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Tag Archives: Freedom of Information Act

So ok, history in real time. I just went to Mass MOCA to see Jenny Holzer’s Redaction Paintings. Big ol’ museum with a wing dedicated to Anselm Kiefer. Modernist, huge with a happy lefty following for a Western Mass culture spot that attracts big bands like Wilco to play in-house. The town it’s located in, North Adams, is a small oasis inside a somewhat depressed rural region, offering stipends to artists to move to town and set up shop. I have no idea who you are that’s reading this, but I expect you’d like it.

Inside Mass MOCA, after a mesmerizing installation piece by Nick Cave that’s like 7 miles long, you’ll find Holzer’s exhibit, perhaps a solid 100 paintings of materials lifted from the Pentagon’s Iraq war files. They’re harrowing. Holzer took these files – first-hand accounts of being tortured, detained, traded and murdered – then printed them as-is on oversized canvasses. The paintings also include letters from parents begging on behalf of their missing children, and tables of human bones. If you were writing the letters, or the censors who redacted them, you were still alive. If you were the subject of the letters then you were most certainly dead.


Me, I’d waited years to see the work in person. I love Jenny Holzer through to my DNA and have a good half dozen books of hers including a few show catalogs. Along with Glenn Ligon she’s my favorite living text-artist, fuck it, both of them are my favorite living artists. I know her work from early days in NYC and nearly lost my mind when I first saw the Redaction Paintings online. The lighbulb nails of understanding it took to reach out for those files, then the audacity to scrape them onto canvasses for the world to see as art and indictment of a mercenary action of sustained brutality made me think of The Third of May, 1808 by Franciso de Goya (1814). The painting is stark and unrelenting. How could anyone see The Third of May, 1808 and not want to turn your head – yet find yourself unable to do so?


That’s what I experienced with the Redaction Paintings. They’re mesmerizing. But at a certain point that began to change and the longer I looked at the work the more depressed I became. It wasn’t the content that got me, but the fact that unlike Picasso’s Guernica, for example, Holzer’s work doesn’t seem to have made a damn bit of difference. “Wow, you say, someone got tortured in Iraq? That’s what they get for bombing the Twin Towers!” Or if you’re not that dumb then “Wow, someone got tortured in Iraq? Hmph. Did you see the Nick Cave exhibit? It’s wild!” Or if you’re clearly smarter than that, which I assume you are, then what do you go but gasp a moment, marvel at the ingenuity of the work then check your watch because you’ve got a 2 hour drive home and the kids are getting antsy? 100 paintings taken from 10,000 stories of death and none of it matters. At all.

If it did, I said to myself, then we wouldn’t have a grifter as President. Or his kids. But that’s another story altogether.

What finally struck me was that the art wasn’t the problem, Holzer did a hero’s job in bringing all of this together, but that the work was simply being shown in the wrong venue, and I say this with full understanding that Holzer has a looong and deep dedication to showing work in public spaces including her first work which was anonymous and tacked to walls throughout NYC.

Inflammatory Essay by Jenny Holzer

Interestingly, my friend Maria saw Holzer’s work in the Bilbao in Spain the same day I was at Mass MOCA, which only furthered my initial thought that showing political art in the world’s most comfortable museums is like watching Donald Trump preach to his base: lots of applause, lots of backslapping and ‘I knew it!’ being yodeled from the audience, but nothing ever comes of it because noone’s mind is ever changed and the basic numbers of Us vs. Them remain the same.

So what, you say, is the point of political art? Well, I say, I’m not entirely sure, but if I had to guess I’d say there are 3 major points:

  1. Affirmation of the crowd. Good to know other folks share your sentiment so you feel less alone.
  2. Shaking your fist at the Man. The larger your numbers, the better! Plus it lets him know you’re not going down without a fight.
  3. Plea to the undecided masses to pay attention to your cause. And this, brother, is where the placement of Holzer’s work really bothers me.

Let’s recap: A wildly successful artist whose genuine sensibility of fairness and fierceness is unimpeachable creates a politically-charged series whose text is drawn directly from the files of world’s most powerful military then shown in the planet’s cushiest museums, the openings of which are black tie affairs years in the making, invitation only.

Take that in for a moment.

Just so you know that I’m not a complete bastard, I sent copies of the first draft up to this point to a few comrades. My friend Natania pointed out, well, here’s her exact phrasing:

I think her work goes beyond “protest art” in terms of only communicating protest. I mean, it’s a protest of course, and testament and artifact. But the art part is in the secret/unsecreting of the written document. The documents themselves exist in a mechanism that has a code or language for torture which validates it, and taken out of that context exposes the whole machine and culture, and examines the concept of a written secret as fundamentally oxymoronic. This text/secret/ context tension is where I found profundity b/c it is relevant globally / historically.

Fair enough. Except insofar as I don’t believe Holzer set this up as a word game or Gotcha! piece. Language yes, machine and culture yes, but my reply to this is that Holzer sought out the Pentagon files through the Freedom of Information Act, then posted those transmissions verbatim (with a little bit of art-styling added). To say that the work is primarily an act of unsecreting of written documents –  a crafty exercise in etymology, as if the documents had no other real world value – to my way of thinking invalidates the entire point of the piece, which is to illustrate the systemic butchery of an entire nation through the hands of, and decisions of, our own elected officials, many of which you or I might actually personally know. Are you ok knowing the guy down the street just tore the finger nails out of a 12 yr old Iraqi boy but had time to send home nesting dolls to his loving wife? Are you ok knowing that the narrative our elected officials jams into our completely bewildered minds has literally NOTHING to do with what actually happens, nor why?

Iraqi Civilian Torture by Iraqi Troops Under U.S. Supervision

Here’s what I think Holzer was trying to accomplish: Artist as whistleblower. Except that nobody really gives a shit. To many Americans the narrative basically boils down to ‘Well, ya’ shouldn’t have been born in Iraq. That’s what you fucking get, terrorist.’ Even if, as we all well know, that the jumper cables attached to the balls of the ‘courier’ were indiscriminately placed because that’s just what you do, or that the courier might have just been a kid running eggs home to his starving family and so long as ‘collateral damage’ happens to someone else somewhere else then it just doesn’t matter. At all. I said that before, but it bears repeating.

All of this however still doesn’t get to the primary conundrum: Are museums the proper venue for Political art? If I were Jenny Holzer and I wanted to affect actual change through my work, would I put the Redaction Paintings in the Bilbao, Tate, Getty, Guggenheim, MOMA or in literally ANY avenue that wasn’t in a certified GOP stronghold? If this was my work and I wanted to rabbit punch the current political climate, I’d look to show the work in the reddest parts of the reddest states in literally any venue that would have me. I’d place my work as follows:

  1. Museums for validation
  2. Galleries to get it to the street level
  3. Busses
  4. Billboards
  5. Schools
  6. Universities
  7. Newspapers
  8. Taxicabs
  9. Radio stations
  10. Your mailbox

Anywhere that forces folks to see the work who might otherwise want to smack you in the gob for speaking up against the dominant paradigm, in this case Ike’s industrial military complex and what looks to be a smoochy flirtation with the end of the world.

Which generally is where this all leads.

So if you have the stature of Jenny Holzer and you’ve produced the most extraordinary of work, what exactly is the value in showing it at the Bilbao? One could argue that you’re supporting an infrastructure that needs your work to remain relevant, in the SAME WAY one could argue that militaries need war in order to remain relevant. You show in museums because that’s what you do. They bomb the shit out of Syria because that’s what they do. It’s not a fair equivalency, but it’s there because that’s how things work.

Point being, if you’re a political artist wanting to be heard, do you place your work in sanctified spaces that folks have to pay to access? Or do you kick open the doors of an otherwise closed universe and literally force the other side to see your point of view? With exceptions, museums don’t really need any specific artist’s work. Militaries are incredibly well funded and certainly don’t want our opinions. God, god can take care of him/her/itself without any of y’all needing to suffocate the life out of an entire village by jamming them into a single boxcar. However, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette could use a Redact insert! Tuscon’s KXCI could use an amazing interview and literal reading of the pieces live on air! The Dallas, TX public bus system could use some new advertising material pasted to its walls!

KXCI Tuscon, AZ

Or maybe I’m just being myopic. If I had my way I’d post the text to my own series, Le Morte de Gaia, on billboards across America in a multitude of languages. For those of y’all that don’t know, Le Morte is a series dedicated to what happens when the first nuclear bomb drops and everything that goes away. As in EVERYTHING. So when I see the magnificence of Holzer’s work I just can’t help but feel it’s incomplete, that the missing aspect has everything to do with where it’s shown and the conversations it would damn well bring about.

Finally, a few memories that have some kinda relevance here. Growing up in Cincinnati I had the distinct opportunity to not only get to enjoy Larry Flynt’s War protest insert, but also Robert Mapplethorpe’s exhibit at the Cincinnati Museum of Art and the furor that arose from Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ some years later. Talk about Blue art in a Red state. The best part about all 3 of these masterpieces of experience is that folks still talk about them, nevermind the embarrassment they caused Cincinnati, and still do.

Andres Serrano. Piss Christ. 1987

But, again, probably just myopic and my solutions aren’t Holzer’s solutions, or anyone’s. Still, wouldn’t it be something to bring her beautifully brutal work deep inside the home turf of the American right-wing? I’m open to helping out on the idea – all I’ve got is the rest of my life to bring it together! Which I suppose is the MAIN POINT of this entire article: There’s not an obvious gun to our heads, so we’re incredibly lucky to be able debate these issues and take our time before we’ve made a decision that suits our perspective. But don’t kid yourself, soon we won’t have that time, soon the decision will be made for us and at that point it’s every man woman and god for themselves.

In the interim? Art! If I didn’t believe in the power of art to affect change then I wouldn’t have written this essay, and you wouldn’t have read it. I know the idea is antiquated, especially in 2017, but again I’m fairly certain Larry Flynt had it right: Bring your ideas directly to the people and let them decide what to make of it. I can’t say in retrospect that I agree with what he did because of the nature of the work presented, but like Flynt I also believe in the power of absolute certainty. So if the good Jenny Holzer is absolutely certain her work needs to be seen by the masses, then I’d like her to take that same certainty to the proverbial enemy and see what they make of it. Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “A mind, once expanded by a new idea, never returns to it’s original dimensions.” He %@#% nailed it!