New York

“Art Lobby”

Three Lower Manhattan Banks

Censorship, though not directly partaking of this “discourse of illegality,” does implicate some of the same terms, since it reflects institutional opinion. It was recently activated in this well arranged and not uninteresting show which placed temporary projects by four politically active artists in the public areas (lobbies and windows) of three downtown Manhattan banks. The show was organized in cooperation with the banks; conceived by artist Jacki Apple nearly a year ago and coordinated by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, it was a model of lucid preparation. I, for one, received copious advance word; the bank officials were well apprised both of the works and of the artists’ political ends. “All of the works make some connection between the business world and life of the individual,” read the press release, describing each piece as aimed at stimulating reflection, in passersby, “on the effect of finance and large-scale institutions on their own lives.” No one, after that, could claim that he was being misinformed.

What happened was a case in institutional paranoia. The month-long display ended with two works unscathed, one down—removed by bank officials (notably public relations officers) and another accepted only in significantly altered form. None posed “threats” to any sponsoring institution; while each piece dealt in some way with information as it is distributed and circulated within the economy, the content was generalized rather than specifically offensive. What’s interesting however, is how different means of presenting information were perceived as either harmful or benign. For those works that fared best were cushioned in conventional or fairly “visual” modes. The huge continental maps placed by Peter Fend’s Ocean Earth Construction and Development Corporation (OECD), for example, elicited no demonstrable protest. Phrased as ecological proposals gleaned from “earth monitoring systems” and other elaborate technologies, they presented vast chromatic surfaces enlivened by plentiful details. Seas of color and lush-toned lands, they also presented no offensive critiques. But that was hardly the case with Lauren Ewing’s Opus Proprium, a “bogus,” “counterfeit” bank belonging within her series of objects criticizing institutions. A small, prisonlike structure, red-painted and replete with pillars and grate, contained inside its vaulted interior a videotape projecting Ewing’s standard gnomic comments. Issues of currency and value, exchange and capital worth—offensive content, to be sure—were at once emitted from, and insulated by, the object. For this was Real Good-Lookin’ Art—colored and doll-like, “visual,” precisely crafted, and metaphoric in mode. As with Fend’s work, its engaging ambiguities pushed it past the axe.

It was the realm of the word, of facts, statistics, and explicit opinion that incited Wall Street rancor. Jenny Holzer’s ideological inventories went down in days, the victims of officials who protested certain subversive inclusions. Explicit “propaganda” (“ABUSE OF POWER SHOULD COME AS NO SURPRISE, CLASS STRUCTURE IS AS ARTIFICIAL AS PLASTIC, THERE’S A FINE LINE BETWEEN INFORMATION AND PROPAGANDA”) was included amidst the mediated dross, and it was the familiar reading form of the black printed lists that made Holzer’s focus apparent. In a similar manner, Mimi Smith’s window panels were retained only after she had rearranged their order so as to dilute their inherent subversion. Her four scrim screens depicted TV sets, each covered with the news-report barrage of social and economic facts, and each punctuated by the constant refrain of “Money Money Money.” Chase public relations officers, noting that the panel near the door was “being read too much,” demanded that it be removed and resituated in the most distant and inaccessible region. Smith prevailed over another attempt to separate two panels and hence to soften the impact of her statements about the effect of Ronald Reagan’s Medicaid cuts on children’s health. Unlike Holzer, who was out of town at the time, she was able to intervene in the situation, thus protecting her work from total censure.

Certain conclusions might be drawn from “Art Lobby” as to the visual literacy of the average bureaucrat, and the efficacy of explicit, or factual, presentation in politically oriented art. None of the artists was unaware of the contradictions involved in working against established opinion in a sphere dominated by investment capital—of working, effectively, “in complicity” with the banks. But the lures of public access prevailed. It is the officials who, though fully aware of the artists’ intent, seemed to expect a masking of chromatic haze, who seem finally more worthy of censure.

Kate Linker