The Whitney Biennial Is Dangerously Quiet About US Imperialism
The 2022 Whitney Biennial, Quiet as It’s Stored, marks a watershed second within the museum’s historical past, when the work of individuals long-excluded from its canonizing energy is not only lastly included however turns into the central driving power of aesthetic and political that means that shapes the exhibition. Tokenism, cultural appropriation and misrepresentation, issues which have plagued earlier Whitney Biennials, appear to have been thoughtfully and punctiliously prevented by devoting many of the exhibit to artists of shade. Encountering so many Black, Brown, and Indigenous artists whose work immediately engages with social actions, historic and up to date, made the biennial really feel to this activist-writer like an invite to mirror on elements of my very own lived expertise and to collectively course of the tumultuous occasions during which we dwell. There was the spark of the brand new and sudden and the enjoyment of moments of recognition of acquainted artists, concepts, and occasions. The curators, Adrienne Edwards and David Breslin, deserve great credit score for his or her efforts.
On the similar time, it’s arduous to think about the composition of this biennial with out the various years of criticism, protests, and boycotts which have challenged the structural oppressions embedded in and reproduced by the Whitney, starting in earnest in 1968 with actions by the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition. In 1975, The Catalog Committee of the group Artists Assembly for Cultural Change protested that yr’s Whitney Biennial for reproducing a white-supremacist, patriarchal cultural framework and issued An Anti-Catalogue that includes work by African American, Native American, and different traditionally excluded artists. Virtually 50 years later, the accrued affect of ongoing critiques, by employees (who’re nonetheless combating for a good union contract), artists, and activists, made it doable to think about and to curate the present Biennial as a showcase of artists who’ve been marginalized in numerous methods although lots of them had been making work for many years: a majority of the artists included are over 40. Past simply the range of the artists, this Biennial options multi-faceted, interdisciplinary engagements with histories of settler colonization, legacies of slavery and the continuing Black freedom battle, nationalism, racism, and repression on the US-Mexico border.
But the presentation of those histories feels oddly home, bounded by the geography of the US nation-state and its troubled borderlands. It took me some time to appreciate what was lacking, what should be blamed for even the unprecedented range on show really feel by some means slim: the absence of empire as a lens framing our understanding of America.
The omission of any reckoning with the US as a world imperial energy on this exhibit is all of the extra putting due to the character of the protests that attended the final Whitney Biennial in 2019. Sparked by a letter of concern from Whitney staffers in response to a 2018 report on Hyperallergic, and arranged over the course of 10 weeks by the group Decolonize This Place, these protests focused the “toxic philanthropy” permeating the museum board, exemplified by Safariland CEO Warren Kanders. Safariland manufactured and bought the tear gasoline that has been used to suppress well-liked actions from Palestine to Ferguson to Standing Rock. These protests culminated with eight artists withdrawing their work from the Biennial, forcing Kanders off the board and demanding a broader reckoning throughout the artwork system in regards to the funding and governance of cultural establishments, as later elaborated by the Strike MoMA marketing campaign.
Charting the connections between Kanders, the Whitney, and the deployment of Safariland’s chemical weapons additionally traces strains of connection between US-backed militarization and violence abroad and right here at house, towards racialized People concerned in numerous social justice actions. This itinerary was not misplaced on activists on the time, with Palestinians providing tricks to People about the right way to defend their eyes from the gasoline and US-based activists providing political solidarity to Palestinians. Home types of racism, extractivism, and dispossession have all the time been linked to US overseas coverage priorities, calibrated to justify the suppression of populations and aspirations deemed threatening to US pursuits. Because the Safariland instance reveals, state repression emanates from a world agenda of sustaining the dominance of US geopolitical and company pursuits — particularly weapons producers and fossil gasoline corporations — and conserving a lid on well-liked revolt.
The undeniable fact that the present Whitney Biennial doesn’t handle the worldwide context during which our home cultural practices and social actions take form contributes, nonetheless inadvertently, to a constitutive tendency of American tradition and politics: the disavowal of American empire. This can be a long-standing follow, courting again to efforts to tell apart a nascent United States from the empires of Europe, which blossomed into an obfuscating thicket of US exceptionalism and denial.
Of their 1993 essay “The Absence of Empire in the Study of American Culture,” students Amy Kaplan and Donald E. Pease write: “the multiple histories of continental and overseas expansion, conquest, conflict, and resistance […] have shaped the cultures of the United States and the cultures of those it has dominated within and beyond its geopolitical boundaries.” These authors identify “key moments of the formation of U.S. cultures in the context of Western imperialism,” together with European colonization, slavery, westward growth, abroad intervention, and the chilly conflict nuclear standoff. To this we should add the open-ended, ongoing Twenty first-century “war on terror” with its home regimes of racist and Islamophobic surveillance and persecution towards Arabs, Iranians, South Asians, and Afghans.
Whereas I’m making a a lot bigger argument than merely one about id and illustration, it’s maybe value noting that the populations, locations, and diasporas most impacted by this 20-plus yr conflict have been marginalized by an exhibit meant to “reflect these precarious and improvised times.” Out of 69 artists, there have been no Iraqi People, Afghan People, Palestinian People, Iranian People, or Pakistani People. There have been no South Asian American artists in any respect, and solely three Arab People have been included. In fact, there are sufficient artists with familial ties to the areas which were decimated by the “war on terror” making unbelievable work within the US to fill a complete biennial. However merely together with a handful of those artists, whereas doubtlessly making US imperialism extra seen, would place your complete burden on these already marginalized and wouldn’t sufficiently handle a extra foundational downside.
That’s as a result of US imperialism is just not one other matter to be chosen or handed over amongst a protracted record of social justice points. As Aziz Rana wrote not too long ago in Dissent journal, “the structure of international relations is the water in which domestic political struggles swim.” The foundational downside perpetuated by the Whitney Biennial pertains to how artists, curators and critics of all ethnic and racial backgrounds conceptualize America and American tradition. If the truth of American tradition as imperial tradition stays “as quiet as it’s kept,” will probably be to the detriment of our social actions and inventive practices.
In fact, the hyperlinks between imperial and home types of oppression and modes of resistance have been fairly obvious to lots of the artists featured within the Biennial. The one time I had the distinctive pleasure of assembly Steve Cannon, founding editor of the literary journal A Gathering of the Tribes, was within the very front room reproduced on the sixth flooring of the Whitney for this present. I used to be at Tribes to take part in a fundraiser for Palestine that Cannon was internet hosting. The downside is just not that information of US empire escaped the various artists whose work now we have the pleasure of seeing underneath one roof; it’s that the absence of an express framing of American artwork, in all of its range, as a visible tradition of empire distorts and hampers our capacity to grasp — and reimagine — our social world.