Social contexts of art

Impressions of the Whitney Biennial by JW Harrington

This summer John and I spent two art-filled weeks in New York City and the Hudson Valley.  I shared photos of a few of the things we saw, with a little commentary, in posts on Facebook and Instagram.  (If you don’t follow me on Instagram – @jwharringtonjr – please consider doing that!)  In the months beforehand, I’d been ambivalent about viewing the 2019 Whitney Biennial, thinking it would be extremely crowded and very white, New York centered.  Then I read about the two curators, Jane Panetta and Rijeko Hockley, their vision for the show, and their many travels around the country to the studios of artists far from the crowd -- and bought tickets.

We spent four exhausting and rewarding hours in the museum.  The only crowding we experienced was on the elevator to the 6th floor (we used stairs thereafter).  Featuring painting, sculpture, photography, performance, and video from 75 artists or art collectives, the only quite-accurate generalization is the focus on the strife, misfortune, and inequality of the current moment. 

However I also perceived an emphasis on what I’ll call the materiality of visual art.  Here are some examples, go to for more, and for images, since I don’t think this platform allows me to insert images! (If you’d like to get my newsletter with images, let me know at


Eddie Arroyo (Miami FL) presented a series of four works of special interest to my geographer and urbanist friends.  5825 NE 2nd Ave., Miami, FL 33137 is painted expressionistically four times, illustrating its façade transformed from a locally owned, low-key eatery in Little Haiti  to an abandoned, graffiti-covered storefront, to a white-washed storefront over the years 2016-19.  This de-materialization of culture in a changing city with rapidly rising property values struck me.

Nicole Eisenman (Brooklyn NY) exhibited  a set of large-scale sculptures, titled Procession, using a verywide variety of materials and objects to speak to bodies, bodily functions, human interaction, and human disenfranchisement.

You may know that several artists selected for the exhibition refused to present their work after (a) the discovery that a company co-owned by a vice-chair of the Whitney’s board manufactures and distributes “less-lethal” (but often, nearly so) munitions, (b) that these specific products have been used against civilians in Gaza, the US, and other countries, (c) a written demand that the board member (Warren B. Kanders) leave the Whitney board, and (d) the refusal of the board to expel Kanders.  Among the most riveting of the Biennial’s displays was a video presentation by the collaborative Forensic Architecture(London, England;  with Praxis Films) titled Triple Chaser, which is one trade-name for a particularly awful tear-gas canister manufactured by a subsidiary of Kanders’ company.  Video was needed, because words are inadequate for the horror inflicted by governments (in many cases, against their own citizens) and the elaborateness of the research that Forensic Architecture engaged to show the exact incidences of these specific devices’ use.  Here is the art of uncovering materiality.   See my photo of the descriptive placard, and see these articles (among many others): and

Daniel Lind Ramos (Loiza PR) presented a set of large sculptures to which the viewer can ascribe various interpretations, until closer examination reveals the materials of which they’re made, and with that, reveals other meanings.  I photographed Maria-Maria, which seems to be an other-worldly female with an elaborate headdress, no face, sagging breasts, and a striking blue robe.  The accompanying placard lists the materials as “metal basin, wooden seat, lamp, tarp, coconuts, palm-tree trunk, steel sheet, rope, beads, fabric, tacks, wood, plastic tubing, steel bars, scissors, and wooden box.”  The materials relate to the destruction that Hurricane Maria brought to Puerto Rico;  the title refers to the hurricane and to the Virgin Mary, who was so often rendered in Medieval Europe with brilliant blue robes because of the rarity and expense of rich blue pigments.

Wangechi Mutu (Brooklyn NY and Nairobi, Kenya) showed a set of larger-than-“life” sculptures of found wood, clay, fired clay pots, a cow horn, and paper pulp.  The forms definitely evoke women, in strong poses, warm tones, and provoking use of material and texture.  I photographed Sentinel II.

Heji Shin (New York NY) presented large, vividly detailed and colored photographs of human childbirth:the actual moment of crowning, when the baby’s head emerges in full.These photographs shocked and deeply disturbed me – only because I’ve never been close to childbirth since it produced me, and I’ve never seen any other images that portray the bloodiness that accompanies the start of our lives and the pain of our mothers.Childbirth is deeply material.

We're all artists by JW Harrington

My final post on Meyer Schapiro ("The Value of modern art" (1948) in Worldview in Painting: Art and Society).

Schapiro postulated an additional set of characteristics that distinguish “modern” artists from earlier artists. 

1)   The individual artist is driven to continual innovation in his/her work – not just distinguishing that work from that of earlier artists, but distinguishing his current work from her/his past work. 

2)   There are no generally accepted rules regarding materials, styles, subject matter, or formal qualities of painting.

3)   From (2), it follows that anyone can produce art.

4)   From (1) and (2), it follows that in her search for innovation, a contemporary artist may find inspiration from the art (and non-art) of any place and any period.   


Taking this a bit (but not much) further than Schapiro did, it’s easy to see the limitations this places on viewers or consumers of contemporary art:

1)   Without generally accepted rules, how can one discern quality?

2)   If anyone can be an artist, why not consume and enjoy art produced by anyone?

3)   Does the viewer lose some measure of enjoyment if (s)he is unaware of the meanings or contexts of the foreign or anachronistic allusions in a work of contemporary art?

And for the artist:

1)   If anyone can produce art, why would anyone pay an artist more than the cost of time and materials that the buyer would have had to use to produce a work of art?

One key to this dilemma is found in te congruence between art and broadly shared desires in the post-Enlightenment West.  The goals of the modern artist are the goals of most Westerners:  to pursue continual, innovative, self-definition and self-expression without rules except those against directly harming others;  and to make use of the broad sweep of history and culture without letting ourselves be defined by our personal history or the dominant culture.  The culture that many of us inhabit makes the ideals of modern art very appealing.  And if anyone can produce art, then almost anyone will, even though one may have to make a living through other means.  

About what do we paint? by JW Harrington

Continuing my reading of Meyer Schapiro ("The value of modern art" (1948) in Worldview in Painting: Art and Society), 

Schapiro acknowledged the heterogeneity of early- and mid-century visual arts.  But he went on to apply a broader view of its commonalities.  “However, if we consider the art of our time – and I speak only of that art which is fresh and original and could not have been done in a previous age – I believe it is possible to discover in it certain features that set it apart from the work of preceding times” [134; emphasis added].  Citing claims that modern art does not have subject matter, Schapiro asserted “in the art of the last fifty or seventy-five years [before his 1948 presentation], types of subject matter that are sufficiently standard and characteristic” [134]:

1)   direct observations of everyday life

2)   the life and work of the artist

3)   “the consciousness of art itself:  [paintings in which] the constituting elements do not form images or signs for objects, but are themselves ideal figures of elementary operations in the shaping of things;  these, too, are an important subject matter of art, drawn from art itself” [135]

4)   “the interior world of the artist,” expressed through non-representational composition of color, line, shape, and/or brush strokes.

Schapiro compared these themes to those of earlier periods of Western painting.  “If the art of the Middle Ages is about supernatural beings whom one never saw directly or in ordinary vision, if the art of the Renaissance is about mythological and historical figures, and if the art of the Baroque period is rich in moral and political allegories, then the art of the last seventy-five years is about ourselves” [137].

If modern artists are individualistic, and face no art-world limitations on subject matter, why was there, up to Schapiro’s writing, so little reference to human inequality and suffering in modern art?  Schapiro turned to this question at the end of his essay or lecture, and gave it too short a treatment.  He glossed over the paintings emphasizing the horrors of twentieth-century war, for example.  He suggested that modern artists’ reliance on individual patrons and purchases disciplined them to emphasize themes of leisure or related to pleasure.  

Formal qualities of "modern" art by JW Harrington

I've greatly enjoyed reading "The value of modern art," a 1948 lecture by Meyer Schapiro, published in the compilation Worldview in Painting: Art and Society.  He wrote with a perspective that is rare for someone in the midst of major changes.

Schapiro attempted to analyze the formal qualities of the contemporary art of his period with the same eye that art historians train on art from their past.  “In the same manner that we are able to distinguish the art of the Renaissance from the art of the Middle Ages, the art of Egypt from the art of Mesopotamia, by careful observation of the forms, so we discern in the immense diversity of modern art a broad constancy in its structure and expressive means” [138].

1)   The artist leaves clear signs of the act of painting.  “Hence, in modern painting, the touch or stroke is so very pronounced” [138].  The trace of the act of painting becomes an important part of the form of the painting.

2)   “The modern painter treats the surface of the canvas as a concrete definite tangible ground, as an object in itself” rather than a transparent window into an image somehow beyond the canvas [139].

3)   “The work is so designed or constructed that the composition though well ordered looks undesigned, independent of any a priori scheme.  The artist does not aim at symmetry or a legible pattern” [139].  “The result is a constant interplay among chance, incompleteness, and the final order, completeness and rightness of elements” [140].  Schapiro presented this as a manifestation of the modern emphasis on individual creativity, self-expression and (re)invention.”

4)   “in a modern painting, the artist preserves in various parts of the work the traces of the original instigating object or experience,” [140], rather than hiding the original impetus or pattern under a beautiful representation of a scene.

I cannot but agree with these generalizations of the formal qualities of mid-twentieth-century painting, and conclude that they represent the ascendency of the artist as individual auteur, visibly placing her/his creative ideas and process at the forefront.