New York

Hans Haacke

John Weber Gallery

It’s tempting to begin writing about Hans Haacke’s new work with a list of his art credentials. Number one, he shows at an established gallery within the conventional art-marketing system. A further listing of exhibits, museum shows (rejections) might serve as a measure of reputation/significance. And what about the number of pieces sold, prices paid, etc.? Or a bibliography of reviews and reproductions, publicity given? How much would such statistics reveal about Haacke the artist, or even about Haacke as a member of the art world with all its socioeconomic ramifications?

The reason for these questions lies in Haacke’s work. One of the pieces provides documentation of the ownership of Les Poseuses (small version) by Seurat. The history of the painting as commodity, investment, is traced from Seurat through a friend, gallery owners, collectors, the Artemis SA holding company to its current owner, a board member of Artemis. Each successive owner is described primarily in terms of art-world and business affiliations. The information is ostensibly neutral, no judgment is given, the facts merely recited. Yet by their very selection the facts portend significance. One begins contrasting an esthetic evaluation of the painting (seen in reproduction) with its monetary and prestige value as intimated by the statistics. But is such a comparison valid on the basis of the information supplied? Is Haacke really investigating the socioeconomic framework of cultural importance? How much does his piece rely on the surface titillation of assumed connections which bypass the questions? There is no way of knowing from Haacke’s information why the particular people either wanted the painting or sold it. Nor can one assert that the business associations of the owners have any relevance other than coincidence. All that one learns is that a certain painting acquired a certain monetary value and that it had various owners. Despite the curious similarities among the corporate affiliations of the late owners, one can’t draw any related conclusions, unless one invokes the presumptions of prejudice.

Haacke’s other piece consists of a series of embossed metal plaques commemorating statements about the arts by various business and political leaders. Again data on art, business, and political positions are provided. First, these statements are taken out of context. And anyone’s words taken out of context may distort their intention. But okay. Listening to reactions, hearing chuckles, my question becomes more: to what extent does art-world snobbery invite one to laugh, to sneer at the statement? Consider David Rockefeller’s words: “From an economic standpoint, such involvement in the arts can mean direct and tangible benefits.” Or Robert Kingsley’s “Exxon’s support of the arts serves the arts as a social lubricant.” In fact, when he saw the show, Kingsley had his photo taken as he stood beside his “plaque” (an astute reversal of Haacke’s work, underlining its own availability as commodity?). My point is that one shouldn’t ridicule or disclaim, be “appalled” by, these statements. The villain may not be the businessman. The truth seems closer to home. Such attitudes seem quite compatible with the system supported by artists, critics, and dealers alike. Haacke doesn’t comment on this; he remains neutral, just presenting material, uncommitted. And it is this abnegation of responsibility that disturbs me most. For Haacke’s work verges on glibness. If it asks a question about the interrelation of art and its socioeconomic milieu, it is a question merely stated—well, maybe one should ask this. While I would not dispute the question, its implications are not explored.

Susan Heinemann