I’ll never get invited to the Whitney Biennial, and maybe that’s ok.

In this week’s interview with visual artist Daniel Alejandro Trejo, we make some disparaging remarks about the work of Donald Judd, Richard Serra, and other celebrated spatial artists whose pursuit of minimalist grandeur carry legacies of property damage, injury, and death. I suspect we will talk more about this subject in future episodes, but if you’re curious about where I’m coming from on the subject I suggest reading Anna Chave’s January 1990 Arts Magazine article “Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power” (an excerpt of which may be found here).

I feel like our conversation around those minimalists pretty effectively gets our points across. However, we also make comments about The Whitney Museum of American Art which go less explored, including a strongly worded statement from me. Ahead of tomorrow’s episode, I’d like to give you some context as to why I feel as strongly about that museum as I do.

We begin by referencing a show planned at the Whitney for September of this year which would have focused on “prints, photographs, posters, and digital files that have been created this year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement.” The show was cancelled amidst criticism of how the museum had acquired the works it planned to show: many had been purchased from social justice and COVID-19 fundraisers without consent or input from the artists. Critics also noted that “many of the works [had been] priced below market value, or even downloaded free of charge as digital files.” Following a summer of protests against the violence and brutality that police systematically inflict on Black and POC communities in the United States, the Whitney saw an opportunity to turn a profit on an appearance of empathy and allyship.

This followed the events of last summer, when then-vice-chairman of the Whitney Warren B. Kanders finally stepped down following months of protest and multiple artists withdrawing from the 2019 Whitney Biennial. Kanders owns the Florida-based company Safariland, which manufactures law-enforcement equipment including teargas — a weapon banned in warfare by the Geneva Conventions but generously distributed to police agencies throughout the US. Fellow board member and noted private prison investor Kenneth C. Griffin resigned in solidarity with Kanders, though he just as quickly un-resigned because many billionaires are as spineless as they are petulant.

In addition to Kanders and Griffin, the Whitney’s 2019 board of trusties featured both a munitions investor and a major shareholder of the massive defense contractor General Dynamics, according to this infuriating article by Vulture. And, as the article illustrates, the Whitney isn’t alone: the Guggenheim is funded in part by the opiate fortune of the Sackler family; the Metropolitan Museum of Art has Henry Kissinger and Trump’s commissioner of the Social Security Administration on its list of trustees, as well as former trustee David Koch’s name on the fountains out front; and MoMA has a history of financial ties to both Jeffery Epstein and the CEO of the investment firm BlackRock, which invests in ICE contractors. This pattern is by no means limited to New York City.

But what makes the Whitney especially egregious is its reputation as the artist’smuseum. The Whitney Biennial is one of the most respected showcases of young, emerging American artists and their cutting-edge, often controversial work. It appears (however inconsistently) as a progressive symbol in an industry mired by nepotism, classism, and close-minded tradition — a rare opportunity to break into the fine art world and be fully legitimized. In reality though, the Whitney is more a fitting symbol for the sickness at the heart of the contemporary American art world: one of countless, over-powered institutions controlled by oligarchs and war criminals feeding on the hopes and imagination of the masses while protecting the interests of the wealthy few.

In that framing, it feels appropriate that both Donald Judd and Richard Serra are Whitney Biennial artists.

Thanks for listening,
Mason Hershenow


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