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Matthew J. Milliner


Occupy the Optocracy!

The Whitney Biennial + the Christian icon & Modernism.

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Academics from East Coast Universities who speak of cultural "exile" to the Midwest are deluded. A carefully planned and executed trip to New York can include more art in 36 hours than the average New Yorker absorbs in a year, or—in many unfortunate cases—a lifetime. The opportunity to do just this, in conjunction with an essential conference at Yale, gave me a chance to make good on this claim. A flight from Chicago, due to a routing quirk, gave me what was easily the best view of Manhattan I have had—or likely ever will have. For the first time that city in which so many memories reside seemed demystified: it looked like a toy. Times Square's pulsating, optocratic light, its wattage waxing stronger every year, prompted a question: Was it a dazzling sign of precious economic vitality, or (as the early Christians might have insisted), the beating, bloodless heart of a new whore of Babylon? Or both?

As I walked into my hospitable friend's East Village apartment, I was greeted by three handsome volumes of Lenin alongside the architectural manifestos of Christopher Alexander and—most important—classics of Christian spirituality. David swims among the twentysomething Ivy League graduates living in Manhattan who are faithful, serious Catholics. He also sometimes serves as a consultant on Wall Street. Well read in Marxism, he described his lunch break conversations in Zucotti Park over the last year. He offered the most incisive analysis of the Occupy Movement I've heard: "At its peak," he told me, "this was nowhere near the Sixties, and all of that was co-opted by capitalism." The truest resistance, we both agreed, is the Mass. Call it the liturgical consummation of hipsterdom.

My walk uptown the next morning included a brief stop at Father Richard John Neuhaus' old parish, the Church of the Immaculate Conception, where the East Village, both geographically and spiritually, seems to culminate. Some years ago, visiting my sister at NYU or merely out on a youthful romp, I had wandered into that church. I noticed the fabricated cave—the "Lourdes Grotto" in the back of the church, made to look like the actual cave in France, complete with a hovering statue of Mary. It was one of those moments when an evangelical, taken by surprise, warms to Catholic culture. The next time I was there it was for Father Neuhaus' funeral, during which I began to realize that the commanding intellectual I had come to know was foremost an ordinary parish priest. And now, back again, recalling the title of his last book, American Babylon, I headed uptown.

My first stop was the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and for good reason. If you think you've been to the Met, but you haven't visited it in the last year, you need to think again. The painting galleries of the American wing, the last in a series of major unveilings, were only recently opened, bringing a carefully executed 25-year plan to completion. Leutze's monumental Crossing of the Delaware has found its permanent home, and Thomas Cole's Oxbow (the theology of Jonathan Edwards on canvas) has the pride of place it deserves. The last year has been—as Michael J. Lewis puts it—an annus mirabilis for American art, marked by the new American wings of Boston's Museum of Fine Art, Arkansas' Crystal Bridges Museum, and now this. Amazing to think than in the early 20th century, the Met was still debating as to whether American art was worthy of being collected at all.

It's not entirely fair that the Whitney Biennial—that showcase of American art that began in 1932—had to compete with the Metropolitan American wing this year, but it did, and comparing the two exhibits would be cruel. How can the gulag concrete stairways of the Whitney compare to the sunlit courtyard and glorious ironwork staircases of the Met's new American wing? They can't. Consequently, I tried to cleanse my mind and judge the Whitney on its own terms. But I couldn't, and multiple allusions to previous moments in European and American art history seemed to suggest that the Whitney couldn't either.

I've had a long journey with contemporary art, slowly maturing beyond instinctive suspicions into (what I believe to be) selective but sincere admiration, based mostly on innumerable visits over the last decade to the Chelsea galleries. Still, the Whitney disappointed, as it did in 2010. I'd like to praise the 2012 Biennial's multiple examples of "found art," descendants of Marcel Duchamp's In Advance of the Broken Arm (1915), now on permanent display on the Whitney's fifth floor. But seeing that the exhibition space in front of Midtown's Flatiron building currently has a more effective example of the same genre (brought to you, in that case, by a cell phone company), the Whitney's place at the supposed cutting edge was seriously dulled.

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