With the globalization of the art world, national differences among artists have grown increasingly marginal. There is little to distinguish American art from the rest in the growing list of intercontinental art fairs and biennials. At the same time, "American art," however defined, is widely assumed to reveal something of the inner life of America as it changes over time. So there is a value in an exhibition such as the Whitney Biennial, which is largely restricted to American artists, since it may, at two-year intervals, tell us something worth knowing about where we are as a culture. During just the past decade, the Biennial's curators appear to have tried meeting this challenge by organizing shows that do not merely present American art but imply something about the objective spirit of the country through art. And viewers, whether American or not, have responded to what these shows seem to tell them about America. The 1993 Biennial was vehemently political, and even though the show was widely reviled, viewers were forced to measure the art against what they believed they knew about American realities.
The Biennial's implicit invitation for audiences to measure the art against the culture makes all the more interesting the assertion by the curators of the 2004 installment that one defining attitude of younger artists in the show was a nostalgia for a certain activism that had vanished from the scene. It seemed strange to me, given the political reality of the Bush years, that young artists could do no better than envy artists of the '60s for the forthrightness of their protests. And it was stranger still that they expressed their own immediate political concerns obliquely, even while the curators suggested that in terms of involvement with current issues, the show was really as political as that of 1993. It would today be unrealistic for young people to try to be '68ers, whatever the content of current political nostalgia may be, since no one seriously interested in politics would wish the context of '68 world reality to be reconstituted. How could one wish that and at the same time want to protest it all over again? If consciousness is like a stream, as William James believed, we really cannot step in it at the same place twice. Further, why would anyone, least of all an artist genuinely concerned with the issues of the war in Iraq or inequalities at home--or the conservatism of the religious Right--have recourse to Aesopian strategies, as if a Polish dissident in the cold-war era?
But even if there was not this encrypted criticism, it was impossible merely to think about the art as art, and not about what it told us about the political moment in America. In some way, art is always political, and American art is always somehow informative of American political reality. When I think back to the Whitney surveys of the 1950s, it seems to me that one could feel the moral pulse of America in the landscapes and still lifes, which they comprised. In his monograph on Milton Avery, Robert Hobbs writes that Avery's political activism in the 1930s is important to his art, for "it indicates that his simple themes--his emphasis on family, his at times blank masks, his combinations of peoples of different races sitting contentedly on beaches--stem from his deep concern with social issues and his desire for a better, more harmonious life where humor, charm, intimacy, and human dignity all assume their rightful places." If Avery's ingratiating beach scenes had a political implication, it merely requires an exercise of hermeneutical will to identify the political subtext of work that had seemed to have different agendas. So it is difficult to resist reflecting on the self-consciousness of the American artist as an "American artist" today, given the current political landscape. What did this Biennial seem to tell us, perhaps in spite of itself?
Last year, I participated in a symposium at the Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where the organizers framed our topic as follows: "What precisely is the relation between the fiction that nationality is a trait and the assorted uses to which it is nevertheless put in both practical and interpretive discourses of art? …