The Conservative Art Critic: Hans Haacke, institutional criticism and the NEA

A Breed Apart. 1978- Photographs on paper lain on hardboard.

Hans Haacke is by far my favorite conceptual artist. He is also my favorite institutional critic.

While I said a main purpose of my blog is to present a more libertarian/conservative perspective and appreciation for art, I also feel that great works that cant really yield that sort of interpretation still need a good examination and exploration. Anyone can do political pictures and Tshirts. Anyone can yell on a TV screen. It takes great amount of skill…a true artist, to transcend ideology with basic moral truths and whos questions raised demand real answers from all involved. Experiencing an exhibit of Haacke is like getting walloped in the face, then yearning for more only to be happily rewarded- its blatant and quiet. Simple and powerful.

Few artists today with a sociopolitic-critical initiative can rival Haacke, and three examples follow.

When wandering about at the Whitney Biennial in 2006, I noticed something on the pamphlet I was reading: “Altria Group, Inc. is proud to continue its forty year relationship with the Whitney Museum of American Art by sponsoring the 2006 Biennial exhibition.” Hm. Altria Group. The name sounded new, and as an evil capitalist I was surprised I did not recognize the corporate name. So, straight to Google. Turns out Altria Group is the new corporate name for the good ole Phillip Morris gang. The very same PM that sponsored a Picasso exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which we will get to soon.

It struck me as odd, almost hypocritical, that so many artists at that Biennial submitted work chastizing the Iraq War. Yes, artists as a collective group have hated war ever since the First World War shattered the more ideal amongst them’s concept of the triumph of the machine age. But there were a few pieces critical of the corporate connection. No Blood for Oil, I recall. Implying basically that we are going there to make Bush’s oil buddies rich. Artists ranting about corporations. Nothing new there.

But what is disturbing to me is how the puppet show plays out with artists today. There is a dance of sorts where outright rebellion and protest against certain big corporations or other large entitities is rampant, yet the checks still gladly roll in from others. Recall the NEA recently was caught with embarassment over a memo that seemed to imply that artists whose work helped support the Presidents initiatives would be favored for grants. The head of the NEA was adamant that wasn’t the case, but admitted the memo was embarassing and too vague. Whenever you mix art with government, art with private collectors, or art with corporations, you begin to set up silent limitations for yourself. More on the NEA later.

The obvious and scary relationship between corporate/government entities and the artist raises many questions. What is still acceptable? Is the business or federal agency using the artist for an agenda other than artistic promotion and advancement? What is the motive, the goal, of a group of businessmen in hiring an artist or sponsoring an exhibit? One would think yeah, the tax writeoff is pretty sweet…but if it was an issue of taxes, certainly more cash would flow into the museums from the various corporate entities. The legitimate question of wether an artist has true creative control over his endeavors when funded by a larger group with its own interests must be asked, and answered.

MOMA-Poll. 1970. Plexiglass, paper, printed ink.

Hans Haacke has explored this concept, quite succesfully, starting in the 1970s. One item of interest from 1970, MOMA-Poll, he posed the question to museum goers: whether then-Governor Rockefeller’s lack of rejecting Nixon’s Indochina policy was grounds for voting against him in the upcoming election. There were two plexiglass enclosures one could drop your answer into, and the end result was an overwhelming yes. This was a direct slap in the face to MoMa, being that Rockefeller was a member of the board of trustees for the museum, and his family had been long-time supporters of the institution. It is certainly not the last proverbial bitchslap that Haacke would unleash upon arts grand institutions.

The next, in my opinion, simple yet powerful suckerpunch that Hans yieled was to the distinguished Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In 1980, Mobil Corporation had sponsored an exhibit of West African art at the Met. In the same exact time period, Mobil was forced to defend itself when it had come to light they were aiding the apartheid-happy South African government. While few saw any correlation or significance, Haacke took notice:

MetroMobiltan. 1985. Fiberglass construction, three banners, and photomural.
(url link to a blowup of the image, with full detail is here- http://plaidnet.greenwichacademy.org/arthistoryslides/slideidgal/MODERNISM/LATE20THCENTURY/LATE20THCENTURY-Images/late20th57.jpg)

Here we find the centerpiece to be a banner advertising the Treasures of Ancient Nigeria exhibit from 1980. Capping this on either side are two quotes from Mobil regarding the sales of oil to military and police in South Africa. Behind all three curtains is a large photograph of black South African victims of apartheid taken in March of 1985 (ironically, taken March 16, 1985- my birthdate,but thats irrelevant). Mobil was forced to answer for its willingness to do business with an arguably cruel government with whom most nations of the world had terminated most economic relations (its answer was, “thanks, but we’ll keep on trucking”). The funny thing is, the Met, which took money from Mobil…money likely made OFF of the aforementioned sales, did not have to explain its relationship with the oil company.

The work is both obvious and subtle. Obvious that the banner for the Mobil sponsored exhibit of Nigerian art, along with Mobil’s carefully crafted statements that surround it, are masking the photo of tragedy in the back. Subtle in that the quote that appears on the false stonework above hangs high and requires the viewer to strain just so slightly to read it (my apologies for the reproduction of the work here is small so you will be unable to read it)-

“Many Public Relations opportunities are available through the sponsorship of programs, special exhibitions,and services. These can often provide a creative and cost effective answer to a specific marketing directive, particularly where international, governmental or consumer relations may be a fundamental concern.-The Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

Haacke does what few artists seem willing to do today- he directly attacks the museum for, as he sees it, giving a corporation a PR out from its terrible activities.

In 1990, Phillip Morris Group (yep, back to these guys again!) sponsored the MOMA exhibit of Picasso. Haacke found this, shall we say, a little bit more than interesting:

Cowboy with Cigarette. 1990. Pasted paper, charcoal, ink, and frame.

Cowboy with Cigarette is of course a reference to the classical work Man With Hat by Picasso. The pasted paper are Phillip Morris corporate documents and press clippings relating to tobacco. In this work, the art itself has become a vehicle of advertisement for the sponsor. There is a reason for product placement in film and TV- companies know that a visual reminder of their product, even if it is just the brand name, is often enough to be recorded in the brain as memory, and later when we choose our products to buy, that last memory pops right back in. Phillip Morris, now Altria, has long sponsored art exhibits, particularly their 40+ year relationship with the Whitney Museum. Could it be that Phillip Morris is using these institutions to gain both public and psychological favor? The peak years of tobacco company sponsorship with the arts correlate directly with the explosion in lawsuits and outrage over the deaths these companies caused. Even their current advertisements on television, part of a court settlement, convey a “hey, we are trying to do the right thing, trust us” attitude. I said all this with about 500 characters, typed.

Haacke did the same with collage and drawing.

You may be wondering why I would be so in love with art that criticizes corporate sponsorship. As a libertarian, I like the concept of creating that which you will without external interference, pressure, and limitation. Frankly, when any large entity buys your canvas or your collection, the power over what is acceptable and what isn’t shifts to the buyer in many circumstances. A worse case arises when you are hired from the start to produce work for the state or a corporate entitity. There, the creative control from conception can and will inevitably be influenced by the employer.

Haacke fiercely commands a seperation for the artist and art institutions from possible corporate patronage as a matter of principle that frees one from sharing responsibility for that patron’s misdeeds and attempts to PR them away; and accountability from the art institutions that choose to ignore this. Haacke’s work garners respect for its willingness to go after the true sacred cows- not the companies buying up musuem space but the museums whoring themselves out.

Artists of course have a freedom to sell their work to whomever they choose. But they cannot ignore the fact that by doing so, they ARE associated with that companies comings and goings. They can be manipulated into a PR campaign as social cover for activities they themselves would oppose…and they can only blame themselves for that. There is no moral gray area here, to be quite frank. You cannot scream and rant about Company X doing this that and the other, while your bank account is slightly fatter from Company Z that has done this that and the other evil things. You cannot claim a moral high ground this way.

The only way, difficult as it is, to claim a morally superior position on these matters is to forgo the patronage, like Haacke. As challenging as it is (Mobil actually attempted to block their logo out of an exhibition of his at the Tate in the mid-1980s), it yields the freedom to offer truly honest indstury critique and liberation from an almost systemic hypocrisy. I respect Haacke tremedously for that, and his work is all the better because of this.
Ok, time to inject some politicking into this. When I first heard about the NEA scandal, the first image that popped in my mind was MetroMobiltan. While the Obama Administration was quick to react and reassert the nonpartisan goals and nature of the NEA, the cat had made its intentions quite clear of getting out of the bag. What happened was not an example of an administration trying to manipulate public funding for the arts into advertising its ideas, as many of my collegues on the right have claimed. Worse, this was I feel an attempt by the NEA to get into even better graces with the President as a means of getting a far more favorable budget the following year. Sure, this may seem fine and dandy to you liberal artists out there- the opportunity to assist a President who shares many of your views and goals.

But lets set the clock backwards to 2003. Suppose President Bush had the NEA president in his office, begging for more money and in exchange changing the criteria of funding to help Bush with pushing for Operation Iraqi Freedom, or No Child Left Behind, or his tax cuts. NOW you see where the slope becomes more than slippery, its practically a 90 degree drop into state-run arts. I have often argued with artists about the merits of public-funding for the arts. There are limitations that arise and expectations one must meet that may not necessarily be in agreement with that artists statement of beliefs and goals.

While it is true that “all major societies fund the arts throughout history”, lets take a deeper look at that. In the Middle Ages, would a Francis Bacon been allowed to depict a screaming pope disintegrating into raw meat? Would Andre Serrano piss in a jar and drop in a crucifix? The artists, while subtle and independent in some ways, had to fall in line with the demands of their sponsors. It fundamentally inhibits your freedom.

The choices and problems that arise from all sorts of sponsorship are vast, and are to be seriously considered before one demands an expanded NEA. In a free market Republic like ours, one would expect that if the NEA existed at all, it would serve a purpose of financially aiding artists to do and say as they please,to expand the pool of creativity and social reflection. When one starts whoring themselves, they fundamentally give up an essential element of art that is rather modern and recent- the creative freedom of the individual artist.

-Brandon Finnigan. Oct 7 2009