From the Printed Matter 1986/87 Catalog:
Political literature is judged more on the basis of its function or effect than its accuracy or style. Political literature depends on pragmatism and expediency, so it focuses on the specific more than the general, it seeks timeliness rather than timelessness. Yet it is for just these reasons that today political literature is virtually extinct. Immediacy, distribution, and practical results are now served more effectively by television than by books and magazines, and political writing has disintegrated for the most part into passionless journalism and bland press release prose, the literary equivalent of “no comment.”
One surviving form of political literature which still seems to bear great potential for effective change, however, is the political artist’s book. At first this might seem an overstatement. After all, the very term “political artist’s book” enfolds a contradiction. It attempts to bridge the political function – requiring action, assertion, persuasion, engagement – and the artist’’s book – a precious form, produced in relatively small numbers, for a specialized audience and market, and with inefficient means of distribution. Yet, the artist’s book was, from the start, an essentially political genre. Emerging from the heated political situation of the 1960s, the artist’’s book shared with multiples, artists’ posters, and underground literature an interest in establishing a more democratic art form, offering widespread, low-cost dissemination of art objects and ideas. In this respect, artists’ books functioned more like political pamphlets, than like the artists’’ writing or notebooks generally considered as their forerunners.
Like many political pamphlets, political artists’ books – insofar as they can be characterized as a genre – attempt to understand, explain, and ultimately to change the essential inequities of society. In particular they attack forms of institutional and individual exploitation characteristic of bourgeois ideology: racism, sexism, consumerism, and elitism. These general social and political conditions, often impinging in very concrete and specific ways, provide the impetus for many artists’ books.
In an attempt to convey in a straightforward way the specific nature of political conditions, many of the authors of these political artists’ books utilize an approach which might be termed “factographic”. That is, they attempt to isolate certain political or moral issues through the unaltered presentation or juxtaposition of factual information. Hans Haacke’s work, for instance his book Framing and Being Framed, exemplifies this approach. The book reproduces works such as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Board of Trustees (1974), which constructs a neat delineation of the internecine relations between art and economic power by simply listing the corporate affiliations of the Guggenheim trustees. This rather objective operation reveals the close relationship of several members of the Guggenheim board with Kennecott Copper Mines, a corporation with extensive holdings in Chile prior to the election of resident Salvador Allende. In 1971, under Allende, Kennecott’s assets in Chile were nationalized; in 1973, Allende was overthrown and murdered in a bloody coup and the reigning junta dedicated itself to restoring Kennecott’s holdings in Chile. Haacke presents the facts of this situation in spare, neatly tabulated panels; he seems to offer no opinion or judgment. Yet through his strategic selection, editing, and juxtaposition of facts, Haacke builds a stinging indictment against the self-serving and destructive economic interests of the Guggenheim trustees.
What is the function or practical political effect of such a work? In fact, there is probably very little specific or immediate effect. Rather what is of lasting political value is a methodology, a way of scrutinizing and analyzing and understanding social and political information. This methodology is a type of “demythification,” an investigative, critical approach which attempts to assess both the broad structure and generic typology of political texts and images. A classic text in this regard is Dorfman and Mattelart’s How to Read Donald Duck, in which the familiar Disney comic strip is read as an allegory of America’s economic imperialism.
There are many variations on this factographic approach, ranging from the fully documented personal narrative (Matthew Geller, Difficulty Swallowing or Martha Rosler, Service: A Trilogy on Colonization) to the pointed but humorous parody (Andrea Fraser, Woman 1/Madonna and Child or self-mocking surveys (Don Celender, Observations, Protestations and Lamentations of Museum Guards Throughout the World).
More loosely associated with this factographic approach are works such as Sue Coe and Holly Metz’s How to Commit Suicide in South Africa, a very moving history of the opposition to apartheid in South Africa told through a juxtaposition of expressionistic images and historical and statistical data; Phil Mariani’s remarkably complex No doubt every Salvadoran knows the difference between appearance and reality, which delineates through television images, speeches, and eyewitness accounts the pervasive institution of oppression in family and nation; and Edgar Heap of Birds’ Sharp Rocks, an angry indictment of white attitudes toward Native Americans, expressed through family pictures and indignant slogans. Through statistic dialogue between documentary images and “factual” language, these books question the function of both and focus attention instead on the underlying structures or systems of politics which provide their motivations.
At one extreme these factographic political artists’ books tend toward the encyclopedic (as in the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design Press book, Mining Photographs of Leslie Shedden, with its excellent study by Allan Sekula of the archival form of representation), in which the finite quantification and logical ordering of texts and images suggest a corresponding ordering of meaning. At the other extreme are those works which tend towards the psychological, often in terms of subtle manipulations of “objective” language, as in the case of Barbara Kruger’s No Progress in Pleasure or Jenny Holzer’s Truisms and Essays. Clearly what links these diverse tendencies is a method – one which examines not only immediate social causes and specific political events, but which also analyzes in tangible words and images the structures which allow us to perceive historical constructions as natural order. It is the critical questioning and dismantling of these structures which constitutes the authentic political work of these books.
Brian Wallis is co-editor of wedge, and an adjunct curator at the New Museum in New York City
Political Works: A Selection
Don Celender – Observations, Protestations…
Sarah Charlesworth – Modern History
Kit Edwards – 50 True Love Stories
Andrea Fraser – Woman I: Madonna and Child
Mike Glier – White Male Power
Hans Haacke – Framing and Being Framed
Tim Head – Tyranny of Reason
Jenny Holzer – Truisms and Essays
Douglas Huebler – Crocodile Tears
Louise Lawler – Untitled: Red/Blue
Phil Mariani – No doubt every Salvadoran knows…
McAdams and Miller – Democracy in America
Richard Milazzo – Semblance and Mediation
Violet Ray – Advertising the Contradictions
Martha Rosler – 3 Works
Leslie Shedden – Mining Photographs
Wedge – #7/8: The Imperialism of Representation
Jenny Holzer, (born July 29, 1950, Gallipolis, Ohio, U.S.), American installation and conceptual artist who utilized original and borrowed text to create works that explored and questioned contemporary issues. She is best known for her flashing electronic LED sign sculptures that display carefully composed yet fleeting phrases that act as verbal meditations on power, trauma, knowledge, and hope.
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Holzer initially explored abstract painting during her studies at Ohio University and the Rhode Island School of Design before moving to New York City in 1977. That same year she was accepted into the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program, where her interest in social and cultural theory culminated in the Truisms series (1977–79). The works, composed of seemingly familiar slogans such as “Abuse of power comes as no surprise,” were originally presented by Holzer as phrases on anonymous posters and were later presented on T-shirts, billboards, and electronic signs. These texts, fraught with cynicism and political implications, were followed by the more structured and complex Inflammatory Essays (1979–82), Living series (1981–82), and Survival series (1983–85), which were seamlessly integrated into various urban landscapes as plaques and signs.
In the mid-1980s, a period during which she produced a series of introspective and mournful works including Under a Rock (1986) and Laments (1989), Holzer began inscribing her texts on stone benches, sarcophagi, and floor tiles. These accompanied her LED signs in numerous exhibitions and were installed independently as site-specific works. Holzer’s installation for the United States Pavilion at the 1990 Venice Biennale, which won the Golden Lion Award, exemplified the tension inherent in her chosen words through the juxtaposition of texts set in austere marble tiles and benches and those aggressively flashing across commercial LED signs.
From 1996 Holzer expanded her installations to include large-scale outdoor light projections, choosing public locations that demanded viewer attention. Beginning in 2001, she started incorporating borrowed texts in her work, including poetry, literature, and bureaucratic documents. In 2005 Holzer turned to reportage with the Redaction paintings, a series of silk-screened canvases of enlarged declassified and redacted government documents pertaining to wars past and present. Similar to her original texts, these paintings underscore the impossibility of fixed meaning and the multiple viewpoints always present in her work. With these projects and others, Holzer continued to utilize words to question the relationship between the private and the public. In 2008 a 15-year survey of her work, Jenny Holzer: Protect Protect, opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and it traveled to the Whitney Museum of American Art the following year.