- Mainlining Postmodernism: Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, and the Art of Intervention
Midway through the Reagan era, the crossing of the Great Depression’s communal aesthetics and the contemporary avant-gardes was theorized from the conservative right as a stigma of neo-Stalinism. In “Turning Back the Clock: Art and Politics in 1984,” Hilton Kramer, the ideologue of painterly formalism, sought to discredit a number of gallery exhibitions mounted in resistance to the rapid gentrification of the New York art market. Not coincidentally, these oppositional shows culminated in a year charged with the political subtext of George Orwell’s 1984. Reviving Orwell’s critique of the totalitarian state, the New Museum of Contemporary Art launched two exhibitions entitled “The End of the World: Contemporary Visions of Apocalypse” and “Art and Ideology.” Meanwhile, the Edith C. Blum Art Institute of Bard College hosted a similar show whose theme, “Art as Social Conscience,” reinforced the New Museum initiatives. In addition to showings on the themes of “Women and Politics” at the Intar Latin American Gallery and “Dreams and Nightmares: Utopian Visions in Modern Art” at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., both the Graduate Center of the City of University of New York and a network of private galleries affiliated with “Artists Call Against US Intervention in Central America” featured works that reflected on American imperialism in the Third World.
Reacting against these progressive showings, Kramer appealed to ideal canons of aesthetic “quality” in order to malign the politicized representations of “Artists Call.” Kramer’s thesis held that art had somehow evolved, in the Age of Reagan, beyond ideology: that any explicit political allusion marked a work as a throwback to a now outdated cultural moment. But not satisfied with simply dismissing these shows as a mere recycling of some harmless and nostalgic version of 1960s leftism, Kramer tried to revive a more menacing specter that had expired three decades earlier with the scandal of McCarthyism, Red-Baiting, and Cold War paranoia that reigned over the 1950s. Tying the emergent socioaesthetic critique of the 1980s to the “radicalism” of the 1930s, Kramer anathematized “social consciousness” as serving a “Stalinist ethos.”1 Through this historical framing, Kramer sought to reinstate the repression of Depression era populism during the 1940s and 1950s: a period which, in his reading, “marked a great turning point not only in the history of American art but in the life of the American imagination” (72).
Like his formalist mentor Clement Greenberg, Kramer sought to displace partisan art works under the guise of disciplinary purity: that as Greenberg claimed “the essence of Modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself—not in order to subvert it, but to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.”2 Tellingly, in Kramer’s heavy-handed, ad hominem assaults on such critics and curators as Benjamin H. D. Buchloch and Donald Kuspit, the campaign for a “neutral zone” of artistic purity—wrapped as it is in the neo-Kantian mantle of disinterested aesthetic judgment—proved a reactionary ideological program: one that, in the name of intrinsic formalism, aimed to repress social representation tout court. Lodged against the postmodern recovery of interbellum populism, Kramer’s appeal to the seemingly “apolitical” zone of modernist experimentation—to an ideal canon of formal innovation—“turned back the clock” to the eve of the Cold War: rehearsing, in a reductive version, Clement Greenberg’s 1939 campaign for aesthetic autonomy as a counter to American kitsch culture and Soviet socialist realism.3
The contempt with which Greenberg greeted popular culture and its mass audience reflected symptomatically his historical situation—which, in 1939, he anxiously viewed as imperiled by the triple threat of Nazism, Stalinism, and Americanism. The epochal shifts in technological reproduction, and collective systems of design, packaging, and distribution that now delivered art to the masses—that made every reader a virtual writer, every viewer a potential auteur, and every audiophile a nascent composer—threatened, in Greenberg’s reading, all semblance of hierarchy, distinction, and taste without which it was impossible to salvage canonicity. Moreover he regarded the democratization of cultural expression...