The 2022 Whitney Biennial, Quiet as It’s Kept, marks a watershed moment in the museum’s history, when the work of people long-excluded from its canonizing power is not just finally included but becomes the central driving force of aesthetic and political meaning that shapes the exhibition. Tokenism, cultural appropriation and misrepresentation, problems that have plagued previous Whitney Biennials, seem to have been thoughtfully and carefully avoided by devoting most of the exhibit to artists of color. Encountering so many Black, Brown, and Indigenous artists whose work directly engages with social movements, historical and contemporary, made the biennial feel to this activist-writer like an invitation to reflect on aspects of my own lived experience and to collectively process the tumultuous times in which we live. There was the spark of the new and unexpected and the delight in moments of recognition of familiar artists, ideas, and events. The curators, Adrienne Edwards and David Breslin, deserve tremendous credit for their efforts.
At the same time, it is hard to imagine the composition of this biennial without the many years of criticism, protests, and boycotts that have challenged the structural oppressions embedded in and reproduced by the Whitney, beginning in earnest in 1968 with actions by the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition. In 1975, The Catalog Committee of the group Artists Meeting for Cultural Change protested that year’s Whitney Biennial for reproducing a white-supremacist, patriarchal cultural framework and issued An Anti-Catalogue featuring work by African American, Native American, and other historically excluded artists. Almost 50 years later, the accumulated impact of ongoing critiques, by staff (who are still fighting for a fair union contract), artists, and activists, made it possible to imagine and to curate the current Biennial as a showcase of artists who have been marginalized in different ways despite the fact that many of them had been making work for decades: a majority of the artists included are over 40. Beyond just the diversity of the artists, this Biennial features multi-faceted, interdisciplinary engagements with histories of settler colonization, legacies of slavery and the ongoing Black freedom struggle, nationalism, racism, and repression at the US-Mexico border.
Yet the presentation of these histories feels oddly domestic, bounded by the geography of the US nation-state and its troubled borderlands. It took me a while to realize what was missing, what was making even the unprecedented diversity on display feel somehow narrow: the absence of empire as a lens framing our understanding of America.
The omission of any reckoning with the US as a global imperial power in this exhibit is all the more striking because of the nature of the protests that attended the last Whitney Biennial in 2019. Sparked by a letter of concern from Whitney staffers in response to a 2018 report on Hyperallergic, and organized over the course of 10 weeks by the group Decolonize This Place, these protests targeted the “toxic philanthropy” permeating the museum board, exemplified by Safariland CEO Warren Kanders. Safariland manufactured and sold the tear gas that has been used to suppress popular movements 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 across the art system about the funding and governance of cultural institutions, as later elaborated by the Strike MoMA campaign.
Charting the connections between Kanders, the Whitney, and the deployment of Safariland’s chemical weapons also traces lines of connection between US-backed militarization and violence overseas and here at home, against racialized Americans involved in different social justice movements. This itinerary was not lost on activists at the time, with Palestinians offering tips to Americans about how to protect their eyes from the gas and US-based activists offering political solidarity to Palestinians. Domestic forms of racism, extractivism, and dispossession have always been linked to US foreign policy priorities, calibrated to justify the suppression of populations and aspirations deemed threatening to US interests. As the Safariland example shows, state repression emanates from a global agenda of maintaining the dominance of US geopolitical and corporate interests — especially weapons manufacturers and fossil fuel companies — and keeping a lid on popular revolt.
The fact that the current Whitney Biennial does not address the global context in which our domestic cultural practices and social movements take shape contributes, however inadvertently, to a constitutive tendency of American culture and politics: the disavowal of American empire. This is a long-standing practice, dating back to efforts to distinguish a nascent United States from the empires of Europe, which blossomed into an obfuscating thicket of US exceptionalism and denial.
In their 1993 essay “The Absence of Empire in the Study of American Culture,” scholars 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 name “key moments of the formation of U.S. cultures in the context of Western imperialism,” including European colonization, slavery, westward expansion, overseas intervention, and the cold war nuclear standoff. To this we must add the open-ended, ongoing 21st-century “war on terror” with its domestic regimes of racist and Islamophobic surveillance and persecution against Arabs, Iranians, South Asians, and Afghans.
While I am making a much larger argument than simply one about identity and representation, it is perhaps worth noting that the populations, places, and diasporas most impacted by this 20-plus year war were marginalized by an exhibit intended to “reflect these precarious and improvised times.” Out of 69 artists, there were no Iraqi Americans, Afghan Americans, Palestinian Americans, Iranian Americans, or Pakistani Americans. There were no South Asian American artists at all, and only three Arab Americans were included. Of course, there are enough artists with familial ties to the regions that have been decimated by the “war on terror” making incredible work in the US to fill an entire biennial. But simply including a handful of these artists, while potentially making US imperialism more visible, would place the entire burden on those already marginalized and would not sufficiently address a more foundational problem.
That is because US imperialism is not another topic to be selected or passed over among a long list of social justice issues. As Aziz Rana wrote recently in Dissent magazine, “the structure of international relations is the water in which domestic political struggles swim.” The foundational problem perpetuated by the Whitney Biennial relates to how artists, curators and critics of all ethnic and racial backgrounds conceptualize America and American culture. If the reality of American culture as imperial culture remains “as quiet as it’s kept,” it will be to the detriment of our social movements and artistic practices.
Of course, the links between imperial and domestic forms of oppression and modes of resistance have been quite apparent to many of the artists featured in the Biennial. The one time I had the unique pleasure of meeting Steve Cannon, founding editor of the literary magazine A Gathering of the Tribes, was in the very living room reproduced on the sixth floor of the Whitney for this show. I was at Tribes to participate in a fundraiser for Palestine that Cannon was hosting. The problem is not that knowledge of US empire escaped the many artists whose work we have the pleasure of seeing under one roof; it is that the absence of an explicit framing of American art, in all of its diversity, as a visual culture of empire distorts and hampers our ability to understand — and reimagine — our social world.
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