Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 14, 2018
Alexander Alberro, ed. Working Conditions: The Writings of Hans Haacke Writing Art. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016. 344 pp.; 47 color ills.; 18 b/w ills. Paperback $34.95 (9780262034838)

Working Conditions, the recent volume of Hans Haacke’s collected writings edited by Alexander Alberro, reveals the artist’s preoccupation with a handful of concepts since the late 1960s. Chief among these are the ideological structures that govern a culture’s understanding of art; the mechanisms of the “consciousness industry,” of which the art world is a small but relevant element; and, more specifically, the ways in which governments, corporations, museums, and other institutional structures affect the lives of those involved—which is to say, everyone who is affected by those institutions (which is to say, everyone). The book sheds light on how Haacke developed an approach to art making that is now known as “institutional critique.”

Working Conditions is structured more or less chronologically, though occasionally more recent pieces are placed earlier in the book to serve as explications for artworks that Haacke produced decades ago. Early in his career, Haacke focused on biological and other natural processes—what he called “real-time systems”—with works such as Condensation Cube (1965) and Grass Grows (1969), in which he enclosed natural phenomena within limits he designated, such as Plexiglas boxes or the frame of the museum venue. Haacke’s cordoning off of natural phenomena within the confines of the art context has been exhaustively discussed by art historians as a continuation of Marcel Duchamp’s theories of the readymade, and while Haacke’s writings themselves make several references to his work’s affinities with Duchamp’s, in general his writings focus much less on his avant-garde legacy. Instead, Haacke tends toward a critique of another environmental system: that of the consciousness industry, the system that regulates and dictates “culture,” of which art is a decidedly significant part.

Haacke’s writings evidence a shift in the artist’s interests as he moved from meteorological and biological systems to sociopolitical systems. This shift was precipitated, at least in part, by his awareness of political events that occurred during and after 1968. He mentions the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in his lecture to the annual meeting of the Inter-Society Color Council in New York in 1968, and then cites the escalating Vietnam conflict as his reason for not representing the United States in the São Paulo Biennial in 1969. In 1970 Haacke’s MoMA-Poll, installed at the Museum of Modern Art as part of the exhibition Information, asked viewers to reflect on MoMA trustee and New York governor Nelson Rockefeller’s refusal to denounce the Nixon administration’s policies regarding Indochina. Haacke’s desire to push the limits of decorum within the institutional setting, and to connect his work willfully to the sociopolitical context of the world outside the walls of the museum, opposed the dominant discourse of formalist criticism of the 1960s, a position that Haacke fully acknowledges multiple times in his writings.

Working Conditions documents the controversy that arose during the planning of Haacke’s solo show at the Guggenheim Museum in 1971 via an open letter by Haacke (1971), an illustration by the Art Workers’ Coalition announcing their solidarity with him (1971), and several essays in which the artist recounts the cancellation of the show. Thomas Messer, the Guggenheim’s director, famously refused to include three of Haacke’s artworks—an event that spurred the cancellation and which launched Haacke’s reputation as an enfant terrible of the New York art world. The most notorious of the three works was his Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971, which traced the real-estate interests in Manhattan of a number of interrelated corporate entities. Haacke, in his statement for Shapolsky et al., responds to the cancellation of the exhibition, citing Messer’s argument that art should only ever have a “symbolic” relationship to actual political issues and not refer to specific events: “Messer called [the rejected artworks] ‘inappropriate’ for exhibition at the museum and stated he had had to ‘fend off an alien substance that had entered the art museum organism’” (46–47).

Messer’s moralizing dismissal sets up a false opposition between museums as rarefied, apolitical spaces and the “real world,” and Haacke cites this dichotomy repeatedly in various forms, sometimes crediting it to Messer and sometimes not, throughout Working Conditions. Haacke also frequently references former Metropolitan Museum of Art director Philippe de Montebello’s statement about corporate sponsorship: “It’s an inherent, insidious, hidden form of censorship” (129). Unlike Messer, who insists on an autonomy that does not exist, Montebello seems to confirm the exact opposite—that corporate sponsorship of large exhibitions leads to a form of covert self-policing, a form of censorship without outright persecution. This dialectic between art professionals, who naturally seek autonomy from the state but whose autonomy is all but impossible in the era of late capitalism, and those entities that fund art production and dissemination is at the heart of most if not all of Haacke’s artistic production since the time of the Guggenheim exhibition.

The collection’s title essay is nothing less than an excoriating and riveting account of corporate involvement in museums, a practice that had been in place for years but began to dominate large US institutions in the 1970s and posed a specific threat in the burgeoning age of neoconservatism. “Working Conditions” (1979–80) describes a world in which corporations with insidious agendas realized that investing in art could help allay many of the public image problems inherent in their toxic dealings. Philip Morris and Mobil figure prominently in this narrative. Most chilling is Haacke’s convincing argument that corporations choose to sponsor somewhat controversial shows in order to confuse or simply soothe those with leftist, anti-corporate sentiments and furthermore to promote a specific definition of art that adheres to a Kantian conception of “disinterested pleasure”: “The more astute of [art’s] manipulators among corporate executives and government officials around the globe know full well that the encounter with art is not just a private, affective expression (and experience) in a historical vacuum. They have an interest, however, in continuing its romantic mystification. Suppression of its cognitive and moral components, and the promotion of art as an entity unto itself, favors the sentimental internalization of an imaginary world of “universal” values insulated from all material conditions” (92).

In other words, like Thomas Messer, corporations prefer to promote art that engages with generalized, symbolic expressions. It becomes apparent in his writings that Haacke sees the insistent historical specificity of his own work to be a combatant against this corporate party line. Especially compelling is the artist’s 1988 statement describing his public installation And You Were Victorious After All, which was part of the Steirischer Herbst festival in Graz, Austria, that same year. For this project, Haacke sought to remind local Austrians of their own history and involvement as supporters of the Nazi Party before and during World War II. His reconstruction of a Nazi monument at its original site, along with billboards that detailed the purge of non-Aryans in Graz after Hitler’s occupation in 1938, caused heated debate in the city, and the monument itself was firebombed by neo-Nazis. This sort of dialogue and action in response to art (albeit perhaps not always so violent) is one of Haacke’s main goals for his works: to jar viewers out of their own blindness to their current political context and its ties to an inescapable history.

Central to Haacke’s artistic practice and his writings is the idea that artworks shift depending on the contexts in which they are viewed; they become “encrusted with layers upon layers of meaning that countless generations have bestowed on them” (205). Each generation takes something different from works produced in the past, and each public also finds meaning according to its own sociopolitical context. What, then, might we take from the publication of Haacke’s collected writings today, in 2018? Might it be possible to read Working Conditions as a sort of manual for art professionals, written by an artist whose social engagement and critique take on not just art institutions but also the political structures that feed into those institutions? Indeed, these writings are instructive for those who find themselves participating in what Haacke, in 2009, described as the world of the “turbo collectors and multimillion-dollar price tags” (231). Although Haacke’s vision of the system in which we live is cynical and ruthless, he does not advocate acquiescence or disengagement. In fact, he reminds us that artists have long made up some of the most politically engaged sectors of the populace; it is only the corporations that try to convince us otherwise: “It is the seeming otherworldliness and the ‘sublime’ (transcending self-interest) that makes cultural events so attractive for sponsors. That, however, is a reason not to leave the field to them. You reap what you sow” (249).

Chelsea Weathers
Independent scholar, Santa Fe, New Mexico