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COMMENTARY : Multiculturalism in Art. . . : A) Has become the Establishment. B) Clouds the mind. C) Is repressive. D) Is regressive. E) Is progressive. F) All of the above. G) None of the above. H) A few of the above. I) As many of the above as you think is right. Whatever you think, you lose and you win!

April 04, 1993|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

Pepoon Osorio's large installation in the 1993 Biennial Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art is a raucous, exuberant, over-the-top extravaganza, in which the dining and living rooms of a Puerto Rican household are stuffed to the point of bursting with furniture, knickknacks, religious paraphernalia, TV sets and decorative gewgaws of every conceivable style, shape and color. The visual wildness of the installation has enormous appeal.

Almost unnoticed amid the energetic glut is the figure of a murdered corpse--a mannequin sprawled at the back. No villain is seen. Who committed this heinous crime?

Bracketing the cacophonous display, rather like quotation marks, are two corridors lined with shelves. Hundreds of boxed cassettes are displayed in rows, as if for rent in a neighborhood video store. The movies range from Latin melodramas and action pictures to Hollywood epics with Rita Moreno and Ricardo Montalban.

A wall text explains that the mass media are a fervid hothouse of Latino stereotypes. Osorio's "The Scene of the Crime (Whose Crime?)" is thus the site of a double murder. In framing the scene with the movies' distorted imagery, it shows the brutal killing of an authentic culture. In critically condemning the practice, it also says, "Enough!" The death of Latino stereotypes is asserted.

And that's where Osorio's installation loses me. The anger underlying this vigorous display is easy to empathize with, because everyone knows that stereotypes are debilitating and cruel. But stereotypes, whether positive or negative, are the name of the game with mass media. They're the intrinsic language with which movies, television and advertising speak. Identifying their perniciousness is redundant, while asserting their death is a brand of wishful thinking.

Artistically, Osorio's installation is starkly conservative. I don't mean that its pictorial style or technique of assemblage is antiquated or stale. I mean that Osorio has conceived of art in a conservative way: The installation is merely a seductive vehicle for the delivery of commonly held ideas. "The Scene of the Crime" preaches to the converted, in a playful, homiletic manner that would do Norman Rockwell proud.

The installation feels sharply at odds with itself. Its politics reach for the pointedly progressive, but the work is artistically conservative. In this, it's emblematic of our cultural moment. For the surprising dichotomy it embodies--political progressiveness happily wedded to artistic conservatism--has lately emerged as a dominant, recurrent motif in multiculturalism.

The dichotomy is everywhere you look at the Whitney's self-described "multicultural Biennial." It's the order of the day in many of the newly unveiled public art projects for L.A.'s Metro Rail Red Line and in those selected last fall for the controversial Union Station Gateway Plaza. In San Diego at the Centro Cultural de la Raza and the Museum of Contemporary Art, the dichotomy is prominent in "La Frontera/The Border," the current exhibition of art concerned with issues related to the boundary between Mexico and the United States.

Where did this seemingly odd couple come from? What does it signal?

It is no accident that the dramatic rise of multiculturalism in the 1980s was coincident with the Age of Reagan, which swept in on a rising tide of populist passion. For quite the same tide has borne multiculturalism aloft--with one critical difference.

An obvious but fundamental distinction between Reaganism and multiculturalism is that the latter has proceeded from a politically progressive, not conservative, stance. Nonetheless, they are simply different political sides to the same populist coin.

Populism, which promises hope and opportunity through a belief that "the people" are never wrong, is concerned with the instruction of the masses. It means to guide them from their traditional ways, in order to meet disruptively new challenges of modern life.

So, in order to be captivating, populism is always aesthetically conservative. Writing in 1986 of Reagan's conception of a Second American Revolution, political analyst Sidney Blumenthal spoke of the President's mission precisely in terms of mossback art. "In Reagan's rendition of populism," Blumenthal wrote, "conservatives would lead the righteous people, a crusading army of Norman Rockwell archetypes, in triumph over the corrupt and indolent cosmopolitans of the capital."

By contrast, in a multicultural rendition of populism, it is progressives who will lead the righteous people. Unfortunately, progressives can as yet claim no name-brand equivalent to Rockwell, given America's legacy of racism and sexism.

From whom might progressives rouse an army of archetypes? Georgia O'Keeffe comes close, and Frida Kahlo does too. Notably, it is women who almost fit the progressives' bill. But, in the end, modern art does not have broadly popular appeal. O'Keeffe and Kahlo, as modernist rather than traditional artists, must forfeit the populist crown.

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