PRINT Summer 1988



CRANK UP THE OLD democracy machine, it’s election time again. Oil its rusty spokes, resuscitate its finicky engine, and push it into the center ring, into the circus of symbolic antiquities that serve as a front for the motors of power running the show. And what a show it is! Everything is designed and constructed around a calculated frenzy of posing, polling, and Q&A. It was the notion of the vote that laid the groundwork for the development of the mass media, and accordingly they reach their crescendo of fictive consensus through the elaborate entertainments of electoral politics. Opinion is not produced but reproduced, and candidates don’t have visions, they are visions—told and shown via our favorite light source, the aptly named tele-vision.

Beaming out lures of phantom meaning, TV reproduces and decorates a singular model whose methodology is the hologram of immediacy. You are there. This is happening now. Steadicams stalk the campaign trail, creating a rampant seriality of docudramatic proportions: victory and defeat, pride and humiliation are all tucked into a neat package of “instantaneous” reportage. The perpetual subtext that meanders through all of this is the constancy of polls and statistics, an inescapable dose of numerical narrativity that constructs and collapses “public opinion” with a kind of hydraulic ease. Television allows these numbers the luxury of constant display, in a sort of figurative exhibitionism that differs little from the medium’s production of a bevy of other well-financed figures, the “candidates,” who could be the answers to the following questions: what happens when activity is freeze-framed, excerpted from a body of events and transformed into a static figure? What happens when the innards of functionality are siphoned from the body, in a sort of sacrificial subtraction? What is this figure that eschews the purportedly real with a backhanded compliment and blasts into the symbolic with the hot fury of an ice cube? What is this word “candidate,” with its relation to the “candid,” the “patently sincere”? How does this figurine fill in the stereotypes of concern, candor, and sincerity?

But what am I getting at? Why am I loitering so questioningly and questionably between doubt and belief? Perhaps because the terrain is so treacherous, so fraught with unspeakable debasements and tumbles from grace. Perhaps it’s just a bit much, this notion that American democracy, our national anthem, could be vulnerable to depletion, reduced to a “going through the motions,” a choreography of gestures, a kind of robocracy; maybe even in this remaindered state it exudes an auratic kindness, a memory of the generosity originally intended in it. But it should be remembered that what I’m trying to talk about is not “democracy” but how it is constructed through representation; through the electronic transmission of pictures and words; through television. And anyway, how does one speak of democracy without collapsing into a treacly puddle? How does one describe this inclusive ceremony of benevolence without folding into doltish seff-parody? For what and whose purposes are we allowed to bask in the warmth of civic affection promised by the democratic model? How aware are we of attempts to appropriate this process of plentitude, to convert it into a kind of figurative deficit, a battle cry for the stingy, the laughless, the gangster? Democracy. Like all words, it’s up for grabs. Television makes presidents. Who are you voting for? Who’s on Nightline?

Barbara Kruger is an artist who writes. Her column on television and her movie reviews appear regularly in Artforum.