Michael Rakowitz Credit: Photo by Daniel Asher Smith

On one level, it’s thrilling to see that several Chicago folks made it into this year’s Whitney Biennial. Among them are Brendan Fernandes, whose practice is comprised of graceful negotiations between sculpture, ballet, and black history, and Derrick Woods-Morrow, a multimedia artist who frequently combs through memory and queer narratives. TL;DR: A few of the city’s queer artists of color received some of the international recognition they so deserve, in a major show curated by two women. It seems to mathematically add up to progress.

Also featured in the New York Times article announcing the Whitney’s roster is Michael Rakowitz. A Chicago-based artist known for conceptual work bridging autobiography and activism, he often addresses the United States’s decimation of the Middle East. While the phrase “political artist” makes me squirm—the production of culture is always political—Rakowitz’s full-time focus on neoliberalism and state-sanctioned violence is pretty exemplary of that concept.

So, here’s where it gets more complicated: Rakowitz declined to participate in the Biennial, citing his solidarity with the nearly 100 staffers of the Whitney Museum who’d courageously cosigned a public letter demanding the resignation of board member Warren B. Kanders. With an estimated worth of at least $700 million, Kanders is the majority owner and CEO of Safariland LLC, a global defense manufacturer based in Jacksonville, Florida—the company behind the tear gas used by the U.S. on people at the border.

“Mr. Kanders’ business is demonstrative of the systemic injustice at the forefront of the Whitney’s ongoing struggle to attract and retain a diverse staff and audience,” the public letter reads. “And because we feel strongly about this, we believe it is our responsibility to speak to this injustice directly, even as the Whitney has chosen not to. To remain silent is to be complicit.”

“I’d spent some time really thinking about ways in which to support people at the Whitney who had signed the letter, which gave me so much hope,” Rakowitz told me in a phone interview. He was initially commissioned by the Whitney to create new work examining cultural sites destroyed in the Iraq War. “I was very moved; it was a new benchmark for how we could visualize potential changes in the institutional network of our field and its ecosystems.”

Rakowitz never intended for his own letter to go public, but in the weeks since its leak, his actions have brought to boil an already-heated debate: How can artists hold on to their scruples while “making it” in a field saturated in corporatized institutions and dirty money?

While there isn’t a neat answer, my social media bubble is teeming with conversation. For every critic of Rakowitz, I see two supporters, the Facebook threads reading like intense cocktail parties between artists, historians, and journalists. Some detractors worry about the negative consequences this could have on the Biennial’s list of diverse artists and curation, insisting that the only reason Rakowitz could get away with this is because he’s a more established, male artist.

Overlooked in this critique, however, is an institutional system that should be held accountable—the museum is essentially getting off easy by tokenizing artists of color. By sheltering Kanders and allowing Rakowitz to take the heat from his own community, the Whitney’s leadership hides behind a defective image of equity while coddling those who profit from xenophobic violence. While it’s certainly not the only museum guilty of this, the Whitney understands what a spot in the Biennial means for an artist’s career in terms of visibility and prestige; it can flex its muscles around them like a snake.

According to Rakowitz, his letter wasn’t the first step. The conversation with the curators began with him asking if withholding work or participation would increase pressure.

“They seemed surprised at the suggestion and said they still wanted the show to happen,” he said. In turn, the curators said they wouldn’t stop anyone from making work that critiqued the issue of Sanders and the Whitney.

“I was not surprised that this would be allowed, and I am very skeptical of reacting that way, as I think museums are very good at appropriating that institutional critique and turning it into product.”

This call for civil participation on an oppressor’s terms is a convention that feels especially prescient; in the parallel universe of government, you can see establishment Democrats try to tame Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “Evolution, not revolution,” goes their adage.

“I am not interested in being so polite and going through the motions of what we’ve all come to know as a form of making art,” he continues. “How many times are we as artists going to remake Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971? This is the danger of appropriation. When Hans Haacke did this in 1971 it was radical and signaled a sea change. But, the system adapts to the strategy.”

“As soon as it goes from simply conveying the style or aesthetic of protest to actual protest, and as soon as it goes from actually leveraging one’s power or one’s voice instead of letting it simply line and feed the coffers of those profiting, it is many steps too far and leads to foreclosure.”

The Whitney declined to comment. v