Among the many problems that anyone interested in contemporary art faces when attempting to write or talk about it critically today is a semantic problem. Many of the basic terms of discourse—terms like “art,” “museum,” “artist,” “genius,” “important,” “major”—have accumulated new meanings, meanings that are not so much extensions as perversions or even contradictions of their traditional meanings. Naturally, this makes for great confusion and ambiguity, for it is not always clear whether the accounts one reads of various events in the art world are using these basic terms in the old, familiar sense, some new sense, or—as it sometimes seems—a promiscuous blend of the old and new. One is then in the exasperated situation of Dickens’s Mr. Pickwick, who found himself at a loss to know whether he was being addressed as “a humbug” in the common sense of the word, or whether the term was meant in a special, Pickwickian sense. Perhaps this is the place to assure the reader that in this essay the word “humbug,” at least, will be used only in its common, everyday sense.
I wish I could be so reassuring about the other words: “art,” “artist,” “museum,” and the like. But my subject—three of the exhibitions that were featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s recent “Contemporary Art in Context” program—makes this assurance impossible. In fact, as regards the exhibitions I shall examine here—“Committed to Print: Social and Political Themes in Recent American Printed Art,” “Picturing ‘Greatness,’” and “Vito Acconci: Public Places” —it seems clear that such terms must be construed in a decidedly Pickwickian sense. How else is one to understand the museum’s offering “Committed to Print,” which hitherto would have been described as a jumble of unadorned political propaganda without a shred of aesthetic interest, as an example of “Contemporary Art in Context”? How else can one explain the museum’s support of an exhibition like “Picturing ‘Greatness,’” whose very premises militate against the allegiance to aesthetic quality that the museum was founded to champion and preserve? How else can one understand an exhibition (a “major exhibition,” as a museum press release put it) of the banal, playground-like concoctions that Vito Acconci has the audacity to present as public sculpture? How else, indeed, can one account for the fact that Mr. Acconci is generally accepted as an artist of any description? And finally, what is one to make of the Museum of Modern Art itself? What does this venerable institution’s support of programs like “Contemporary Art in Context” tell us about its role as an art museum? Must that, too, increasingly be understood in a Pickwickian sense? Or—not to put too fine a point on the matter—is it all only so much . . . humbug?
Let us begin with “Committed to Print: Social and Political Themes in Recent American Printed Art.” The title itself deserves some scrutiny. “Committed” is obviously used punningly to suggest “politically committed” as well as “set down for reference.” As a glance at the exhibition makes clear, the only “social and political themes” we are treated to are left-liberal and radical themes: this is what it means to put art in “context” today. Hence, it is not surprising that “American” is used solely to designate provenance, not to evoke the character or spirit of the work, which with a handful of exceptions could only be described as adamantly anti-American. By “recent” we are meant to understand the last twenty-five years or so— the ethos of the Sixties and its aftermath. And with the word “art"—well, here we are back in the land of Mr. Pickwick, for the one thing that the agglomeration of objects collected in those pristine first-floor galleries at the Museum of Modern Art assuredly is not is art.
Instead, the Modern has offered us a miscellaneous collection of one hundred and forty-four prints or posters and thirty-six “artist books”—or perhaps one should say artist “books” or even “artist” books: the last seems in many ways the most appropriate, though there is something to recommend putting scare quotes around “books,” too, since most of the items so designated were little more than crudely illustrated political pamphlets. In any case, the material on view was produced by one hundred and eight individuals and sixteen “collectives.” The curator, Deborah Wye, begins her introduction to the catalogue accompanying the exhibition with the unarguable observation that it is “the leftist or liberal point of view which dominates the works in this study.” Whether it is also true, as she goes on to remark, that “in fact, throughout the history of printed art with social and political themes, a leftist slant has predominated” is a good question. It would be worth digging into this assertion a little, asking exactly what Miss Wye might mean by “leftist or liberal"—are they synonymous?—and whether she believes that the words meant the same thing, say, in the nineteenth or even the early twentieth century as they do today; then, too, it would be interesting to know what “leftist” could possibly mean when applied to an even earlier time—to the fifteenth century, for example, since Miss Wye continues on the same page to invoke the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and “printed works by Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel, Lucas Cranach,” which, she assures us, had “powerful propaganda value” in their day. By adverting to such illustrious names, she no doubt hopes to suggest that some of the material she has collected in “Committed to Print” might be regarded as achieving a similarly exalted combination of artistic luster and “propaganda value.”
While the hope is a vain one, Miss Wye has certainly been diligent about making sure that the roster of participants includes a suitable proportion of what we might call “brand-name” artists: Leon Golub, Barbara Kruger, Hans Haacke, Robert Rauschenberg are here, as are Frank Stella, Judy Chicago, Jasper Johns, Vito Acconci, and of course Andy Warhol, who may be said to belong to any such group ex officio. There are also dozens of lesser known or unknown names represented, as well as several mercifully evanescent “collectives” with attractive titles like “Artists and Writers Protest Against the War in Vietnam,” “Black Emergency Cultural Coalition,” “Guerrilla Art Action Group,” and “Sisters of Survival.”
Miss Wye has divided the exhibition into six main categories: Governments and Leaders; Race and Culture; Gender; Nuclear Power and Ecology; War and Revolution; Economics, Class Struggle, and the American Dream. The great virtue of these categories is not that they impose any real order on the mélange of objects on view—many items could fit as well into one category as the next—but that they establish the appropriate mental atmosphere for approaching the exhibition. One sees “Governments and Leaders” and is cued to think “corrupt”; “Race and Culture” means “oppression”; “Gender” means “sexism”; and so on. The associations are practically Pavlovian in their predictability.
As some critics have already observed, the truly remarkable thing about the exhibition is that it has managed to gather together in one place virtually every leftist cliché from the past twenty-five years. I can’t think of a single countercultural sentiment that has been allowed to molder in well-deserved oblivion; images and themes and gestures that one had thought were safely buried have been disinterred and carefully mounted. Mirabile visu, someone actually preserved all those posters and pamphlets from the Sixties! All the detritus about the Vietnam War, the posturing about cultural revolution, the pious outcry against nuclear energy, the unthinking anti-bourgeois animus applied to every aspect of American life: it’s all here, displayed neatly on the walls and exhibition cases of the Museum of Modern Art.
Thus we have Andy Warhol’s famous Vote McGovern silkscreen (1972), which features a picture of Richard Nixon with the words “Vote McGovern” scrawled underneath; Barbara Kruger’s poster We Get Exploded Because They’ve Got Money and God in Their Pockets (1984), which features a picture of a boxer being hit in the face and the words of the title splashed over the surface as if it were a cigarette advertisement; and Mark di Suvero’s anti-war collage that begins with a headline accusing President Johnson of being a murderer. There are other delights, too. Mary Beth Edelson’s Some Living American Women Artists/Last Supper (1972), for example, a feminist parody of Leonardo’s The Last Supper. “By choosing an artistic and religious masterpiece and inhabiting it with women,” Miss Wye comments, “Edelson makes a statement about the male-dominated systems of art history and organized religion.” What sort of statement? As Miss Edelson put it herself, remarking on some of her other work: “The purpose , . . was to address the moral and physical (ecological) decay of the patriarchal system, whether religious or secular, and to indicate by using women as activators that the need to reintegrate the feminine is paramount to a new paradigm to replace the outlived patriarchy.” One has to have a grudging respect for the seamlessness of the rhetoric, utterly impervious as it is to any intrusions from common sense.
Nor is it simply the political sentiments of the objects corralled in these galleries that are clichéd and muddle-headed. While it is inappropriate to discuss any of the materials on view here as works of art, it might at least be mentioned that visually, too, they represent a veritable inventory of tired and heavy-handed graphic gestures from the Thirties on down. Some pieces make use of various modernist techniques; some employ the slick motifs of contemporary advertising; most are crudely conceived and executed. But the essential thing to grasp about the exhibition is that aesthetic categories are entirely out of place in discussing it. “Committed to Print” is not an art exhibition at all. It is a collection of political propaganda. As such, the exhibition testifies to the increasingly widespread ambition to subordinate art to a species of social history, to jettison the whole notion of an independent realm of aesthetic endeavor in favor of political and social attitudinizing that draws upon the gestures and prestige of art to increase its visibility. What matters is not the artistic achievement but having the “correct” political perspective. But the question remains, of course, whether it is appropriate for an institution like the Museum of Modern Art to be in the business of aiding and abetting political propaganda.
At the end of her introductory essay, Miss Wye rousingly concludes that “these prints can help us locate meaning in seemingly incomprehensible events of daily life by removing the actuality to a mythic plane.” Let us agree that most of the works in this exhibition, whatever their documentary “content,” are by virtue of their political and social naivete far removed from actuality. But to invoke “the mythic” in the context of this grubby panoply is sophistical nonsense. Pious and cliched, not mythic, are the mots justes. Reflecting on the exhibition, I found myself returning again and again to one piece: Louise Bourgeois’s No (1973), a photostatic print with the terse negative emblazoned in different sizes and typefaces over the surface. The catalogue informs us that the image derives from a ten-foot banner that Bourgeois designed in 1973 for the striking employees of the Museum of Modern Art. Notwithstanding its origin, the piece emerged as my favorite object in the exhibition, not because I particularly admired its aesthetic qualities—which admittedly are modest—but because it so perfectly summed up my reaction to the presentation: No, No, No, No, No.
At first blush, we seem to have returned to normalcy when we walk upstairs to the Edward Steichen Photography Center to see “Picturing ‘Greatness.’” Unlike “Committed to Print,” “Picturing ‘Greatness’” is a quiet exhibition. Drawn entirely from the museum’s own collection, it presents thirty-nine photographic portraits of various well-known artists by distinguished photographers. Many of the images are familiar. Among the best known photographs on view are Robert Capa’s portraits of Matisse and Picasso, Man Ray’s portraits of Cocteau, Duchamp, and Picasso, Hans Namuth’s of Jackson Pollock, Edward Steichen’s of Rodin and Brancusi, and Alfred Stieglitz’s of his wife, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Charles Demuth. It’s all perfectly staid and, in fact, a bit boring—until one contemplates the curatorial considerations that inform the exhibition.
For while the content of “Picturing ‘Greatness’” is unexceptionable, the context (to use that word currently so favored by the museum) is every bit as inimical to traditional aesthetic values as “Committed to Print.” Once again, the title of the exhibition is revealing. Much is expressed by those surprising quotation marks around the word “greatness.” They are meant to call into question both the idea that there is such a thing as superlative artistic achievement and the contention that a Picasso or a Matisse or a Brancusi might legitimately be said to exemplify such achievement; above all, those knowing quotation marks are meant to call into question the notion that there is such a thing as aesthetic quality that cannot be explained as a sociological datum or reduced to a coefficient of external social forces.
The artist Barbara Kruger, whom the Museum of Modern Art invited to act as guest curator for the show, is an old hand at insinuating this sort of corrosive irony into art. No doubt her tenure in the art department at Mademoiselle magazine taught her how to combine everyday images and catchy verbal tags to capture attention. But now, instead of selling make-up, panty hose, and the dream of endless adolescent romance, she is selling pre-packaged feminist denunciations of a world populated by such terrible things as money, advertising, and a male-dominated art world—not to speak of make-up, panty hose, and the dream of endless adolescent romance. What she peddles as art are still advertisements—photographs with clever legends informing us, for example, that “We Won’t Play Nature to Your Culture”—only now her price is much higher and her exhortations more strident.
Given Miss Kruger’s talents and proclivities, it was only natural that she should hit upon the idea of mounting an ironic exhibition of photographs of great modern artists; and it was likewise to be expected that it would be an exhibition in which the quality of the photographs—though it happens to be high—is subordinate to the ideology that gave birth to the idea. The aim of the exhibition is not to provide the public with a display of photographic art; still less is it to memorialize or pay homage to the artists on view. On the contrary, Miss Kruger has drawn upon the aura of these great photographers to help undermine the idea of artistic greatness and subtly erode the stature of the artists they pictured.
The sensibility governing “Picturing ‘Greatness’” is summed up in the wall label that Miss Kruger provided to accompany the exhibition. “Though many of these images exude a kind of well-tailored gentility,” we read near the beginning of the text,
others feature the artist as a star-crossed Houdini with a beret on, a kooky middleman between God and the public. Vibrating with inspiration yet implacably well behaved, visceral yet oozing with all manner of refinement, almost all are male and almost all are white. These images of artistic “greatness” are from the collection of this museum. As we tend to become who we are through a dense crush of allowances and denials, inclusions and absences, we can begin to see how approval is accorded through the languages of “greatness,” that heady brew concocted with a slice of visual pleasure, a pinch of connoisseurship, a mention of myth and a dollop of money.
Considered simply as a piece of exposition, this passage invites comment: for example, is it true that the photographs on view “exude” the qualities Miss Kruger enumerates? What does it mean to describe Picasso, say, as a “star-crossed Houdini”? Or as a “kooky middleman between God and the public” ? Is this the effect of the photographs in question? Or is talk of star-crossed Houdinis and kooky middlemen merely a way of casting aspersions on some of the most sensitive character portraits of these great artists we possess? I believe it is. And consider the implications of Miss Kruger’s chiding observation that all the photographs come from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art; clearly it is meant as a criticism; but why should possession of these photographs be something the Museum of Modern Art is ashamed of? The answer is that for Miss Kruger the artists pictured here form a kind of rogues’ gallery of established taste that, precisely because it is established, is suspect.
And the lessons of Miss Kruger’s exhibition go far beyond photography. Not only is there the suggestion that the development of modern art has involved a sexist and racist conspiracy—“almost all [the artists on view] are male and almost all are white”—but there is the more basic suggestion that “artistic ‘greatness’” itself is a function of social approval, of a convergence of societal forces that colludes to elevate certain individuals to the pedestal of artistic success while maliciously passing over other worthy souls. The place of talent, of vision, of personal artistic accomplishment is nowhere included in Miss Kruger’s formula for deriving “greatness.” Perhaps the habit of seeing every genuine cultural accomplishment in quotation marks—of reducing, that is, cultural achievement to the product of ideological prejudice—dulls one’s ability to appreciate or even register true greatness. But the question remains: What does it mean that the Museum of Modern Art should cheerfully support an exhibition based on principles that, if taken seriously, would mean the end of its existence as a guardian of high culture and, yes, of artistic greatness?
This brings us, alas, to Vito Acconci. It has been something of a boom year for the Brooklyn artist. In addition to “Vito Acconci: Public Places,” the exhibition of half a dozen large-scale “sculptures” and models currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, a travelling exhibition of his work organized by the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla, California, was on view at the Neuberger Museum of Art at the State University of New York in Purchase this winter. Entitled “Domestic Trappings,” that exhibition provided a retrospective overview of Mr. Acconci’s activities from 1969, when, at the age of twenty-nine, he started working in (as he put it) “an art context.“ According to a press release, the exhibition was “the first to critically analyze the predominant themes of architecture, home and domestic relationships found in all periods of this influential artist’s work.” And this winter also saw an exhibition of Mr. Acconci’s early photographic works at the Brooke Alexander Gallery in SoHo.
Now, Mr. Acconci is one of those . . . well, let us agree to call him a performer, whom one hesitates even to criticize, for it is clear that attention of any sort only encourages him. Had he merely persisted to inhabit the margins of the art world, one might have gladly ignored him. But in the art world today mere longevity seems to confer a measure of status; and a measure of status, in turn, does much to enhance one’s longevity. And it isn’t long before even someone of Mr. Acconci’s nugatory accomplishments becomes an established figure in the art world, showered with exhibitions at fancy downtown galleries, travelling retrospective exhibitions, and—the crowning victory—a full-scale exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Anyone who cares about contemporary art cannot help regarding this as a travesty.
In order to have some appreciation of just what we are dealing with in the case of Mr. Acconci, it will be necessary to provide a glimpse of some of what—for lack of an alternative word—I shall call his works. Since the Brooke Alexander gallery has lately featured a handful of his first works made in “an art context,” we may as well begin there. These consist of two or more grainy, blown-up photographs that Mr. Acconci took with an instamatic camera, accompanied by a legend written out in what appears to be chalk describing the subject of the photographs. These are rather a come-down from the works of Stieglitz and company in “Picturing ‘Greatness,’” though in truth the interest of Mr. Acconci’s photographs is not intended to inhere in their aesthetic quality but in their record, or dissection, of simple, everyday activities like walking along a city street, throwing a ball, or touching one’s toes. In other words, these photographic collages are specimens of what has come to be called “conceptual art,” a locution that experience shows denotes not so much the presence of any definite concepts as the absence of art. Two examples will suffice to give the reader a sense of these works. Throw (1969) features two poorly focused, blown-up photographs and a panel with Mr. Acconci’s handwritten text listing the title, date, and location of the piece, as well as the “Activity” it was meant to record: “Taking photographs while going through the motions of throwing a ball.” Then there is Blinks (1969), a slightly more elaborate piece that includes twelve photographs and this explanation: “Walking down city street, holding camera: try not to blink—when I do blink, click camera, snap photo.”
The art writer Kate Linker, who contributed an admiring testimonial to the brief catalogue that accompanied the exhibition at Brooke Alexander, describes the photographs as “bold, striking, and of pivotal importance.” “[I]n a radical contemporary manner,” she assures us, “Acconci stages a crisis in the modernist belief in essences, or things-in-themselves.” And to think that it took Kant the whole of The Critique of Pure Reason to precipitate such a crisis! How easy Mr. Acconci—at least with the help of Miss Linker’s rationale—makes it seem. But who can blame him? Reflecting on these early works, Mr. Acconci opines in the catalogue that “there probably should have been more of them.” And one can appreciate why: at last count, Blinks was being offered for sale for $18,000.
Yet despite the vapidness of these photographic works, one has reason to regret that Mr. Acconci soon abandoned them for quite different sorts of self-expression. In the catalogue accompanying “Domestic Trappings,” Ronald J. Onorato, a long-time apologist for Mr. Acconci and a senior curator at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, explains that
by 1970 Acconci withdrew from the space around himself and focused on the physical reality of his body instead. Here ... in a work like Passes, 1971, where he orchestrated his movements and gestures covering parts of his image for the video camera or Rubbing Piece, 1970, where he used one hand to rub away the skin of the other arm, he found a rationale for his activities that describe a kind of dual persona: “Reasons to move: split myself in two (one part can act in relation to the tendencies of the other).” He continued to establish this interior dialogue throughout the early 1970s, ... as with the gagging mechanism in Hand and Mouth, 1970. For Filler, 1971, he inserted his head into a box, trying to fill it with his cough, another way of engaging a personalized space. He extended these reflections on one or another of his “selves,” conceptualizing his body as a container for, or merging with, animals,... or literally carrying on a conversation with himself and one of his others—his penis (Trappings, 1971).
And lest one think these “works” were merely temporary aberrations for Mr. Acconci, consider his own explanation of a “video piece” called Trademarks (1970): “Biting myself, biting as much of my body as I can reach. Applying printers’ ink to the bites; stamping bite-prints on various surfaces. Finding myself, getting to a region, the attempt is to reach, mark as much of my body as possible.” Or consider this excerpt from his remarks on Conversions I (1970-71): “The screen is dark;. . . I’m seen from the waist up. As I bring the candle in to my breast, the camera zooms in: the camera remains still as I use the candle to burn the hair off each breast and then, once my chest is hairless, as I pull each breast in a futile attempt to develop a woman’s breast.” And then of course there is Mr. Acconci’s single most notorious piece, Seedbed, performed at the Sonnabend Gallery in 1972, in which the Artist secreted himself underneath a ramp at the gallery for eight hours or so at a stretch while continuously masturbating and broadcasting his fantasies to the gallery patrons who wandered over the floorboards above him.
Miss Linker and other fans of Mr. Acconci’s work are quite right that it raises deep questions; but they aren’t questions that have anything to do with the problem of “essences,” “things-in-themselves,” or any other such weighty matters. Indeed, the main question it raises is why activities that only a few years ago would have been considered pathological—and often illegal, one suspects—should now be trumpeted as interesting vanguard art. Mr. Acconci’s activities in an “art context” may strain credibility, but they are no more incredible than the critical reception they have received. Here is Mr. Onorato again:
With Broad Jump 71 and Score. . . [Acconci] set in motion competitions involving the two women with whom he was living at the time. In Broad Jump 71, he competed against the audience, and took the term both in its lexical and jingle senses as the contest became in Acconci’s own terms: “jump for a broad,” “jump into a broad.” The clichéd, genre-determined conventions of male ownership of women as a commodity were at work here as in Score where the competition was much more basic, as Acconci kept a kind of subjective evaluation on a daily basis between his two cohabitants .... While these seem dated by their stereotypic use of gender roles, his linking of personal relationships with physical or mental competitions relied then on sets of rules, sometimes amateurishly defined, that worked powerfully as analogs for the kind of very personal choices we all [!] make in such intimate relationships.
One is disappointed, though, that Mr. Onorato wasn’t more clever in his interpretation of these appalling “works”; for to consider them “dated by their stereotypic use of gender roles” is to betray a lamentable lack of imagination and generosity. Miss Shearer does not fall into this trap in her interpretation of Broad Jump 71, which in her view “outrageously caricatures the game of male prerogative. The two women, as mere silent images, are put at the mercy of a set of rules permitting a man to live out his fantasies at their expense. Acconci mimics, and so exposes, how a phallocentric society represents women—as passive.”
By now, Mr. Acconci has left such “performance pieces” (what Miss Shearer is pleased to call his “classic performance works") far behind in favor of making large-scale “environmental” pieces, most of which resemble nothing so much as tacky playground equipment or fun-house furniture. The four full-scale pieces on view at the Museum of Modern Art—House of Cars (1983), Bad Dream House (1984), Face of the Earth (1984), and Landing (1986-87)—belong in this category. Describing his shift from “performance art” to “sculpture” (as his current pieces are sometimes referred to), Mr. Acconci has spoken of a turn from “a kind of psychological self to a sociological self” —a turn that one can hardly begrudge him, since one imagines that Seedbed would be pretty hard on a fellow after a while. As current critical fashion demands, Miss Shearer provides a more recherché explanation in her catalogue essay: “Since 1974, Acconci has absented his physical person from his work, evidence perhaps of an increasing concern with the viewer, as opposed to the artist. This shift in his work accords with Barthes’s well-known essay ‘The Death of the Author’ (1968) which asserts the creative primacy of the reader over the author.” I wonder how many viewers would welcome “increasing concern” from Mr. Acconci? And how many believe that the change in his work has anything at all to do with the theories of the French critic Roland Barthes?
In any case, it might be mentioned that Mr. Acconci’s turn “to a sociological self” has resulted in creations that deliberately recall objects found in parks or playgrounds: greatly oversized athletic equipment—a baseball catcher’s mask, for example, or football helmet—that is large enough for viewers to crawl in and on. Elaborating on the critical function of these pieces, Miss Shearer tells us that “at normal size, these objects function protectively; blown up they resemble cages and prisons. Indeed, to some, high-conflict sports like hockey and football already seem repressive and militaristic. Nevertheless, their status, their cultural role as adolescent initiation rites, makes criticizing the value placed on these all-American activities tantamount to criticizing our culture itself. This is what Acconci has done.” Tocqueville never had it so easy.
Though she admits that his “message is not and never has been straightforward or easily definable,” Miss Shearer insists that Mr. Acconci is “among our most astute social critics.” As an example of his astute critical gifts, consider Instant House (1980), which consists of a swing connected by ropes and pulleys to four rectangular panels lying flat on the floor; some of the panels have holes cut into them and each is emblazoned with an American flag; when one sits in the swing, the panels are pulled up to surround one like the four walls of a house and—lo!—the back of the panels is revealed to be emblazoned with the Soviet flag. “Seduced by a seemingly innocent piece of playground equipment,” Miss Shearer explains, “participants become, on one hand, stooges in the home they have essentially built, unaware of their complicity in spreading propaganda. On the other hand, Acconci renders the national symbols of the USSR and USA interchangeable, neutralizing the symbolic language of political institutions.” This is what passes for curatorial guidance at the Museum of Modern Art today.
Yet one can hardly blame Miss Shearer. This sort of thing is just what the art world rewards now; no doubt it was for similarly penetrating observations that Miss Shearer was recently brought to the Museum of Modern Art from her previous post as executive director of the “alternative” art gallery Artists Space. And one must also allow that Mr. Acconci’s activities are custom-made to elicit such drivel. Oh, the claims made for his work are large. Roberta Smith, for example, assures us in her review of the “Domestic Trappings” exhibition for The New York Times that “the questions he raises are significant and influential.” (Significant of what? Influential on whom?) Especially extraordinary are the claims made for the social implications of his work. At the conclusion of his essay, Mr. Onorato writes that “through these domestic things and actions and places, Acconci is very much inside the actuality of daily life, producing an art that democratically reveals to us universal aspects of our culture.” And according to Miss Shearer, “Acconci is no cynic and is possessed of a genuine, even idealistic, urge toward community.”
But the hard truth is that intellectually and artistically Vito Acconci is a pathetic nonentity; if there were such a thing as a Geiger counter to register the presence of artistic achievement, it would be utterly silent when confronted with his “oeuvre.” This in fact is why he and his champions have struggled so hard to maintain his image as a formidable artistic rebel. “His art,” Miss Shearer declaims at the end of her catalogue essay, “is as extreme and subversive as it has always been.” In default of any discernible artistic accomplishment, the aura of extremity is all he has. He is still capable of radical rhetoric: the suburbs, he declares, are “a way of getting people out of the cities, because once people are in the cities, the revolution might happen.” And he obviously has accommodating critics like Mr. Onorato and Miss Shearer who are only too happy to certify his importance by insisting on his avant-garde status. But I'm afraid that it’s a losing battle: everyone knows that Mr. Acconci’s recent works are as insipid and unengaging as his early performance pieces were outrageous.
In a deeper sense, though, the particulars of Mr. Acconci’s concoctions are beside the point. What matters is that the Museum of Modern Art has chosen to devote a full-scale exhibition to someone whose work has never displayed an iota of aesthetic intelligence—indeed, whose work has consistently been directed against the very desirability of aesthetic intelligence. The presence of any one of the three shows discussed here at the Museum of Modern Art would be grounds for grave concern about its curatorial direction; the presence of all three at once is grounds for despair. Political humbug, feminist humbug, pathological and adolescent humbug: it comes in all flavors, but is humbug just the same. And lest there be any confusion about the meaning of the word, let me refer the reader to The American Heritage Dictionary, where he will find the following under the entry “humbug, n..”:
1. Something intended to deceive; a hoax; imposture. 2. One who tries to trick or deceive others; an imposter; charlatan. 3. Nonsense, rubbish.
Regrettably, that just about sums it up.
- “Contemporary Art in Context” consisted of a week-long scries of lectures, videos, panel discussions, and gallery talks by artists and critics held at the Museum of Modern Art from February 29 through March 5. The program took as its occasion five exhibitions at the museum. In addition to the three I discuss one will find Donald Sultan’s “Black Lemons,” works in charcoal on paper depicting the familiar fruit (on view through May 3), and Rosemarie Trockel’s “Projects” (through April 3). Go back to the text.
- “Committed to Print: Social and Political Themes in Recent American Printed Art” is on view through April 19. It was organized by Deborah Wye, Associate Curator of Prints and Illustrated Books, who also wrote the accompanying catalogue by the same title, which was published by the Museum of Modern Art (120 pages, $12.50). “Picturing ‘Greatness,’” an exhibition of photographic portraits of artists, was organized by the artist and guest curator Barbara Kruger and closes March 29; no catalogue accompanied the exhibition. “Public Places,” on view through May 3, was organized by Linda Shearer, Curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture; the catalogue, Vito Acconci: Public Places, written by Miss Shearer, is also published by the Museum of Modern Art (52 pages, $9.95.) Go back to the text.
- It may interest readers to know that before Mr. Acconci began working in “an art context” he considered himself a poet. “My involvement with poetry,” he recalls, “was with movement on a page, the page as a field for action. My aim was to find a language that went with the page rather than against it: use language to cover a space rather than to uncover a meaning.” A glance at his “poems” will show that he needn't have worried about uncovering anything as retrograde as meaning. Completely typical is “Untitled Poem” (1968): "Now I will tell you the truth/I’m nodding my head./Now I will tell you something that can’t be questioned./I am waving my handsVNow I will tell you the facts./ I’m moving my leg." Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 6 Number 8, on page 30
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