York, to 13 June.

(Photograph omitted)