350 West Broadway February 26 – April 12, 2010
Recess February 26 – March 20, 2010
Click on the home page of the Bruce High Quality Foundation University and you’ll find this slogan, in red: “Don’t say can’t. Say canarchy.”
Dumb joke—best passed over without comment—and yet:
In his “Notes on Anarchism” (1970), Noam Chomsky, in response to a passage from anarchist historian Rudolf Rocker, writes, “One might ask what value there is in studying a ‘definite trend in the historic development of mankind’ that does not articulate a specific and detailed social theory. Indeed, many commentators dismiss anarchism as utopian, formless, primitive, or otherwise incompatible with the realities of a complex society. One might, however, argue rather differently; that at every stage of history our concern must be to dismantle those forms of authority and oppression that survive from an era when they might have been justified… but that now contribute to—rather than alleviate—material and cultural deficit.”
A quick look around—at the somnambulant Biennial and the hideous Skin Fruit, for starters—is enough to foster misgivings about our current forms of authority, namely large museum surveys, and their ability to alleviate cultural deficit, which, in this case, can be defined as the insularity perceived by an informed public seeking engagement with new art. This deficit goes beyond curatorial choices and agendas. These shows and others that attempt to sort out or represent living art (such as the solo turns by Marina Abramović and William Kentridge at the Modern) stumble on the inability of museums to square their essential mission, which is to construct a canon, with the anti-canonical enterprise known as the here and now. I am using “essential” in both of its meanings: inherent and necessary. It is the museum’s job, in its modern manifestation, to weave cultural artifacts from a particular place and time into a narrative clarifying their significance. It is an undertaking that requires selectivity and perspective, two qualities that the vortex of 21st-century culture, with its sheer quantities of artists, modes of expression. and interdisciplinary practices, stubbornly resists.
In this light, a museum overview of contemporary art can be seen, depending on your outlook, as internally conflicted or structurally impossible. This may be the reason why just about every Whitney Biennial and most of the New Museum’s presentations since it opened on the Bowery have felt distanced and disconnected. Metaphorically, the museums’ immaculate white walls (as opposed to the battered partitions of the Brucennial’s borrowed space at 350 West Broadway) carry the cultural charge of “this is it,” while the shows reverberate with “maybe, I guess, who knows.” It may also explain why museums turn to the market as a crutch.
One decade into a fresh century, and it’s time for something new; how else to account for the Brucennial’s outsized importance? We’ve seen crowded, ramshackle shows before. But against a backdrop of big institutional exhibitions telegraphing the gatekeepers’ irrelevance, the Bruce High Quality Foundation’s free-for-all signals an alternate dynamic that is at last coming into its own, a leveling in which everyone has a shot because everyone—through websites, social networking and pop-up exhibitions—is empowered to take one. (How different, really, is Chomsky’s “our concern must be to dismantle those forms of authority and oppression” from Thomas Jefferson’s “whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends [life liberty and the pursuit of happiness], it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it”?)
The Brucennial, depending on your outlook, is evanescent, giddy, ghastly, or puerile. It is utopian, formless, primitive, and incompatible with the realities of our complex society. But it smells like equality.