To coincide with the press preview of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 2012 Biennial, which is set to open in just a few days, a Yes Men-style identity correction was deployed in the form of a pitch perfect press release and website with the headline, “Whitney Biennial 2012 to Open March 1; Museum Breaks With Two Corporate Sponsors, Apologizes to Participating Artists.” Calling out the corporate conduct of Sotheby’s and Deutsche Bank, this prank imagines the difficult yet possible reactions that organizations (and individuals) can undertake in the spirit of upholding a sense of right and wrong.
These projects are incredible for the way they open up an ideological space that is radically ethical. What makes these pranks more profound (and depressing), though, is the recourse needed on behalf of the targeted organizations, and in this case the Whitney has already confirmed the statements as completely false. However, I would love to have the conversations that should arise from this (and from what I can find online, the Whitney has made no statement regarding the actual content of the press release and website, but how incredible would it be if they addressed the ideas directly?). For instance, how should the practices of artists and the presentation of their work be funded? What are the ideological and practical implications of corporate sponsorship? Should such support be arms length? Is the support of artistic practices a fair trade for glossing corporate identities? What responsibility, if any, do wealthy investors have to artists and cultural workers who create and maintain the infrastructure that allows for such speculation to take place?
Consider this excerpt from whitney2012.org, in a section titled “An Apology to the Participating Artists,” which could have us talking for days:
The Whitney is proud to be able to redistribute resources from major corporate donors and super-wealthy individuals to deserving artists, especially within a political and economic system that concentrates wealth for a tiny minority while the majority grows poorer, suffers without healthcare, is forced from their homes, or goes without food. However, the Whitney also recognizes that some donors and sponsors may seek to use their partnership with the Museum to whitewash their image and to hide the social costs of unchecked capital accumulation behind a façade of charity. These sponsors seek to capitalize on the creativity, intelligence, and culture brought into the world by contemporary artists even as the sponsors make that world unlivable. The Whitney recognizes that many emerging artists cannot refuse to participate in a major museum show without endangering their careers, and so apologizes deeply to the participating artists for allowing them to be exploited by the former sponsors in this manner. The Museum hopes the participating artists will join us in denouncing the wrongs committed by our former sponsors and trusts the artists will use the resources provided to them to foster a more vibrant, livable, just, and sustainable world.
Also, artists who participate in the biennial are not compensated, at least according to a letter released by the Occupy Wall Street group Arts and Labor. I can’t imagine that the biennial is anything but hugely lucrative for the Whitney, and granted, I have been reared in the ethos of artist-run culture, but I don’t understand why the museum would choose not to support the artists whose work it shows. Seriously. You can’t eat love, you know?