Up on 75th St and Madison Avenue, where the Whitney Museum sits sandwiched between the Carlyle Hotel and designer boutiques, there is little evidence of the economic crisis that has weighed on so many Americans across the country. But inside the 2012 Whitney Biennial, much of the art on the walls and the films being screened touch upon a socio-economic reality that isn’t always part of the art world dialogue. As the Biennial endeavors to provide a survey of contemporary American art, it also explores the issues that have plagued working class communities.
In a recent review, Peter Plagens of the Wall Street Journal described the 2012 Biennial as “leaner (about 55 artists), more coherently installed, and less glitzy” He also goes on to say, “there’s a gritty, Rust Belt feel to the whole show—perhaps a hint that the exhibition identifies with “the 99%” more than with, oh, wealthy art collectors from “the 1%.”
The New York Times art critic, Roberta Smith, also recognizes the Biennial’s shift this year from a flashy, New York-centric, art celebrity fest to a collection of work that’s more grounded and theme-oriented. In her review, “A Survey of a Different Color,” she writes, “Largely avoiding both usual suspects and blue-chip galleries, this Biennial tacitly separates art objects from the market…”
A few of the films that will be shown throughout the Biennial capture different aspects the everyday lives of working class Americans. Putty Hill, by filmmaker Matthew Porterfield, provides a glimpse of a blue-collar neighborhood of Baltimore. In the film, family and friends come together for a funeral of a young man who just died. While the film shows the struggles of the characters in the community, from unemployment and drug abuse to single mother households, it also tells the story of complex family relationships, grieving, reinvention, and coming of age.
Kevin Jerome Everson’s experimental film, Quality Control, takes a look at the day-to-day operation and work environment of a drycleaner in Alabama. Like much of Everson’s work, this film spotlights the “working class Afro-American experience” as described in Indie Wire.
Artist and filmmaker, Wu Tsang, depicts a completely different slice of working class culture from Everson and Porterfield. His film, WILDNESS, portrays a famous bar, the Silver Platter, in Los Angeles that has become what Tsang calls a “safespace” for LGBT immigrant communities since the 1960’s.
Even as critics assert that this year’s Biennial deviates from the influence of the art market and focuses on the economic crisis, others, such as the Arts & Labor, the arts and culture subgroup of Occupy Wall Street, would disagree and say that the Whitney is part of the machine that favors the 1% (the art collectors, dealers, and wealthy patrons) over the 99% (the artists, workers and art handlers). In a letter to the Whitney, they demanded that the 2014 Whitney Biennial be shut down, and also insisted that the museum cut ties with its sponsor, Sotheby’s, for locking out unionized art handlers after a contract dispute.