Thursday, November 1, 2012

Any Art in a Storm

Since I live and work in Washington, DC, relatives and friends from non-hurricane parts of the world have been calling and emailing, asking how we weathered the Big Storm. Although the seminary where I work was closed for two days, I find myself a little embarrassed to say that not much happened in my neighborhood except a lot of rain and wind. In accounts of the devastation in New Jersey and New York, and extended power outages and fallen trees and crushed roofs in the DC suburbs, art is probably pretty low on the list of people’s priorities in the aftermath of the storm. The Red Cross is busy providing drinking water, sandwiches, and a warm, dry place to stay, not worrying about aesthetics.

BELEIF + DOUBT at the Hirshhorn 
But art isn’t just about pretty things. Art is a way of thinking about the world. Last week, I stopped in at the Hirshhorn Museum to take a look at Barbara Kruger’s remarkable installation, BELIEF+DOUBT. It’s in the newly-redesigned basement level, where every inch of the walls, floor, ceiling, even the undersides of the escalators, is covered with printed vinyl. For many years, Kruger has been using the tools of advertising to ask hard questions about the relationships between wealth and poverty, power and oppression, need and desire. In 1989, she worked with commercial sign painters to create an untitled mural on the side of what was then known as the Temporary Contemporary (now the Geffen Contemporary) in the Little Tokyo district of Los Angeles. A review in the Los Angeles Times describes it like this:

Nearly three stories high and more than two-thirds the length of a football field, the commercially painted mural is hard to miss. So is its composition, which approximates the American flag. The upper left corner is a blue rectangle with white letters that announce: "MOCA at the Temporary Contemporary." The remainder is a red field whose white sentences divide the expanse into visual stripes.

The chosen composition obviously flags MOCA for the passer-by, but it also evokes something more subtle and provocative. Such public buildings as courthouses, post offices and city halls are typically the ones that fly the flag out front. Kruger's flag-mural insists that the art museum be counted as a place for important public business, too--the business of expressive thought, enacted in the social context of a public place.
Call it street democracy in action. In four lines of simple text, Kruger's mural poses nine direct questions: Who is beyond the law? Who is bought and sold? Who is free to choose? Who does time? Who follows orders? Who salutes longest? Who prays loudest? Who dies first? Who laughs last? []

A photo by Gary Leonard of National Guard troops in front of the mural following the trial of Rodney Kind in 1992 in Los Angeles adds another layer of meaning to the artist’s questions. It can be seen on the Museum of Contemporary Art’s website at

At the Hirshhorn more than twenty years later, Kruger continues to question our values, our unspoken assumptions, our unreflective behaviors. On the floor under one escalator, she writes, IT'S A SMALL WORLD BUT NOT IF YOU HAVE TO CLEAN IT. Under the other, the words are THE WORLD SHRINKS FOR THOSE WHO OWN IT. Between large letters that insist BELIEVE ANYTHING FORGET EVERY THING, a smaller sign proclaims GIVE YOUR BRAIN AS MUCH ATTENTION AS YOU DO YOUR HAIR AND YOU’LL BE A THOUSAND TIMES BETTER OFF! and another asks WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU LAUGHED?

As thought-provoking as each aphorism or question is on its own, the cumulative effect of all those huge letters is overwhelming.  As I walked through the space, craning my neck and peering around corners, trying to keep track of where I was and what I was seeing, it felt like the antidote to the ads that tell me what I should buy or think or do whenever I read a newspaper or magazine, watch a movie or television show, listen to the radio, or even walk down the street. In the relentless storm of commercial messages that increasingly fill our lives, this art asks questions that have less to do with aesthetics than with the underlying realities of life.

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