New York

“Illegal America”

Franklin Furnace

Artists have been committing illegal actions for years, in chosen as well as unexpected contexts. Some of these have been basically generic, stemming from the artist’s role as the agent of free expression—the one who stands apart from, and opposed to, society’s institutionalized codes. Yet others have developed from esthetic aims, or have arisen almost inadvertently through the artistic magnification of unforeseen yet deeply inhering transgressions.

In this show curator Jeanette Ingberman set out to survey the field of criminal esthetics and to raise, in the process, certain questions about the role and reach of illegal discourse. She assembled a selection of photographs and texts at once documenting these actions and discussing their underlying sociopolitical concerns. Her “cases” ranged from streetworks and random vandalism to well-known historical acts; included were Vito Acconci, the Guerrilla Art Action Group, John Fekner, Gordon Matta-Clark, and poet John Giorno, among others. The “crimes” in these more than thirty instances embraced treason (Louis Aragon’s pro-Soviet poem), counterfeiting, falsification of identity, trespassing, lewd public exposure (Charlotte Moorman’s infamous nude cello act), and more. All in all, a mixed and ambiguous bag, covering a broad social scope.

What it adds up to is a colossal display of political impotence, something of which Ingberman is hardly unaware. In her catalogue essay she describes these actions as part of an “illegal poetics,” a statement that seems to overweight the purely intellectual relation of rule and transgression underlying any illicit act. And this description, by its conceptual slant, condemns these actions to political impotence; although the use of illegality may be “a commitment by the artist to deal with reality,” moving beyond the fictive realm of art, the way these issues are focused redirects them onto conceptual terrain. For most of the actions are of minor importance; their subversions are intellectual and conceptual—artistic rather than practical. Many seem to focus on the artist’s role in performing the act, rather than on proposing any challenge to a given situation. And some seem directed more toward publicity than toward public provocation; they are careerist documents, markers in esthetic time, “political” actions transformed by documentation into art. What beyond narcissism and esthetic definition could motivate Chris Burden’s silly gesture of sending a toy plane with a joint attached over the Mexican border? Similarly, Sam Hsieh’s printed statement (using this show as his platform) that he has been living in the United States as an illegal immigrant seems tied more to personal needs than to valid political ends.

But the exhibition also indicates the impotence of such actions in a society that tolerates illegality in art, thus recirculating externally oriented actions back into a wholly esthetic sphere. The premise of artistic license is used to defuse efficacious acts; the result is that few artists committing these crimes have ever actually been prosecuted. Exemplary, in this sense, is John Halpern, who was arrested in 1979 for alleged possession of a bomb and was dismissed, finally, partially on the grounds that “he was an artist.” The marginal social position of the artist, stemming from his own insularity and the accretions of romantic lore, acts to impede and, generally, to block any significant effect.

Ingberman’s survey affords a certain temporal perspective. It shows, for example, that art’s legality or illegality is fluxional, both dependent on and indicative of the morality of the society at a given time. Many of the situations in the show seem tame by current taste; their shock value and political impact are contextual, a function of society’s level of change. But the survey also indicates how artists historically have reinforced their own impotence. For many have legitimized their actions through the confines of the gallery, using its space as a shelter for illegality. And, just as the gallery legitimates reproachable activity, so it neutralizes it as well, condemning it to the sterility of esthetic definition. In certain periods such art performs a largely internal function, using the premise of transgression to negotiate its own territory in a basically “formal” way. Such, for example, are works like Acconci’s Broadjump, Claim, and Seedbed, performed in galleries during the early ’70s, as the artist states, to “test and re-vivify conventions.” And to such actions might be opposed such recent collective endeavors as the Real Estate Show, which used the weight of numbers, publicity, and illicit concerns to make forceful interventions into social terrain.

Kate Linker