PRINT Summer 1981

Working Conditions

“BUSINESS COULD HOLD ART exhibitions to tell its own story.” William B. Renner, president of the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa), proposed this salutary measure in an address to the American Advertising Federation in June, 1977.1 He was prompted to make this suggestion by the hostility to which he and his peers claim to have been subjected in the post-Watergate period. Don Stroetzel, a public relations officer of Mobil, the second largest U.S. oil company, joined him in 1979, complaining: “No longer is it possible to rely on Washington’s basic sympathy for business as a protection against damaging legislation and regulation.”2

This was hardly an adequate description of political reality two years ago. However, the Mobil man’s wail that “other voices are often stronger at the polling places”3 has clearly been proven to be unjustified by the ascent to power of the Moral Majority only one year later. His expressions of fear that the voters would be swayed by “highly organized consumer groups” and “highly organized environmental groups”4 to question the presumed identity of the interests of government, business and the populace were obviously unfounded, if not meant merely to serve as a political device.

The sentiments expressed by the two gentlemen have led, over the years, to corporate policies that have significantly changed the political landscape of this country. Their statements should not be taken as atypical. They are interesting in what they reveal as much as in what they do not reveal. The spokesman of Mobil Oil, which is the most visible, though by far not the most generous, supporter of popularly accepted cultural programs, is certainly correct in his judgment that historically there has been a close relationship between the U.S. government and the business world.5 Although, according to opinion polls around the world, people are currently less willing to believe that the welfare of stockholders coincides with their own, there is little evidence that this growing skepticism is anything more than a vaguely articulated mistrust; nor, as we have seen in the 1980 elections, has this skepticism been translated into decisive political power. The “highly organized” groups, questioning certain aspects of corporate behavior, are obviously no match for the lavishly funded campaigns that business wages in the generally sympathetic media. Nor can they field a phalanx of well-connected lobbyists and political law firms, whose partners swap positions in government and business as a matter of routine. And they also cannot equal the business-formed Political Action Committees, which generously underwrite friendly politicians and may help to defeat others at the polls. For example, four liberal senators, Birch Bayh, Frank Church, John Culver and George McGovern, were all on Mobil’s hit list.6 Since their defeat in the 1980 elections they are no longer in the way of the oil interests. It is not easy for business to present itself in the role of the underdog.

Still, it is perfectly sound logic for Stroetzel to paint such a bleak picture. It would be shortsighted not to break the budding opposition in time. And the necessary resolve can be summoned only if the corporate world takes this potential threat to its freewheeling power seriously. Mobil has been in the forefront of this campaign. For the promotion of its view of the world, Mobil in 1980 bought advertising space in U.S. newspapers at an estimated cost of $6 million.7 This amount, of course, covers only one part of the total persuading efforts of the company. In 1976, the budget of its public affairs department in New York was $21 million.8 No product advertising was paid out of this. In answer to a question from an enthusiastic shareholder at the 1980 annual meeting, the Mobil chairman Rawleigh Warner Jr. revealed that “worldwide, we spent $102 million last year for advertising.”9 This is where the seemingly pure world of “high” art enters into the equation.

Contemporary social practice endows not only individual works of art but also art as such with an aura.10 Its seemingly unimpeachable “Otherness”—divorced from the haggles of the day, preserved and conserved, a manifestation of the “disinterested” human mind fathoming the secrets of the world—can, in a sober moment, be understood as an instrument that can be used to further interests neither on the mind of the artist nor on the minds of his initiate admirers. The quasi-mythical authority art enjoys, an authority too often unquestioningly accepted or even cherished by its practitioners and followers, gives art a disproportionately large power within the consciousness industry. It is disproportionate in relation to the capital invested in it and to the size of its audience.

Different from other products of that industry, works of art are approached with reverence. Even the outraged dismissal of a work not meeting the viewer’s criteria of taste is of a special nature. He or she may not react as in an ordinary, everyday disagreement, but rather as if fundamental assumptions that give a sense of security are now challenged. Given the extraordinary prestige of art, its supposedly eternal truth and beauty, together with the exultation the viewer may have experienced in dealing with it, then any sample that does not elicit these cherished responses and instead appears to contradict the accepted “universal” values must, for that very reason, be vigorously and perhaps even violently rejected. The wells of truth must not be poisoned! The howls of indignation the Dadaists provoked confirm that they were, indeed, committing a sacrilege.

The arts naturally have never been exempt from the ideological constraints11 of their respective period and power structure. More often than not they have been used as an instrument designed for the benefit of sponsors. It is no different today. The Alcoa president’s suggestion to generate art exhibits with the express intent of leading us to a more sympathetic appraisal of the corporate state has already been in practice in a more subtle, and therefore possibly more effective, way than he seems to envision.

In the ’60s, the more sophisticated among executives of large corporations began to understand that the association of their company’s name—and business in general—with the arts could have considerable and long-term benefits for them, far in excess of the capital invested in such an effort. Some of the originators of corporate art programs were, in private life, art collectors who possibly believed that while pursuing the company’s interests they were also serving a good cause. Many of the newcomers in the field are more cynical.12

An astute appraisal of the situation prompted Ruder & Finn, one of the most prominent public relations agencies in New York, to establish its own arts division, with a permanent staff to advise its clients in the use of art for their business goals and, if necessary, to curate exhibitions.13 Not surprisingly, because of long-standing personal connections to the world of business and finance, the Museum of Modern Art has maintained for many years an Art Advisory Service for corporations. Following the example of the Museum, of which he is a trustee, Ivan Chermayeff has added an art consulting department to the design firm of Chermayeff and Geismar. (Mobil is one of its major clients.) Some larger companies have hired their own staffs of art professionals who are usually part of the public relations departments and sometimes enjoy direct access to the chief executive. A succinct summary of the business rationale of corporate art programs was given by David Rockefeller, vice-chairman of the Museum of Modern Art and chairman of the Chase Manhattan Bank:

From an economic standpoint, such involvement [in the arts] can mean direct and tangible benefits. It can provide a company with extensive publicity and advertising, a brighter public reputation, and an improved corporate image. It can build better customer relations, a readier acceptance of company products, and a superior appraisal of their quality. Promotion of the arts can improve the morale of employees, and help attract qualified personnel.14

While the beautification of company offices is designed to boost productivity and generate loyalty among employees, the sponsorship of culture outside the company walls is, over the years, likely to have at least as far-reaching consequences for the art world as will sales to corporate collections. The acquisition of artworks by a company is relatively easy to justify to stockholders. Since the selection is usually made by professional art consultants—art consulting is a booming business in itself—its value is liable to increase, and it often proves to be a better investment than other capital ventures of the same company. Corporate art consultants generally avoid works their clients would consider controversial. (“No nudes and no politics.”) Mitchell Douglas Kahan writes in his catalogue introduction to the exhibition “Art Inc., American Paintings from Corporate Collections”: “It may also be argued that because it lacks specific imagery abstract art can be non-controversial. It is probably not coincidental that the rapid surge of private and corporate collecting in the 1960s accompanied the production of a large body of art concerned with formal issues—shape, color, line, edge, structure. In a decade ripe with social change, this art provided a restful interlude from the stringent demands of the real world.”15 It takes a bit more sophistication to realize that the seeming altruism in underwriting museum exhibitions, cultural television programs, concerts, etc., is possibly much more profitable. Some corporate executives who are familiar with the liberal milieu, such as Herbert Schmertz of Mobil, clearly see that in order to retain influence in government and to beat back assaults from citizen groups advocating stricter regulation of the industry, it is of utmost importance to woo specifically the liberal segment of the population.16 At present, the left in the United States poses no significant challenge to what business likes to describe as the “free-enterprise system.” It is the erosion of trust and occasional flare-ups among liberals that could, some time in the future, seriously undermine that system. This demographic segment is, of course, also the one most disposed to culture. If a large company with great exposure and a public relations problem, like an oil company or a cigarette producer, manages to associate its name with a human activity of high social prestige (art, for example), the attackers become confused and the attacks are blunted. As a letter to the New York Times put it simply—a company that supports the arts cannot be all bad. A Mobil public relations man aptly described the kickback his company receives for its tax-deductible payoff to culture as its “good will umbrella.”17

Over the past decade many large corporations, notably oil companies, have gained a considerable foothold in U.S. museums and thereby among some of the major agents of the Western art world. There are almost no big exhibitions in large New York museums produced without corporate money. Frequently the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) contributes funds to the same shows. Listing the public and the corporate sponsor in tandem gives the latter added prestige and makes it more difficult to question its motives. The NEA often stipulates that its funds are complemented or matched by grants “from the community,” which invariably drives museums into the arms of corporations and gives these sponsors a platform for the enhancement of their public image. The influence is likely to increase now that the NEA budget has been cut, and President Reagan, like Mayor Koch in New York, has specifically appealed to the private sector to fill the gap. Business may pay for only a small portion of the total expense of an exhibition, but it retains a veto, because without its contribution nothing goes. Throughout the organization of the show and, in particular, in its promotion, the corporate influence is felt.18

Taxpayers thus subsidize the greater glory and profit of business on several levels: through the budget of the NEA, through the tax-deductibility of corporate donations, and through the legislation resulting from this public-relations scheme, legislation to induce investors, through proper “incentives” (favorable tax laws, lax environmental regulations, benign neglect of health and safety for workers, low minimum-wage rules, etc.), to make their wealth available for further and higher profits.

The direction of funds from the executive suite, naturally, also has a bearing on the type of show the public is offered. For obvious reasons, corporations are interested in sponsoring exhibitions that are likely to yield the greatest possible public relations dividends. These are shows with popular appeal and sometimes of some sensational nature. They must be suitable to advertise the sponsor’s name on posters, announcements, in reviews, etc. “High visibility” is an important criterion.19 Controversy is not necessarily shunned, as long as the debate, in the end, will help to improve the image of the sponsor among the art-loving liberals it is aiming at. This, for example, is the rationale behind Alcoa’s and Philip Morris’ support of shows by women and black artists. Or the mildly contemporary venture of the “19 Artists—Emergent Americans” at the Guggenheim Museum, which was generously billed as the “1981 Exxon National Exhibition.” Invariably a sizable portion of the grant is earmarked for publicizing the event over the underwriter’s logo. United Technologies, the producer of fighter planes, helicopters and other war gear, allots 25 percent of its grants for publicity. Mobil is reported sometimes even to match the amount of its grant with publicity funds.

The catalogue and the installations are often quite sumptuous, impressing on the readers and viewers, by sheer lavishness, that they are witness to an important event. This does not preclude creativity in the design or in the scholarship at accustomed levels, and even the theme or subject of the exhibition may also live up to generally accepted standards. Recognizably deficient shows are obviously counterproductive with the liberal target group. Nevertheless such slipups do occur, giving art critics reason to question the sponsors’ involvement.

Since museums stumbled onto the road of corporate image-building, they have become increasingly dependent on funds from business. Inflation and the drying up of funds from traditional sources have contributed to this situation. Toward the end of the ’60s, museum personnel, spurred perhaps by the rebellious spirit of the period, also began to demand professional wages, and occasionally backed up their demands with job actions.

At the same time, museums continued to compete with each other for the media’s attention, with more and more extravagant ventures. Gideon Chagy, then vice-president of the Business Committee for the Arts, observed correctly, “One of the choices was not to grow so fast and big as they have.”20

Many directors and curators felt that for the sake of their own careers they had to stay in the limelight and maintain, if not heighten, the pace and costly appearance of the activities they had taught the public to expect. This certainly did not help to wean the institutions from the corporate coffers. Since most boards of trustees of U.S. museums are dominated by prominent people from the financial and business world,21 there was no clash in mentality, and the steadily growing addiction to corporate funds was naturally condoned.

Thus, by necessity or inclination, the success of an exhibition has come to be measured more and more in Hollywood terms: by media coverage and box office. Museums adopted corporate terms for the evaluation of an exhibition. Attendance figures became the yardstick, but because this was a gradual development, few among the art professionals recognized how far the priorities had shifted, and fewer still were ready to or could afford to call attention to it. Sherman Lee, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, is among the few. He warns: “It’s part of the gradual businessization or PR-ization of art museums . . . If you put hype around the visual arts and ‘market’ them you fundamentally change the nature of what you are working with.”22 Moreover, without the advantage of an historical perspective, the public did not notice that a visit to the museum also means exposure to “hidden persuaders.”

Though the relative strength or weakness of an individual museum director or curator may play a decisive role, exhibition programs and general museum policy is never totally free of manipulation by those who control the purse strings. As well, the dependency, and particularly an urge for self-censorship, has now been structurally incorporated into the museum world in a heretofore unknown way. Thomas Messer, director of the Guggenheim Museum, candidly stated: “You approach corporations with projects you believe are acceptable to them in the first place. These tend to be safer projects. The Tut exhibition is the sort of thing any corporation would love to support.”23

Although museum boards in the United States have traditionally been linked to the power elite of the country, the tax-deductible infusion of corporate money as a deliberate means to create popular consent adds a new dimension to the institutions’ ideological bias. It is at the risk of both his or her professional career and the future viability of the institution that a museum official stages activities that are likely to alienate corporate donors.24 Direct and traceable interference happens rarely;25 everybody has sufficiently internalized the rules of the game. Heavy-handed censorship is normally left to Stalinist or fascist regimes. Instead, a tone is set that ever so subtly and effectively suggests not to venture into troublesome areas. If open threats occur, they are difficult to document. Discretion reigns supreme. The fear of losing a donor is effective enough.

One cause for the withholding of support could be the staging of events and exhibitions aggressively analyzing the ideological implication of the objects on display. With few notable exceptions26 there have been no exhibitions in major U.S. museums presenting the material critically, within the sociopolitical context of its period. For example, in its 1968 exhibition, “Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage,” the Museum of Modern Art followed its usual pattern and gave the sociopolitical dimension of its subject rather short shrift. As a matter of convenience the work of John Heartfield was simply omitted from both the exhibition and the catalogue (organized and written by William S. Rubin, the museum’s chief ideologue). By and large, art history is still being written from the perspective of the owners and patrons. Art history has been influenced by those who can afford to acquire and control the objects of scholarship more than have other branches of the study of cultural history. Also typical is the Whitney Museum’s celebration of the American Bicentennial with an exhibition from the collection of American art of John D. Rockefeller 3rd, with a catalogue written by E.P. Richardson, the art historian whom Mr. Rockefeller had charged to assemble the collection. Naturally, he presented the period in which his client’s family had amassed its fortune in a way compatible with the Rockefeller view of history.27 (Interestingly, the show was staged with a grant from Alcoa.)

As the curatorial bias in the organization of historical shows is in favor of the “natural order” of things, so it is in the selection and presentation of works by contemporary artists. The chances for an artist whose work recognizably challenges the historically imposed social “contract” to have his or her work prominently displayed or acquired are extremely slim.28 More than the other branches of the consciousness industry in the United States, the established art world is committed to a rather uniform ideological fare.

Of course, this does not preclude a diversity of styles and competition among various “avant-gardes.” Neither does it follow that artists who do gain prominent exposure for their work are therefore personally opposed to a redistribution of wealth and power or to a critical examination of the underpinnings of the society in which they win acclaim. Among those whose work seems to be politically neutral and consequently acceptable are, in fact, a number with leftist sympathies who put their money where their mouth is.

The mere fact that a work does not openly display the preferred ideological leaning, naturally, is no sensible reason to call it unimaginative, lacking in innovation, and intellectually inferior. Possibly motivated by their legitimate mistrust for anything acceptable to the established powers, many on the left are blind to the creative achievements of those whose interpretation of the world they do not share. To their own detriment, they often cling to worn-out patterns, downgrade innovation and, in spurts of occasional puritanism, they will denounce anything with a sensuous appeal or with humor. (Bertolt Brecht wisely advocated the “culinary” ingredient of art.) If one is looking for a worthy tradition to build on, better it should be Dadaism or Constructivism than a so-called Socialist Realism, which was neither terribly socialist nor realist, but succeeded in giving socially engaged art a bad name. Given this, it is not surprising that above and beyond the monetary rewards offered, the corporate state has been naturally attractive to everyone who sees his or her talents recognized and appreciated there.

The dearth of exhibitions exploring the interdependence of culture and the dominant ideology of its era is matched by the lack of critical support for and debate about such ventures in the trade literature and the established American art press. The limitation of the universe of discourse thoroughly discourages the recognition that this is by no means the natural state of affairs, that this is not the only world conceivable, that, in fact, it is produced by historical forces which can and deserve to be traced and analyzed—and not only from a parochial art-world point of view.

The prevalent attitude even outside the formalist Bible Belt, from whence it received its inspiration, is once again that art and politics do not mix, and that “political art” is ipso facto bad art. Not only will you have a less than average chance to make substantial money from it, but it is also viewed as intrinsically inferior. And who wants to be associated with a loser?

Hidden in the denunciation as propaganda of so-called political art, and in its excommunication from the realm of “true” art, is usually the assumption that works that do not refer to our social environment have no ideological dimension. While this may very well be the intention of the artists in question, their subjective choice is, of course, objectively as much a political act as that of those who intentionally incorporate social concerns into their work. The situation is comparable to the nonvoter’s illusion of having “dropped out” of politics simply by abstaining from the polls. Not only has he or she acted politically, but the act has also concretely influenced the outcome of the elections. In this way does the “nonpolitical” or supposedly apolitical artist unwittingly affect the ideological coloration of the art world. The net result is therefore also that of “propaganda,” even though it is not recognized or planned as such. Ideology, as is well known, is most effective when there is no awareness of its pervasive presence.

Lately, discussions of “political art” are confronted with a new phenomenon: works sporting political imagery or provocative titles, such as “Nigger Drawings,” which no doubt affect the ideological climate, but seem to avoid the stigma of “political art” through a dandyish aloofness to the object of their allusions. Following in the footsteps of Andy Warhol, the practice of playful folkloric adoption of political styles and attitudes, ranging indiscriminately from left to right, in effect only titillates and trivializes the political implications. The work thus evades being viewed as breast-beating and “uncool.” The Mudd Club set pursues politics with the zeal of a panty raid. Senator Jesse Helms need not worry about it.

Art, like any other form of human communication, is a product of concrete social relations and affects these relations in turn. The more astute of its manipulators among corporate executives and government officials around the globe know full well that the encounter with art is not just a private, affective expression (and experience) in an historical vacuum. They have an interest, however, in continuing its romantic mystification. Suppression of its cognitive and moral components, and the promotion of art as an entity unto itself, favors the sentimental internalization of an imaginary world of “universal” values insulated from all material conditions. It is ironic and, for the artists concerned, a cruel joke, that the most intense personal utterances and the most detached handling of formal elements are among the easiest types of work to “co-opt.” Derailment of efforts to analyze the forces shaping our consciousness and social practice, by limiting culture to a privatistic, pseudoreligious ghetto, secures the status quo: this is the goal of the public relations operative who has earned his or her salt.

Although the objectives and strategies of corporate art sponsorship can be charted without great difficulty, it is still another matter to evaluate the relative ideological position of a particular work. Contrary to popular belief, a work of art communicates only to a limited degree what the artist intended, and even that portion often requires scholarly exegesis. Its meaning, in fact, has a rather tenuous connection to the configuration of its material substance. The same goes for its status as a work of art. As Allan Sekula succinctly put it: “The meaning of a work of art ought to be regarded, then, as contingent, rather than immanent, universally given, or fixed.”29 The meaning does, indeed. depend a great deal on the social and historical context in which it is viewed. The interpretation of a work, as much as the admission of an object to the realm of art, and its relative ranking there, can change radically, depending on who does the decoding and where and when the encounter takes place. The circumstances in which art is viewed, and the viewers’ particular biographies and set of unquestioned beliefs and values, naturally determine also the sociopolitical effect it will have.

This built-in relativity rules out a permanent ideological rating and thus complicates the debate over corporate and governmental instrumentalization of art. Only evaluations for a particular cultural context are permissible. Not that the manipulators are too concerned about such seemingly arcane issues; the industry of persuasion is well versed in choosing where to apply the most effective means. In contrast, the opposition (and its bewildered fellow travelers) to the public relations sweep lacks a universally applicable yardstick, which leads to confusion and in-fighting. all to the benefit of the powers that be. The problem with spelling out some of these obstacles for productions aimed at creating critical awareness is that the bleak picture that inevitably emerges could completely demoralize whoever considered plodding in that direction. Some encouraging elements therefore deserve mention.

As is well known, the prestige and influence of New York galleries and museums over art activities in other parts of the United States and abroad is quite formidable. But they have lost some of the clout they had during the ’60s. Provincial museums and, above all, university galleries have gained self-assurance, sophistication and means, and often now can act more independently than the larger institutions. University galleries are more insulated from the boards of their parent organizations, so that courageous directors, with a sense for adventure, can afford more easily to present programs unthinkable elsewhere. Some of them have the added advantage of being supported in this course by the sizable intellectual constituency they are meant to serve, which happily comprises not only art departments. Increasingly, the “safe” shows become the dubious prerogative of the large art machines in big cities, whereas the more explorative events occur in the provinces, where the stakes do not seem to be as high.

In the “colonies,” Canada and Europe, the big city on the Hudson is no longer viewed as the exclusive arbiter. The economic slide of the United States and, conversely, the prosperity of the last decade in continental Europe have certainly played a role in this development. Also a generally cooler appraisal of the United States after Vietnam and Watergate, and the rise to power of the Moral Majority, may have contributed to this relative emancipation. Thus the increasing domination of the established art world in New York by the corporate dollar is somewhat contained.

But there are structural differences too, which, at times, permit a greater receptivity for critical works outside the United States, where practically all museums and exhibition facilities are publicly funded. In contrast to their counterparts in the United States, these are run by municipalities, states or the national government and are therefore overseen by governmental bodies or their appointed professional representatives. As always, the relative strength, courage and savvy of a museum director somewhat determine how much room he or she has to maneuver. But, similar to the dependence of art administrators on the sources of funding in the United States, their colleagues in Canada, Europe and elsewhere can be brought into line through political pressure. Agencies like the British Arts Council, which are to serve as buffers between the government and the recipients of its monies, play a valuable, though limited, protective role.30

Regardless of their ideological coloration, authoritarian regimes, with a keen sense for the implications of culture, of course exercise absolute control and suppress every move that might be interpreted as a challenge. But there are obviously many shades between noninterference and open repression that comprise, in the gray area between the two extremes, the debilitating haggles with an insensitive bureaucracy as well as the administration of art as a social therapeutic tool, the needs for image-building by politicians as well as those of the tourist industry.

Popular disapproval of certain types of art, and the resulting political pressure on the supervisors of the institution seen at fault, pose problems of a different nature. While such campaigns are not always wholly spontaneous and may be just a demagogic media-hype, the issues raised draw attention to fundamental questions for a democratic society. Should the population have a direct say in what kind of culture it supports with its tax money? Is it sufficiently informed to make sound judgments in its own long-term interests? And could such interests be served, in fact, by an art that does not attract a large public? These are questions that are still academic in a country where museums are private institutions ruled by boards of trustees at their own discretion. Different from other membership organizations, these boards are not even answerable to the dues-paying members of the museums.31 Nor do the indirect public subsidies they receive through their exemption from taxation, the tax deductibility of donations and the direct support through public grants, diminish their legal autonomy. As has been demonstrated above, however, this legal independence should by no means be understood as genuine autonomy or, for that matter, ideological neutrality, if there were such a thing.

While supervision through governmental agencies can be disastrous, in a liberal environment it harbors the potential for a freedom of movement presently unimaginable in the larger institutions of the United States. In a few European countries one does, indeed, encounter places with a sufficiently ingrained spirit of liberality and tolerance for nonconformist views and a politically enlightened and assertive art public. Particularly encouraging is the lack of uniformity: exhibitions that are unthinkable in the institutions of one city may quite easily go on in the neighboring city, and this with ample promotion.32 Traces of the rebellion of the ’60s, in spite of an unmistakable backlash, can still be felt, and they preserve a climate, here and there, in which the exclusion of divergent points of view is politically inopportune. A few cultural bureaucracies are even sympathetic to (and others at least do not interfere with) the decisions of determined professional subordinates. Critique of ideology and social practice is far from generally accepted, but the room to move is potentially greater.

An example might serve to illustrate the atmospheric difference: early in 1979 the Stedelijk van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Holland, a municipal institution, presented in its central exhibition hall two large works openly questioning the business practices of Philips in Iran and South Africa. Philips, the fourth largest non-American multinational company, maintains its world headquarters in Eindhoven. It is the biggest private employer of the city and of the Netherlands. Only the local newspaper cautiously side-stepped the issues raised in the two works. However, they were covered extensively and sympathetically in the daily and weekly national press. Some of the commentators even pursued the critical spirit of the two works in prodding the company into an embarrassed comment, which they gleefully reported.33

In New York, no curator in his or her right mind would currently dare to stage a show of a similar nature—say, an exhibition exploring the Chase Manhattan Bank’s financing of South Africa’s apartheid regime.34 While the curator’s European colleague is a civil servant with tenure, the New Yorker might be dismissed from one day to the next for an attitude that, according to prevalent standards, would amount to insubordination. The situation in Eindhoven is not typical, but quite a few examples of a similar nature could be listed.35 Neither would it be difficult, though, to enumerate episodes of accommodation with the powers that be matching those in the United States.

Cologne, for example, has a history of submission to private sponsors. Most conspicuous is the servility of the city’s art establishment toward the chocolate manufacturer Peter Ludwig. Through strategic placement of parts of his art collection, under stringent conditions, he exerts as a private individual considerable power in the public museums of Cologne as well as in other European cities (Vienna, Basel, etc.). Peter Ludwig’s influence would increase significantly if his 1980 proposal for a “Ludwig Foundation” of national scope were enacted. While he is to donate, according to the draft agreement that became public in the fall of 1980,36 an as yet unnamed number of artworks from his collection, the city of Cologne is to give up ownership of its new museum of modern art and jointly fund the foundation, together with the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and the government in Bonn (speculations about the annual budget range from $3 to 15 million). Peter Ludwig would be, the chairman of this publicly subsidized foundation. He would retain a veto for ten years in all questions relating to the works he donated. As a private individual he would in effect accumulate unmatched powers over the art world in West Germany and beyond, because the purpose of the foundation is not only the curatorial care of his collection, for which Ludwig would save payment of several hundred-thousand dollars in property taxes annually—the foundation, under his chairmanship, would also be in the business of buying art, organizing exhibitions, providing or denying loans and promoting “regional, national and international measures in the visual arts and related areas.” While his prospective partners have so far responded favorably to Ludwig’s proposal and have entered into negotiations with him, the echo in the German press has been predominantly critical of the power-grab it fears. Spearheaded by Dr. Werner Schmalenbach of the Landesgalerie in Düsseldorf, the heads of art institutions in West Germany have also vigorously warned against acceptance of the terms of the draft agreement.

Commercial galleries in New York still are the primary source for the material one eventually comes to see in the city’s museums. Rarely do works appear in the large institutions before they have been tried out on the market. To a considerable degree, curators educate themselves specifically in the commercial outlets of contemporary art. Conversely, gallery people acquire a sense for what is potentially interesting not only to private collectors but also to institutional buyers. Thus the odds are against productions that are difficult or impossible to market.

It is all the more surprising therefore that there are a number of notable exceptions to the rule. This may have to do with the benefits of notoriety derived from “controversial”—though not hot-selling—shows, although potential sales abroad, where the works’ implications might not be felt as sharply or even be accepted as something exotic and titillating, may lure. But it could have something to do also with the particular gallery owner’s personal attachment to and notions about art. Unless they are independently wealthy, dealers obviously must look at works of art as merchandise. Initially, however, at least for a good number of them, their professional motivation was primarily not so much the lure of becoming successful in business but rather the entry into what they perceived as an unconventional, sensuously rewarding world of high-risk mental adventure with a venerable history. Moral and intellectual commitment, tenacity and courage in the face of adversity seemed to be required. These qualities and the original enthusiasm are exposed to considerable wear in day-to-day affairs, buffeted about by the need for economic survival and by natural disillusionment. Over the years priorities of mental speculation for little monetary gain tend to be exchanged for speculation with assets for a high financial return. Still, for a minority of dealers, the spirit of high-mindedness lingers on, and among those are also a few with a sense for art as an express social agent. Obviously it is easier for them to adopt such a stance if their income is assured through sales of works of a different nature.

Attendance in these galleries can easily reach 1500 people for an exhibition. In a survey37 in one of the galleries in question more than two-thirds of its public claims to have a professional interest in art. Art students constitute a major element in that group. The majority of the gallery-goers have a college education and, with the exception of students and young artists, are financially at ease. The collectors who keep the gallery in business make up only a small percentage of its audience. Contemporary art galleries attract a generally liberal public, with a sprinkling of people with leftist attitudes.

In spite of little coverage in the trade journals, works of sociopolitical engagement do occasionally reach an audience in New York through commercial galleries. The mistrust and hostility some may feel toward these marketing outlets should not make one overlook their potential for distribution, particularly since their public clearly constitutes a segment of the target group that the corporations are trying to keep under their spell. The boundaries of the art world are porous: “High art,” as Martha Rosler points out, “is a feeder system, however distorted, for mass culture.”38 The peculiar composition of the high-art audience suggests that it comprises people who could become or already are important allies in resisting the tide of corporate brainwashing. It is unwise to reject them as “elitists.” They deserve a critical art as much as other audiences.

Exhibitions in commercial galleries can generate invitations for similar undertakings in university galleries and other exhibition facilities around the country and abroad, with potentially large audiences. Given the peculiar workings of the contemporary art system, the “certification” through galleries—aside from the galleries’ own capacity to amplify alternative modes of thinking—can also lead to teaching positions and speaking engagements, and even encourage sympathetic individuals in grant-giving agencies to act favorably without jeopardizing their positions. In short, the economic foundation for further adventures could be laid by unhesitatingly exploiting the habits and following the maneuvers of the established art world in its promotion of works of other persuasions.

Apart from the conventional places for reaching an audience, some artists have successfully tried other avenues. Occasionally, for example, the small nonprofit organizations growing in the New York Soho milieu (The Kitchen, Franklin Furnace, Printed Matter, etc.) and equivalent operations elsewhere offer a forum.39 President Reagan’s cuts of the NEA budget are likely to hurt these small institutions more than they will hurt museums. Quite possibly this has been done deliberately. The President’s proclamation that the government should not be engaged in social change will thus bring about just such changes for artists (as well as for the millions whose lives will be adversely affected by cuts in social programs to the benefit of the military-industrial complex). Recently, groups of younger artists have tried with some success to organize their own exhibition outlets outside the established circuit. Cooperative ventures obviously give valuable encouragement and protection.

Intriguing in a different way are precedents for collaboration with labor unions40 and other organizations pursuing compatible goals. Unfortunately, the leadership of such groups is frequently so overwhelmed by the daily demands of practical politics that it cannot devote enough attention to long-term efforts to change the ideological environment in its favor, provided it does have a theoretically informed overview. Different from well-heeled politicians and their corporate art directors, this leadership often does not understand how communication in a media-saturated environment works. On the artists’ side, these deficiencies of the potential partner are often matched by a serious lack of insight into the complexities of practical politics and the mentality of nonart audiences. Klaus Staeck, in West Germany, is probably the most experienced in working both inside and outside the art world in this regard.

Although with conflicting aims, the right argues as much as the orthodox left against the introduction of socially critical works into established art institutions, branding such enterprises as either “subversion” or “co-optation.” Both seem to be concerned with purity. Contradicting its own rhetoric about the “free market-place of ideas,” the right demands the “rejection of an alien substance”41 in order to protect its accustomed turf. On the other side, a poor understanding of the consciousness industry and the diverse expectations of its disparate audience leads the orthodox left to self-destructive and sectarian ghettoization.

Referring to the Kassel Documenta, Oskar Negt, a West German sociologist, pointedly said: “I do not believe one should leave the bourgeois media to the right.”42 It would be an inestimable loss if artists acquiesced in the domination of the art world by corporate interests. If our interpretation of the world is influenced by what we see and hear, and if the consciousness industry is providing a large part of these stimuli, then any attempt to contribute to the shaping of the collective view of our social relations inevitably requires an aggressive and cunning participation in that industry, wherever it appears possible and suitable—outside, as well as inside, the established art world. However, it would be naive to assume that such efforts succeed easily and could yield immediate and traceable results. Like the corporate campaigns, one can only hope for long-term effects on the ideological complexion of society, in concert with parallel developments outside the art world. Art is in fact a minor—although, because of its social prestige, not an entirely negligible—agent in the formation of our consciousness. Under the heading “How Art Makes Us Feel at Home in the World,” John Russell, the New York Times critic, explained recently: “It is fundamental to the white magic of art that it does away with the nightmare of disorientation. Not only does art tell us who we are, but it tells us—or it used to tell us—where we are.”43

Artists supposedly know a lot about art, and are emotionally committed to this “vocation,” which they chose, among other reasons, because they perceived it as an alternative to the corporate value system. It is then their own turf, which they have to defend against the public relations mercenaries and their paymasters. They could turn their alienation, aggressively, into a socially productive resource.

Hans Haacke is an artist who lives in New York.



1. Context of quote "Street theatre . . . serious theatre . . . music . . . art . . . architecture . . . comic books . . .—all can be powerful communicators. In 1969, a conceptual artist named Christo wrapped the entire rocky coast at Little Bay, Australia, in cloth (a million square feet of surface area) to change our understanding of sculpture, nature and technology. More recently, he extended a high curtain across the valley of Rifle Cap, Colorado. The curtain included a hole for cars traveling in the valley to pass through. In the same vein, business could hold art exhibitions to tell its own story. We might, for example, include fifty-foot, inflated vinyl replicas of a machine gear and a loaf of bread to caricature the effect of inflation on the price of machine tools and food.

"Outrageous, perhaps. But it might be effective, and it would at least demonstrate that business isn’t afraid of new ideas.

“Faced with the task of selling ideas on an unprecedented scale, we mustn’t overlook any possibilities. Advertising and creative people have got to start mapping out this frontier. And business will find the creative thinkers that have the best maps.” Remarks by W.B. Renner before the American Advertising Federation, Washington. D C., June, 1977, Excerpt from company transcript, p. 5.

2. Don Stroetzel, “Speaking Out: Risk and Reward,” address to the American Association of Advertising Agencies, Annual Meeting, May 17, 1979, p. 2.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. See Charles E. Lindblom, Politics and Markets—The World’s Political- Economic System, New York, 1977.

6. According to records of the Federal Elections Committee, opponents of these four senators received campaign funding from the Political Action Committees of Mobil and its subsidiaries.

7. Advertising Age, New York, Sept. 11, 1980.

8. Irwin Ross, “Public Relations Isn’t Kid-Glove Stuff at Mobil,” Fortune, September, 1976, p. 110.

9. Condensed report of the proceedings of the annual meeting of stockholders, May 8, 1980. Mobil Corporation, New York. p. 19.

10. It does so in spite of Walter Benjamin’s belief in the dissolution of that aura in the age of mechanical reproduction. This prediction is most notably contradicted by the status photography has gained recently.

11. The term “ideology” is used throughout this article without the negative Marxian implication of “false consciousness.”

12. Paul H Elicker, President of SCM Corporation: “And I can tell you that with the $150,000 a year we have allocated to our arts program, we are getting a lot more for our money than we would from a comparably priced ad campaign $150,000 would buy 2 1/2 minutes a year on national television—and such a one-time effort can hardly be considered an ad campaign Paul H. Elicker. ”Why SCM supports art exhibitions," American Artist, October 1978, p. 26.

13. For example, Ruder and Finn developed on behalf of Mobil the idea for a show of American posters, hired the curators and remained closely involved with the planning. Other clients are Springs Mills and Philip Morris.

14. David Rockefeller, “Culture and the Corporation,” speech to the National Industrial Conference Board, Sept. 20, 1966.

15. Art Inc., American Paintings from Corporate Collections, Montgomery. Ala.: Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, 1979, p. 35.

16. Herbert Schmertz worked in the 1960 presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy and was advance man for Robert Kennedy’s 1968 campaign (on leave from Mobil). In 1980 he served as media consultant for Edward Kennedy. Rawleigh Warner, the chairman of Mobil, explains that one of the company’s reasons for promoting Schmertz to Vice President of Public Affairs was his “ability to talk to the Democratic side of the House and the Senate and to know some of those people—particularly some of those people we never, never would see before—the liberal element of the Democratic side.” Quoted in Robert Sherrill, “Mobil News That’s Fit to Print,” The Nation, Jan. 27, 1979, p. 71.

17. Raymond d’Argenio, manager of public relations at Mobil, in his address, “Farewell to the Low Profile,” before the Eastern Annual Conference of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, New York, Nov. 18, 1975, transcript, p. 3

18. Even the tape one hears on the telephone, in answer to an inquiry about the Whitney Museum’s current program, announces with each exhibition the corporation that underwrote it.

19. “Not only are we careful to see that as many attendees as possible recognize our part in the exhibition but we are very interested in getting media coverage to extend that recognition. I can’t overstate the importance of this to us, or to any company that sponsors an exhibition or other cultural event. (They may tell themselves their sponsorship is altruistic, but it isn’t.)” Paul H. Elicker, “Why Corporations Give Money to the Arts,” The Wall Street Journal, March 31, 1978, p. 18.

20. Transcript of taped panel discussion “Corporate Support (A Positive or Negative Influence on the Arts),” at the New Museum, New York, Nov. 3, 1979.

21. Guggenheim Museum; President, Peter O. Lawson-Johnston (mining company executive, represents Guggenheim family interests on numerous corporate boards).
Metropolitan Museum: Chairman, C. Douglas Dillon (prominent investment banker). Vice Chairmen, Daniel P. Davison (banker, Morgan Guaranty Trust Co.), J. Richards on Dilworth (investment banker, Rockefeller & Family Associates), Roswell L. Gilpatrick (partner, Crawath, Swaine & Moore, prominent New York law firm).
Museum of Modern Art: President, Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd . Chairman, William S. Paley (chairman, CBS). Vice Chairmen, Gardner Cowles (publisher; chairman, Cowles Communications Inc.), David Rockefeller (until April 1980 chairman, Chase Manhattan Bank).
Whitney Museum: President, Flora Miller Irving (granddaughter of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney). Chairman, Howard Lipman (managing partner, Neuberger & Berman, securities company).

22. Quoted from Carol MacGuineas, “Blockbuster Exhibitions: Hype or Hope for Museums?” Cultural Post, Washington, D.C.: National Endowment for the Arts, September-October 1979, p. 8.

23. Quoted in Robert Metz, “The corporation as art patron: a growth stock,” Art News, May 1979, p. 46.

24. In 1971 Edward Fry was fired as a curator of the Guggenheim Museum when he publicly defended the exhibition of works by the author dealing with New York real estate business. The exhibition was cancelled by Thomas Messer, the museum’s director, six weeks before its scheduled opening.

25. One documented instance, not from the art world, is the nonrenewal of a $50,000 grant Mobil gave annually to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. The oil company objected to the promotion of Chris Welles to be head of the program that was the beneficiary of the grant, because he had written a book critical of the oil industry. “Columbia Says Mobil Oil Will End Aid for Project in Dispute over Director,” The New York Times, July 19, 1977.

26. Patricia Hills curated two shows of 19th- and early 20th-century American art at the Whitney Museum. The Film and Video Program of the same museum also occasionally serves as an outlet.

27. The Catalogue Committee of Artists Meeting for Cultural Change published in 1977 An Anti-Catalogue as a critique of this exhibition and its catalogue.

28. George F. Will, a columnist belonging to the journalistic entourage of President Reagan, identifies with “the wise fellow who said that artists making fun of businessmen remind him of a regiment in which the band makes fun of the cook.” Washington Post, Nov. 30, 1979.

29. Allan Sekula, “Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary (Notes on the Politics of Representation),” Massachusetts Review, Vol. XIX. No. 4, Winter 1978, p. 859.

30. From the author’s own experience: In 1978 the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, exhibited A breed apart, a work Questioning British Leyland’s nonrecognition of black trade unions in South Africa and its supply of Land Rovers to the police and military of that country. Leyland, the largest British automobile manufacturer, is owned by the British government. It has a large plant in Cowley, on the outskirts of Oxford. Together with the Anti-Apartheid Movement in London, the Museum published the first of the seven panels comprising A breed apart as a poster in an edition of 1,500. The Museum in Oxford is financed by the British Arts Council and so are all the exhibition facilities where the work was shown around England alter its premiere in Oxford.

Equally, the work of Victor Burgin and other British artists with critical attitudes has been exhibited frequently in institutions funded by the British Arts Council. On the other hand, a print by Conrad Atkinson was deliberately kept out of an exhibition organized by the British Arts Council. In the print Atkinson made a connection between Thalidomide; its manufacturer, Distillers Ltd.; and the royal warrant that appears as a sign of approval on the bottles of alcoholic beverages and other products by the same company.

31. The Kunstverein in West Germany are membership organizations for the staging of art exhibitions. Their boards are elected by the members. During the 70s the relatively conservative boards of the Kunstverein in Hamburg and in Frankfurt were voted out of office and replaced by boards more representative of the membership’s shift to a moderate left position. The Kunstverein in West Berlin split into two rival organizations over similar ideological differences.

32. From the author’s own experience: In 1974 the Cologne Wallraf-Richartz, Museum banned Manet-PROJEKT 74, a large work, for obvious economic and political reasons. Two years later it was prominently displayed at the Kunstverein in Frankfurt. Both institutions are funded by their respective cities and both councils, at the time, were dominated by the Social Democratic Party. Before the Frankfurt exhibition, the piece had been shown in a commercial gallery in Cologne (PaUl Maenz), at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London and the Paiais des Beaux-Arts of Brussels. Later it was also exhibited at the Badischer Kunstverein in Karlsruhe, the Kunsthalle in Dusseldorf, the Musee d’Art Moderne de ra Ville de Paris, the Stedehik van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven and the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst in Ghent.

33. Again from the author’s own experience: Philips representatives were Quoted in Marianne Brouwer, “IK wil de dingen spannend houden; de politieke kunst van Hans Haacke,” Haagse Post, Amsterdam, Feb. 3, 1979, and Frits Bless, “Hans Haacke,” De Tijd, Amsterdam, Feb. 7, 1979.

34. See: “U.S. Bank Loans to South Africa,” a booklet published by the Corporate Data Exchange, New York, 1978.

35. Two examples from the author’s own experience: In 1972 the Museum Haus Lange in Krefeld, West Germany, exhibited a large work exposing the City of Krefeld’s longstanding practice of discharging its sewage untreated into the Rhine. The museum is a municipal institution. Also, the Kunstverein in Frankfurt, subsidized from public funds, exhibited two works that questioned the State of Hesse’s practice of the Berufsverbot on constitutional grounds. Frankfurt is the largest city of Hesse. One of the two cases exposed was that of a person from Frankfurt, The Social Democratic Party, at the time, dominated both the city council and the state government.

36. The agreement is titled, “Urkunde über die Errichtung der Stiftung Ludwig zur Sörderung der Bildenden Kunst uno Zerwandter Gediete.”

37. The author’s John Weber Gallery Visitors’ Profile I and II. Full results reproduced in Hans Haacke, Framing and—Being Framed: 7 works 1970–75. Halifax, Nova Scotia, and New York, 1975.

38. Quoted from Martha Rosler, “What Do I Feel Should be the Attitude of the Politically Committed Artist to ‘the Gallery’?”, unpublished statement, p. 3.

39. In West Germany, two artist-operated nonprofit “galleries” come to mind: Dieter Hacker’s Produzentengalerie in West Berlin, and Bernard Sanford’s Augenladen in Mannheim.

40. Fred Lonidier has exhibited his “Health and Safety Game” widely to labor audiences, as well as in art institutions.

41. Thomas Messer, director of the Guggenheim Museum in “Guest Editorial,” Arts Magazine, summer 1971, p.5. The article defends the cancellation of the author’s one-person show six weeks before the scheduled opening at the museum.

42. “Ich halte nichts davon, die bürgerlichen Medien rechts liegen zu lassen,” in Kunst und Medien, Materialien zur Documenta 6, p. 193.

43. John Russell, “How Art Makes Us Feel at Home in the World,” the New York Times, April 12, 1981, section II, page 1.