Four decades after artists began to turn painting and sculpture into the blunt linguistic messages and icky bodily functions that came to be called Conceptual Art--"art that exists as ideas rather than as objects," as '60s artist Les Levine put it--it is now apparent that contemporary art is, in fact, a joke. This is not an insult. If anything, artists these days count themselves lucky to have their work provoke anything as strong as a belly laugh. Rachel Whitehead's mattress and Damien Hirsch's shark tank and Jeff Koons' goofy, kitschy puppy all bring smiles to the face, even if--or maybe especially if--you think their creators are a bunch of con artists. Most conceptual art, including the officially "good" stuff, such as the bannered slogans of Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger, inspires at best a knowing half-smile, a nodded "I gotcha," and a quick turn away. The requisite Brechtian ironies--the wry twists on mass-cultural forms--are cheap and obvious. The political sensibility is arch and predictable. Even the imagery feels old hat--a diagram showing links between corporations, technology, and art; a video installation with chanting voice-overs; a photograph in which the artist dresses up as something else and goes out in the world, à la Cindy Sherman. Attending a show of conceptualist or neo-conceptualist art these days gives you the druggy feeling of having wandered into a bad comedy club, where one after another artists stand up to deliver their one-liners and the joke is on them for the banality of their points: Consumerism is bad. Sexism is bad. Censorship is bad. Corporations do not have your interests in mind. Art collectors are rich, mean, corrupt people who commodify art and use it for their own ends.
So it's not that surprising that, as the Whitney Biennial rolls around, we should find ourselves debating the truth value and aesthetic worth of the world's shrillest lefty cliché: That such-and-such hated political figure is comparable to Adolf Hitler. The New York Times reported last week that one of the pieces in the show, by German conceptualist Hans Haacke, makes just that analogy with reference to Rudolph Giuliani. Now, obviously Giuliani is not another Hitler. The utterance is so idiotic that, as we should have realized by now, it is not what the artist is saying. No one will be qualified to offer a solid analysis of Haacke's work until the Whitney Biennial opens on March 23, but Fred Kaplan of the Boston Globe is the only reporter who did enough reporting to discover that Haacke's work isn't quite as outrageous as reported--although it's still outrageous:
It takes up an entire room of the museum. Eight garbage cans are lined up in a row against a wall. Above them is a framed copy of the First Amendment, along with six quotations from public figures, complaining about "filth" and "garbage" in modern art--three of them by Giuliani, all attacking the Brooklyn Museum.
The key is that these quotations are inscribed in Gothic type, to make them look like something out of Mein Kampf. There are also loudspeakers, beaming the sound of soldiers marching.
In the Whitney's Biennial 2000 catalog, Haacke explains: "According to the mayor, the First Amendment and the doctrine of separation of church and state, embedded in the American Constitution, do not apply to public institutions and institutions receiving public funds. He seems to share that opinion with the Nazis, who mounted an exhibition entitled "Degenerate Art" in Munich in 1937. Attached to each of the works--all removed from German museums of modern art--was a sign denouncing the works as having been "paid for with the taxes of the German working people."
Maxwell Anderson, the Whitney's director, when asked if he agrees with this sentiment, said: "The intention of the work is to say it is a slippery slope to begin condemning free expression, and that this slope can lead to Nazism. It is not intended to depict the mayor or any other public official as Nazis in the sense of being killers."
So, Haacke is not saying Giuliani and Robertson, et al., are Nazis, exactly. He's accusing them of using the same rhetoric as the Nazis--calling art filth and getting the public all worked up about its being paid for with their tax dollars. That's a different claim. But there are still big, big problems with it. First, it's anachronistic to imply that the Nazis violated the First Amendment or any other principle separating church and state when they mounted the "Degenerate Art" show--Germany has never enshrined that notion in its laws. Second, Giuliani's and Robertson's stated objectives in attacking art--to defend the religious sensibility--are quite different from those of the Nazis, who had no use for religion. Third, the work short-circuits, by name-calling, the important debate about arts funding in our time: whether the American public has an obligation to use its tax dollars to support art it doesn't like.
On the other hand, there is something intuitively right about drawing a connection between the ferocity and cynicism of Giuliani's attacking the Brooklyn Museum for displaying a Madonna made using a material he happened not to like (elephant dung) in order to kick off his senatorial campaign and the violence done to artists by Nazi cultural officials: Both cases involved a flagrant abuse of government power against a group, artists and curators, who are not in a good position to defend themselves. Anderson's slippery-slope point has some merit to it.
But is an art installation the place from which to launch this difficult and nuanced discussion about which historical analogy to apply to a political figure? Can objects placed in a room do the same work as words? Even though Haacke isn't responsible for the distorted version of his work currently in circulation, he is to blame for the confusion, since he had to know that invoking the Holocaust was bound to occasion explosive reactions. The problem is, art doesn't give Haacke a way to qualify his position, nor does it give the viewer a way to argue back--he or she can react emotionally to its gestures, or turn away altogether, or denounce it as not-art, as Hilton Kramer is sure to do. But viewers can't write letters to the editor. Unless they're artists, they can't reply in kind.
Of all the conceptualist artists working today, Haacke is the one who best understands how art bullies the viewer. He's been doing it for years, to great effect, with art that's functionally indistinguishable from episodes of 60 Minutes. Ironically, given his anger at Giuliani for threatening to withdraw funding from the Brooklyn Museum, Haacke's targets have previously been corporations who donate money to museums in order to burnish their good name. He railed against Mobil in the 1980s, a time when it was under attack for doing business in South Africa, for its public-relations campaigns and its support for public television; he's exposed various corporate and art-dealer misdeeds; he's put photo exhibits on the wall that could pass for Village Voice exposés of slum-landlord practices. What's appealing about Haacke is he knows exactly what he's doing and doesn't think he should be doing anything else. He never tries to tart his work up with irony or sarcasm or coyness or metaphors or jokes. "Art-making is just another part of the consciouness industry," he said in an interview in 1994. His way of assessing art? Based on how intelligent it is, as with any other form of opinion-mongering. What does he think he's up to? Making propaganda, like the corporations with cultural outreach programs: "I'm dealing with the same public the corporation is trying to reach. My assessment of the situation is pretty similar to theirs. It's just that we have opposite points of view." In short, he's a smart muckraker, sophisticated about the ways of the art world. He's got a lot of interesting ideas. You can't help wishing he'd put them into print, where they would be challenged and refined. He's doing himself no favors by hiding out in an art museum.