Bold Type

John Haber
in New York City

Why Art Makes Headlines

I presented this as part of "Art That Makes Headlines," a panel discussion augmenting a group exhibition. Its artists addressed such controversial issues as the Iraqi war and, more particularly, the press coverage of those issues. They drew on popular culture, politics, and the mass media for subject matter, but also for images and materials, such as newsprint. A more detailed review of that exhibition, "Headlines," reconsiders these issues in light of the startling vandalism of one work on display.

Two artists, both on the panel, have made headlines in still another way. Both came under fire for politicizing art, as if the real world did not do so enough on its own. For them, making the headlines raised the threat of censorship. Amy Wilson found herself a test case for public tolerance of art, when The Daily News cited a work exhibited at the Drawing Center as reason to bar the museum from a proposed International Freedom Center at Ground Zero. Jonathan Allen found his work removed from a 2001 group exhibition in Queens. Also on the panel, Svetlana Mintcheva spoke of her experience with the National Coalition Against Censorship.

"Headlines," then, can mean physical objects, breaking news, or media scrutiny of events. Its multiple meanings already show how politics always enters into art and, indeed, everyday life. The artists dare anyone to sort out one from another, and I give it my best. With the culture wars and cuts in funding for the arts returning under Donald Trump, with Rudy Giuliani back in and out of the news, and Dana Schutz under fire at the Whitney Biennial for daring as a white woman to express her horror at the killing of black men, it feels more relevant than ever.

Hi, everyone. I'm glad to share a panel with two artists who, like others in this exhibition and in so many ways, are dealing forcefully with the headlines. And I'm very glad to be on a panel with two artists who, less willingly, actually made headlines. And guess what? They are the same two artists. Exhibition view: Degenerate Art (Munich, 1937)

Artists dealing with the headlines deserve only respect, at least as long as they are making art. Their roles look less assured, however, once they enter highly contested ground, the work's reception. Are anger and censorship inevitable, and how serious are the threats? Is it just a matter of stupid, self-righteous people eager to take offense? I want to explore that with you this evening to make the case for political art.

You may think of the present as the problem, given heightened sensitivities since 9/11 and manipulations of the "global war on terror" for partisan ends. And all that is true—up to a point. Yes, a show called "Love/War/Sex" actually puts Newsweek articles on the wall and light artillery on the floor, while R. Luke DuBois can quote the State of the Union address from every single president down to George W. Bush. And, yes, no one screaming about desecration of the American flag remembers the beauty and ambiguity of a White Flag by Jasper Johns. Still, it helps to take a step back for a deeper history to grasp what is really going on. Let me give it a try.

Step back

You may have seen a mini-show within the 2006 Whitney Biennial, called "Down by Law." It packs the entire the Culture Wars into one low-ceilinged room, everything from Robert Mapplethorpe to Piss Christ. If not, maybe you caught that episode of The Simpsons, in which a congressman proposes $30 million "to support the perverted arts." But let me step back some more, even before the Nazis exhibited "degenerate art" or Manet his reclining nude as woman of leisure—and long, long before confrontations like this served as the mark of an avant-garde.

Art ran into trouble at least as far back as the Renaissance, when artists were earning a broader renown as creative individuals. Only recently, before restoration, textbooks still showed Masaccio's Adam expelled from Paradise with a fig leaf covering his penis. In a less solemn example, Paolo Veronese, the last in a line of Renaissance Venetian painting and Renaissance allegories, found himself hauled before the Inquisition for his Last Supper. He had filled The Last Supper with such "vulgarities" as—I kid you not—"buffoons, drunkards, dwarfs, and Germans." In reply, he basically claimed creative license, "the same license that poets and jesters take." He also agreed to a safer title for his painting, Feast at the House of Levi, situating those Germans in less-sacred company than Jesus and the apostles.

Now, these disputes cover a lot of ground, including politics, religion, gender, sex, and violence—almost as many as 9/11, the Culture Wars, and the avant-garde. Do they have anything in common? I want to suggest three things, and they do not depend on that shifting ground of subject matter. They put in question when something becomes political art.

First, they all involve a collision between an artist's creative expression and audience. A work of art, in other words, necessarily belongs to two worlds, what I shall call the private and public. You have one thing in mind, and your public has another. However, that alone does not do the job. Pretty much every artist creates work to be seen, excluding some conceptual art here and there—and even that makes a public statement. Yet few object one way or another. It takes more to cause trouble.

Amy Wilson's A Glimpse of What Life in a Free Country Could Be Like 6 (The Drawing Center [detail only], 2004)Second, neither side is as simple as it first appears. Both are divided among themselves—and not simply as matters of moral complicity with the culture industry or the art world. Veronese's patron commissions a grand display, but the Inquisition screams. Amy Wilson finds a grateful public at her gallery, at "Greater New York," and at the Drawing Center, but the tabloids imagine her image of Abu Ghraib at Ground Zero, and all hell breaks loose. Each time, a public places the art in a different context, often distorting its meaning in the process. But then artists know the annoyance of praise for the wrong reasons, too.

Less obviously, the private side has its divisions, too. An artist has many motives, only beginning with creative expression. That is why work enters the public sphere in the first place. You want people to see it, to buy it, to feel something, perhaps to change themselves, and perhaps even to change their world. You may, like Samuel Johnson, define a patron as "a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery," but you want to reward attention with something more meaningful than that. A Freudian would find mixed motives a given anyway.


Third and last, let me suggest one reason for those divisions: I cannot strictly disentangle public and private after all. The public sphere shapes an artist even aside from commercial and political pressures. A work's medium, style, images, and meanings—all these emerge because of shared understandings. As a postmodernist would say, art is a kind of text, even before Lawrence Weiner places text on the wall, and everyone plays a part in determining its vocabulary and its grammar. Who, after all, owns that image of Abu Ghraib, and how many others can steal it?

Conversely, art shapes the public sphere, too—and therein lies the really good news. One speaks of a work as finding its public, but it alters the public, too. It changes the stock of objects, images, and their interpretation. On a really good day, art can change the world, which is why political art exists. It need not even bear a simplistic message, and indeed most of the time when people hate political art for its narrow, strident intent, they have brought to it a narrow, strident interpretation. Art at its best, with its shifting contexts, makes others think and feel for themselves.

And, I want to add, that is why art has a necessary place, even or maybe especially when it seems outrageous to many. Throughout your life, you move between public and private, from a kid at school to a grown-up with a job or a citizen. It happens in political debates over conflicting interests. In happens in debates over what to build at Ground Zero, as part of yet another intersection of public and private, the city.

Art has an essential role because, I am arguing, it stands as the ultimate such intersection, the chance for individuals to intervene in the public sphere and a chance to regain a public space where everyone is welcome. It offers a chance for opening your mind to multiple contexts and not just propaganda. That is why I feel saddened when, instead of a cultural center at Ground Zero, I get a $1 billion memorial, although a very good one. It still claims a single, definitive context—and that may mean a dead one.

Constitutional lawyers have a term for this aspect of art. When it comes to free-speech protections, art lies somewhere between ordinary speech and ordinary consumer goods. They call it symbolic speech. I love that term. A postmodernist could have written it. It has built into it the idea of art as both drawing on common symbols and as personal expression.

Does this mean that nothing ever changes? Not at all. I am not saying that the same old conflict repeats itself again and again, so forget about it. In fact, conflict over symbolic speech keeps changing, because so do symbols—not to mention those who use them. We really do live in interesting times.

Embracing controversy

Take Veronese again. He said, in effect, pay no mind: artists just do things like this. His claim would have made no sense a hundred years earlier. Back then, people had a more broadly shared understanding of what paintings meant. Art historians have invented iconography—or, as Tom Hanks would prefer, symbology—in order to recover that understanding. That way, you can look at a Last Supper and not go home puzzled or bored. Paolo Veronese's Feast in the House of Levi (Galleria della Academia, 1573)

His claim also does not make complete sense today, but for the opposite reason. Now the public has too few shared understandings, making it hard now for an artist to appeal to personal authenticity. Art comes with far too many competing aims and publics, from collectors to starving artists and from academics to politicians to tourists. One needs critical theory to track them all, and, yes, there always are stupid, self-righteous people eager to take offense. One also needs humility, for in almost every case, art that appears strident and narrowly political has simply fallen into the hands of an audience itself narrow, strident, and political. When you see a controversy, remember that good art nurtures irony and opposing meanings—trying to make you not so much to think this way or feel that way, but simply think or feel at all.

Imagine that Last Supper by an artist now, and imagine someone dissing it as a pack of Germans. Hans Haacke, at a somewhat dogmatic extreme among contemporary political artists, might reply that the Germans stand for the fascistic nature of cultural institutions displaying his work. Chris Ofili, the "Young British Artist" of elephant poop fame, might instead beg that he means no sacrilege at all. The Germans indicate the sincere religious traditions of Africa, ever since Germany introduced Christianity to Namibia. On a less hypothetical note, America supports the arts, and it requires that the National Endowment for the Arts follow a process of impartial review by experts, much as mass disbelief in evolution does not govern grants to science. Still, Americans may feel betrayed by what they get.

That brings one last question: if divisions, then, characterize the present, how does that change what kind of art gets made? During Modernism, with its trust in the lone artist's daring, the pendulum swung toward the private, but now it is swinging decidedly back to the public. Not just political, but commercial and institutional pressures keep increasing. Art functions more and more like a commodity, inseparable from fashion or design. It also becomes the subject of panel discussions and exhibitions like this one.

Sometimes, Postmodernism has celebrated the change, as erasing a loaded distinction between fine art and folk art, craft, or "a woman's work." Sometimes, too, it has worried about the change. At what point does commercial success undermine art's very claim to free-speech protection? At what point does a day in Chelsea's Babylon become a numbing experience and a deadly constraint on art? Without a good-old avant-garde, how can art—personal or political—make a difference at all? Oscar Wilde's line that "all art is quite useless" may sound less like a boast and more like a sad prophecy.

I do not know either, and I just want to wrap up by repeating two conclusions. First, what you do as artists is very much your business—and also very much mine. And, second, that is why I still need you: the present offers a very specific, contested context, and I rely on art at its best to help tease that out. Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist, put it well. "In contrast to the passion to create, we also want those we've forsaken to see and appreciate the inspired pictures we've made—and if they should call us sinners?" Thank you.

BACK to John's arts home page

"Headlines" ran at the Pierro Gallery of South Orange through July 16, 2006, with a panel discussion on June 9 moderated by the exhibition curator, Mary Birmingham. My accompanying exhibition review continues the concerns of this article. I quote Orphan Pamuk's My Name Is Red. Among previous essays on this Web site relevant to art and politics, consider particularly a response to attacks on political art as too ironic to take art or politics seriously. Also consider a discussion of the initial failure to build at Ground Zero, of the entire Drawing Center controversy, and of a backlash—all in context of New York City as an intersection of public and private spaces. I have also offered a critique of Theodor Adorno's conundrum of the possibility of art after the Holocaust and of the Jesse Helms incident, including why art thrives on public interest and public support. From these, you may follow the links to reviews of related exhibitions.


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