Why Aren't Artists Angry Anymore?

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The art world has been waiting for this moment. After a decade when the overheated market saw freshly minted art school grads command higher prices than Old Masters, the global financial crisis has generated both anxiety and hope. While galleries and dealers suffer, the recession has offered a chance to bring the high-flying spectacle of international fairs and exhibitions back from the stratosphere. This year's Whitney Biennial is a return to earth.

It is smaller, for starters. Just 55 artists are included in the survey of contemporary art, down from 81 two years ago and 100 in 2006. Instead of the cacophonous jumble of installations and videos featured in recent years, there are more paintings, sculptures, and works on paper, spread over three floors of the museum with ample room to breathe (though the storm that dumped nearly two feet of snow on Manhattan may have helped by keeping the crowds at bay when I visited). The overall effect is somber, dignified, quiet.

A little too quiet, frankly. The 2006 and 2008 Biennials were certainly raucous affairs, but not just because of their size. At the height of the Bush years—after the abuses at Abu Ghraib had come to light and on the anniversary of the 1968 anti-war protests—artists had something to shout about. This year, however, curators Francesco Bonami and Gary Carrion-Murayari believe they've been shown a sign that the world has righted itself.

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Whitney Museum

"With the election of Barack Obama, the clouds broke and the rain of renewal poured over the entire country," they write in the exhibition catalogue, which features a photo of the president on the cover. "The presence of a reassuring and inspiring political figure allowed people to focus on their intimate concerns again. Traditional forms of protest and resistance were no longer needed as in the years before when it felt like the United States was losing its moral direction. The year 2010 marks a time when art seems to have gone back to certain basic aesthetic rules." In other words, artists can put down their pitchforks and pick up their palette knives.

As a snapshot of the present moment—the curators eschewed a theme for this year's Biennial, choosing instead to call it simply "2010"—the show doesn't ignore the economic crisis. Josephine Meckseper's video "Mall of America" presents the country's largest shopping mall as a ghost town, its Ferris wheel spinning without riders, its window displays and sale signs (20%, 40%, 60% Off!) beckoning customers who don't come. Yet it is a cold abstraction, filmed through red and blue filters. If suburban housing developments in the real world are hard-hit by foreclosures, James Casebere's large color photographs of Styrofoam, plaster, and cardboard houses, shot from a bird's-eye perspective, keep that actuality at a distance. With real people losing their homes, it's hard to feel much for a bloodless model.

There are some lovely, evocative works, but what they evoke is a sense of feebleness. Instead of splitting the gallery wall, David Adamo's axe is stuck in it, the handle shattered. His wooden canes have been whittled down to toothpicks. A woman describes her failed love affair with America with a tone of resignation in a video by the Bruce High Quality Foundation—projected onto the windshield of an ambulance/hearse.

It's as if, in dialing back the excesses of the art world, Bonami and Carrion-Murayari over-corrected. What happened to the "fierce urgency of now"? Artists may not have Bush to knock around anymore, but there's still plenty to get worked up about. If the recession has hurt artists' pocketbooks, it's also given them an opportunity to experiment without commercial pressure. The new normal needn't be so reserved.

Last month, the story of an Ohio man who bulldozed his own house to keep the bank from foreclosing on it made headlines across the country. The photos of him doing so capture the country's pain and anger more powerfully than anything in the Biennial. That's a shame.

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