- Postmodern Jeremiads: Kruger on Popular Culture
In some ways, Barbara Kruger’s photomontage texts—red-blocked captions slapped across black & white photographs which they ironically reinscribe, like ransom notes, holding those images and their ideology hostage—make an ideal starting point for an examination of the postmodern impulse in the contemporary arts. The desire for such a point of entry has been on my mind a lot lately as I prepare again to teach an interdisciplinary humanities course on postmodernism this fall, to a classroom of majors from all across campus. There’s nothing especially subtle or coy about Kruger’s verbo-visual texts, but their power is never in question, even for students majoring in Packaging Science, Ceramic Engineering, and Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management. I can always count on at least half of my students to vent undisguised hostility at Andy Warhol’s postmodern chameleon pose, or Kathy Acker’s post-feminist pornography with a (teensy-weensy but oh-so significant) difference; but Kruger is an artist with something urgent to say, and students have no problem figuring out where she stands vis-a-vis her texts. No cool memories here, no undecidable postmodern irony, no death of the author, no Sir: here’s art that speaks to the complexity of life in contemporary America in a powerful, and relatively straightforward, way. Call it sincerity; in the eyes of my students Kruger has rediscovered the importance of being earnest in an age of “anything goes,” and in the wake of Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades, John Cage’s chance operations, and Brian Eno’s oblique strategies, they’re mighty grateful for it.
Of course Kruger is a postmodern artist, being, along with Jenny Holzer, a major supplier of those po-mo slogans that grace so many t-shirts and trendy greeting cards: “Your gaze hits the side of my face,” “Your body is a battleground,” “I shop therefore I am.”1 In fact, when Dag in Douglas Coupland’s novel Generation X complains that “the world has gotten too big—way beyond our capacity to tell stories about it, and so all we’re stuck with are these blips and chunks and snippets on bumpers,” he would seem to have Kruger squarely in mind.2 But Kruger’s postmodern slogans have always been anti-sloganist, if not indeed anti- postmodernist, in tendency. She would agree with another Generation X character, Claire, who says that “it’s not healthy to live life as a succession of isolated little cool moments,” and that “either our lives become stories, or there’s just no way to get through them.”3
Remote Control, Kruger’s latest text, collects her occasional writings over the past fifteen years, the largest group having previously been published in Artforum; there are no visual images here, outside the rather striking one that graces the cover. Here we have Kruger the teller, rather than Kruger the show-and-teller; and if Kruger the show-and-teller sometimes inclines toward the didactic, Remote Control for long stretches is almost unbearably preachy. Kruger too much enjoys what Sacvan Berkovitch has called the American Jeremiad; and while her work in photo-montage almost of necessity strikes a balance between mimesis and diegesis, the essays in Remote Control never err on the side of giving the reader too much credit. Hence the paradox that one of our most scriptible visual artists turns out to be a resolutely lisible writer, and these turn out to be fundamentally modernist texts about postmodernism. Quelle drag.
At its worst, Kruger’s prose sounds like a ditto prepared for Postmodernism 101: “History has been the text of the dead dictated to the living, through a voice which cannot speak for itself. The ventriloquist that balances corpses on its knee, that gives speech to silence, and transforms bones and blood into reminiscences, is none other than the historian. The keeper of the text. The teller of the story. The worker of mute mouths.”4 This text, published with Philomena Mariani in...