Blake Goprik

The biennial exhibition that opens today at the Whitney Museum of American Art is the largest, most comprehensive roundup of this nation's art, as the biennial has been since its founding 70 years ago. For this latest edition, first-time organizer Lawrence Rinder asked his Whitney team to beat the country's bushes even harder than usual, to flush out all the best of what is being made within our borders.

They pulled in an impressive assortment of fascinating objects (a billboard-size dead artist, a 300-inch accordion, hermaphroditic Bible paintings) and experiences (seances with a different dead artist, tap-dancing Palm Pilots, fractured sonic poems) by 113 different artists and collectives from 20 states and Puerto Rico. And the curators also managed, apparently by accident, to make one single crucial point:

There is no such thing as American art. Maybe there never was.

Anthropologists, sociologists and other serious students of culture gave up years ago on the idea that there can be a single "spirit" that shapes a country's character and creativity. "Volksgeist" was the favored scholarly term, and it was much loved by the Nazis. Weirdly, however, many popular historians and critics, and some curators, still see no problem with it. Pick up any intro to our nation's art or culture, and you'll get not only an account of all the stuff that has gone on here, but some attempt to see in every bit of it the true expression of the "national identity."

Now that the United States of America has been attacked by terrorists, the dangerous idea that We the People need to conceive of ourselves as a single creature, with one overriding character, is stronger than ever. Rinder writes in his introduction to the exhibition catalogue about how "in the aftermath of the attack, the questions of what is American art, what is an American artist . . . have taken on a keen and tragic importance. Our uniqueness as a nation has suddenly been thrown into high relief. . . . It is imperative that we have the courage to look deeply, and critically, into our own national character." But if his excellent biennial demonstrates anything at all, it's that this critical looking can start by staring down the whole idea that such a single character exists.

It is, you could argue, only by resisting any idea of tribal identity that all the different peoples settled in this country have achieved the peace to go about their varied business, including that of making potent art of every kind. That resistance to the tribal doesn't come naturally to human beings, even when they live under the Stars and Stripes: It has to be taught and re-taught, and encouraged through events like this latest Whitney Biennial, with its vast variety of non-American, sometimes even un-American, artmaking.

With the culture of contemporary art gone almost wholly global, most of the best pieces in this exhibition could have been made by a talented artist raised or working nearly anywhere within the reach of Western influence.

New Yorker Ken Feingold, for instance, gives us a cardboard box full of styrofoam packing popcorn, out of which emerge two life-size animatronic heads, bald and without any markers as to sex or culture. Moving their rubber mouths, blinking their silicone eyes, they engage in never-ending conversation about the metaphysics of existence -- a conversation, it turns out, governed entirely by a complex computer program that lets the figures listen to each other, and reply, but never understand. The profundity of these plastic philosophers is governed by the artificial rules of how such talk is put together, rather than by a thoughtful close encounter with the world -- which makes them, perhaps, not so far removed from many other poseur eggheads all around the globe. They may be speaking American English, but they could fake it just as well in French.

Tim Hawkinson -- he had a solo at the Hirshhorn last year, and is one of the few well-known names who made it into this Whitney show -- gives us another animated head. This time, a giant color photo of the Los Angeles artist's face has been cut up into the component parts it takes to form expressions. A crude array of springs and pneumatics is mounted onto the fractured picture's surface, to control each independent particle of cheek and brow and chin. And as viewers approach this self-portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-Rube-Goldberg-machine, they get a new grimace manufactured just for them -- a half-grin, half-yawn, maybe, as the mouth's lower lip descends and its corners turn up. Or a left nostril flaring with disdain, as a right eye narrows in suspicion. Hawkinson is presented as the universal archetype of the expressive artist.

And then there is the abstract sound art of Richard Chartier, from Arlington, which should succeed in speaking to almost any human born with ears. Heard through fancy headphones, a disconnected suite of barely-there clicks and buzzes and tiny chirps stretches the fundamental fabric of our perceptions almost to the limit, like the painful concentration of an endless hearing test. Visual experience can almost never push us quite so far in attending to the things we see. You can close your eyes, or simply disconnect them from a mind that wants to wander, but you will find it hard to empty out your head once it has been invaded by the swarming little sounds of Chartier's work. By comparison, a mosquito under the sheets at night is positively inconspicuous.

I'm not pushing the old, vapid cliche that these works, however fine, transparently express some Universal Human Values. Show them to any Bushman of the Kalahari -- or to more than a few Yankees I know -- and you'd probably get nothing more than shrugs. But I don't think it makes sense, either, to imagine that the artistic language that they speak, to those who've taken time to learn it, has some crucially American intonation.

Of course, given the selection process for this exhibition, some of the artists in the Whitney deal with aspects of existence that don't crop up so much outside of the United States. But that is a very different thing from saying that they encapsulate some nebulous shared principle of being that you would want to call an American Way.

I don't suppose you get much Texas televangelism in Germany, where artist Christian Jankowski was born and raised and mostly lives, but that doesn't stop him from dealing with it in a brilliant video called "The Holy Artwork" -- a foreigner's creation that pretty much steals the show at this survey of American art. (The piece seems to have sneaked into the Whitney survey by virtue of its U.S. setting, its U.S. origins -- it was commissioned by the ArtPace foundation for contemporary art in San Antonio -- and Jankowski's significant New York ties.)

Last year the Berlin artist joined forces with pastor Peter Spencer, of the Harvest Fellowship Church in San Antonio, to have him preach the Good News about contemporary video art, while helping it to find a place within the worldview of a Baptist congregation. At the Whitney, Jankowski simply gives us an un-artsified video of the reverend's spectacularly impressive sermon on the subject, ad-libbed live in church and sent out onto local cable. "Today we have to understand that the miracle of art is not because of we the paintbrushes or we the cameras of life," intones the preacher man, "but it's because of the Great Artist, the Great Creator who gave us the ability to feel inspiration by his power." Some of what the preacher says could be straight from the mouth of any mainstream critic -- if only half of us were one-tenth as skilled at oratory -- but it is a pleasure to watch him segue, without missing a beat, from such East Coast-sounding stuff to a biblical message with a distinctly Texas twang. "He not only created the Earth but He created Man. You know why? Because He couldn't have a piece of art to show off without having someone to see it."

There may be ironic attitude lurking in all this, but it's mostly in the minds ofurbane art world beholders, as they try to come to grips with almost comic contradictions brought so seamlessly together through a preacher's rhetoric. If the artist shares such a cynical take on things -- and I'll bet you anything he does -- he doesn't let that bias stick out in the fabric of his work. The sermon, like Jankowski's taping of it, doesn't tell us what to make of the results of this cultural crossbreeding: It seems to ask "What if a Manhattan loft-dweller could be Saved in Texas," and then proceeds with the experiment in all good faith. "Thank you, Lord, for creating video," says pastor Peter. Amen.

Other artists in the exhibition also take distinctions that are supposed to be central to the American experience, and manage to call them into question. Collaborators Sanford Biggers and Jennifer Zackin, for instance, look at the home movies that their middle-class families -- one black, the other Jewish -- shot of themselves in 1970, as they traveled on vacation, gathered for a festive holiday, or gamboled in the yard. And they realized that their parallel economic fortunes did more to give them shared experiences than race and creed could do to separate their worlds. The two sets of Super 8 films are projected side by side, without tricks or commentary, but with their scenes reorganized to let intriguingly similar moments in the artists' picture-perfect American childhoods appear to us at once.

And then there are all the demonstrably "American" artists who choose to let us in on experiences that seem entirely foreign.

Puerto Rican native Javier Cambre cuts a tumbledown shack from a San Juan Beach in half, and siameses it to a slickly modern, high-end version of itself, as though I.M. Pei had been appointed to remodel every single corner of the world, and this is his demonstration piece. Can the official American Experience open up so wide that there's room in it to include the cultures of our possessions overseas?

Washington photographer Chan Chao makes straightforward photo-documents of political refugees in camps around his native Burma. Can the American Experience also include the potent memories of those we've taken in from far away?

And if Americanness has to stretch so far that it encompasses all this inchoate variety, why not just dispense with the bloated idea altogether? As this biennial suggests, it's possible simply to enjoy all the very varied excellences that this land produces, and leave national mythmaking to other countries.

That, it seems to me, is the truly American way to go.
Richard Chartier