A flatly false claim by new Whitney Museum about my 1993 review
Being misquoted is one thing, but being completely misrepresented in an art museum wall text is quite another – especially when something I wrote more than 20 years ago is used as a slur concocted from the direct opposite of my critical opinion.
Several friends contacted me over the weekend about a shocking wall text in an exhibition at the new Whitney Museum of American Art, opening Friday in New York’s downtown meatpacking district. The text seeks to evade the museum’s responsibility for its past focus on straight, white, male artists.
Whitney curators had mounted a conservative, patronizing show in 1993 – and the wall text shifts responsibility for it to the unsurprising review of an art critic.
That would be me.
Here are the opening lines of my review: “The good news about the newly opened ‘1993 Biennial Exhibition’ at the Whitney Museum of American Art is that, for the first time ever, it’s not a show dominated by recent work made almost entirely by straight white guys. Instead, with an abundance of work by women, by artists of various ethnicities and by openly gay and lesbian artists, call it the Biennial That Looks More Like America.”
But the wall text says that “Christopher Knight’s review was a typical one, noting the unprecedented presence of art by women, ethnic minorities, and gays and lesbians, while decrying the show’s artistic quality.”
Wow. The museum is claiming that I asserted that art collapsed because the Whitney finally embraced diversity among artists. That’s flatly false.
My actual review expressed strong enthusiasm for long-overdue diversity at the museum. But the Whitney text implies that I then went on to blame the show’s failure (“Artistically, it’s awful”) on the diversity of the artists. In reality, I blamed the failure on the curators. Their show, I wrote, was a blinkered establishment view of diversity.
Artists of varied identities were finally being invited into the Biennial – hitherto the Whitney’s restricted country club – but only if their work dealt directly with their condition of social exclusion.
“Artists who are not socially marginalized may do as they please,” I wrote of the new curatorial criterion, “but artists who have been marginalized are only worthwhile if marginality is the subject of their art.”
That standard is monolithic, not diverse. Worse, it’s patronizing.
The wall text goes on to say that the 1993 Biennial is “now regarded as a landmark.” Obviously I agree – although probably not in the way the museum means.
That the Whitney, an educational institution, would falsify my critical position to make itself look better is stunning. Agree or disagree, but please: Don’t make stuff up. Knocking down a straw man is always embarrassing.
In fact, the Whitney now seems to surreptitiously agree with what I wrote 22 years ago. My 1993 review discussed the work of 15 Biennial artists. Today, the seven artists whose work I praised are included in “America Is Hard to See,” the museum’s sprawling inaugural show.
Seven of the eight artists whose work I found wanting are nowhere to be seen.
Perhaps the ’93 Biennial’s most notorious feature was its inclusion of the eight-minute videotape showing the deplorable 1991 police-beating of L.A. motorist Rodney King. Shot on a Sony Handycam by plumbing company manager George Holliday, the video played on a continuous loop in the galleries.
As far as I can tell, it was the only time the Whitney Biennial has featured something not made by an artist. The further institutional exploitation of King and his gruesome ordeal, this time by an art museum, left me slack-jawed.
Perhaps the famous tape is today shelved in the Whitney’s library or stored away in its archives. But an online search of the museum’s website shows that it’s not part of the permanent art collection.
If the video was thought back then to be artistically crucial, rather than merely sensationalistic, it’s difficult to fathom why the Whitney art collection didn’t acquire a copy from its “landmark” show. So much for the courage of curatorial convictions.
When I went to see the new museum last week, on the day of the trustees’ evening dinner and preview, the offending wall text was not yet up. Nor did anyone at the Whitney – including the chief curator, who spent 90 minutes walking me through the show – bother to mention that I would soon be (mis)represented in such an outrageous manner.
Having worked in several museums, I do know that curators labor over labeling. So I’m pleased that the Whitney’s crew spelled my name right – although that may just be a reflection of all the years I’ve spent in proximity to Hollywood.
The 1993 show was slammed in various ways by local critics at the New York Times, the Village Voice, the Nation, Newsweek and Time – many of them still on the job. I guess the museum felt it was safer now to invent an opinion for a critic living 3,000 miles away, who hasn’t reviewed a show at the Whitney in nine years and isn’t likely to bump into curators at a Bushwick dinner party.
I asked the museum for further clarification. Spokesman Stephen Soba replied that the text was collectively prepared by the Whitney’s curatorial, education and publication departments. They met to review my complaint and, while saying they did not intend to draw “a causal relationship” between my review’s praise for diversity and its negative assessment of the show, did understand “how it could be misconstrued.”
The museum offered a rewrite of one sentence in the text. The new version would say that mine “was one of many negative appraisals of the exhibition, applauding the unprecedented presence of art by women, ethnic minorities and gays and lesbians, while decrying the show’s artistic quality and polemical tone.”
I declined the offer, since the proposed change merely uses different words that convey the same erroneous relationship. I asked instead for removal of the wall label. By Thursday afternoon, no decision had been made.
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