Sivilize Me

John Haber
in New York City

Klaus Biesenbach, Wendell Walker, and Dave Hickey

Around 1984: Art in the Eighties

SHoP, Dunescape, and Barbara Kruger

The other day, I read something so silly it could only involve art and politics. And true to form, art and politics were asking for it.

Art, I read, no longer does very much. It no longer can, because the art world just cannot tolerate anxiety. Those words came back to me as I thought about P.S. 1's summer shows. There one turns from art's most anxious decade ever to relax on an artificial beach—or to sprawl on the world's largest bed. Thankfully, elsewhere Barbara Kruger finds a form of political art in which anxiety and entertainment go hand in hand. Barbara Kruger's Untitled (University of Southern Florida)

High anxiety

Dave Hickey finds art dismayingly useless to the point that, not long before Hurricane Sandy flooded Chelsea, he considered giving up on it. As a teacher out in Las Vegas, at the University of Nevada, he ought to know something about anxiety and mass entertainment, too. Even worse, he insists, art will no longer "civilize us." Does this sound like one more carefully staged right-wing diatribe, from outcries over Robert Mapplethorpe to mayoral politics over the Britpack? It should.

Hickey takes his terms right out of the McCarthy era, much less Jesse Helms or Rudolph Giuliani. The left forms a vast "conspiracy." Its "elitist balderdash" amounts to strident politics and artspeak. If art cannot accept the chaos and anxiety of modern life, it feeds a desire for easy solutions. That leads right to teenage violence.

No wonder Hickey's essay leads off a prominent middlebrow magazine, Harper's, which for all its liberalism makes clear its disdain for urban centers and both political parties. Tom Wolfe, recently on that magazine's cover as the century's outstanding writer, would surely have approved. He would have loved the flavor of those right-wing bulletin boards, which trace the Columbine massacre and the decay of Western civilization to Hillary Clinton.

As usual, Neoconservatives mix stridency with a veneer of common sense. Okay, so art and thinking about art both go out the window. That should not imply a lack of moderation. The old right, too, Hickey explains, wants easy answers, when art necessarily offers hard choices. It, too, wants to ban provocation. Before the PG and X ratings, he implies, art somehow knew better.

More interestingly, Hickey roots his key value, anxiety, in some rather artsy, postmodern rhetoric. "When we argue about art we are arguing about the use, value, and meaning of objects that have no use, value, and meaning beyond those we attribute to them." Relativism is back, and Hickey's got him. Somehow, a libertarian's conspiracy theory and Pop Art's vulgarity have met in the middle. So have a hatred of academia and the latest theory.

I find each term in this argument as suspect as its vicious, self-contradictory rhetoric. Before diagnosing the doctor any further, however, I want to look back at the patient. Hickey has his finger on something. What happens to anxiety in an age of diversity?

Stress reduction

With the acquisition of P.S. 1 by the Museum of Modern Art, the city's finest alternative museum joins forces with the high temple of Modernism. The merger could stand for the decade in which Marxist critiques of Postmodernism have come true. A new art really did become as institutional as the old, and the result has been to turn anxiety into tolerance. One sees the keynote of diversity in every fresh survey of contemporary art, from the 2000 Whitney Biennial to P.S. 1's own superb "Greater New York."

Two new shows definitely aim for stress reduction—and the crowds . . . are . . . loving it. Now that P.S. 1 can draw on the marketing machinery of a major museum, installations have to think in terms of crowds anyhow.

Volume: Bed of Sound places headphones liberally around two futons, which cover an entire half floor of the old schoolhouse. The music draws on sixty "sound artists," from free jazz to "Soundings" and from serialism to punk rock. For once, John Cale meets John Cage. Klaus Biesenbach, a senior curator at P.S. 1 and the installation's designer, and Wendell Walker, who built it, draw on the writings of Max Neuhaus, who hoped to break down distinctions between art and music. Listening itself, they propose, become a part of the performance. At least listeners and performers here get more comfortable seats and acoustics than at most concert halls.

Outside, Dunescape places music in a still broader context of participatory art. SHoP, an architecture group, transforms the entrance courtyard into "an urban beach oasis." One can walk on the sand, splash in a pool, cool off under a showery mist, or grab a beer—all while listening to the DJs Tes and Afra. Artists are on hand to help entertain the kids, to enhance what the Queens borough president has called a "community experience."

I found the futon pleasant enough, especially since I had worked out that morning, but curiously trivial. For a late Baroque artist, Abstract Expressionism, or even Minimalism, scale announced ambition. Now, like Imax, it had morphed participation into passivity. One lies listlessly, then treks from headset to headset as dutifully as a march up the Guggenheim's assembly-line ramp. Even the enormous range of avant-garde music came out sounding sadly and uniformly New Age. I expect a follow-up show, New York's largest elevator.

In contrast, Dunescape uses pleasure to unsettle the whole idea of museum architecture. It seems to have thought of everything, and yet it sharply parodies another summer staple, the sculpture court. Beer replaces coffee, rap the upscale museum's Friday evening concert of jazz or chamber music. The Modern's arcing trees give way to a rickety Community Tower, by Jennifer Kim. Children and a grown-up or two scamper happily in the pool. Imagine splashing around the Met's fountains—before the police come.

Two utopias

Still, Dunescape and Volume alike call up Hickey's Age of Innocence. By coincidence, a show upstairs surveys a more anxious time, the 1980s. Julian Schnabel once again takes out his fears in public, on self-portraits and broken plates. Cindy Sherman again disassembles the very idea of an artist's ego. Ronald Reagan again frightens Haim Steinbach to death, while Krzysztof Wodiczko looks at New York facades and sees only Nazi imagery. Paired panels and layered nudes by David Salle refuse to add up to anything at all, much less pleasure.

The curator, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, times a survey perfectly. The 1980s have now entered art's collective past. She revisits the decade's critique of art and society, just when postmodern art and critique have joined the club.

"Around 1984" and the installations downstairs seem eerily designed to reflect on one another. Can you take something seriously for once, demand the 1980s? Oh, loosen up, the other replies. Put down that beer and smash a few plates, young fellow. Get that chip off your shoulder, dude.

Hickey would surely be hearing his two hated quick answers. Political stridency and fast food, he believes, give art and culture a bogus choice. Both the irony of "The Pictures Generation" and the New Age, I hear him say, amount to utopias that have not come true. The pretend negative and positive utopia present a phoney choice. Both have all the answers, and both have failed.

Just as Jeff Koons has returned from pornography to gigantic flowered poodles, perhaps "Around 1984" itself takes on the lighter curatorial style of today. It includes one work per artist, way too small to let anyone speak. It makes no special effort to force works to interact. Diversity sneaks back in after all. Once again, a quick answer leads to complacency.

And yet artists twenty years back really were on to something, and Dunescape really does construct the best new architecture around. Moreover, not every survivor of the 1980s has turned into a flower child (or puppy). The photographs of Cindy Sherman startle me more every year. Before writing them off, I had better give Hickey's maddeningly stupid essay more scrutiny. Again and again, his claims fail doubly—as both patently false and a little too obviously true.

Civilization as we know it

First off, Hickey laments, art no longer has much impact. That should come as a surprise to a record number of people. As theorists never tire of explaining, even Modernism largely served an enclave of property and privilege. As at Dunescape, it has now found its largest, most active audience ever—an audience often drawn by the art world's chaos and conflict.

For the first time since the Depression, art plays prominent a role in public rallies. Even Koons now contributes to reshaping the public landscape. Of course, one may decide that serious art died with the Old Masters. Yet they, too, now draw infuriatingly long lines. Hickey ought to like that especially: if curators have gone for art as dulling as Volume—or those endless Monet exhibits—they can do so because they have learned to play not to politics, but to civilized market forces.

On the other hand, art has never changed anything, and a good thing, too. "Poetry," W. H. Auden wrote in his famous elegy, "makes nothing happen." Perhaps Modernism at times stood above the fray, but Postmodernism, too, knows better to stake its life on change. They both accept an outsider role, because both examine ties between art, knowledge, and public institutions in order to call them into question.

Certainly both have done their best to resist a culture of simple pleasures. Whatever art has become, it has a long way to go before I start applauding fast food and cheap handguns.

Does art no longer "civilize us," then? Again, on the one hand, it seems to be doing just fine, thank you. Besides, what could smack more of civilization than an oversized bed and stereo system? The Victorian household never had it so good. On the other hand, it has made a point of dismantling the assumptions between both that "civilize" and that "us." What kind of civilization, it has asked, uses artists as image and object makers for petty tyrants and vast empires?

Hickey's line sounds sadly naive, so long after Huck Finn lit out for the territories. Aunt Hickey, "she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. I've been there before."

Us and them

Hickey's belief rests on the viewer's ability to construct new meanings. With that freedom, he argues not unlike the existentialists, comes anxiety. On the one hand, he again has it wrong. Criticism makes no excuse for relativism. Sure, it describes a world of created meanings, but meanings created together with history, institutions, and a work's creator.

Hickey imagines each person making meaning at will, apart from an inherited world, a world that people, now and again, call natural. His image is self-refuting. It places people outside of created meanings. At the same time, it argues that nothing else can exist. It also sounds suspiciously like what Hickey hates—rampant individualism free from anxiety.

On the other hand, Hickey has it right when he says that people create meaning—precisely why his "civilize us" makes no sense. Making meaning of art, as Arthur C. Danto points out, means questioning the uniqueness of an artwork, even putting art history behind one. Creating one's own meanings might lead to political activism, too, and Hickey appears not to be ready for the questions that might turn up. Just who are "we," for one thing? Hickey opens the old game of "us" and "them" with his political enemies, and I, for one, refuse to play. I shall put my money on "Greater New York" and its glorious multiculturalism after all.

Hickey wants a world of creativity and doubt. Yet he cannot bear the thought that artists might actually doubt anything. Politics? Yuck, how reductive. Anxiety sure sounds great, until it might scare people into questioning his libertarian premises. Making meaning is fine, until it entails real thought about art institutions and society.

Anxiety without dissent sounds curious disembodied. Hickey stays as vague about art as he does about doubt. He does not mention a single work. He cannot imagine the multiple meanings and traditions that thousands real people make and experience walking through, for example, a public installation by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. He cannot link one work's meanings to child violence or its civilizing influence. He does mention religious imagery generally, but only to concede the wars fought over it—and so how odd his thesis might sound. It still does.

In fact, art really can deal responsibly with the dilemma I found that day in Queens. Like Dunescape and Sherman, it can confront thoughtfully the alternatives of Puritanism and play. In fact, Modernism and Postmodernism throw the alternatives directly at one another. And no exhibition throws them around better than a retrospective of Barbara Kruger.

Bold words and sidelong glances

People tend to remember two things about Kruger, her style and her confrontational edge. Bold, white sans serif letters flash out from harsh red or black stripes. They span equally plain black-and-white photographs. As art borrowed from newspapers and magazines, they rest as anonymous as her technique.

No wonder her text confronts the viewer. "We won't play nature to your culture," the banner shouts. Other work sounds even more like an abortion-rights banner, and so it was. At P.S. 1 she fits easily into "Around 1984." It sounds so simple. It is not.

The Whitney makes one rediscover just why not. Her work packs a punch because she confronts, rather than lectures. A confrontation takes two, and Kruger wants an entire carnival of characters. With sly words and vibrant juxtapositions, she mixes politics and pleasure. She has brought together both sides of that messy dialogue in Queens.

The carnival begins the moment one steps off the elevator, where painted words extend to one's very first inch of ground. In their color and scale, they seem more a circus than a warning, but one has no place to stand apart from this art. Playtime and political engagement have already met.

I walked right away over to the first patch of text, near the far wall, so that I could start reading. Maybe I could make sense of the sensory overload. I found myself standing on the word Beneath. From the first, I had track of just who is warning whom, who making the puns at whose expense.

The viewer may get trapped into illustrating Kruger's words or clashing with them, but the pictures rarely do either so simply. Words and pictures rarely settle down between message and joke. No wonder her "I shop there I am" has more in common with Cathy cartoons than political cartoons or stereotypes of feminism. Oh, she announces, "we won't play nature to your culture." What sounds (rightly) like a statement of women's rights could equally well speak for art. Think of the mythic struggle of the artist's primitive nature in Jackson Pollock.

All that "we" and "you" does more than anything I could say to cure Hickey's "us." One poster goes, "Your gaze hits the side of my face." Her people, gestures, images, and words have a way of glancing sideways when one least expects it. Even better, they have a way of making one laugh.

Trademark and tenacity

Like her text, her images never sit still. One room stacks posters like wallpaper. Again she has turned sloganeering into an installation that echoes art's majestic past. And again leaves no room for wall plaques, that sign of art's work's special moment in time. It makes sense: this art has no unique origin. She has reproduced it all countless times.

Her images have appeared everywhere—from posters to picket signs, from gallery walls to billboards, book covers, and an unofficial Web site. They have taken on contexts from fine art to advertising to activism. As much as for any formalist, her media cut to the very definition of art. That focus suggests one more way in which her art sustains the dialogue of modern and postmodern. Only now the medium becomes the work's trademark instead of its signature.

Certainly her style has become her trademark, another subtle twist on notions of artistry and originality. A trademark, after all, belongs to commerce and mass reproduction, just as her images come out of popular magazines. Her earliest, more delicate pieces weave fragments of an imagined dime-story novel around images out of film noir. (They take up a back room, in a break from chronology that again suspends the usual rules for museum display.) Her art has always fallen in love with words, but only later did they come to pack the punch they have today. They learned to stop looking so special.

Kruger goes the next step in breach of artistic copyright. She adapted her style from another artist, John Heartfield. To multiply the chain further still, the German had himself adopted his identity. His name evoked good old American consumer culture, in double-edged protest against a militarist society.

Ads and corporate logos can always imitate her. But even as they co-opt her protest, they become one more part of it. In Craig Owens's phrase, her art enters "the discourse of others," so that a viewer can learn to recognize who is speaking. I hope that I can hold on to her humor and anxiety long enough so that, one day, it could be me. But then again, as one work has it, "Who do you think you are?" If I knew, I might know which "us" to civilize as well.

If Hickey means to lament the exhaustion of art decades after Modernism, he poses the right questions. Art without direction may be draining my feeling and intellect, too. If I have any hope left, however, I shall not find it in art that lets me simply construct meaning. I need art that challenges my constructions—and me.

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"Volume: Bed of Sound," SHoP's "Dunescape," and "Around 1984: A Look at Art in the Eighties" ran at the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center through September 2000. SHoP's partners are Christopher R. Sharples, William W. Sharples, Coren D. Sharples, Kimberly J. Holden, and Gregg A. Pasquarelli. Jeff Koons did indeed plant an immense terrier in Rockefeller Center for those same months, much as he has in various European venues before. Barbara Kruger's retrospective ran at The Whitney Museum of American Art through October 22. Dave Hickey's "A World Like Santa Barbara" first appeared in Art Issues, summer 2000. It also ran in the September issue of Harper's, and it expanded on ideas in his 1997 Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy.


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