Jenny Holzer’s Hypocrisy

Walls of the Guggenheim Museum bathed in a purple glow. A scrolling LED text installation winds up the ramps of the Guggenheim Museum, displaying texts written and curated by the artist, leading to a blue sky beyond the oculus.
Installation view, Jenny Holzer: L: right Line, May 17-September 29, 2024. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. @2024 Jenny Holzer, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Photo: Filip Wolak

“I want people to concentrate on the content of the writing and not ‘who done it.’ I want the work to be of utility to as many people as possible. And I think if it were attributed to me, it would be easier to toss.”

Quote by Jenny Holzer from Art21

Recently, I wrote an opinion piece on the suspect politics of Maurizio Cattelan’s show at Gagosian Gallery — it questioned why successful artists who make political claims for their work do not use their privilege to engage in direct political commentary and action rather than critique by analogy. I’m not suggesting they need to engage in social practices like Mel Chin or Tania Bruguera; I think artists like Cattelan can be more direct in their criticism or more like Theaster Gates, who acknowledges the contradictions and privilege that comes with his success to the degree that he openly differentiates between museums and institutional exhibits that permit him to experimentation and his gallery exhibits that afford him market engagement. Meanwhile, while those works have an implied politic, he is an activist who focuses on community development, which is realized through his Chicago-based Rebuild Foundation, which is a platform for cultural development and neighborhood transformation. This multifaceted approach enables Gates to navigate and influence both the art world and broader societal issues without collapsing one into the other.

No sooner had I finished my critique of Cattelan, than I saw Jenny Holzer’s exhibition at the Guggenheim, and I realized I had still more to say on the subject. This was provoked by the fact that the best thing about the Holzer exhibition is the conversation I had picking it apart and identifying all that’s wrong with it. To begin with, I was introduced to the term paper-clipping – which refers to those people online who initiate conversations yet never follow up on your response – I thought it perfectly described what I get from Holzer. She seeks to initiate a conversation by means of an endless series of banal appropriated phrases, redacted documents, and infographics with varying degrees of legibility— in other words, so much babble, but we never hear Holzer’s voice or thoughts – it as if she thinks that by merely re-presenting such materials in mass our political and cultural system’s duplicity, manipulativeness, its oppressiveness will be made self-evident…

The embedding of powerful statements like “ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE” within her broad array of cliché readymade- prosaic truisms, aphorisms, and assertions dilute their impact. No such phrases push to the fore in the present Guggenheim presentation; seemingly, the iconicity of this example and a few others are what Holzer’s political reputation rests on. Yet even these required that they be isolated and turned into billboards, T-shirts, and other merchandise. From this, it would appear that her neo-lib vision and “death of the author” strategy aren’t up to the task of challenging the dominant ideology’s socio-political narratives. Instead of revelation, all I get is the spectacle of her almost meaningless phrases projected onto the facade of the Guggenheim Museum at night. If anything, her work confirms Guy DeBord’s critique of capitalism’s ability to commodify dissent. As such, her work also becomes a prime example of Theodor Adorno’s critique of capitalism’s culture industry, where through commodification and appropriation, the most innovative and subversive art ultimately comes to be recruited into the service of the very system it was meant to undo. As such, political art such as Holzer’s becomes another form of distraction and pacification, an illusion of non-conformity that masks an underlying process of incorporation and conformity. In essence, Holzer’s work, like Cattelan, satisfies an artificially created need for critique, which lulls their audiences into a sense of opposition while actually reinforcing the very system of domination it is claimed to oppose. 

In essence, Holzer’s work fulfills capitalism’s insatiable drive to commodify everything, including cultural resistance. This raises questions about the efficacy of her approach. Her use of LED installations, printed materials, and merchandise has allowed her work to permeate public spaces and reach a wide audience, but it has also made it susceptible to being co-opted by the capitalist system it aims to subvert. While Holzer’s stated intent is to provoke reflection on manipulation, desensitization, and distraction, her work’s commodification and widespread dissemination have arguably undermined its critical message. Instead of openly confronting the conflicted relationship between art, politics, success, and capitalism, Holzer’s work has come to rely on the assumption that art and artists are inherently agents of social change, echoing the persistent myth of the progressiveness of the rebellious historical avant-garde. Because of this it’s assumed her work is inherently part of a critique of the dominant culture – rather than merely reflecting or representing the latter. This alone should raise questions about the continued effectiveness of her approach. Her success and the integration of her work into the art and institutional markets have made it difficult for her work to maintain its intended subversive edge, as it has become part of the system it purports to critique.

What is often left out of the account of the historic avant-garde is the fact that it initially was the vanguard of bourgeois culture itself, and only later, once it too became institutionalized, took on a more self-oppositional stance towards it. The avant-garde originally aimed to promote the autonomy of art, a position that promoted the rising bourgeoisie’s cultural values based on individualism, entrepreneurship, and innovation. The avant-garde’s radical break with tradition was made possible by the bourgeoisie’s relatively liberal and progressive values and their redefinition of the public sphere. This history highlights the complex relationship today between art, politics, and corporate capitalism, which Holzer’s work is not meant to grapple with in it as it lacks self-criticality concerning what its institutional appropriation means. This reveals the true neo-liberal politics of her work relative to the power structures it supposedly critiques.

What Holzer does is expose her viewers to an implied critique; it has the form of one but not the content because it is without subject or self-reflexivity. By disconnecting herself from an overarching critique of art’s relationship to power and ideology under late capitalism, what she has done is place that responsibility on her various audiences, some of whom are incidental and can’t distinguish her work from an advertising campaign. This presentation of disembodied statements without a clear authorial voice or overarching narrative reflects neoliberalism’s valuing of subjectivism over collective meaning-making that erodes public discourse and the principles of collective welfare. Given these limitations, Holzer’s work seemingly exploits socio-political issues in a way that may be seen as opportunistic or illusionistic — as such, because she never takes a position, her work will never offend. In this context it would be good to remind my readers of Bertolt Brecht’s pioneering epic theatre techniques that aimed at inducing in his audiences a critical perspective. He did this by directly confronting societal issues and having them reflect upon these impacted their own social reality. In doing so, he also sought to confront his own complicity in the replication of bourgeois ideology.

Another more obvious comparison would be that of Holzer to Barbara Kruger, who uses charged language rooted in feminist and post-structuralism theory. Most of Kruger’s subjects are drawn from the contemporary debates on women’s rights and social justice, unlike Holzer’s, whose themes appear to have been chosen at random. Another contrast is Kruger’s tone, which is direct and confrontational. She uses pronouns like “I,” “you,” and “we” to establish a connection between her texts, images, and her viewers. Another telling juxtaposition is that of Holzer’s work to that of Hans Haacke. Both ostensibly intend to expose and subvert the dominant systems of power and control, yet they, too, employ starkly divergent strategies. Haacke disrupts institutional narratives of neutrality by directly investigating and laying bare the economic and political interests of specific entities, e.g., Mercedes-Benz’s complicity with apartheid South Africa. Meanwhile, Holzer opts for a more oblique approach, in which her agents of oppression are abstract, anonymous, disembodied, and omnipresent.

Failing to identify who benefits from our oppression is Holzer’s critical weakness; it allows her call for awareness and resistance to be easily assimilated and neutralized. On the other hand, Haacke’s confrontational tactics and tangible evidence leave little room for obfuscation or the co-option of the critical awareness he seeks to manufacture. Though his work consists of conventional gallery exhibitions and lacks Holzer’s populist tactics, Haacke is committed to exposing the mechanics by which consent is manufactured. Her reluctance to take a clear authorial stance ultimately neuters the subversive potential of her language. So, while both practices emerge from a shared impulse to disrupt the dominant power structures, Haacke’s incisive investigations prove far more courageous and effective in exposing the oppressive forces, while Holzer’s compromised approach lacks the ability to promote meaningful change.

If the Haacke Holzer comparison is too old school, then we can turn to William Pope. L, who is a trickster artist – but quite different from an artist like Cattelan, who also uses his irreverent works to satirize authority and conventional notions of taste and morality. While both Pope. L and Holzer intend to confront societal issues, their approaches and mediums differ significantly from Cattelan as well as from each other. What differentiates Pope. L’s is that he aims to confront the hidden social, political, economic, and racial forces shaping our social relations, and his strategy is more closely aligned with Haacke’s interventionist tactics. Pope. L’s absurdist performances, such as crawling through city streets while wearing a business suit, confront his unsuspecting viewers, creating an unsettling encounter that directly intervenes in public spaces, leaving his audience to grapple with the societal realities of racism, consumerism, and systemic inequalities. Similarly, Dread Scott’s “I Am Not a Man” placard, which is the inversion of the “I Am a Man” slogan carried by striking Memphis sanitation workers into 1968″ highlights the dehumanizing and negating effects of racism in America. His performance evokes the humiliation and denial of full personhood that Black people face. In such re-enactments, Scott’s work takes a more challenging approach by stating that in the eyes of society and its power structures, Black people are often not seen or treated as fully human. By taking such works into the public sphere, Scott confronts the viewer with the harsh truth that systemic racism persists in stripping Black people of their dignity. Such confrontational tactics are antipathical of Holzer’s passive text-based works, which only imply themes of institutional violence, oppression, and injustice. So, while both tackle similar subject matter, Holzer operates more within a traditional conceptual art context, whereas Pope. L’s strategies align not only with those of social but also institutional critique.

Perhaps merely in keeping with the claims made for Holzer’s work is that of the lesser-known feminist artist and activist Andrea Bowers, who also works across a wide range of media, such as drawing, video, installation, and performance though unlike Holzer, her practice is rooted in research, interviews, and direct participation in protests and activist movements. Such an immersive, community-based approach as Bowers does not lend itself readily to the kind of iconic, mass-market image that benefits Holzer, who, early in her career, was championed by major institutions, which contextualized and disseminated her work. In contrast, though Bowers has been institutionally recognized, her reputation has been built up gradually. She has been shown at smaller institutions such as the Hammer Museum, and while she is represented by a reputable gallery, unlike Holzer, it is not one of the top twenty international art world power brokers. Meanwhile, Bowers’s engagement with activist communities permits her to forge connections and first-hand knowledge of marginalized groups and social movements. So, if we set aside the claims made by Holzer institutional supporters who claim her work and public presentation convey critical socio-political commentaries against power structures, what remains is a body of work that fails to achieve its purported goal of using art as a vehicle for meaningful social change. If judged objectively, independent of the articles and press releases that reiterate the artist’s stated intent, Holzer’s practice when it comes to the economy of power (politics) becomes a hollow exercise in presenting in the public decontextualized inferences that are by analogy only tenuously connected to a political critique.

Jenny Holzer: Light Line at the Guggenheim NYC Through September 29, 2024

About the Writer: Saul Ostrow is an independent curator and critic. Since 1985, he has organized over 80 exhibitions in the US and abroad. His writings have appeared in art magazines, journals, catalogues, and books in the USA and Europe. In 2010, he founded along with David Goodman and Edouard Prulehiere, the not-for-profit Critical Practices Inc. as a platform for critical conversation and cultural practices. His book Formal Matters (selected and revised) published by Elective Affinities will be launched Fall, 2022. He served as Art Editor at Bomb Magazine, Co-Editor of Lusitania Press (1996-2004) and as Editor of the book series Critical Voices in Art, Theory and Culture (1996-2006) published by Routledge, London.

Publisher’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in “Opinion” pieces do not reflect the views of Art Spiel