Philosophers, jurists and civil libertarians alike have been intrigued by an argument made by Catharine MacKinnon in the so-called Minneapolis Ordinance, which attempted to treat certain representations as being in violation of the civil rights of women. The ordinance spoke of the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through images or words. It is not only that images that depict women in sadistic fantasies may have as consequences the actual subordination of women because they inspired sadists to realize such fantasies. Rather, the images themselves, whatever their consequences, subordinate women through their content. That images have the power to subordinate in this sense is widely conceded: When someone depicted the former Mayor of Chicago as in drag, wearing frilly underthings, the black community felt that to be a degradation, an unacceptable picture, and undertook to remove it from the wall. Subordination, thus, is one of the "powers of images," to borrow the expression David Freedberg uses for the title of a book that treats the phenomenon of empowered images throughout history. Freedberg's thesis is that treating images as possessing a wide range of powers is at once ancient and universal, and that the attitude persists in many of the ways in which we respond to and think about images: Think of the toppled statues of Lenin throughout Eastern Europe, or the way images are prayed to, injured, kissed or treated as uncanny throughout the world. Freedberg believes, I dare say rightly, that art historians have neglected these powers, and that in consequence there are entire empires of art to which the formalistic and iconographic modes of analysis they (and most art critics) favor have no application. They do not touch that which in images verges on their presumed magical and moral force. The testimony of the "experts" in the famous trial in Cincinnati over whether Robert Mapplethorpe's images are "obscene" is a case in point: The experts claimed that they saw the work only as "figure studies," as "classical proportions," as "symmetrical," virtually denying the almost shattering sexual energy of those morally challenging photographs.
Even so, a distinction must be drawn between the power of images and what one might call the power of art, where the effect of experiencing a work of art can be tantamount to a conversion, a transformation of the viewer's world. Ruskin, for example, underwent just such a transformative experience with Tintoretto's stupendous paintings in the Scuola San Rocco in Venice: "I never was so utterly crushed to the earth before any human intellect as I was today before Tintoret," he wrote his father in September 1845: "As for painting, I think I didn't know what it meant till today." Some years later, Ruskin sustained what he termed an "unconversion" inspired by Veronese's Solomon and the Queen of Sheba in Turin. He had just suffered through a dispiriting sermon on the vanity of life, and seeing the great painting against this bleak characterization of the world, he asked, "Can it be possible that all this power and beauty is adverse to the honour of the Maker of it?" His wonderful letter, again to his father, continues:
Has God made faces beautiful and
limbs strong, and created these strange,
fiery, fantastic energies, and created the
splendour of substance and the love of
it; created gold, and pearls, and crystal,
and the sun that makes them gorgeous;
and filled human fancy with all splendid
thoughts; and given to the human
touch its power of placing and brightening
and perfecting, only that all these
things may lead His creatures away
Ruskin's very language belongs to the world it describes, and to which Veronese's painting reconciled him. He was converted from a kind of evangelism to a redemptive form of humanism.
Ruskin's are extreme instances of the transformative impact art can have, and the very fact that such experiences are possible must surely be part of what Hegel had in view when he claimed that art, philosophy and religion are aspects or "moments" of what he designated Absolute Spirit. My sense is that anyone who has had any sustained intercourse with art must at some time have undergone some such experience, and I hold it greatly to the credit of Robert Storr, in his inaugural exhibition as curator at the Museum of Modern Art, that he should have sought to reconnect with the possibility of such transformations. "To be moved by art," he writes, in a text that accompanies "Dislocations," as the exhibition is called, "is to be lifted out of one's usual circumstances and taken out of oneself, the better to look back upon the place one has departed and the limited identity one has left behind. With or without metaphysics, and for however brief a moment it lasts, this state may be fairly called transcendence." Of course, such dislocations are rare in anyone's affective history. Countless tourists have trudged through the Scuola San Rocco thinking of little more edifying than how chilly they feel or when lunch might be. However greatly one admires Veronese, few have been catapulted by his gorgeousness into a totally new moral attitude. And Ruskin, for all his sensitivity, was numb to works that stirred others profoundly. Speaking for myself, I was absolutely knocked off my horse by certain works of Andy Warhol that others found blank or meretricious or cynical or silly. For all their importance, dislocative experiences are unpredictable, and presuppose certain states of mind on the viewer's part that not everyone will share.
Still, dislocation is a bold direction for MoMA to take, not least of all because of the close identification of modernism with formalism, not only in the thought and writing of Alfred Barr but in the practice and discourse of any number of curators or docents when they explain works of art to one another and to the world. Formalism, moreover, as may be seen from the responses of the experts at the Mapplethorpe trial, is clearly the lingua franca of art criticism and what is tacitly appealed to and contested in the issue of "quality" that has lately so exercised the art world. It is formalism against which David Freedberg inveighs in his polemic in favor of recognizing the power of images. And it is formalism, however correctly believed to have been the philosophy and critical posture of Clement Greenberg, that has been so polemicized against by those who have sought a more political mission for art, or who practice what is called "the New Art History." The art world, especially that sector of it corresponding to middle management in industry, is today a politicized, indeed an angrily politicized, group of persons, and there can be little doubt that some of the dislocation aspired to by the seven installations of which this show consists is political: The works mean to get those who view them to think differently about matters of gender, race and war. This is not likely to happen easily, just because so many of those who will see the show already share so many of the beliefs and attitudes of the artists. Even so, I cannot suppose that the overall aim of a show, the raison d'etre of which is cast in such terms as "transport" or "transcendence" or as "mapping previously unimagined spaces," can be construed as political in any narrow way. The aim is rather something like a conceptual revolution, a way of seeing things fresh, of re-placing the viewer in a conceptually recast world. This is a pretty tall order, all the more so if animated by the belief that there are works capable of doing this in any uniform and dependable way. Conversion is hardly something one can promise ticket holders as the reward of a few hours spent in the galleries.
Dislocation, moreover, does not seem to figure greatly in the day-to-day experiences with art of the MoMA cadre, typical, no doubt, of museum personnel everywhere. This is certainly the inference to be drawn from one of the works, "installed" by the French conceptual and performance artist Sophie Calle in the galleries of the museum's permanent collection. Calle's work is called Ghosts, which translates the French term fantomes, though the latter has a use in French for which we have, so far as I know, no English word at all - though I imagine "ghost" is destined to enter the language as such. A fantome is the photograph of a painting that replaces the painting when the latter has been taken away from a museum wall, together with a label that explains what happened to the work: It is on loan, or being cleaned or restored, or it has been stolen. Calle had the poetic idea of substituting for the "ghost" the memories of the missing work carried by those supposed most familiar with it - curators, administrators, guards and the like. It is always interesting to find out how images are stored - I have read that Americans divide equally on the question of whether Lincoln faces right or left on the standard U.S. penny - and it is to be expected that even when a painting is as familiar as the penny, memories will conflict and decay. Remembering paintings, in fact, turns out to be almost like remembering dreams, and it is fascinating to read what Calle has written in the blank spaces on the walls where just a few weeks ago there hung a Magritte, a Modigliani, a Seurat, a Hopper, a de Chirico. It is easy to pick out the official MoMA voice. Of de Chirico: "Very sterile, very angular." "It's mostly those typical de Chirico colors, mustard, gold, brown, and blue." The angry feminist voice is readily identified as well. Of Magritte: "It's just one more picture where the woman is naked and the men are clothed." Of Modigliani: "It's like any other nude. It's a horizontal painting of a female lying naked." And then there are the usual bitchy art world voices. Of Hopper: "An icon of American art. I respect it historically but I'm not passionate about it." Of Seurat: "There's something anal about it." These are voices of the located, rather than the dislocated. Storr draws a certain moral from Calle's work. It should "at the very least, give pause to those who declare themselves to be sure of the import of such canonical pictures." "Canonical" is tendentious: I would say it shows how unsure we ever are of the import of pictures, given the immense diversity of individual histories and beliefs. Some of Calle's ghosts are very evocative and poetically confessional. It would be interesting to know at least the rank in museum hierarchy of the different orders of respondents: Are the guards more likely than the curators to say such things as, "You have the feeling you are not in reality, you are on a film set, and something is wrong . . ." of the de Chirico? Or of the Seurat: "The painting reminds me of a sequined dress." Anyway, what ghosts would be left behind from the memories of the non-canonical works in "Dislocations"? Ruskins are few and far between.
The closest to a transformative experience was occasioned for me by Bruce Nauman's Anthro/Socio, though part of its impact was due to certain accidents of when I viewed it. There were just a few shadowy visitors in the darkened gallery, with a few more crossing the largely empty space. It made no impact on a friend who was at the opening, when this particular room was dense with guests standing in line to see the next exhibit, and paying no attention to the work. Could the fact that I was one of a handful, each of us in fact paying attention, an enhancement of the experience? In any case, it consists of three colossal projections of the same male head onto the bare walls, one of the heads upside down. The heads are chanting, over and over, as if it were a mantra, what sounds like calls for help. The same striking head, sometimes upside down again, appears on several monitors placed here and there in the gallery, taking up the chant, as if a chorus of semblables. The volume of the sound, the volume of the room, the repetition, with felt intensity, of the phrases "Feed me/Eat me/Anthropology. Help me/Hurt me/Sociology," the urgency of the voices, the floor-to-ceiling scale of the dislocated heads, achieve a very powerful effect, especially when experienced in a near empty gallery where one sees other visitors silhouetted, singly or in pairs, against the chanting heads. But if it was dislocating, it was so only momentarily, and it left me with nothing by way of a transformed philosophy. The world after Nauman looks a lot like the world pre-Nauman. Perhaps that is because, knowing there is more to come, one is primed to see what the next installation does.
The next installation I saw was Louise Bourgeois's Twosome, having taken a wrong turn in the intended progression of the exhibition. Hers has something of the scale of Nauman's, and it enacts an alternation where his merely chants alternations, but her work uses mechanical protagonists rather than explicitly human ones, and does not touch us with the same immediacy of sympathy. Her alternation is what Alex, in A Clockwork Orange, calls "The old in-and-out." The work consists of two very large tanks, rescued for the purposes of art from the scrap yard, lying on their sides, but end to end. The one with the larger diameter has windows cut into it, through which a sort of reddish light shines out. The other slides in and out of it on tracks. It is thus a sort of love machine, an emblem perhaps of the act of love in an age of mechanical reproduction. The receiving cylinder can be seen as a kind of shelter, what with the windows, and so a sort of woman-house (or perhaps a house-wife). One senses that some mischievous reading is intended, like: House-wives are screwed. In a personal statement, Bourgeois philosophizes a bit on in/out as the general metaphysical condition of humankind: We are in/out of love, in/out of luck, in/out of debt, and so on. But none of this is made visual enough by a work that seems awfully large to be at best a kind of joke on the circumstances of copulation. One waits for a more ample revelation, but none comes. It in any case diluted the impact of the Nauman.
I ought to have seen Bourgeois's work after passing through an installation by Ilya Kabakov called The Bridge. Indeed, there is a bridge, from which one sees, in the dark space of the room it traverses, furniture pushed back against the walls. A narrative is pinned to a bulletin board, telling of what was to have been a critique, in a housing project in Moscow in 1984, of some paintings held to display "dangerous bourgeois tendencies." This event never came off. The furniture instead was all pushed where one sees it, and there, in the cleared space, are what are described as "groups of little white people, constantly exchanging places." Binoculars have been placed along the bridge for us to look at what to New Yorkers have the appearance of cockroaches dusted with boric acid, showing their usual negatively phototropic behavior. One feels that some magic must have leaked out of Kabakov's installation in its transit from Moscow to New York, where it appears as a sort of mess intended to be a hybrid of political satire and science fiction.
I felt there was little magic to leak out of David Hammons's piece on the third floor, the title of which is Public Enemy. It consists of a sort of barricade surrounding blown-up photographs of a piece of public sculpture of an earlier era: Teddy Roosevelt, mounted, is flanked by a Native American and an African-American on foot. Some guns lie here and there against the barricade, and there are balloons and streamers coming down from the ceiling, as if a victory were being celebrated, or had been. Hammons is a legendary artist, latterly much honored, whose work, until now, has been street art, made of things found in the street, for an audience whose habitat is the street. It is easy to understand the impulse to bring a vision such as his within museum space, which I fear rather defeated it. Given his edificatory impulses, he ought to have put museum space into question, but instead he settled for a political diorama not worthy of his true powers. Had such a work been created in public space, around a real monument, it might have been inspiring and even dislocative. But here it is merely sullen and artistically inert.
Another clear failure is Chris Burden's The Other Vietnam Memorial, which is doubly defective. It is defective as art, in the first instance, and it is defective because it ought to have been good if it was done at all. The idea is certainly a good one - to memorialize those who died in the conflict but are not memorialized in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial because they were on the other side. It has the form of a bulletin board with rotating leaves, on each of which is etched the "names" of dead Vietnamese, in tiny, tiny letters. It touches no emotions, not least of all because the names are generic Vietnamese names, designating anyone and no one. The power of Maya Lin's masterpiece is that there is a direct causal and semantic tie between each name and a specific individual, so that in touching the name one is multiply related to that very person. Had she used generic American names - Smith, Brown, Robinson, Jones - it would have failed just as Burden's does. After all, we are not talking about Unknown Soldiers. It shows disrespect for the very persons it was meant to represent by putting an abstract screen of namelike marks between them and us. No one is moved to touch this memorial.
The final work, by Adrian Piper, is about racial stereotypes: In a sort of amphitheater, an African-American male declaims from monitors positioned atop a central pillar that he is not lazy, not shiftless, not sneaky, scary . . . is not any of the things men like him are said to be. It is not that he is a Mann ohne Eigenschaften - a "Man without Qualities" - but a man of whom those racist predicates are not true. One can be, one perphaps must be, moved by the message without especially being moved by the work. New Yorkers have seen the theme of racism addressed by Piper, who is a philosopher and a teacher of philosophy, in works that show her engaged in an acidic pedagogy, mocking the viewer, insinuating, putting us off balance. When one of these works showed up in the window of the New Museum, passers-by who paused to look at it responded with anger. Perhaps this work is diminished by Nauman's, with which it in any case shares the feature of talking heads.
There is a distinction to be made between bad art and failed art. Nothing in this show is bad, but a lot of it fails, perhaps because of the burden put on it by the charge to dislocate us. It has on the other hand two successes - Calle's and Nauman's - and a near success in Bourgeois's affectionate tanks. And the show itself, as distinguished from its contents, is a great success, reconnecting our concept of art with that for the sake of which art, after all, exists: to move the souls of men and women.…