shu and joe

Positioning “Lessness”

Published on May 1, 2008

The 2008 Whitney Biennial has drawn a good bit of flak not for the collection of work on display, but for the failure of its curators to make intelligible the terms in which they have discussed that work. Eric Gibson at the Wall Street Journal wrote a piece last week describing Shamim M. Momin and Henriette Huldisch’s words as “unalloyed gibberish,” and went on to lament the state of art writing in America as a path of “willful obscurantism” that can be traced back to the philosophizing of art that occurred post-Duchamp. He continues:

From the late 19th century to just after World War II, writing about modern art was clear. It had to be. Critics from Émile Zola to Clement Greenberg were trying to explain new and strange art forms to a public that was often hostile to the avant-garde. To have a hope of making their case, these writers couldn’t afford to obfuscate. Today, when curators and critics can count on a large audience willing to embrace new art simply because it is new, they don’t have to try as hard.

Perhaps, but I would argue that the current “post-historical” state of contemporary art makes more thoughtful, lucid writing about art both harder and more crucial. If the idea of the progressive development of art history has been abandoned along with the notion of art as an essentially mimetic occupation, then the rationalization for placing a work within an exhibition of recent, important American art needs to be stated, and stated clearly. If Arthur Danto has it right, a work doesn’t stand alone apart from an interpretation; it is in part constituted by what is said about it. For a work to produce effects, someone has to voice a position about the work that situates it within a context and suggests how it gives us reason to think about that context. Which isn’t easy, but, I would agree, is something one would expect from the curators of a major American art biennial. In contrast to the exhibition materials, Momin and Huldisch’s conversation about the show with Time’s Richard Lacayo seems to offer a more succinct description of their position.

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