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Artists Thrive in Big Cities for a Reason

Whitney Biennial: Urban areas have many problems, but they also are the seat of ideas and culture that enrich all of us.

May 15, 2000|MAX PAGE | Max Page, a professor of history at Yale University, is the author of "The Creative Destruction of Manhattan" (University of Chicago Press, 1999)

When the Whitney Museum in New York announced the artists who will be featured in its biennial survey of the latest in American art (on display now), it published the birthplaces and current homes of the 97 chosen artists. The list tells us a lot about where creativity in this culture takes place--in the great cities that have been the crucibles of American culture for the last century.

The Whitney Biennial provides paroxysms of disdain from art critics. The choice of nearly 100 artists who are said to represent the cutting edge of the art world pleases no one. Nobodies and has-beens make it in; too few women; too many painters; too little substance.

This year, even the curators who chose the artists are offering criticism: too many New Yorkers.

Despite its best efforts, the jury ended up choosing 42 New York artists. That almost half of the artists come from the capital of culture might not surprise anyone, had the jury not been so adamant about avoiding New York artists. The group of curators who made up the jury is the first to have not a single New Yorker on it, save for Whitney Museum Director Maxwell Anderson, who oversaw the group's work. The curators made a point of meeting outside of New York several times and were adamant that there be a "firewall" between them and New York gallery owners to prevent undue influence on their choices.

It was all for nothing. Despite their best efforts, most of the artists who, however imperfectly, reflect the direction of American art, hail from New York. The other half of the list comes primarily from other great American cities: Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles. Atlanta also makes a respectable showing; Boston (and Cambridge) and Minneapolis claim a few spots. Miami made it in, until the artist moved to New York, which, it was reported, deeply "frustrated" the jury eager to have regional representation. But no cutting-edge artists from, say Scarsdale, N.Y., or from Newt Gingrich's Cobb County, Ga., or from new urbanist communities like Seaside, Fla., or Disney's Celebration, nor from the great "exurbs" that ring our cities, and which some scholars tell us are becoming real places.

Creative people still fit the description E.B. White offered half a century ago of immigrants to the city, who were "born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something." The names and nationalities in the Whitney Biennial list may be different, but the movement is to the same--to the city: "Born in Tupelo, Miss., lives in New York," "Born in Fujian Province, China, lives in New York," "Born in Norwood, Mass., lives in Los Angeles." Cities have been, and continue to be, the essential stage on which modern American art and culture was born and lives. They have offered the density, the social instability and the opportunity for the meeting and mixing of races, ethnicities and classes to play this role.

And yet contemporary American cities continue to be treated, in the mass media and in universities, largely as sites of pathology--poverty, crime, despair. The stories told by scholars as well as popular writers all point to a place where problems seem overwhelming, where leadership is absent and prospects dim. Rarely do our most articulate urban commentators focus on cities as sites of cultural production and creativity, as incredibly vibrant homes of diverse peoples and cultures, where some of the United States' most glorious products--ideas, literature, art, music--are created. We need to tell an alternative story about the cultural life of cities.

The Mexican author Carlos Fuentes has written that "people and their cultures perish in isolation, but they are born or reborn in contact with other men and women." In an era when identities are the subject of intense and often violent struggle, we must turn to the city for solutions. The city of cultures and cultural exchange must be understood as much as the city of poverty and crime. If there is hope for the renewal of public life in modern America, it will require an understanding and celebration of where the "contact" Fuentes describes occurs, and how it might be preserved and continually revitalized.

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