The End of Political Art

There's a double-gallery exhibition still up in New York called The Visible Vagina. It's another one of those didactic anthology shows purporting to bring some issue that artists think regular folk have either thought about incorrectly, or have repressed entirely, out into the open and, in the patois of today's art world, "address," "confront," "deconstruct," "unpack," and "interrogate" the hell out of it. Naturally, one of the galleries hosted a panel discussion. The participants included one male, Walter Robinson, an artist and editor of an online art magazine. (A few men, including Picasso and Robert Mapplethorpe, are represented in the show.) When his turn came to speak, Robinson said that, in the art world at least, the war with patriarchy is over, everybody knows all about vaginas—as well as penises—and nobody thinks anymore that women are mere sex objects subject to the infamous male gaze. From the audience—and this was a mild surprise—there arose only faint murmurs of disagreement.

Could it be, too, that other favorite art-world topics—race, ethnicity, LGBT issues, hyphenated nationality, and looming ecological disasters—have by now been "interrogated" into veritable dust? The upcoming Whitney Biennial of American art—usually the mother of all art-world interrogations—promises to reflect the new "been there, argued that" state of affairs during its run, Feb. 25 through May 30. Judging from the 50-plus artists included in it, this edition is going to be calm, cool, and collected (pun intended) to the point of possibly earning the sobriquet "the retrenchment Biennial." A whole lot of regular, old-fashioned painting and sculpture—that is, rectangles hanging on the walls and materially cohesive objects sitting on the floor—have made the cut, including works by painters George Condo, Suzan Frecon, and Jim Lutes, and sculpture by Huma Bhabha and Jessica Jackson Hudson.

Of course, the Biennial will make the requisite nods to identity-hyperconscious photography and video (Tam Tran and Kate Gilmore), space-eating installation art (Martin Kersels, Theaster Gates), and a who-knows-what-they'll-do, this time from the Brooklyn collective the Bruce High Quality Foundation. But gone is that culture-wars attitude of "Go ahead, trash the galleries like Spinal Tap in a cheap hotel room as your 'piece'; see if we care." Nobody outside scattered camps of academic realism gets an elevated pulse anymore from yet another work of art that tears an actual hole in a museum wall and tells viewers they'd better get on the right side of semiotic deconstruction, or else. Art that plumbs the arcane and poses as radical has become as common as a tabloid headline.

This is a good thing. Sometimes the art world actually lags behind society, and the bursting of its preachy-self-indulgence bubble follows rather than leads the collapse of the economy's credit bubble by a couple of years. In the money world, anybody could borrow any amount for practically anything. In art, anyone could claim to be addressing any social issue with just about any work, and curators believed it. But just as credit on demand didn't make the economy more sound, credibility on demand for message art didn't make exhibitions such as the Whitney Biennial any better. The welcome upshot of this Biennial's retrenchment could be that in galleries and museums, the audience gets treated to more art and less instruction. Except, perhaps, at the panel discussion.