The Whitney Biennial Protests and the Changing Standards of Accountability in Art
Anybody who doubts the power of artists to effect real-world change is not keeping up with the news. Earlier this month, the Louvre became the latest major museum to cut financial ties with the Sackler family, following pressure from the photographer Nan Goldin and her crew of anti-opioid activists. And, last week, on July 25th, Warren B. Kanders, the vice-chairman of the board of the Whitney, who has reportedly donated more than ten million dollars to the museum since 2006, resigned, after a group of artists announced that they would remove their work from the Whitney Biennial, widely considered the country’s most prestigious contemporary-art exhibition. At issue was Kanders’s ownership of the Safariland Group, a manufacturer of tear gas whose use has been documented against migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border (and, allegedly, less than two weeks ago, against protesters in Puerto Rico). But the Whitney Biennial has been open since May, and demonstrations against the trustee—and calls for Kanders’s ouster—have been ongoing since late last year. The series of events that led to him finally stepping down show how rapidly, if circuitously, standards of accountability in the art world are shifting.
The Times broke the news of Kanders’s resignation, but a scrappier outlet, Hyperallergic (tag line: “sensitive to art and its discontents”), has been covering the story since November. That month, the site published pictures of Safariland tear-gas cannisters, taken by a freelance journalist at the border, along with a story detailing Kanders’s role in the company. Within a few days, a hundred Whitney employees (including Rujeko Hockley, a co-curator of the Biennial) signed a letter calling for a “clear policy” regarding qualifications for museum trustees, and asking, “Is there a moral line?” In response, the Whitney’s director, Adam Weinberg, wrote, “We respect the right to dissent as long as we can safeguard the art in our care and the people in our midst.”
Dissent rapidly escalated. In early December, during the museum’s Andy Warhol retrospective (of which Kanders was a funder), firefighters halted activists holding a sage-burning ceremony in the Whitney’s atrium; it was staged by Decolonize This Place, a post-Occupy Wall Street movement whose sweeping concerns, according to its Web site, include “Indigenous struggle, Black liberation, free Palestine, global wage workers and de-gentrification.” In the lead-up to the Biennial, beginning in March, Decolonize organized weekly protests at the museum—“No safe space for profiteers of state violence,” one poster read—with a coalition of some thirty other political groups, culminating in a march to Kanders’s town house nearby. But, of the seventy-five artists and collectives included in the Biennial, only one, the Iraqi-American Conceptualist Michael Rakowitz, withdrew from the exhibit, to boycott what he described in an interview as Kanders’s “toxic philanthropy.” Several artists instead chose to reflect their sentiments in their contributions to the show, most prominently Forensic Architecture, which is exhibiting a short film (made in collaboration with Laura Poitras) that is a primer on the damaging effects of tear-gas grenades, and which specifically calls out Kanders.
What brought the matter to a head was a letter published, on July 17th, on Artforum’s Web site, by three young writers and artists: Ciarán Finlayson, Tobi Haslett, and Hannah Black (who was also instrumental in an outcry against a Dana Schutz painting of Emmett Till, in the 2017 Biennial). Titled “The Tear Gas Biennial,” it called upon artists to remove their work from the exhibition, and cited for inspiration an incident at the Whitney from 1970, when the sculptor Robert Morris closed an exhibition two weeks early, in solidarity with the New York Artists’ Strike Against Racism, Sexism, Repression, and War. “Against a backdrop of prestigious inertia and exhausted critique, it can be hard to marshal our most vital feelings: our anger, our love, and our grief,” the authors wrote. “We know that this society is riven by inequities and brutal paradoxes. Faced with this specific profiteer of state violence, we also find ourselves in a place to act. It is not a pristine place. But we must learn—again, or for the first time—to say no.”
Within two days, eight artists asked to have their works pulled from the show. Notable among them was the MacArthur fellow Nicole Eisenman, whose brilliantly rude gaggle of figurative sculptures, installed on one of the Whitney’s outdoor terraces, had been most critics’ pick for best in show. (Forensic Architecture asked that its film be removed, based on new research that it alleges relates to Kanders’s partial interest in the company Sierra Bullets.) To some, the withdrawals seemed misguided. A group of six Biennial artists announced their plans to boycott the boycott—the gist being that what needed to go was the patron, not their works of art. Elsewhere, there were grumbles that this was “the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too Biennial.” After all, the April issue of Artforum included a glowing, behind-the-scenes feature about the making of Eisenman’s suite for the Whitney. But, in the end, given the paradigm-shifting consequences of the “Tear Gas” letter—its power to topple a multimillionaire from his board seat, and its courageous demand for a future of ethical patronage—the truth-to-power Biennial is more on the mark.
The message of “The Tear Gas Biennial” is unarguably—demonstrably—deeply compelling. But its efficacy almost certainly had to do with its delivery system. Power in the art world is concentrated, and Artforum has been its most influential publication for decades. Months of coverage in Hyperallergic and weeks of rallying by Decolonize This Place had put the protest on the mainstream radar, but it was a single strike of prose in Artforum’s pages that was able to radically shift the conversation. Of course, the major power dynamic at play in this story is the one between art and money. For too long, patronage of the arts has come with patronizing attitudes toward artists—that they should be grateful for funding, no matter its source. The obscenely inflated contemporary art market—whose metrics are based on auction results, from which artists don’t see a penny—has created the impression of art as a playground for the wealthy. But the delusion that art is an oasis in which beauty is truth and politics are irrelevant is more risible than it ever has been. Art isn’t made in a vacuum, and neither is money.