Although the Corcoran Gallery's latest biennial features cutting-edge artists, it is plagued by the same technical flaws that have left other biennials open to criticism.
Ever since the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington held its first biennial in 1907 the show has been about painting: what's good, what's new, what's interesting and what's daring and innovative. But always at the Corcoran, just blocks from the White House, it has been what painters were doing that held center stage.
But not this year. Only three of the 14 artists in the Corcoran's "46th Biennial, Media/Metaphor" are represented by paintings. The others in the show do photographs, video, film, installation art and computer-related works -- all of it cutting-edge, state-of-the-art work, and most of it as unlike traditional painting as anything that calls itself art can be.
At the exhibition's press preview, Corcoran director David Levy took note of the biennial's switch from painting but denied the move had great significance. "On the face of it, it is a change from tradition," he agreed, but then added, "It's not such a big departure." What it is is a look at artists who "use different tools," he claimed, cameras and computers, say, rather than paint and brushes.
For Philip Brookman, the Corcoran curator who organized the exhibition, the change to new forms of art was long overdue. "2000 is a transitional year," he said. "A time to open up discussion about what a biennial is and open up the Corcoran biennial to be a multimedia event."
Which it is completely. Its 14 artists do use new -- and, for the most part, technological -- tools and seem to have what Brookman rather grandly describes as "a new way of looking at things. Artists are transforming their world in ways we had not thought of." But the Corcoran show also is a biennial -- a close, if more modest, relative to its far better-known cousins, the controversial and frequently damned Whitney Biennial and that greatest biennial of them all, the Biennale in Venice, Italy, an exhibition that every two years gets more press coverage than any other regularly held art-world event and, along with the Whitney Biennial, one of the most criticized.
What's wrong with biennials is that they are comprehensive exhibitions that once tried to (and often did) showcase the art that experts thought the best -- and that might have a chance to endure and be regarded as great. But these days biennials all too often feature art that's the very opposite: the most ephemeral, novel, shocking and untraditional art that can be found. Works that wear their politics and their distaste for the art of the past on their sleeves get preference over other art. And biennial art, like much contemporary art, often is so personal and private it means very little to anyone but the artist. Think of family photographs foisted on disinterested dinner guests.
What's wrong with biennials, too, is that they're mostly closed events, and those chosen to display their works come from a relatively small number of artists who share similar backgrounds and interests. Artists from outside New York and its environs, or Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area, need not apply because they're probably not going to be taken seriously. That excludes most of the country and assumes (wrongly) that the only good work is being done in Manhattan and at a couple of trendy spots on the West Coast.
All of this makes biennials much less than the innovative events their curators claim them to be. Thanks to the demand to be novel, biennial art tends to be very predictable, even formulaic, and culture critic Lynne Munson, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and author of the recently published Exhibitionism: Art in an Era of Intolerance, knows the formula. It is, she tells Insight, to "critique the public in ways that pleases the art elites" by attacking its "views of beauty and patriotism" -- which means ridicule the rubes because they don't share your enlightened outlook. …