PRINT February 1989


ON THE EVENING OF June 19, 1953, the journalist Bob Considine offered an eyewitness account from Sing Sing Prison of the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Convicted of conspiracy to steal and then pass to the Soviet Union “the secret” of the atomic bomb, Ethel, 38 when she died, and Julius, 35, were the only American citizens ever given a death sentence for espionage by a United States civil court. Considine’s lengthy description, filmed by Hearst Metrotone News but never distributed, was alternately scornful, emotional, and rattled—not surprising for one who had just witnessed the gruesome spectacle of death by electrocution.

As Considine reported, Julius Rosenberg went to the electric chair first. He stared impassively as he walked slowly to the death chamber. Preceding him was Sing Sing’s Jewish chaplain, who chanted the 23rd psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. . . . ” Rosenberg said nothing. He sat down in the chair, straps and electrodes were applied, and the first of three jolts of electricity was sent into his body. Two minutes later, the prison doctor announced to the three press-corps witnesses that Julius Rosenberg was dead.

Considine continued with a description of the execution of Ethel Rosenberg. “She died a lot harder,” began his account. In fact the strangeness of Ethel’s death provided another level of journalistic intrigue to an already unprecedented event in the history of American jurisprudence. When it seemed that she had received enough electricity to kill her (the exact amount received by her husband), the doctors approached her, lowered her “cheap prison dress . . . that little dark-green printed job,” and placed a stethoscope to her heart. To the amazement of those present, she was still alive. So she was reconnected to the straps and electrodes and given more electricity. A plume of smoke drifted from her head toward the overhead skylight. After two more jolts, Ethel Rosenberg “had met her maker.” Concluding his unbearable account of Ethel’s unquiet death, Considine added, “she’ll have a lot of explaining to do.”1

Considine’s report from Sing Sing exemplifies the pervasive clichés, stereotypes, and biases that informed media coverage of the Rosenberg case. For one, his assumption of the Rosenbergs’ lack of moral responsibility, implicit in his comment on Ethel’s judgment before God, could only have fueled the anti-Semitism that charged the trial and its aftermath.2 And the “cheap . . . printed job” he slighted—Ethel’s green smock with white polka dots—was in fact an institutional version of the inexpensive summer dresses worn by millions of American working class women (including Rosenberg herself). But beyond these subliminal messages of ethnicity and class an even more gripping subtext was unfolding, one related to the issue of Ethel’s gender. In the eyes of her accusers she was not “just a housewife”: she was stubborn, intransigent, perhaps even the driving force behind her mild-mannered husband. With her stoic manner, her refusal to admit her “guilt” (even if such an admission would save her life, and spare her two young children from orphanage), and her final defiance of death, Ethel Rosenberg signified a denial of men’s authority over women. Her alleged communist affiliations seemed allied with that denial in mutually reinforcing abnormality. In short, Rosenberg threatened the patriarchy that supported the social order of American capitalism.3

Historically, an art museum would be an unlikely venue for reenacting this drama of cultural subjugation and otherness. The atrocities of Reagan-ism and Thatcherism, however, have generated an unprecedented cultural response that has included important political art and a number of exhibitions oriented toward the themes of marginalization and dissent. Perhaps none more dramatically exposes the innate difficulties of these projects than the traveling exhibition “Unknown Secrets: Art and the Rosenberg Era.” Sponsored by the Rosenberg Era Art Project (REAP), instituted to support this exhibition and to publish its accompanying book, “Unknown Secrets” covers three areas of art sympathetic to the Rosenbergs: art of the period, works made in subsequent years, and new pieces commissioned specifically for the exhibition. Commensurate with its status as a museum show, “Unknown Secrets” turns to reified art objects (including generic prints by Pablo Picasso and Fernand Léger4) to explore the role of the artist in the protests against the execution of the Rosenbergs. But this curatorial focus on the “high culture” response to the case obscures critical questions about representation and power: who controlled the media discourse surrounding the Rosenbergs?5 How might visual and written representations of the trial and its aftermath have worked against the hysterical cold war ideologies of the period? How could artists have transcended their own marginality (as in Berlin Dada, the Farm Security Administration in America in the ’30s, the Vietnam period, or currently in the war against AIDS) by serving a more public role in the mass dissemination of visual and verbal information? Rather than addressing such questions, both the exhibition and the accompanying catalogue essays, by curator Nina Felshin and REAP director Rob A. Okun,6 rehearse a range of myths about artistic sensitivity and the power of art to move people. As such, “Unknown Secrets” constitutes an important example of how issues of marginalization are themselves marginalized by the institutional hierarchies of the contemporary museum exhibition.

Given the abundant representations of the Rosenbergs in the mass media—radio, newspaper, and newsreel accounts, photographic documentation, posters and leaflets—Okun’s assertion that “the artwork of the Rosenberg era serves as a visual diary of one of the most horrific political events of the 1950s” seems myopically partial. It’s not that the high-art approaches to the case are insignificant or unrevealing, but that they were only a corner of the battlefield. Enmeshed in the cold war ideologies of the late ’40s and ’50s, the investigation, trial, and punishment of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and their alleged co-conspirator Morton Sobell fueled an explosive ideological conflict.’7 In that period of repressive domestic policies—the moment of McCarthyism—the protectors of establishment interests (including the Congress, the presidency, the courts, and the media) bolstered their support of traditional social and economic values and practices that advanced the interests of affluent white men at the expense of other social groups.8 The soldiers conscripted in this campaign for the political conscience of America were words and images—a plethora of verbal and visual representations that, like Bob Considine’s stark report from Sing Sing Prison, offer insight into how public opinion was shaped and the role that mass culture played in the process.

The kind of political exhibition exemplified by “Unknown Secrets” remains substantially indifferent to these public representations. Buying into the museum’s innate preference for high over popular culture, the shows eschew the kind of representations produced for mass consumption.9 With the exception of several posters and some of the commissioned theoretical works,10 “Unknown Secrets” is comprised of conventional art objects. The installation of the show last fall at its first venue, the Hillwood Art Gallery at the C. W. Post Campus of Long Island University, followed the static manner of the modern exhibition: paintings, prints, drawings, and mixed-media pieces arranged linearly on the walls, sculptural works centered in discrete gallery spaces. The hierarchies of the revered art object/reverent viewer are challenged only by the few new works employing television monitors or sound. The problem with “Unknown Secrets,” as with many shows devoted to radical social issues, is deeper than the projection of sentimental or estheticized imagery: in order to constitute an “underground social history”11 of marginal culture, such exhibitions would have to reorient the patrician social order of the museum.

Over the last twenty years, a sizable critical discourse has explored how the institutional hierarchies of the museum, which are durable and hostile to change, reinforce an imaginary threshold beyond which art and social issues must not mix. When New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, refused to close its doors in support of the 1970 Artists’ Strike against American involvement in the Vietnam War, and other issues of racism and oppression, it essentially reasserted its interior as a kind of neutral space that holds such issues magically in suspension. At the time, the board of directors explained their decision by citing the belief that art must be allowed to “work its salutary effect on the minds and spirits of us all.”12 Yet no one pretends that a museum visit can “cure” the disenfranchised. The directors’ apparently altruistic belief in the healing power of art was actually a statement that urgent social concerns were irrelevant to the workings of the Met. In this respect, little has changed since 1970: of the approximately 250 museums and galleries invited to consider exhibiting “Unknown Secrets,” only nine have agreed to take it (conformist as it is). Of these, eight are college-affiliated or alternative spaces.

In the work of the curator, which fastens on objects, conservation, and elegant installation, a resistance to the flux and chafe of the social sphere (and most particularly to issues of marginality) may be the path of least resistance. Despite the longstanding presence of Marxist methodologies in art history, and, more recently, of broad social and cultural investigations in the discipline,13 contemporary curatorial method continually returns to shopworn principles established more than half a century ago by Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the first director of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and uncontestably the father of Modernist curatorial studies. It was Barr’s ambition to provide analyses of Modern art that were as scholarly as academic studies of earlier work. Despite his exposure to debates on the nature of social cause in art (particularly during his travels in Soviet Russia), his writing largely overlooked this particular kind of historical specificity. By attending to stylistic concerns above all others, Barr generally produced what is now commonplace in catalogue essays—a curatorial history constructed outside political or social issues. In effect, he retrospectively validated certain sectors of the Modernist esthetic at the expense of others. While he read the abstract symbolism of Gauguin, for example, as a progenitor of German Expressionism, he omitted the activist realism of Gustave Courbet or Honoré Daumier from his historical equation.

The dualistic Modern art that Barr proposed—an art predicated either on abstract, rationalist tendencies or on dreamlike, romantic sensibilities—virtually occluded the idea of diversity, forcing actually contradictory elements into agreement in broadly defined and vigorously defended dialectical categories and movements. Barr’s reading was fundamentally motivated by his belief in the exhaustion of “representational” art, and consequently in the autonomy of art from social conditions.14 Ultimately, this hermetic style of curatorial discourse preempted the notion that one purpose of the art exhibition could be to analyze the relationship between society and the cultural artifacts it produces and sanctions. What is most problematic about Barr’s still-prevalent model is that it rarely considers the audience or the societal imperatives for art; it presumes that such issues as patronage and the social temperature at both the art’s creation and its reception are somehow irrelevant to the institutional interests of the museum. But the museum is not just a place to preserve beautiful objects; it is also a space where the relics and events of history can be juxtaposed in order to allow access to a range of social and cultural meanings.15 Barr’s and later curators’ Wölfflinian obsession with style yields little insight into these broader questions, which over the past half century have liberated the discipline of art history from a mere recapitulation of the moribund practices of 19th-century esthetics and connoisseurship.

In the politically charged atmosphere of the United States in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the museum was challenged on a number of fronts.16 Many of the early protests of the Art Workers’ Coalition and the Guerrilla Art Action Group, for example, were waged specifically against the exhibition policies of various New York museums—policies that denied a voice to virtually all but an exclusive group of predominantly white male artists.” Robert Morris withdrew his “retrospective” (itself an attempt to subvert the curatorial concept of the oeuvre) from the Whitney Museum of American Art in May 1970 in response to the continuing escalation of American involvement in the Vietnam War and to the tragic killing of four students by National Guardsmen at Kent State University; and Hans Haacke’s social commentaries spoke directly enough to political issues of patronage and art-world money that the director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Thomas Messer, canceled his 1971 one-person exhibition there in response to several offending pieces, including one that detailed the New York property holdings of slumlord Harry Shapolsky and his real estate group.18

A paradox of works like these was that as confrontationally as they treated the institution, the institution was crucial and integral to them. The countercultural activities of the ’60s generated numerous alternatives to the museum, including performance art, street and guerrilla art, mail art, and protest spectacles; and the rise of alternative art spaces in this period gave voice to a number of marginal cultural positions—from feminist and gay issues to the politics of race and class. Yet it was important to the strategies of artists like Haacke that their major installations be exhibited in museums and galleries, functioning within the system but undermining its oppressive conventions and hierarchies. Rather than settling for the margins of the art world, and of the society at large, they argued, artists could gain empowerment through a subversive relation to institutional establishments. And eventually, with pressure from such organizations as the Art Workers’ Coalition and in response to the growing importance of certain radical artists (it became increasingly clear that to exclude them would reflect a large museological failure), curators began to adapt to the idea of reorienting their exhibitions. Shows like “Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials,” at the Whitney in 1969, and “Information,” at MoMA in 1970, attempted to overturn the dependence on rarefied esthetic objects and static installations, allowing the inclusion of politically oriented and nontraditional art forms.

Such shows are the ancestors of the social-protest exhibitions of the ’80s. But these later manifestations rarely challenge the institution, rarely address the possibility of realignments that could actually help empower marginal subjects. An exhibition like “Unknown Secrets” does bring politics into the museum—indeed, the charged imagery of the show far oversteps the curatorial proscriptions that have developed out of the example set by Barr. Yet the show fails to demonstrate an understanding of the fact that the working-class affiliations of its marginal subjects, the Rosenbergs, are irrelevant to the upper-class interests of the institution, which is committed to validating rarefied esthetic objects. Conforming to the traditional bias of the museum, “Unknown Secrets” replicates a belief in the moral and spiritual efficacy of unique works of art. It ignores the important question of the action of cultural representations among the lower and middle classes—the socioeconomic sphere to which the Rosenbergs themselves belonged. An exhibition addressing that issue, of course, would not be the same show that these curators conceived; one cannot really say that they failed in their handling of the role of the media when they simply excluded it from their purview, which was theirs to define as they pleased. What one can say is that the area of contention they chose to focus on was easily homologized with a conventional idea of the museum’s spatial politics—a politics in fact antithetical to the inclusion of the excluded, the centralization of the marginal, with which their sympathies clearly lay.

Undoubtedly, some of the unique artworks of the 1950s that dealt with the Rosenbergs were motivated by a personal desire for catharsis, or by the need to vent frustration with the increasingly hopeless battle to save them. The work, in other words, is not academic, or need not be (though its emotional urgency is no guarantee of its interest). But such art could not have politically empowered its subjects, or helped the Rosenbergs, since its social hermeticism and the fact of its uniqueness would have prevented it from reaching the broad audience that had already been manipulated and influenced by the anticommunist and anti-Rosenberg media campaign. The art is revealing of a deep strain of popular sentiment, but in the end it had no power—if a criterion of power might have been, for example, the saving of the Rosenbergs’ lives. The actual powers at play in the case can be perceived breathing through testaments such as the Considine narrative of the execution. Yet “Unknown Secrets” essentially reinforces a doomed esthetic/political strategy by valorizing its poignant remains.

The problem with “Unknown Secrets” is typical rather than unique today,19 but the Rosenberg case illuminates it particularly clearly. The period of the investigation and trial marked the beginning of an effort by American intellectuals to examine the media’s relationship to the dominant ideologies of American life. In this research the biases of popular culture and mass communication began to emerge as valuable indexes of the social state of the lower and middle classes. In the ’30s, members of the Frankfurt School, motivated by Hitler’s manipulation of the media to maintain power, had engaged in similar analyses. After the war, their writing influenced a number of American intellectuals to discuss the normalizing (and hence alienating) strategies of mass-cultural representations.20 These critics began to analyze the way the media undermined the individual’s will to resist both the state and the prescribed rules of social behavior. They argued that mass-cultural messages, supported by large corporations, must perpetuate the status quo, must affirm normative standards against which America can judge which endeavors, and which people, are successes and which are failures. Thus Murray Hausknecht, for example, discussing the popular ’50s TV program Person to Person, which brought television cameras into the homes of famous people, pointed out a technician assigned to conceal a small microphone in the bosoms of the women who appeared on the show so that they might be seen and heard without the visual intrusion of any technical apparatus. His function, then, was to enable television to project the seamless illusion of a “normal” everyday life. And, Hausknecht continued,

this tactful technician—he is reported to do his job with a craftsmanlike efficiency, courtesy, and discretion—is a symbol of the main drift of contemporary society. In the dim world of mass communication and mass culture he stands out as a startlingly clear figure.

Consider Person to Person as we see it after the tactful technician and his colleagues have prepared the way. With Edward R. Murrow we look at a picture of one of the homes we are going to “drop in on” that night. Then, as Mr. Murrow turns his attention from us to our “host,” we are plunged into the interior of the home. . . . Along with the ubiquitous camera and the hidden mike we poke and pry nearly everything which is exposed to us—the magic of television makes voyeurs of us all.21

Television, Hausknecht argued, supplied exemplary (wholesome, God-fearing, patriotic) people and situations for the public to emulate. Popular culture was conditioning us for our own alienation, a loss of control over our lives and our privacy:

When the man slips the mike in the bosom he helps train us for the time when we shall willingly do the job for ourselves; he is preparing us for adjustment to a future nightmare.22

This brand of ideological reading of the media emerged in the ’50s as a kind of parallel debate to the increasingly sophisticated coordination of mass-media representations exemplified in the Rosenberg case. Interestingly, it is also the view of mass culture closest to the curatorial biases of the contemporary art museum: the media as the enemy of art. In the writings of Clement Greenberg, Ernest van den Haag, and Dwight Macdonald, an argument that had once envisioned a radical critique of the establishment’s use of the media came instead to register a paradoxical mandarin conservatism.23 The social order that emerged after the Great Depression, the argument went, was one of cultural uniformity. The invasion of our culture by television, pop music, magazines, and other mass-media forms precipitated a blurring of class distinctions that diminished the power and influence of its affluent protectors. “It is an art and a culture of instant assimilation, of abject reconciliation to the everyday, of avoidance of difficulty, pretence to indifference, equality before the image of capital,” writes T. J. Clark, summarizing the ideas of Greenberg.24 For Greenberg, “kitsch” was a danger to be fought:

Because it can be turned out mechanically, kitsch has become an integral part of our productive system in a way which true culture could never be, except accidentally. . . . While it is essentially its own salesman, a great sales apparatus has nevertheless been created for it, which brings pressure to bear on every member of society. Traps are laid even in these areas, so to speak, that are the preserves of genuine culture. It is not enough today, in a country like ours, to have an inclination towards the latter; one must have a true passion for it that will give him the power to resist the faked article that surrounds and presses in on him from the moment he is old enough to look at the funny papers. Kitsch is deceptive. It has many different levels, and some of them are high enough to be dangerous to the naive speaker of true light.25

On the class associations of popular culture, Greenberg continued:

There has always been on one side the minority of the powerful—and therefore—the cultivated—and on the other the great mass of the exploited and the poor—and therefore the ignorant. Formal culture has always belonged to the first, while the last have had to content themselves with folk or rudimentary culture, or kitsch.26

Greenberg’s patronizing and classist rhetoric parallels the inherent biases of many curatorial methods, and affirms the modern museum’s role as the preserver of an avant-garde that would continue the battle for “high” standards. Where a truly constructive practice would engage the media, illuminating their workings—and, when appropriate, their positive effects—the museum undiscriminatingly excludes them. Thus an oppositional critique is transformed into a conventional one, and a nexus of power that has assumed an increasingly dominant role in our lives over the past 30 years is left for other analysts than curators to study. It is revealing that elements of mass culture such as posters, leaflets, newspapers, and images distributed by artists, writers, and designers in support of the Rosenbergs27 are as scarce in “Unknown Secrets” as are the voluminous media attacks on them.

New methodologies are needed for allowing the museum to respond to the needs of the ever increasing ranks of desperate Americans who, like the Rosenbergs, are imprisoned by their representational voicelessness: the poor, the homeless, the elderly, the handicapped, the drug-addicted (despite the Reagan administration’s “Just Say No” campaign), the AIDS sufferer. This curatorial realignment must acknowledge that the disenfranchised most often come from a background entirely removed from the evaluative standards of beauty, quality, taste, and economic worth as defined by the museum. Traditionally, historical narratives (for example of wars, monarchies, governments, science, politics, culture) rarely consider the flow of events from the perspective of the powerless; a celebration of wealth and strength, the historical text examines the individual lives of working people only when they radically upset the status quo, or, more dangerously, threaten the dominant culture—a situation exemplified by the Rosenberg case. Yet in projects such as the history workshop movement, which, in Europe and America, has published local-history pamphlets and sponsored workshops that have brought together academics, activists, and workers, the social agenda of history is changing.28 The same kind of shift should be possible in the curation of art. And the museum’s commitment to this effort must acknowledge that the dynamics of dissent cannot be divorced from the socioeconomic and cultural space of the oppressed. A curatorial history of the Rosenberg era, for example, should also consider the public culture of the period: eyewitness accounts from people who were powerless to speak at the time, verbal and visual manifestos of the leftist press and pro-Rosenberg groups, and the media campaign to make America “safe” from these radical incursions. By offering insight into how social struggles are waged and won through cultural representations—rather than uncritically presenting historical art, and allowing recent theoretical pieces to compensate for the lack of incisive curatorial interpretation—a revised Rosenberg project could have radically altered the way the exhibition itself addresses and influences its audience.

An experiment recently undertaken by curator William Olander at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, offers insight into the way the museum can engage rather than marginalize disenfranchised people. In 1987, Olander invited the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT up) to do an installation in the New Museum’s Broadway window. An ad hoc committee from this nonpartisan group of diverse individuals committed to direct cultural and political action to end the AIDS crisis responded with an extraordinary multimedia installation. Entitled Let the Record Show . . . , the project both provided current, sometimes disturbing information about the AIDS epidemic and placed the crisis in cultural and historical perspective. In an accompanying brochure, Olander wrote:

The intention [of the installation] is to make the viewer realize the depth of the problem and understand that history will judge our society by how we responded to this calamity, potentially the worst medical disaster of the century. . . . The installation is more pointedly directed to those national figures who have used the AIDS epidemic to promote their own political or religious agendas. It is intended to serve as a reminder that their actions or inactions will soon be a matter of historical record.29

Indeed, foregrounded in the installation were a series of six compartments, each containing a silhouetted photograph of an “AIDS criminal” and an inflammatory statement by that person etched on a slab of concrete. Among the most infamous of these were United States Senator Jesse Helms’ call for the quarantining of those infected with the HIV virus and William F. Buckley’s suggestion that infected people should be tattooed in order to “prevent the victimization” of others.30 A large, theatrically lit photomural of the Nuremberg trials served as a historical backdrop for the figures (an allusion to the fact that those trials both revealed the horrendous transgressions of Nazi medical doctors and helped reshape contemporary codes of medical ethics). An electronic information display, positioned overhead, was programmed with a running text consisting of devastating AIDS statistics counterposed with examples of the indifference of the establishment to the problem.31

A discussion of Let the Record Show . . . may at first seem irrelevant to a critique of the Rosenberg Era Art Project and the art of exhibition. Instrategies employed by ACT UP are evident in a number of the commissioned works in “Unknown Secretsm” But the innovations of Let the Record Show . . . do not entirely rest on the details of the piece itself; rather, what is most radical, even instructive about this union between the voices of dissent and the museum in the installation's shifted institutional frame. In offering ACT UP the New Museum's main window, Olander was aware that their project would be visible throughout the day and night to thousands of pedestrians. Moreover, the window opens onto Broadway, a busy thoroughfare noted for economic, racial, and cultural diversity. And even if certain aspects of the piece require a special knowledge of history, its most powerful points are communicated through popular images, direct statements, and statistics. Let the Record Show . . . represented an informed cooperation between activists and the museum, of a kind that is exceedingly rare. It serves as a paradigm of a very necessary kind of curatorial realignment: a protest exhibition—functioning within the walls of the museum, supported by its curators, and sanctioned by its patrons—that communicates its message directly to some of the people most affected by its tragic subject. Such an enlightened dismantling of our cloistered, class-conscious culture might actually change a mind, save a life, or prevent the unjust punishment of people who may be guilty of no greater crime than being different.

Maurice Berger is visiting assistant professor of contemporary art and critical theory at Hunter College, New York. His book Labyrinths: Robert Morris, Minimalism, and the 1960s will be published by Harper & Row in the spring.



1. I would like to thank Terry Berkowitz, Antonio Muntadas, and Pierce Rafferty for their assistance in securing audio portions of the Considine film, which is in the Hearst Collection of the University of California, Los Angeles. A section of it also appears in Berkowitz’s The Children’s Hour, 1987, which is included in “Unknown Secrets.”
2. For a discussion of the pervasive anti-Semitism surrounding the Rosenberg case, see Rita Marion Rose, “The Rosenberg Case and the American Jewish Community,” MA thesis, Graduate Center of the City University of New York, 1988.
3. On June 16,1953, several days before the Rosenberg execution, President Eisenhower wrote to his son John in Korea: “To address myself . . . to the Rosenberg case for a minute, I must say that it goes against the grain to avoid interfering in the case when a woman is to receive capital punishment. Over against this, however, must be placed one or two facts that have greater significance. The first of these is that in this instance it is the woman who is the strong and recalcitrant character, the man is the weak one. She has obviously been the leader in everything they did in the spy ring. The second thing is that if there would be any commuting of the woman’s sentence without the man’s, then from here on the Soviet’s would simply recruit their spies from among women.” Quoted in Martha Rosler’s contribution to the RUM’ show, Unknown Secrets, 1988, in both the installation and a handout manuscript. Recently, certain historians of the Rosenberg case have concluded that the government framed Ethel in order to coerce Julius to confess. Even some accounts that assume the couple’s guilt question the centrality of Ethel’s involvement. See, for example, Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton, The Rosenberg File: A Search for the Truth, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983, pp. 102–3.
4. These limited-edition posters by Picasso and Léger were sold to raise money for the Rosenberg defense fund. In this sense, they served an important political function. Their position in the “Unknown Secrets” exhibition as significant protest statements, however, is questionable, given their sentimental and unspecific message.
5. Though numerous texts have been written on the Rosenberg case, they seem mostly to ignore the issue of media coverage.
6. Nina Felshin, “Unknown Secrets: Art and the Rosenberg Era,” and Rob A. Okun, “Haunted Memories: The Rosenberg Era Art Project,” in Okun, ed., The Rosenbergs: Collected Visions of Artists and Writers, New York: Universe Books, 1988, pp. 14–24, 29–33.
Okun writes, “It is curious to note that throughout the intensive research that went into uncovering the historical [art) pieces, I was unable to locate any anti-Rosenberg art or editorial cartoons” (p. 18). Yet anti-Rosenberg and anti-Communist sentiment was pervasive in the popular culture of the period. To compensate for this omission, Okun and REAP have completed a short film on the cultural scene of the Rosenberg era which will eventually become part of the exhibition.
7. For detailed studies of the case see Walter and Miriam Schneir, Invitation to an Inquest, New York: Doubleday, 1965; Louis Nizer, The Implosion Conspiracy, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1973; Alvin H. Goldstein, The Unquiet Death of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, New York and Westport, Conn.: Lawrence Hill, 1975; and Radosh and Milton.
8. See, for example, Paul Von Blum, “Not So Happy Days: The Politics and Culture of the 1950’s,” in Okun, ed., The Rosenbergs, pp. 89–97. Von Blum’s essay, which addresses the broad cultural implications of McCarthyism, is an important supplement to Felshin’s and Okun’s texts in the book, helping to make it more an extension of the issues raised by the art in “Unknown Secrets” than a traditional exhibition catalogue.
9. Other recent examples of this resistance include the ICI’s “Disarming Images” project on nuclear disarmament; the “War and Memory” exhibition at the WPA, in Washington, D.C., on coming to terms with the Vietnam period; and, less problematically, the “Committed to Print” show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, on protest-oriented graphic art.
10. The posters, published by the left-wing Mexican graphics cooperative Taller de Gráfica Popular, were Angel Bracho’s and Celia Calderon’s woodcut We Have Not Forgotten the Rosenbergs, 1953–54, and Francisco Mora’s woodcut Help Stop This Crime, 1952. The most challenging theoretical pieces were Rosler’s Unknown Secrets (on the relationship between public perceptions of Ethel Rosenberg and ’50s pop representations of women and femininity); Margia Kramer’s Covert Operations, 1987–88 (on the CIA plan to commute the Rosenbergs’ death sentence in exchange for their preaching to world Jewry on the evils of communism); Antonio Muntadas’ 6/19/53, 1987—88 (on the news media’s uncritical representations of the Rosenberg execution); Terry Berkowitz’s The Children’s Hour, 1987 (on the media’s indifference to the moral questions surrounding the Rosenbergs’ punishment); and Deborah Small’s Witch Hunt, 1987 (on the public language of the cold war).
11. Okun, p. 14: “My search [for artwork of the Rosenberg era]—and the later, important decision to invite artists to create new work—has taught me a great deal about an underground social history missing from the official chapters on those years.”
12. Statement released by the Metropolitan Museum of Art on 22 May 1970; as quoted in Therese Schwartz and Bill Amidon, “On the Steps of the Met,” New York Element II no. 2, June—July 1970, p. 4.
13. Writers in this mode include T. J. Clark, Thomas Crow, Judith Williamson, Lisa Tickner, Simon Watney, Rosalyn Deutsche, Allan Sekula, Christopher Phillips, and Sally Stein.
14. For a discussion of Barr and the origins of contemporary museum practice see Francis Frascina, “Introduction,” in Frascina, ed., Pollock and After: The Critical Debate, New York: Harper & Row, 1985, pp. 3–20. See also Meyer Schapiro, “Nature of Abstract Art,” Marxist Quarterly I no. I, January 1937, reprinted in Schapiro, Modern Art: 19th & 20th Centuries, New York: George Braziller, 1978, pp. 187–88: “If the book is largely an account of historical movements, Barr’s conception of abstract art remains essentially unhistorical. He gives us, it is true, the dates of every stage in the various movements, as if to enable us to plot a curve, or to follow the emergence of the art year by year, but no connection is drawn between the art and the conditions of the moment. He excludes as irrelevant to its history the nature of the society in which it arose, except as an incidental obstructing or accelerating atmospheric factor.”
15. For more on the museum’s conservative institutional hierarchies and its resistance to this kind of social reading of art, see Carol Duncan and Alan Wallach, “The Universal Survey Museum,” Art History 3 no. 4, December 1980, pp. 448–69. On the ideological needs of a museum devoted to Modern art see Duncan and Wallach, “The Museum of Modern Art as Late Capitalist Ritual: An Iconographic Analysis,” Marxist Perspectives no. I, Winter 1978, pp. 28–51, and Douglas Crimp, “The Art of Exhibition,” October no. 30, Fall 1984, pp. 49–81.
16. See, for example, Maurice Berger, “The Iron Triangle: Challenging the Institution,” in Labyrinths: Robert Morris, Minimalism, and the 1960s, forthcoming from Harper & Row, New York.
17. See, for example, Schwarz and Amidon, pp. 3–4 and 19–21, and Lucy R. Lippard, “The Art Workers’ Coalition,” in Gregory Battcock, ed., Idea Art, New York: E. P. Dutton, 1973, pp. 102–15.
18. See Brian Wallis, ed., Hans Haacke: Unfinished Business, New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, and Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1986, and in particular Haacke’s “Shapolsky et al.: Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real Time Social System, as of May I, 1971,” in ibid., pp. 92–97.
19. One exception recently was an important 1986 exhibition at New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art, “Damaged Goods: Desire and the Economy of the Object,” which questioned the very issue of how the exhibition addresses its audience and the extent to which this address is determined by the interests of the patron. Here curator Wallis challenged the social hermeticism of the museum as he and exhibition designer Judith Barry self-consciously examined the exhibition space of the museum as institution and its potential physically and ideologically to manipulate the spectator. Fundamentally, Wallis argued that such manipulation rests on the issue of desire, on the extent to which art is involved in the commodity system, which exhibitions support by heightening our desire for pristine objects. See Wallis, ed., Damaged Goods: Desire and the Economy of the Art Object, New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1986.
20. For an overview of this debate see Richard Pelts, “The Message of the Media,” in The Liberal Mind in a Conservative Age: American Intellectuals in the 1940s and 1950s, New York: Harper & Row, 1985, pp. 216–32. Important early examples of this work include Murray Hausknecht, “The Mike in the Bosom,” and Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton, “Mass Communication, Popular Taste and Organized Social Action,” in Bernard Rosenberg and David White, eds., Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America, Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1957, pp. 375–78 and 457–73; and Harold Innis, The Bias of Communication, Toronto: at the University Press, 1951. Also see Kingsley Widmer, “The Electric Aesthetic and the Short-Circuit Ethic: The Populist Generator in Our Mass Culture Machine,” in Rosenberg and White, eds., Mass Culture Revisited, New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, Co., 1971, pp. 102-19. Much of this writing, of course, underestimated the way repressive forces inhibited industrial society and controlled people’s actions and movements even before the advent of the mass media. See, for example, Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, New York: Vintage Books, 1979.
21. Hausknecht, p. 375.
22. Ibid., p. 378.
23. For examples of this dialectic between high and popular culture, see Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” in Art and Culture, Boston: Beacon Press, 1961, pp. 3–21; Dwight Macdonald, “A Theory of Mass Culture,” and Ernest van den Haag, “Of Happiness and Despair We Have no Measure,” in Rosenberg and White, eds., Mass Culture. Also see Pelts, pp. 216–32.
24. Clark, “Clement Greenberg’s Theory of Art,” in Frascina, ed., Pollock and After, p. 53.
25. Greenberg, p. 11.
26. Ibid., p. 16.
27. While Okun’s text makes reference to some of these popular images, including posters and leaflets distributed in France and Italy, they are for the most part excluded from the exhibition itself.
The greater subversive potential of mass-media over high-art strategies was the cornerstone of Ernst Friedrich’s paradigm of pacifist propaganda, War Against War! Published in Germany in 1924 and translated into as many as 40 languages, the book demonstrated how mass-reproduced photographs could serve both as documentary evidence and as an argument for a humanitarian cause. These tactics were effectively revived in the ’60s by artists protesting the Vietnam War, and in the ’80s by activists in the battle against AIDS. For more on Friedrich see Douglas Kellner, “Introduction: Ernst Friedrich’s Pacifist Anarchism,” in Friedrich, War Against War!, Seattle: The Real Comet Press, 1987, pp. 9–18. On strategies of cultural protest during the Vietnam period see Berger, “Broken Bodies, Dead Babies, and Other Weapons of War,” in Representing Vietnam, 1965–73: The Antiwar Movement in America, New York: Hunter College Art Gallery, 1988.
28. See, for example, James Green, “Engaging in People’s History: The Massachusetts History Workshop,” in Susan Porter Benson, Stephen Brier, and Roy Rosenzweig, eds., Presenting the Past: Essays on History and the Public, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986, pp. 339–59 and 415–19.
29. William Olander, “The Window on Broadway by ACT UP,” in On View, New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1987, p. I.
30. For the complete texts see Crimp, “AlDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism,” October no. 43, Winter 1987. Reprinted as a book, under the same title, in Cambridge, Mass., and London: MIT Press, 1988, p. 8.
31. For an important discussion of Let the Record Show . . . and the broader cultural activities related to the battle against AIDS, see Crimp, “AlDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism,” pp. 3–16. See also Christian Leigh, “ACT-UP,” exhibition review, Artforum XXVI no. 7, p 137–38.

“Unknown Secrets” opened at the Hillwood Art Gallery and continued to the Massachusetts College of Art North Gallery, Boston. It can be seen at the Olin Gallery of Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio, until February 5, and then continues to the Palmer Museum of Art, Pennsylvania State University, University Park (March I9–May 14); the University of Colorado Art Gallery, Boulder (June 8–August 12); the Installation Gallery, San Diego (September 8–October 22); the San Francisco Jewish Community Museum (January 7–March 30, 1990); the Spertus Museum of Judaica, Chicago (April 5–July 15, 1990); and the Aspen Art Museum (September 4–November 4, 1990).