The recent controversy surrounding this year’s Whitney Biennial and its leading to the removal of tear gas profiteer Warren Kanders from the museum’s board of directors has been met with praise from the art world literati. But as per usual, art world figures can’t see past the one-dimensional controversy and into the cold hard truth: the entire art institutional structure is hypocritical, capitalist, and oligarchical. One could certainly argue that certain billionaire oligarchs are objectively worse than others. And yes, the Sackler Family of Purdue Pharma is evil in a way that most of the world’s richest people aren’t. Nevertheless, all of these museums, with or without people like Kanders or the Sacklers, receive their financing from the world’s most powerful people who all contribute to the American war and death machine. The art market broadly, and the American art market specifically, has been defunded for the last four decades defined by neoliberalism and austerity, and it’s gotten worse under the Trump administration (conservatives have expressed desire to gut the NEA since Reagan), who has cut funds from the NEA and other public arts programs. The rationale behind the cuts: that art institutions are already so well funded by the philanthropic endeavors of the nation’s elite class that there doesn’t need to be public financing of the arts. But it is also well known that these so-called philanthropists also use their arts philanthropy to both clean their public images and launder money, and in the end we have art institutions effectively cutting deals with the oligarchs that artists seek to critique.
One only need read the work of journalist Anand Giridharadas whose 2018 book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World lacerated the moral bankruptcy of the so-called “philanthropic elite”: “By refusing to risk its way of life, by rejecting the idea that the powerful might have to sacrifice for the common good, it clings to a set of social arrangements that allow it to monopolize progress and then give symbolic scraps to the forsaken—many of whom wouldn’t need the scraps if society were working right,” he wrote. This flagrant hypocrisy at the root of American art institutions and their “philanthropist” financiers mimics the schizophrenic nature of the larger art world and its place in the late capital market. Neoliberal late capitalism doesn’t just accommodate radical cultural production, argued Frederic Jameson in Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, but rapidly integrates it into “commodity production generally”: “This whole global, yet American, postmodern culture is the internal and superstructural expression of a whole new wave of American military and economic domination throughout the world” wrote Jameson, “in this sense, as throughout class history, the underside of culture is blood, torture, death, and terror.” So long as art institutions maintain this dialectical relationship with the elite class, exploitation will remain the ugly truth beneath all that artistic idealism. The Whitney removing Kanders from its board won’t change a thing.
The great American art critic Robert Hughes took note of the internalizing of big money interests amongst American art museums in his 1984 essay Art and Money and argued that the obscenely high prices fetched for paintings and corporate backing of museums have eradicated the mystique of artworks, watering down masterpieces to value commodities: “There is no historical precedent for the price-structure of art in the late 20th Century,” wrote Hughes. “Never before have the visual arts been the subject – beneficiary or victim, depending on your view of the matter of such extreme inflation and fetishisation.” Yet despite this bottom line driven ideology at the heart of our cultural institutional structures, art museums still present exhibitions with grand, moralizing and leftist curatorial themes. This ideological confusion has never been more clear than it is now, when class politics have come back to the fore of American discourse and neoliberalism is making its final desperate case to the public (in the form of presidential candidates like Joe Biden and Kamala Harris) before it inevitably is retired to the ugly memories of recent history.
The controversy at the Whitney highlights the inherent hypocrisy of the art world’s institutions. The exhibition itself, curated by Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley, adheres to a decidedly inclusive leftist take on American culture. The museum preaches a “woke” philosophy of anti-discrimination while openly accepting funds from a man whose products have been used to literally whisk away migrants from the U.S.-Mexico border. The museum first sought to address this hypocrisy by including a video installation by a group dubbed “Forensic Architecture.” The group, which was founded by Israeli activist Eyal Weizman and includes the celebrated artist and documentarian Laura Poitras, created a work of precise investigative journalism that documents how Kanders’ company Safrailand manufactured tear gas used in conflicts in the Middle East and at the U.S.-Mexico border. As enthrallingly pieced together as the work is, it also felt like a desperate attempt by the Whitney Museum to satiate its outraged staff and the larger public without actually having Kanders, who has donated over $10 million to the museum, removed from its board. It was a prime example of a museum using its curatorial endeavors to wash the blood off its hands without actually having to engage in the hardships of genuine structural change. “[The video] is mainly useful to point out the morally compromised positions of institutions that, lacking government leadership or support (or even interest), accept money from individuals whose wealth derives from objectionable sources,” wrote art critic Linda Yablonsky for The Art Newspaper.
It wouldn’t be until the artist and writer Hannah Black, who has genuinely made a career out of shaming the Whitney Biennial (during the last go-around she gained infamy for demanding the destruction of white artist Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmet Till), did what art world figures do best: she shamed the museum, the curators, and even the artists who had until then opted to keep their work on view at the Biennial. In a letter published by ArtForum, Black wrote, “Of the participants in the Whitney Biennial, the majority of whose works have some political valence, only about two-thirds signed. (Some of the artists who didn’t sign were nevertheless outraged when the “radicality” of their work was questioned in reviews.)” Surely in a panic at being perceived as ideologically unsound amongst the art world thought monolith, seven artists, including Nicole Eisenman and Korakrit Arunanondchai, asked that their work be removed. Point taken, Kanders was finally removed from the museum’s board. But this whole debacle was cringe-inducing at best and wildly exemplary of the institutional failures and hypocrisies of the art world at worst.
The fact that this was an overly political Biennial only heightened the ugly perception around the museum’s initial refusal to remove Kanders and certainly shaped the often negative critical reception around it. The art work felt largely safe, uncontroversial, and almost neoliberal in its approach to the politics of inclusivity. Surely there were fascinating things to see (this is a survey of the most important American contemporary artists, after all), but overall the exhibition felt toothless. It’s not that artists aren’t political, but it feels like (and I have no data substantiating this claim, this is a feeling) contemporary artists of a younger age have internalized the anxiety of “cancel culture.” Gen X artists, from David Wojnarowicz to Kara Walker, used theatrical provocation to point out the lunacy and exploitation of contemporary culture. The art in the Biennial 2019 is largely safe, tasteful, and harmless. I mean, honestly, does anyone actually think Marcus Fischer’s audio piece Untitled (Words of Concern) documenting the artist’s friends “fears about Trump” is a good work of art? This is the worst kind of virtue signaling; Fishcer, like so many artists stuck in an indelible state of neoliberalism, addresses Trump as a wretched aberration of society. Trump is a wretched aberration of society, but he’s also the result of the failures of society that presidents on the right and the so-called neoliberal (up to and including Barack Obama) left have all made happen by abandoning class politics and inflating the military budget while cutting social safety programs. If you are this afraid of Donald Trump, then you don’t have broad enough a structural understanding of the malignancy of our politics and culture. But I digress.
There is already an argument to be made that morality is not the point nor should it be made the goal of art production, because ultimately the art work is divorced from the artist’s intentions once the viewer engages with it. The art work, regardless of its subject matter, becomes a source of visual stimuli and/or pleasure for the viewer. Bataille wrote of this in his 1949 essay The Cruel Practice of Art: “When horror is subject to the transfiguration of an authentic art, it becomes a pleasure, an intense pleasure, but a pleasure all the same.” The art work is of course an expression of the artist’s thoughts and feelings about the world, but that intention is flattened in its role as a visual sensation. But increasingly artists are pressured to take on moral roles and are subjected to intense shaming if they are deemed to be ideologically unsound.
This is of course a dangerous stance for the art world to take. Whereas in the 1990s we saw massive efforts by conservative leaders like Jesse Jackson to defund the NEA for their supporting of sexually provocative work by artists like Andres Serrano and Merry Alpern, we now see artists going after other artists for producing work that might be ambiguous in its artistic statements or perhaps deviates from an inclusive viewpoint (the efforts of artist listserv Invisible Dole to have an exhibition by contemporary artist Darja Bajagic and controversial musician and artist Boyd Rice canceled in 2018 are a good example of this phenomenon). Considering that it is largely the reactionary right wing responsible for pushing censorship on the NEA to such a degree that it has rendered American public funding of the arts all but futile and for forcing museums to seek funding from private (re: oligarch backing) philanthropy (a museum’s board of directors, the Hugo Boss arts prize, and so on), it is depressing that contemporary artists would take any such stances in regards to any art work, whether or not they agree with the work’s perceived content. As the late artist and academic Barbara DeGenevieve wrote in her essay Censorship in the U.S. or Fear and Loathing in the Arts about her work also being defunded by the NEA due to conservative attacks in 1994, “The “protectors,” had become censors.” Now we have artists, ostensibly “protectors” of the arts, validating censorship tactics in regards to work they understand as tasteless or offensive. This practice is not an effective means of challenging the status quo, if anything it reinforces it.
The morality being pushed in this year’s Whitney Biennial was crystal clear. For one thing, this resulted in the exhibition being notably disjointed and chaotic. Because so many of the works were pushing a unitary ideology, works with murkier and more complex readings by artists like Janiva Ellis and Heji Shin came across as out of place. But beyond that, protest cries coming out of American museums read as hollow solely because of who finances these museums and the political statements of all artists ultimately propagate in feeding the late capital market (and that’s to say nothing of art museums’ dealings with labor unions, who they almost always treat with derision and scorn, such as the case with a labor revolt by the staff of the New Museum this year). In a different time period, Hannah Black’s letter in ArtForum could have been interpreted as a great work of agitprop action; a wonderful subversion. But even though her goal, getting Kanders removed, was achieved, nothing in the system has ultimately changed. Baudrillard would say that this is because “the frontier zones of hyper-capital do not try to repress so much as absorb the irrational and the illlogical.” Mark Fisher recently reminded me in his book Flatlines about the 1982 election in which former Situationists used the JG Ballard text Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan to send out to Republican delegates, and the delegates actually used the text as a way to understand Reagan’s subliminal appeal. The parody that the Situationists were trying to achieve fell flat because parody assumes that the culture is still following some kind of objective, or modernist, logic. The horror gleaned from this notion? That Reagan’s presidency itself was more ridiculous than Ballard’s lampooning of it could be. We see a similar event happening in the last round of Biennial versus Hannah Black: after Black called for the destruction of Dana Schutz’s Till painting, the painting earned Schutz enough publicity that her prices inflated. Instead of an act of subversion, Black’s political agitation was absorbed right back into the marketplace.
Black’s 2019 ArtForum letter was successful in its leading to Kanders’ removal, but it falls short in forcing The Whitney Museum to really reflect on the nature of its funding structure. As we see from the work of activist group Decolonize This Place, countless malignantly powerful people inhabit art museum boards even after the removal of Kanders from The Whitney and the Sackler family from The Guggenheim and The Met: the Koch Brothers and Henry Kissinger are trustees emeritus of The Met, private prison profiteer Larry Fink is a MoMA trustee, and The Whitney still has room for ICE detention center profiteer Kenneth C. Griffin on its board. Focault believed that museums, being connected to powerful institutions, essentially served as reinforcements of societal control mechanisms. When he spoke of this, he was still discussing control in terms of state power. That switch has been flipped, as capitalism has devoured control of the state and replaced it with the control of capital. Now contemporary art exists in a market wholly connected to the globalized forces of production. Not only does aesthetic production “merely replicate the logic of late capitalism;” Jameson would argue. “it reinforces and intensifies it.
I do not seek to place blame on individual artists. We are all merely trying to have careers with the talents that we have, but we must acknowledge that even the most radical artists show their work in museums financed by dubious oligarchs to inflate their prices to make a living off their sales to dubious oligarchs. There can be no individual protest that will change the system we propagate. I propose the only meaningful act we can possibly commit as artists living in the postmodern, late capital world: stop selling art all together. Drop out of the market. If artists really want to cultivate solidarity with the working poor, we must elect to make a living working regular, minimum or low wage jobs. Capitalism is the “unnamable thing,” the abomination that desacralizes all culture in its wake, argued Deleuze/Guattari in Anti-Oedipus. These protests around museum funding, such as this year’s Whitney Biennial, are ultimately functions of what Fisher described as “capitalist realism.” We push for more morality, more inclusivity, and more diversity, but all our small scale protests ultimately reinforce the capitalist economy that the culture industry functions within. In Capitalist Realism, Fisher attributed the quote “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than end to capitalism” to Jameson and Slavoj Zizek. Unfortunately, artists also suffer from this inability to see beyond capitalism, and are endlessly seeking to fix, diversify, and moralize the system that we are a part of. We need to start imagining making art outside the system all together. We need to stop selling.
This could simply look like compartmentalizing your income and your art making. Maybe you get a 40 hour a week job, making art at night to express yourself and create beauty but never to sell that work to anyone. Dropping out of the market would have an elegant power; with no art to sell, the entire structure of the art world would have to be put under the microscope. We could liberate ourselves by again heeding the words of Fisher in his unfinished essay Acid Communism. In the piece, Fisher claims that the real evil of capitalism is its blocking the “production of common wealth.” The 1960s counter-culture, Fisher argued, offered the beginning of a promise that collectives could be formed outside the capital system and, far from what we know to be true of Soviet Communism, create beauty, create art, and cultivate a sense of togetherness. The ‘60s collectivist dream; its union of intellectuals and hippies, workers and activists, black panthers and rock n’ roll bands; was destroyed by neoliberalism and capitalist realism which said, “we can’t do better than capitalism.” In his essay One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse said that the most politically significant figures in literature were “those who didn’t earn a living, at least not in a normal or ordinary way.” This is the way forward for true artistic revolution. We could go get normal jobs: as construction workers, as librarians, as store clerks, and so on. We will not define our success by getting our work placed in oligarch-funded museums so our prices inflate when we sell these works to oligarchs. We can form communes and define and nurture artistic genius amongst ourselves and outside the predations of a market place. This, and only this, could really bring the entire art world infrastructure, from museum funding to gallery sales, back to a neutral, market-less starting point. From there, an equal, socialized, and supported institutional structure can be birthed.