PRINT September 2004


In 1970, HANS HAACKE presented his famous MOMA-Poll in the “Information” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, asking visitors whether New York governor Nelson Rockefeller’s position on Nixon’s Indochina policy would be reason not to vote for Rockefeller in the upcoming November election. Despite many differences between the political situation of that time and the present one, in preparing the current issue of Artforum, the editors were struck by an uncanny contextual doubling: Many voters will surely consider President Bush’s invasion of Iraq a defining issue in casting their ballots, and artists too are working within a resonant situation. TIM GRIFFIN contacted Haacke to discuss his thoughts on the piece and the political possibilities for artmaking today.

TIM GRIFFIN: Could you describe the thinking that originally went into MOMA-Poll? What were you attempting to measure, and how did you interpret the results?

HANS HAACKE: Like many of my fellow artists, I was incensed over the Vietnam War. Cambodia had been bombed and invaded as part of Henry Kissinger’s strategy for President Nixon to shore up the fortunes of the corrupt regime in Saigon (Kissinger also advised Nelson Rockefeller). Two months before the opening of “Information,” four students at Kent State University had been shot dead by the Ohio National Guard during nationwide protests. We saw a glaring conflict between the politics of museum trustees and our own liberal-left attitudes. David Rockefeller was then the chairman of the MoMA board. In his 2002 autobiography he speaks of the “infamous ‘Information’ exhibition” and quotes my question about his brother Nelson. He calls this and other works “quite outrageous.” Sixty-nine percent of the ballots in my poll were cast “against” Nelson Rockefeller. The results cannot claim to meet professional standards. However, they probably reflect the sentiments of the world of contemporary art in 1970. My piece gave these sentiments visibility in one of the most prominent institutions of modern art.

TG: Another striking echo between MOMA-Poll and present circumstances has to do with the mechanisms of museum patronage. Your poll implicitly raised the issue of the relationship between the Rockefeller family and the Museum of Modern Art. Today museum trustees may have even more power over the programming of a given cultural institution, often overseeing a curator’s choice of exhibitions and individual acquisitions. How would you compare the political and cultural activities of museum patrons then and now?

HH: At the risk of overgeneralization and misinterpretation of what I observe from the outside, the women and men calling the shots in today’s cultural institutions don’t differ essentially from those of the ’60s and ’70s. Then and now there are liberal-minded individuals, people who adhere to the principle of noblesse oblige and fight for the independence of the professionals they employ. But they are in the minority. I am told the boards are dominated by supporters of the Bush administration. Therefore, I don’t believe any museum today would allow a survey like my MOMA-Poll to be conducted on its premises. The fear of alienating donors and sponsors has institutionalized self-censorship, a form of censorship that is rarely recognized and impossible to prove.

I believe it is relevant to add that the question for my poll was not known to the museum until the night before the opening. I was later told that the museum director and an emissary of David Rockefeller had a nervous meeting. Given the political sensitivity of the period, censoring a work that was designed to engage MoMA visitors in a democratic process would probably have caused more trouble for the museum than letting it proceed.

TG: Has your thinking about MOMA-Poll changed since its execution? Or how does the piece stand, for you, within the greater trajectory of your work?

HH: It took me almost thirty years to be invited to another show at the Modern. There was a price to pay, as there was a price on not committing self-censorship when Thomas Messer demanded that I withdraw three works from a solo show that was to have opened at the Guggenheim Museum in 1971. I am glad I was a bit naive then and didn’t fully weigh the consequences. But I haven’t ever regretted not pulling in my tail. I managed to survive without these museums—with the help of many sympathizers here and abroad. These experiences sharpened my senses for other works.

TG: Do you think works such as MOMA-Poll have had a lasting political effect? Have your thoughts changed regarding the efficacy of politically engaged art?

HH: It would be wrong to compare the political “efficacy” of artists with the potential politicians or investigative reporters have. It risks arriving at a rather mechanical and narrow understanding of how a society evolves and what determines the direction it takes. The “cultural revolution” of the ’60s, in which the art world also played a part, had repercussions that are still felt around the world today. Since then, the conservative wing of the Republican Party has been engaged in an attempt to contain, if not roll back, those emancipatory gains. How disturbing that opening of society must have been for them can be gauged—in the American art world alone—by the energy with which they pursued the de facto dismantling of the National Endowment for the Arts and the chilling effect that has had on art institutions.

TG: Today it has become a somewhat common (and perhaps cynical) refrain that “all art is inherently political,” a statement that may implicitly reject the usefulness of a category or even a practice defined as “political art.” Do you agree with such a statement? Does it represent a more nuanced understanding of the way that all art necessarily functions within a political economy, or is it in some ways a cop-out?

HH: Of course “all art is inherently political.” Every public articulation in a socially privileged place, such as the art world, has the potential of affecting the zeitgeist, i.e., the set of generally accepted attitudes and beliefs that have an effect in the realm of practical politics. We should examine, however, what attitudes and beliefs are, in fact, proposed or promoted in each case. Such an endeavor is at times difficult because artists’ intentions and the effect of their works do not necessarily correspond. The reception is in constant flux and escapes the artists’ control. As we know, artworks accumulate rather complex accretions of meaning and can serve contradictory purposes.

Even though the inherently political nature of all art is seemingly accepted as a truism, works that explicitly refer to social issues are nevertheless still branded “political art” so as to differentiate them from other, supposedly “nonpolitical art.” This distinction not only demonstrates that the political aspect of all art is far from being accepted but also has an effect on the “careers” of artists, i.e., their commercial viability and opportunities to exhibit.

TG: Given the fact that the type of work we are discussing is often presented within the context of the “art world,” are you ever concerned that a politically engaged piece might be “preaching to the choir”?

HH: All “politically engaged” articulations are prone to “preach to the choir.” Isn’t that what pundits on the right and left do? Isn’t that what the fundamentalist Christian network and Karl Rove’s White House propaganda machine are busy doing? Conversely, in addition to John Kerry’s own organization, isn’t trying to energize the anti-Bush folks and expand the base for an upset in November? I am not proposing that artists should now all engage in electioneering. I merely want to say that in the big world of politics, all players consider “preaching to the choir” indispensable to their cause.

TG: Have you paid much attention to the political engagement (or lack thereof) on the part of young artists today?

HH: I was struck by the “optimism” that Peter Schjeldahl and Michael Kimmelman attributed to this year’s Whitney Biennial in their celebratory reviews. The reporting and the editorial position of the New York Times—like that of the New Yorker—certainly don’t exude optimism or offer reasons for it. There seems to be a disconnect. With the proverbial exceptions, this Biennial amounted to an escapist enterprise—just what the social activists and warmongers in the Bush administration need. I should add, though, that I don’t suspect the Biennial artists of being Republican sympathizers. With the generational bias that is perhaps inevitable in discussions of this sort, I speculate that many of them grew up in a relatively carefree world. The “end of history” had been proclaimed. There was a lot of money. The economy was buzzing—and the art market had recovered from its bust in 1990. Contrary to widespread predictions, 9/11 and the economic problems that have been plaguing us since the turn of the millennium hardly seem to have registered. These artists may also have understood instinctively that collectors and institutions were not eager to associate with less-than-upbeat work.

However, there are also a good number of young artists who are by no means oblivious to the world around us. They work individually or collectively in groups that organize events, initiate or participate in social activities, and present their productions outside the hot galleries. Their goal is not primarily to become stars in the art market. Because many avoid or are shunned by the usual art-world communications channels, they lack the visibility that gallery artists enjoy. For example, the names of Steven Kurtz and the Critical Art Ensemble were unknown to most until this May, when a federal prosecutor in Buffalo tried to charge him under the Patriot Act as a bioterrorist—a charge as bizarre as it is chilling for all who exercise their freedom of speech.

TG: You mention a possible “generational bias,” but I wonder, at the risk of sounding sentimental, whether you have any advice or thoughts you’d like to share with young artists and viewers about the possibility for a political art today . . .

HH: Young people are impatient simply because they are young. It is hard to accept that being an artist whose work is to matter and therefore be recognized not only today but years down the road may require the stamina of a long-distance runner—with no guarantee ever to arrive at the goal. Perhaps it’s a question of pride. Along the way, they pass a lot of fallen shooting stars.

Tim Griffin is editor of Artforum.