PRINT January 1990


TO HAVE AN EFFECT, art must find an audience. To find an audience, it generally not only makes its peace with art-world institutions but actively collaborates with them. By collaborating with the most powerful institutions in its immediate neighborhood, art compromises its attack on the institutions of the larger society.

Critics often praise art for offering a critique of institutions, especially those of the commercial media, and it’s true that artists have labored to supply the criticism that institutions so obviously need. They have also tried to circumvent the necessity of collaboration with those institutions: in certain kinds of Conceptual work, in such forms as mail and Xerox art, in graffiti, in street performance, and other such. But I am talking from the perspective of the end of the ’80s, a decade when the traditional esthetic means of painting and sculpture—often, moreover, of representational painting and sculpture—have been reinvigorated by the market to the exclusion of less tractable forms. And when I look at painting or sculpture, or even at much of today’s photography-based work, that purports to lay bare the tactics of representation, I see images that favorably inclined viewers agree to understand as assaults on institutional power but that threaten the efficient workings of no institution in the art world or outside it. Such images can give us the look but not the fact of a forceful image-critique. They can pantomime an attack on their declared target but cannot carry one out, because the means by which they represent an institution—or, indeed, anything—are institutionally approved. Unless an image conforms in this way, art institutions marginalize it, with ever-increasing efficiency.

I believe that art as we know it—art as construed by the institutions of the art world—is capable of representing in an effective way only one institution, that of the artist’s public self. Moreover, I believe that the chore of representing that sort of self has supplied Western art with its chief purpose for over two centuries. I am not proposing art as inherently expressionist, nor, when I talk of the artist’s self, do I mean some ineluctably inward source of pure creativity or original genius. On the contrary, I mean something thoroughly outward: an institution similar in many ways to the entity known as a corporation, a nonperson that bears a person’s name but for the sake of clarity must never be confused with that person.

We ought to take it as axiomatic that every artist who has come to our attention is, to some degree, an institutional figure. When an artist achieves institutional status, his or her self aggrandizes its scale and takes on the impersonality of an emblem. This institutional version of the self still displays characteristic personal traits, but they are now formulized, even conceptualized. In this incarnation, the artist finds that he or she can deal with a museum or gallery as one institution to another—that is, from a position that permits at least the hope of equality. I find that the artists best at exploiting their institutional status are usually the least likely to acknowledge it. Though understandable, this is lamentable, for artists cannot scrutinize institutional selves they refuse to recognize.

Robert Longo’s Joker: Force of Choice, 1988, is a Cor-Ten steel wall sculpture over nine feet high. Between its four parts, negative space has the shape of a truncated cross. The parts themselves compose a four-pointed star, though each point is also truncated, the lowest one drastically. Joker looks mutilated. At the same time, in its symmetries and even geometries, it also looks whole. The unity of its form pays homage to Minimalism’s physical and intellectual inertia, but extraartistic references emerge as well: Joker’s stasis gives it the air of a logo, an emblem of one of those corporations that inspires a mix of respect and distrust. The sculpture’s surfaces are like blades; its overall shape suggests not only a star but the head of a mace. Taut to the point of brittleness, Joker is unstable. It induces uneasiness.

A proper logo always makes the same reassuring point, whether it appears as a patch of color on a piece of stationery or as a massive chunk of metal at the entrance to a corporate tower. Endlessly adaptable, it has no scale. By contrast, Longo’s Joker demands to be the size it is, so that its cold but velvety Cor-Ten surfaces can exert their seductive allure. So that the mass of its steel can be weighty enough to remind us of works that Richard Serra made in the days when he admitted to pursuing an esthetic of threat. So that eventually the understanding will creep upon us that Joker has the presence of a monumental figure. If it were figurative, it would represent the personification of some corporate institution—Lee Iacocca, Reddy Kilowatt, or any of a crowd of others. But Joker is nonfigurative, or, better, it is a warped personification. It bends the structure of the trope, advancing instead of obscuring the abstract, bureaucratic nature of the sort of entity it personifies. Unlike other personifications, Joker admits to representing a nonperson.

Longo first gained notice for his “Men in the Cities,” 1980–87, a series of outsized drawings of figures whose distress is ambiguous but whose look is definitely corporate. Each has individual characteristics, but these are superfluous according to the standards (ironically) implied by the large scale and anonymous style of the drawings. And the figures’ faces are often obscured, or twisted away from the viewer by contorted body postures. These people count as nonpersons, as institutionalized selves, representatives of some larger, enveloping nonperson: a corporate entity. Longo’s men and women in the cities are logos in flesh, though they are able to perform as logos only because their flesh is hidden by the certain way they dress—dress for success.

There is the look of the logo in the black forms that jut like chunks of Deco architecture from the side panels of Corporate Wars: Walls of Influence, 1982. Doing battle in the work’s central panel, corporate functionaries are soldiers. By hyperbolic extension of this metaphor, Longo suggests that a corporation is a military institution. And military institutions, of course, are likewise corporate, no matter how anarchic their behavior. Now Everybody (for R.W. Fassbinder), 1982–83, shows images of the military’s work: on the wall, Beirut devastated; on the floor, a figure falling wounded, possibly dead. This victim of a bullet is a sculpture cast in bronze, and therefore already a monument, doubly the product of some institutional intention. The ruined city appears in tones of newsreel gray—or are these the shades of early TV? In any case, Beirut is at a distance, as if Longo, in the role of a news-gathering institution, had relegated the city to the compartment labeled “war reportage.” Now Everybody is about the horrors of war. It is also about the function and power of disjointed institutions like the news.

Longo entangles himself with another institution like that, the movies, encouraging their angles and scale and flatness and melodrama and blandness and glamour to exert pressure on works like Culture Culture, 1982–83, Tongue to the Heart, 1984, and Camouflage in Heaven: Swans, 1986. These pieces conflate movie stills and architecture. With freeze-frame pantomime, they tell the story of narration’s collapse, of negotiations between image and its commentary broken off. Coherence maintains itself sector by sector, not throughout the whole. Deliberately fragmenting, localizing, the meaning of his works, Longo evokes institutional rivalry as the source of a disorder that institutional authority cannot control. At most, an institution can extend the reach of its imagery. Hence the crossovers from entertainment to politics, from politics to law, and the spectacle of corporate entities insinuating themselves into the world of art.

Longo is of course a crossover artist—a mixed-media sculptor who makes videotapes, plays guitar music, and directs performance pieces. Moreover, he makes subject matter out of image crossover. With restraint in Now Everybody and then with increasing extravagance, his shifts—his clashes—of scale, texture, color, motif, and style conjure up a world crowded with institutions trying to give their images universal currency. His oeuvre is a sprawling parody of the present’s institutional structure. Formally disjunctive, as it must be, the work coheres emotionally. Its pervasive tone springs from rage and awe. Other feelings enter the mix, among them love, disgust, and a numbness induced by the look of abstraction, a leading institutional tendency. This is not to say that Longo is an abstract artist. Rather, he pictures abstractness. This supplies his image of the present with verisimilitude.

Hence there is something dreadfully lifelike about Joker and the other numbed-out abstractions that Longo showed in 1988. Repetitions in deadened copper give Nostromo, 1988, for example, the look of a logo for entropy, as if that attribute of physical matter also had institutional and human status in our culture. These objects dispense with narrative by rejecting the representational means that narrative employs. Yet they retain a specialized capacity for representation, refusing to fit neatly into the familiar niches of abstract art. If they picture nothing, they at least signal power. And they make blunt sense as the logos of imaginary institutions. The usual corporate logo sends meaning in a clean tight loop, offering its formal qualities as the visual epitome of institutional qualities that in turn are epitomized by the logo. This circularity is the model for all institutional statements—predictable, unrevealing, yet slick and polished. Longo literalizes the model with the large rotating gold-leafed cylinders of Dumb Running: The Theory of the Brake, 1988. That is not all he does with these cylinders; even his most logolike works do not send meaning in closed loops, so a reading like this one leaves much to be said. But my interest here is in Longo’s play with images of institutions, and Dumb Running seems to me a violently ironic portrait of the artist as art-world institution—a self-perpetuating public entity that functions with a certain independence from individuals, even from Longo himself. If Joker has a similar meaning, its ironies about the artist’s institutional self are crueler than those of Dumb Running. The spinning cylinders represent the public incarnation of the artist as a blind apparatus on automatic pilot, relentless but comical. Joker is the emblem of an institution that understands power as the ability to seduce and intimidate.

Longo makes a subject of institutional power, but artists who make a subject of their inwardness, their ineluctably personal feelings, can also become institutions. Julian Schnabel, for an obvious example, offers his paintings as the expressions of an authentic self, and that is how friendly critics try to understand his works, seeing in his handmade paintings the textures of a certain innocence that testifies to the artist’s insulation from the electronic and photomechanical impersonality of corporate images. Take this painterly testimony at face value and it seems to follow that Schnabel’s art resists the influence of all institutions, including the art market, critical fashion, and the curatorial establishment. But Schnabel, of course, has his own institutional status. That he has given institutional clout to the very notion of an “authentic self,” and that the workings of Schnabel the institution mesh efficiently with those of other art-world institutions, are points that hardly need elaboration. Nor do I make them in an unfriendly way. Lacking institutional stature, artists and their works are invisible. So there’s not much point in disapproving of artists who have a public presence, especially since most of us either seek institutional roles or have them thrust upon us by the definitions of the law, by the demands of work, by political obligations. We know this because it is obvious, but we resist applying our knowledge to artists. We like to maintain the fiction that when artists permit themselves to be defined by external forces—especially those of the marketplace–they do so only in a contingent way that needn’t affect their “true selves.” We convince ourselves that when artists work well, they earn the wages of transcendence. Fantasies of escape from the imperatives of institutional power are artifacts peculiar to our culture. Alert to the value we place on these fantasies, artists like Schnabel incorporate them into their institutional versions of themselves.

Longo acknowledges his institutional status with amazing frankness. His large works require many collaborators; by listing their names on gallery walls, in formats that recall movie credits, he invites us to see him as an art-world equivalent to a Hollywood director or maybe producer. He is the impresario of performance works on an operatic scale. He has directed music videos for commercial broadcast and a mini feature movie called Arena Brains, 1987. Elaborating his public image with an extravagance that carries him beyond the art world, Longo makes it easy to see him—and, by extension, artists in general—as counterpart to those who generate self-images in the realms of entertainment, advertising, and politics. He makes it difficult to deny that the successful artist must be a public figure, an institution enmeshed with other institutions. He makes it impossible to see any artist, but especially him himself, as transcending the limits of institutional status. Doggedly, over 70 years after Marcel Duchamp’s first readymade, we still expect that transcendence, so Longo must be understood as one of the few members of his generation who uses all the resources of his art to risk his authority as an artist.

This is remarkably courageous. Sometimes, in fact, Longo seems foolhardy, the immoderacy of his work suggesting a correspondingly overweening personality. But not even his most grandiose adventures—his struggles to make a Hollywood movie, or to crank up the slick bombast of his performance art to the level of Miami Vice—an exhaust his surplus of self-consciousness. Always he preserves his irony, his understanding that claims to truth, even his own, are exercises in rhetoric. Generating instability and doubt, his extravagance is a fully deliberate form of skepticism. Longo has assumed the public posture of an antiinstitution. Or, to put it another way, by advertising his institutional power instead of suppressing it, he has undermined institutional assumptions more successfully, I would argue, than the run of artists who attempt overt confrontation. He has chosen to survive by giving institutional clout to unaccountability. Where is Longo in his art? Most artists provide the delusory comfort of a plausible answer to questions like that. Longo doesn’t. Joker and the hideous, ludicrous statue at the center of All You Zombies: Truth before God, 1986, are equally Longo’s self-representations and his denials that the self, public or private, can be adequately represented.

By flaunting the artifice of his success, the success of his artifice, Longo reproaches the tendency to take emblems of institutional power as signs of institutional legitimacy. The violence of his reproach recalls the times in this country and abroad when the problem of legitimizing and emblematizing new institutions was fresh. On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress of the United States published the Declaration of Independence and called for an official seal of the republic. So arguable were the notions of legitimate representation that no design found approval until 1782. Similarly, the declaration of the French Republic in 1792 prompted long, subtle debates about the emblem of republican sovereignty (Marianne or Hercules?), and the discussion’s turns had direct links to political events. It’s true that even then some were annoyed by the necessity of taking a serious view of power’s self-representations. A writer of the time remarked that "the people should become accustomed to see in a statue only stone and in an image only canvas and colors.”1 But our weariness with the politics, the uses, of representation has geometrically increased in the last two centuries. Today a corporation can change its name and overhaul its repertory of emblems in a matter of months and meet no resistance, suffer no skepticism. Emblems are not so troublesome, so ambiguous, when few are willing to give form an emblematic reading.

To see in an image only canvas and colors: this radical solution to the problems of representing institutions has an echo in the literalism that entranced the New York art world during the 1960s. There is a variant on literalism in the tendency to elide power and its representations, as if, for example, the public image of an artist were simply that artist, wholly and innocently manifest. Looking at art, we sometimes commit a similar error by taking the expression of a self as the presence of that self. During the 1980s, appropriationist artists attacked Schnabelesque claims to the power of absolutely true self-expression. Yet with the traditional elegance of its images and its safely stylish allusions, much appropriation art makes a covert claim to the originality and authenticity that it denies to self-expressive artists. And appropriationism’s argumentative works, critiques in the form of paintings and photographs, have in any case themselves become representations of art-world power. It is tempting to acquiesce to appropriationism’s claims to truth, if for no better reason than to suppress any doubts we may have about these images. In suppressing doubt, however, we choose, willfully, to accept an exercise of power as a revelation of truth. Longo’s agitated antiinstitutional presence recommends that we not do that.

Recently Longo has made a series of large charcoal drawings of the American flag. Like the figures in “Men in the Cities,” Longo’s flags are frozen in twisted configurations. Like them, too, the flags are ambiguous: do they flap in the wind or do they lie crumpled on the ground? “Men in the Cities” displayed the harsh blacks and whites of film noir stills, and Longo has also rendered the flag’s red, white, and blue in shades of black. Is it soiled? Charred? Its darkness may be nocturnal. If so, the artist gives us no reliable clues about the night enveloping the flag. It is certain only that these drawings enlarge the scale of the puzzles posed by “Men in the Cities.”

Those were images of individuals schematized, given the look of logos, by a corporate or class uniform. Longo seemed to feel a detached sympathy with their contortions, which he varied obsessively. At the very least, he raised the possibility that an artist in the ’80s—himself, in particular—has some resemblance to an institutional functionary. Now, he wraps himself not in a flag but in the aura of doubt generated by a role that every American is assigned but few take the trouble to play, that of citizen. What is it to be a member of the American republic? The “Men in the Cities” characters at least enjoyed the certainties, such as they are, that a professional persona supplies. But citizenship transcends professionalism, defining itself on a plane so elevated and so littered with damaged clichés that meaning evaporates as soon as it is promulgated. With American culture thoroughly professionalized, American citizenship is an empty notion.

I don’t think this is the emptiness Jasper Johns engaged with his paintings of the American flag. With careening recklessness, Longo’s flags signal his willingness to play—and to parody, with brutal self-consciousness—a role that he and the art world have conspired to impose upon him, that of the decade’s archetypal young American. The crumpled flags celebrate the vacuity of this role. Their residual stars and stripes signal that, vacuous or not, the role still exercises power. On the subject of power and the inscrutability of its effects, the near illegibility of these images supports almost any argument we would like to make, and yet one point emerges clearly from the darkness that the flags generate. By defining Longo’s institutional self in terms of citizenship, not of some professional activity, these images claim for that self an outrageously grand scale. The claim to grandeur is ironic, but not entirely so, for the flags force us to see Longo’s public persona against the backdrop of history—not art history in general, nor the specialized chronicle of ’80s styles and art-world maneuvers, but history itself. Longo’s sense of himself as an American changes his citizenship from a matter of happenstance that must be accommodated to the burden of a fate that demands that one live it consciously.

Carter Ratcliff is a writer who lives in New York. He is working on a book about Jackson Pollock.



1. Quoted in Lynn Hunt, Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984, p. 91.