Eight days after asking the Whitney Museum of American Art to remove an exhibition wall-text that refers in a false and defamatory way to a review that I wrote 22 years ago, I received a reply from Whitney director Adam Weinberg.
The short answer: No.
The long answer: No, but we’ll tinker a bit with the wording without really changing its meaning and put up a new sign.
Welcome to the world of WhitneySpeak. That’s the art museum version of a standard Orwellian practice: Institutional authority proclaims that up is down, left is right and uniformity is diversity – so get with the program.
For the debut exhibition in its newly opened building in downtown Manhattan, the Whitney introduces a fifth-floor gallery with a wall text that makes a slew of incoherent claims about critics of their 1993 Biennial exhibition. I’m the only critic named, and the WhitneySpeak is rather more malicious than tossing a simple oxymoron like “jumbo shrimp” or “the living dead.”
WhitneySpeak: My review attacked the show’s art and artists as lacking quality.
Reality: My review attacked the show’s curatorial thesis as lacking quality.
WhitneySpeak: My review was narrow-minded, blaming the lack of quality on the unprecedented racial, sexual and gender diversity of the show’s artists.
Reality: My review was open-minded, blaming the lack of curatorial quality on the strictly uniform type of art that museum staff required.
WhitneySpeak: The avalanche of withering reviews, with mine singled out as “typical,” came from conservative critics.
Reality: Negative reviews came from across the critical spectrum, including Roberta Smith writing in the New York Times – not exactly a conservative darling – and Arthur Danto in The Nation, a century-old magazine self-described as “the flagship of the left.”
WhitneySpeak: The negative reviews of a multicultural show represented distaste for “political correctness.”
Reality: My review even went so far as to say, “Forget ‘multicultural’ or ‘politically correct’.” Those red herrings are irrelevant to the show’s actual problem.
That problem – and it’s a serious one – was that the Whitney finally invited a diverse array of artists to participate in one of its closely watched, potentially career-making Biennial exhibitions, but then promptly stereotyped them. The show stipulated that art by historically marginalized artists had to confront marginality to be of any value.
Pretty much anything else was kicked to the curb – unless it was art by a straight, white male. Then, establishment social privilege was allowed to remain unconfronted and invisible.
“This is the Patronizing Biennial,” I wrote, “brought to you by the Therapeutic Museum.”
The WhitneySpeak continues in the director’s refusal to remove the fallacious wall text. The refusal includes a classic non-apology apology – “we regret that you are unhappy” – a mea without the culpa. The museum skirts responsibility for a colossal flub.
Weinberg’s email reads like it was vetted by museum counsel, worried about more than a genuine critical complaint. Do not admit guilt, be reasonable without changing anything that might suggest a Whitney error, sort of apologize but don’t really because that might signal that the museum knows it’s wrong.
Then comes the kicker for the plan to tinker with the odious sign: “Given that this change requires us to hire an outside vendor to silkscreen the text, there might be a slight delay but we are working to do this as quickly as possible.”
Translation: Look at all the trouble and expense we’re going to!
Gee, thanks. Impressive.
Given its dumb caricature, the Whitney apparently regards art criticism to be a species of Yelp – criticism as ad copy, thumbs up or thumbs down. Cultural tourism depends on wooing a general public flush with disposable income, and cheerfully asserting the faults of critics certainly won’t hurt that.
I suspect that what the museum is up to here is pretty simple. Self-aggrandizement usually is. A silk purse is being stitched out of a sow’s ear.
The critically lambasted ’93 Biennial is being repositioned as an end-of-century equivalent to the landmark 1913 Armory Show, which introduced the Modern European avant-garde to America. That show, at first universally attacked, was later embraced as a watershed in Modern art’s path to the top of the auction house leader-board.
If the Whitney wants us to think that its Biennial did the same for accepting the diversity of American artists, more power to them. There’s just one hitch. Confidence in the claim is undermined by a need to falsify the historical record to achieve it.
I can certainly understand why the Whitney Museum might be embarrassed by a review critical of its institutional failure with the 1993 Biennial. But posting a fallacious sign 22 years later merely indicates that the institutional failure continues.