It might seem incredible to have arrived at a point where I have to defend the very existence of painting and sculpture, but that moment alighted when my very significant other and I walked into the Whitney Museum elevator last week, pressed 4 and were told by some random woman in the lift that "floor 4 is closed this afternoon, because there is a performance going on." Getting off at 3, I espied my beloved leafing through the Whit's mini-telephone book of scheduled biennial performances, checking off a couple of "must see" shows, for which a separate admission is charged.
These days every artist, even painters in love with paint, feels obliged to add a performance arrow to the career quiver in order to raise his or her art-world profile above sea level. It is a flat-out victory for a medium that was derogated when it was truly revolutionary back in the 1970s and celebrated now that it is just about any artist acting out just about any experience, to be lost to posterity as soon as the curtain goes down. I mean, how many hits can you recall from the most recent Performa?
The ephemeral performance craze makes a critic's job ridiculously easy, because, existentially, there is really no difference between attending or not attending any given performance. It is not like the lonesome Marsden Hartley study of some fearful trick, just about the only painting in the new WhitBiennial (and sticking mournfully out like a gay kid at a Mitt Romney rally), which keeps sticking in my mind, in all its subdued red and black fury.
Which returns me to the fixed world of painting and sculpture. The Whitney, particularly its aging trend-sensitive ur-curator Elisabeth Sussman, seems bent on denying the public value of the traditional visual arts. In a recent text, I extolled the Whitney’s current fifth-floor installation of works from its permanent collection. My redoubtable editor attempted to get the Whit to send us pics of some of the work I loved. But the Lee Krasner had to have "estate permission" for a photo to be used, Matthew Day Jackson's "personal permission" (which was forthcoming) was needed to reproduce an image of his sculpture.
My editor is acquainted with Josephine Meckseper, who provided a photo, and the Whitney offered a snap of Calder's Circus, because the museum has been whoring it all over the world for decades. I'll bet Artnet gets tons of free performance snaps, though. Painting and sculpture exist for a reason, folks: to inspire contemplation of the fixed and unchangeable across the fluxing ages, to comfort us and give us the illusion of depth and meaning in life. A performance is just another trip on the bus.
“Whitney Biennial 2012,” Mar. 1-May 27, 2012, Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).