Breaking NewsJohn Haber
in New York City
What happens when art devoted to the headlines itself makes the headlines? What happens when an exhibition that tries to put controversy in perspective itself becomes controversial? And what happens when a panel discussion on censorship serves as an occasion for the criminal suppression of a work of art?
I served on a panel attendant to "Headlines," a group show curated by Mary Birmingham. Two artists, Amy Wilson and Jonathan Allen, described the personal and artistic cost of political vilification. Svetlana Mintcheva, of the National Coalition Against Censorship, then recalled how outside pressures often lead not just to institutional repression, but also to self-censorship, and I tried to wrap up the issues: how and why does art face public assaults, including the threat of censorship? A related essay gives my full text.
What, then, about the art? The seventeen artists in "Headlines" looked at how the media respond to headline news, and they offered front-line commentary on the Bush administration. A show of mostly little-known work in a quiet New Jersey suburb may seem a comforting setting for discomforting debate. Yet it, too, led to debate in the press—and the outright destruction of a work. And that work, a floral arrangement in a community park just outside the exhibition hall, has its own paradoxical imagery of peace and war. Together, the treacherous events and the art help bring our panel's charged memories and fancy theorizing back down to earth.
Art always serves public and private purposes, which is precisely why it can speak to personal and political issues today. As I argued in person, these often crossed purposes include not just artist and patron—or artist and the government. Creative expression also relies on media, styles, images, and meanings that the artist, the critic, and you, too, have a share in deciding. Art, then, always enters a context of understandings and misunderstandings. That context gets messy, for today art serves multiple, increasingly polarized audiences—and sometimes that means anger all around. Art itself can help elucidate the conflict, because it helps to describe and also to shape how people understand themselves.
A critic must leave the next stage of the conflict to the artists and to you, but consider its present dimensions. First, art has grown closer to mass entertainment, and the very definition of art has become looser—if not downright nonexistent. For both reasons, art has an expanding audience and more creators, with less agreement about what they should create. Second, citizens have more axes to grind, quite apart from sharpening art. Last, art nonetheless remains peripheral to most political debates and, for that matter, to most people's lives. When they argue about free speech and flag desecration, they rarely think of how a constitutional amendment would affect Jasper Johns, and they might not know what to say if they did.
For all these reasons, when people encounter art, they are likely to see precisely the anger that they bring to the work—assuming they see anything at all. Exactly that happened when they encountered a sculpture just outside the gallery. Carlo Vialu had planted flowers in the rather schematic outlines of AK-47. He called it We Will Be Greeted with Flowers (A Case of Myopia).
Some in the community found his mockery of the war insupportable. Others, ignoring the work's reductive title, saw it as softening if not positively glorifying violence. Those community reactions have nothing in common but their outrage. And before long they intensified to the point of violence.
One Friday evening, someone pulled up enough of the flower bed to ruin its outlines. Remarkably, the act took place when I and others were speaking inside. To compound the irony, the public sculpture's run was about to come to an end. The work's title may or may not have applied to U.S. soldiers in Iraq. However, flowers will definitely not greet the residents of South Orange.
As Mintcheva points out, "it is likely that the vandalism was provoked by the content of the work and that its intent was censorious." However, she adds, one should not call it censorship, which implies an abuse of state or corporate power. At times the lines may blur, as when the Brown Shirts staged violence with political consequences but still against the law. No doubt the lines blur whenever organized intolerance provokes repressive actions. Still, the police classify it as "criminal mischief," which sounds almost artistic but otherwise about right. Wilson calls it just plain bullying, which sounds even better.
Between the lines
Life for an artist is no bed of roses. Someone knifed my favorite Barnett Newman painting in Amsterdam, but hardly to protest the august, religious overtones of its title, Cathedra. Others have directed a shotgun blast at a majestic Leonardo cartoon in London and sprayed graffiti across any number of outdoor sculptures. Art has the ability to suggest other presences—including the presence of a powerful creative individual. That presence might easily challenge a bully's ego. Besides, art represents, evokes, and enacts strong feelings, or else no one would seek it out.
Controversial art obviously gets more than its fair share of violence. Mintcheva cites the vandalizing of Piss Christ in Australia. On the good side, she adds, the violence "pays homage to the power of the art work" and helps to publicize it. Moreover, most public displays already take into account the potential for damage. Museums have security guards, and corporate plazas know the need for quick removal of spray paint.
On the other hand, the "homage" counts as a favorable review only if one trusts a warped critic. Worse, the damage is already done—to the work, to the artist's future, and to a vital public dialogue about art or politics. The uprooting of Vialu's flowers shows that someone, correctly, interpreted the work as about the Gulf War. However, it leaves as much doubt as ever about what the work actually means. And that, I think, has a lot to do with the strong feelings.
Even political art traffics in irony and personal responses. It may seem that art disturbs by its stridency, allowing it to take over the debate. More often, as with the demands that led to a heroic statue next to the Vietnam War Memorial by Maya Lin, people want easy, final answers, and they feel uncomfortable that art at Ground Zero or elsewhere might instead give space to thought, feeling, and excluded voices. Anna Somers Cocks and Roger Kimbell disagree on whether artists should confront war more forcefully or rather purify their work of politics. However, they share a dismay that art, as Cocks puts it, "is currently dependent on ideas" that may not fit a critic's agenda. So it is, and a good thing, too.
A wiser critic must start by asking how such opposite interpretations can arise. One could help viewers recognize what their own first impression leaves out. When Vialu invokes the old-world charm of a topiary garden, does he want you to put your anger to rest or awaken it anew? Should one interpret the continued growth and decay of a flower bed as a further insult, or should one cherish it as a way for the work and its audience to accept time, change, history, and entropy? Sometimes in art, ambiguity can itself grow ambiguous. Contradictory associations can mean an enrichment of meaning or a mediocre artist's incoherence—and that decision, too, lies in your hands.
The decision leaves no excuse for not stopping, well, to small the flowers—looking at the art, pondering its possibilities, and letting it work. Step past the outdoor work, then, and enter the gallery itself. You have seen the uproar and the vandalism over art about headlines about events. I could therefore leave you with only successive layers of commentary on a commentary on a commentary. However, as I keep insisting here, art has its essential place, too, in keeping the commentary alive and relevant. The sheer variety of work in "Headlines" illustrates how politics acquires layer upon layer of assumptions in a media-driven culture.
Some artists rip off actual headlines. A. J. Bocchino rips them out of the paper, for a digital collage in strict chronological order. Curt Ikens rips them apart, before reassembling the shards of newsprint into surprisingly comfortable easy chairs. I found them just the place to relax with the actual day's New Jersey broadsheet, which he conveniently supplies. They looked especially funny facing me from just behind the folding chairs when I spoke. Still, if Ikens (no, not Ikea) ever gets together with Andrea Zittel, be very careful about invitations to stay over, or at least bring your own pillow.
Others create their collage not from text but from images in the media. Cheryl Yun uses them to decorate what resembles a line of tie-dyed women's clothing. Karina Aguilera Skvirsky restages the plaintive poses of Iraqis in suburban American settings, not unlike Emily Jacir in her sympathetic exchange between America and the Middle East. Peter Jacobs piles them on, in a print that could pass for Surrealist painting. With Jonathan Allen, they float in a distant sky. With Laura Greengold, they have the eerie familiarity of TV as blurred and disrupted in photographs.
Finally, some just riff on the familiarity of disaster. Joy Garnett's suitably creepy oil paintings based on Katrina combines a classic American sunset with the anonymity of an Ed Ruscha. Hiroshi Kumagai, Julie Peppito, and Henry Sanchez blend images of chaos into contemporary art's typical pop-culture madness, at the risk of making one tune out the news even more. Jason Lujan's pretend brochure mixes up Native American activism and homeland security, although the result makes me think of the directions accompanying my old VCR.
Obviously far, far too much barely skims the surface of the headlines. Bocchino's color coding of news items does not really work either as a deconstruction of media priorities or as abstraction. Yun's images and Lujan's repurposing look illegible to me even with the catalog entry. Skvirsky's photos lack the specificity that would link her settings to much of anything. When she promises that a bleak, white concrete wall lies outside Lord & Taylor, does she have in mind consumer-driven amnesia or the barricade pushing into Israeli occupied territories? Neither really comes across.
The most effective works rely on art's old resources of ardor and irony. Lynn Sullivan's tiny, molded action figures on the floor seem painfully unable to cope, almost like the humans suffering in Iraq. Greengold does not truly show how television skews the headlines, since you already know that the human eye processes electrons better than the still camera. However, her skewing of vision and the media goes a long way toward undermining the objectivity of both. So do the ghostly colors of oil on aluminum and the murky Arabic text from Al Jazeera. So does her mimicking the working of a cathode-ray tube, as she paints in strict rows from top to bottom.
On the irony side, Mike Estabrook runs a Bill O'Reilly tape backward, with preposterous subtitles added. For once, the right-wing blowhard seems just plain funny and not just terminally annoying. He even sounds as if he is speaking an Eastern European language. Brendan Carroll combines Polaroids with text from Tim O'Brien, Cormac McCarthy, and other novelists in the broken font of a manual typewriter. Carroll adopts a shopworn cultural commentary about male myths and American wars, but that does not make it less easy to shake off.
Last, art here cannot conceivably do better than A Glimpse of What Life in a Free Country Could Be Like, the watercolor by Amy Wilson. The show brings together every sheet from the work that brought so much controversy to plans for Ground Zero . The trials of Wilson's blond-haired girls and skeletons, on a rising ocean and deep into the woods, become by turns funny, poetic, and a challenge to choose sides. Her obsessive hand lettering, which quotes political screeds on both left and right, has exactly the same dynamics.
Vialu could stand for the show's awkward, twin tendencies—toward engagement with a viewer's media-skewed world and toward art as mere crib notes. The vandalism of his flowers underscores their fragile place as public art and as objects subject to chance and change. One thinks of a flower child's addition to a gun barrel. Yet the corresponding jigsaw puzzles inside seem inert by contrast, and they underscore the spare line of flowers in his outdoor sculpture, as if there, too, the artist feared loss of control. Christoph Draeger, too, has exploited the idea of puzzle fragments, for his own jigsaw portraits of disaster. Here, however, their refusal to blossom like flowers or to fall apart like pieces of a puzzle makes the "case of myopia" appear way too simple a diagnosis.
Artists who have raised the most controversy may not have the most controversial ends. Think again of Lin's Vietnam Memorial, which a bitterly divided nation came to love. Think of Chris Ofili's Madonna in elephant poop, which tries to express his faith rather than question it. Think of Wilson's trying to work through both sides of the war. And do not think of their sincerity as an accident.
Art at its best—and that includes political art—takes chances with growth, fragmentation, and a viewer's feelings. Whatever politicians and vandals think, artists always have something else in mind, often more than one will ever know. No wonder people miss the point, even art's defenders. Yes, one can agree to disagree, agree that controversial art or indeed any political speech deserves a hearing, not censorship. More important, however, one should stop before reaching that stage, before the anger, release, and acceptance: one has to remember first one's wonder about art.
Dogmatic speech of any kind has its place, because someone reading the headlines darn well should get angry. Another show, called "Love/War/Sex," actually puts Newsweek articles on the wall and light artillery on the floor. When Raymond Pettibon scrawls a Jewish star amid antiwar slogans, he risks blatant anti-Semitism. Yet politically committed art can easily resemble blogs that address only people with the same convictions, to have their beliefs assuaged and reinforced. When art truly upsets people, it means that they sense something that disturbs their private certainties. They may not know what, but they know they cannot quite face the question.
Art's defenders often suggest a convenient alternative to censorship: if art makes you angry, you need not look at it. I find that comforting, because of its faith that art has the power to challenge. It even accepts the messy relationship between art and text, since one need not read books that offend one either. However, I have to answer differently.
Because art involves so many shifting contexts, it does not speak the same language as a Swift Boat ad or State of the Union address. If you get angry, you may need to ask yourself some questions about why you see the ad and not the art. A good work will try to raise questions about its own potential meanings, in the plural. A good art critic should help the process along.
"Headlines" ran at the Pierro Gallery of South Orange through July 16, 2006. The "criminal mischief," quite apart from that in my talk, occurred the evening of July 9. You may consider this review the second part of an essay on censorship, controversy, irony, and ambiguity in contemporary art—starting with the text of my panel presentation.