An elegant, towering stream of fabric, comprising hundreds of skeins of multi-coloured yarn, suspended from the ceiling and stretching to the floor. Minuscule letterpress prints that overlay verses of poetry into illegible combinations. And a fun house stuffed with tacky furniture, eerily lifelike sex dolls and a video featuring rutting monkeys.

These three works of art have pretty much nothing in common −but they are all on display right now at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The confounding and exasperating 77th edition of the Whitney Biennial begins with a question, asked at the very start of the text that greets visitors: “What is contemporary art in the United States now?” After seeing the work of 103 artists and groups on display here, you might not be any closer to answering that enquiry.

Though crowds lined up for half an hour or more to get into last weekend’s multiple opening-night receptions, the critical consensus so far has ranged from neutral to negative. Critics have variously described the 2014 biennial as “deeply dissatisfying,” “generic, noncommittal, straitlaced,” “damningly mum about politics,” and “overly neat and likeable, scarcely messy or funny or challenging.”

What struck me, more than in previous iterations of the biennial, was the difficulty – perhaps even the futility – of answering the question it posed: what is American art? The three works described above (respectively, they are by Sheila Hicks, Susan Howe, and Bjarne Melgaard) were my favourites in a show whose quality swings wildly. Each is forceful, innovative and surprising, and each has nothing to say to the other two. Indeed, each was chosen by one of the biennial’s three curators, who in a break from recent practice have not collaborated on a single show but mounted three distinct mini-exhibitions. If these three works encapsulate the best art being made in America today, then does American art, as a category, mean anything at all?

Turning tides

The Whitney Biennial began life in 1932, when it was not a biennial at all but occurred every year. (It switched to the biennial format in 1973.) The show had the explicit aim of showcasing an American scene, at a moment when the avant-garde was by definition European. The catalogue for the 1937 Annual, for example, features a parade of regionalist figurative painters that, then as now, look rather provincial; it also includes the artists’ addresses, as back then the Whitney was keen to help artists sell their work. After World War II, and with the global ascendancy of American art (an ascendency assisted, in no small part, by the CIA), the annuals became more forward-looking, even if the curators in charge almost always favoured male artists living in New York or other big cities. Jackson Pollock was in the Whitney Annual of 1946, and four more afterward; annuals of the 1960s included challenging works from the vanguard of minimalism and conceptualism.

By the end of the 20th Century, the tide had turned again. A show that began as a support system for overshadowed American artists and then became a celebration of American pre-eminence, was now a frequently antagonistic affair. The notorious 1993 Biennial, viciously denounced at the time but now seen as a watershed in art history, turned its back on market trends and presented outspoken works, many by women and artists of colour, that touched on the Aids crisis, the collapsing economy, and the war in the Persian Gulf. The biennial even included a video loop of Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles police officers, which the curators described as a work that “extends the definition of the documentary.”

Establishment critics loathed the exhibition, which Time magazine described as “a fiesta of whining.” Yet for all the controversy surrounding that biennial – easily the most enduring iteration of the show in the last few decades – one thing was clear: whether audiences approved or disapproved of the art on display, it was proudly, even defiantly American. (Mostly: a few foreigners, like the French artist Sophie Calle, were included.) The biennial may have shifted in tone, but it remained an arbiter of the American scene. Just like in the old days, it endeavoured to introduce audiences to the full breadth of American art, hunting for a national voice and speaking to a national audience.

Broad stripes

Is that still a profitable exercise? Is it even a meaningful one? An American avant-garde no longer exists, and hasn’t for decades; boisterous pluralism, rather than a single dogma, is the order of the day. And since 1993, major shifts in artistic practice, as well as changes in politics, economics and technology, have conspired to flatten the distinctions between here and elsewhere. Art and artists circulate faster and more widely than ever before. Digital reproduction and distribution allow artists to look at work from the other side of the world and not just the local galleries. There really is a global, plural art world now, and that’s a good thing – but that also calls into question the whole function of a national art exhibition.

Unlike in the days of the annuals, today it feels ridiculous to speak of a ‘national’language of art making, a ‘national’ style that separates American art from any other national or regional strain. Even the most minimalist definition of American art –art made by Americans – starts to get very sticky very fast. Do you include art by foreigners living in the US, like Melgaard? Do you count Americans abroad, just as Travis Jeppesen, who’s also in this biennial? Do Canadians like Ken Lum (on view here) get an easier pass into the club than Australians like Ricky Swallow (also here)? Or is Americanness so capacious and so diffuse that no strict definition will serve?

Walking though this year’s Whitney Biennial, it’s clearer than ever that the phrase ‘American art’ is no longer a clearly delineated thing. That doesn’t mean it needs to be abandoned, or that the biennial has lost its reason for being. Think of American art less as a rigid classification and more of a starting point for a conversation – about globalisation and technology, about immigration and identity, about where the country is going and with whom. It’s worth pointing out that the best-received biennial of the last two decades, the 2006 edition, was the one that most egregiously fractured the category of American art, with more than a quarter of the artists born outside of the US. This year’s version falls far short of that edition’s achievements. But it does at least have the virtue of capturing some refracted image of America in 2014: admirably diverse, beautiful and ugly at once, and very confused about the future.

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