Whitney’s Century Show: Pop Sociology, No Art

Why is it that the Whitney Museum of American Art makes such a botch of every opportunity it is given to excel? Why is it that this hapless institution still, some seven decades after its founding as a museum, cannot manage to take authoritative possession of a subject-American art in the 20th century-which no serious historian would consider either Herculean in scale, daunting in complexity or especially obscure when it comes to identifying its principal accomplishments?

At the Whitney, directors come and go. Curators appear and disappear with the regularity of cast changes in some long-running soap opera. And successive boards of trustees merrily perform their charade of oversight and responsibility while remaining supinely oblivious to the travesties that are committed in the name of their authority. It is almost enough to make one believe in a curse of some sort.

Whether we attribute this wretched track record to some preordained malediction or to what is more likely to be the cause of the Whitney’s troubled history-a conspicuous lack of intellectual leadership-the result has been an enduring and disabling paucity of public confidence in the museum’s judgments. In matters large and small, the Whitney seems fated to be governed by ambitions that continually exceed both its professional competence and its intellectual mastery. Even worse is the museum’s muddled conception of its basic mission, which in recent decades has suffered almost as many changes and reversals as the curatorial staff.

It should come as no surprise, then, that with the opening of Part 1 of the most ambitious project ever undertaken by the museum-the multimedia extravaganza called The American Century: Art & Culture 1900-2000 -we are still left pondering the question that was posed (and left unanswered) in a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine : “What does [the Whitney] want to be when it grows up?” An even better version of the question might be: “Does the Whitney still want to be an art museum?”

For that is the issue that is left most in doubt by the very conception of The American Century , which-in this first installment, anyway-subordinates 50 years of American art to a concatenation of pop sociology, sound-bite shibboleths and politically determined priorities that effectively marginalizes the kind of esthetic distinctions that were of paramount concern to the most accomplished artists in the period under review.

One of the principal effects of this conception is to turn even the finest works of art in this period into mere illustrations of some ill-formulated social or political cliché. The governing conception of The American Century is, in other words, that of a social documentary. In this documentary narrative of American art, what we used to call the fine arts-painting, sculpture, drawing and architecture-are made to share attention with bathroom fixtures, popular songs, magazine covers, clips of old movies, book jackets, industrial design and journalistic coverage of political events, not to mention the many musical soundtracks that are piped into some of the galleries or available by banks of telephones in others. I may have missed it, but the only thing that seems to have been omitted from Part 1 of The American Century is the kitchen sink. Perhaps it is being saved for Part 2.

Still another baleful effect of this documentary conception is that it all but eliminates distinctions of artistic quality in the selection of objects to be included. There are, for example, some marvelous pictures in this marvelous show, but there is an even greater number of second-, third- and fourth-level pictures that have been included either on the basis of the subjects they illustrate or because of a need to satisfy politically correct sexual and racial quotas. As a consequence, the large fine-arts component of The American Century is esthetically incoherent where it is not simply an outright distortion of history.

It was certainly not an esthetic standard that inspired the organizers of The American Century to aggrandize Georgia O’

Keeffe in this exhibition while consigning Alfred Maurer, a far greater painter, to the periphery. By the same token, Lee Krasner has been elevated to the top rank of the Abstract Expressionist painters in the 1940’s, a position she never enjoyed in real life. The fact is, Krasner didn’t produce her most important work until after the death of her husband, Jackson Pollock, in 1956. But the politics of feminist art history now demands that such disobliging realities be amended to meet the politically correct standards of the 1990’s. There is quite a lot of this politically determined posthumous revisionism on display in The American Century -there is scarcely a room in the exhibition where it does not make an ideological hash of the historical record-but this, too, is to be expected of a project that is only marginally concerned to concentrate on high artistic achievement.

Where esthetic standards are thrown to the winds, there is always an abundance of ideology to fill the resulting void. In the 1930’s, it was precisely a scenario of this sort that elevated the Regionalist and Social Realist schools at the expense of American modernism. The only difference now is that an exhibition like The American Century is equally indifferent to the esthetic standards of all the movements and groups that were then contending for patronage and attention. So everything gets thrown into the same potted narrative without regard for artistic merit. At least in the 1930’s the conflicts were about real artistic issues.

Even so it must be said that The American Century exhibition is much to be preferred to the awful hardcover book that accompanies it in lieu of a catalogue. In the exhibition, a persevering visitor who is able to steel himself against the multimedia claptrap and agitprop sloganeering will find a good many works of art worth looking at. In the book version, however, everything is reduced to illustration and a text that reads at times like a throwback to the Popular Front mentality of the 1930’s, not to mention a layout that makes the “Best Bets” section of New York magazine look demure by comparison.

The book version of The American Century , which runs to some 400 pages, also has pretensions to being some sort of cultural or intellectual history of the period it covers, and the result is an even greater travesty than the wall texts in the exhibition. In this version of American cultural history in the first 50 years of the century, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land gets a mention only in the context of the Harlem Renaissance-I kid you not-and William Faulkner isn’t deemed to be sufficiently important to merit the mention of a single book title. Even so, he fares better than Willa Cather, who never gets mentioned at all. Neither does H.L. Mencken, whom Walter Lippmann famously described as the single greatest intellectual influence on post-World War I America. This isn’t even good popular history.

Nor is the book’s account of the American art scene in the first half of the century any better. The founding of the Museum of Modern Art in 1929 is likewise treated as somewhat marginal-no doubt because MoMA’s influence on the subsequent course of American art in this century has proved to be so much greater than that of the Whitney Museum. For similar reasons, I suppose, the name of the Museum of Non-Objective Art, which was founded in New York in the 1930’s, is also not specifically cited, though a few of the painters associated with it are included in the exhibition. This reluctance on the part of the Whitney to acknowledge the contributions of the other New York museums that were established within a few years of itself is not only bad history. It is another measure of the politically parochial views that govern the entire conception of The American Century .

Then, of course, there is the title itself, which has been appropriated from the late Henry Luce, the founder of Time , Life and Fortune . Whatever one may think of Luce’s idea, his notion of an American Century is totally inappropriate to an exhibition of American art before 1950, a period of European domination in art. This fundamental distinction would have been made much clearer in the American Century exhibition if more detailed attention had been lavished on the role played by the expatriate experience in the creation of the best American art in the early decades of this century.

But on the subject of making a hash of the historical record, the prize must go to whomever was responsible for deciding to put Jasper Johns’ Three Flags on the cover of The American Century , the book, for that painting doesn’t even belong to the period the book pretends to account for. (It was painted in 1958.) Yet because the painting belongs to the Whitney Museum and it cost one of its patrons what was considered an enormous sum of money at the time-and it is, of course, a very famous painting-its image has been pressed into service to advance book sales. Who was it who said that history is bunk?

Finally, some mention must be made of the third version of The American Century , which is not only a multimedia exhibition and a hardcover book but also an Internet entertainment-or should one call it an infomercial? Yes, you can see the whole extravaganza on the Internet, plus some additional documentary embellishments. Need one add that the corporate sponsor of The American Century is Intel?

It only remains to be said that I am very saddened by the fact that the principal curator and author of this first installment of The American Century is Barbara Haskell, who in the past has organized some of the best exhibitions to be seen at the Whitney. I hope the time will come again when she will be free to organize exhibitions on the order of the Marsden Hartley and Milton Avery retrospectives, which gave the New York art public so much pleasure. It pains me to see her associated with a travesty like The American Century -but that’s what we mean, of course, when we speak of the Whitney’s lack of intellectual leadership at the top. It isn’t only public taste that is corrupted by such fiascoes. The staff pays a price, too.

Part 1 of The American Century remains on view through Aug. 22.