Greed Is Really Bad, Says Designer Kruger

If you have been thinking about going to see the Barbara Kruger exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, there are certain things you may want to know in advance–before you hand over the price of admission. If, for example, you have an aversion to an unremitting onslaught of slogans, propaganda and political psychobabble, this exhibition is not likely to afford you much pleasure. If you prefer to do your reading sitting down, rather than on your feet in rooms devoid of all charm or amenity, that might be another reason to skip this particular museum ordeal. For there is a lot to read in this show, and all of it is addressed to tabloid or billboard or political-rally tastes. There are also abrasive sound effects to be endured, and there is a discreet warning to visitors that the show might not be “appropriate” for children. For exactly what kind of adult the show is thought to be appropriate–well, that remains unspecified. You could hardly expect the Whitney to post a notice saying: “Only those who have been brainwashed by the postmodern hustle need enter here.”

This is actually the most interesting question (perhaps the only interesting question) the Kruger show poses: For whom is it intended? The short answer is, of course, the art public. Or perhaps we should say, the contemporary art museum and commercial gallery public. For it is only in galleries and museums devoted to contemporary art that Ms. Kruger’s brand of political blather masquerading as art work is not only permitted but extolled–and, by the way, acquired at art-world prices. When the blather is removed from these art sanctuaries to occupy actual billboards, op-ed pages of newspapers, department store windows and other “outreach” locations, as Ms. Kruger’s work often does, its political content is all that remains, and no one pretends it bears any relation to the creation of art. In Ms. Kruger’s case, the message is the medium.

As for the packaging of the message, this is the way it is described–accurately, for the most part–by Veronica Roberts in the Whitney’s brochure for the exhibition. “In her best-known works,” writes Ms. Roberts, “Kruger superimposes blocks of text on black-and-white photographs enclosed in red frames. Although simulating the look of advertisements, these works deliver a very different message, promoting ideas instead of products.… Nearly all Kruger’s statements use a single typeface–Futura Bold Italic–a clean, direct, sans serif font which she adopted as her trademark.” It isn’t quite accurate, however, to say that Ms. Kruger’s work does not promote a product, for her own work is itself a product that commands a high price.

This is the way it works: In 1985, Ms. Kruger produced a work almost 12 feet high that featured a photo of a dopey-looking male face with the word “culture” plastered on like a giant Band-Aid. The title of this unlovely object was Untitled (When I hear the word culture I take out my checkbook) . So enchanting was Ms. Kruger’s message in this case that a check was immediately written by Eileen and Peter Norton to acquire the work for their collection. Whatever one wants to call this process–I would describe it as the commodification of anti-commodification ideology–it has proved to be the secret of Ms. Kruger’s resounding success in the art world of the 1980′s and 90′s, which Ms. Kruger herself has sometimes denounced for its “greed.”

All of us, of course, disapprove of other people’s greed, but most of us don’t get paid for denouncing it. Only artists–or people who pass as artists, anyway–get to make a handsome profit out of this unexceptionable sentiment. It’s nice work if you can get it, but it does have the downside of making one appear to be a raving hypocrite. Still, if you claim the mantle of artistic freedom, everything is now permitted.

My own view is that every artist or writer or politician who denounces other people’s greed should be required to make his income tax returns public information. Since Ms. Kruger goes in for billboarding texts, with or without red frames, I imagine her own income tax returns might be a suitable text for one of her outsize, stupifying installations, of which there are several in the current Whitney show. For appropriate sound effects, she might consider amplifying the noise produced by an old-fashioned cash register or adding machine. Or some taped conversations with her tax accountant or her dealer, Mary Boone. It would certainly make for a more “personal” statement than the blather that is served up in the Whitney installations.

About the stylistic sourcesofMs. Kruger’s artwork, Ms. Roberts tells us everything weneed to know. “After briefly studying art at Syracuse University and Parsons School of Design in New York City, she took a job at an advertising agency. She was then hired by Condé Nast Publications in 1966 as a designer for Mademoiselle . The following year, at the ageof22,shewas promoted to head designer of the magazine. Kruger spent a decade in the magazine industry, working as a graphic designer and picture editor in the art departments of Mademoiselle , House and Garden and other publications. This formative experience laid the foundation for Kruger’s subsequent career as an artist: ‘My “job” as a designer became, with a few adjustments, my “work” as an artist.’”

I certainly have nothing against well-designed magazines. I publish one myself. But you know, designing magazines is not the same thing as creating a work of art, no matter what the message of the moment may be. For people who don’t know the difference, the Barbara Kruger exhibition remains on view at the Whitney Museum through Oct. 22.