Remote Control: Power, Cultures, and the World of Appearance. Barbara Kruger. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1993. 251 pp. $19.95.
Word and image come together in artist Barbara Kruger's vision of contemporary popular culture. Unfortunately this volume of collected writings includes none of Kruger's fascinating word-pictures. Limited as it is to words, Remote Control is necessarily remote. Kruger's writings first appeared principally in academic journals and lectures and in Art forum. She regards popular culture with acuity, but with mandarin haughtiness. Ironically, one of her most successful and trenchant essays, on Howard Stern, was first published in Esquire, along with an ingenious Kruger cover. In fact, Kruger's art transfigures popular imagery and comment into declarations of High Art. Kruger's artworks are among the best examples of this genre in contemporary art, but they also reveal the fallacies in the presumptive high-culture position vis-a-vis a popular culture appreciation. Though Kruger advocates "democratic futures," her diction-vision and verbally-is still couched in the comforts of an elite, elevated vantage on culture. She deflates the sunny bombast of TV weatherpersons; she appreciates Times Square. Kruger considers Pee-Wee Herman as well as the most advanced films of the New York Film Festival, but her analysis is more Karl Marx dogmatism than Manr Brothers doggerel. It is as if she wants to be interested in Karen Carpenter and her plight, but instead reviews the Todd Haynes' movie Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story.
As such, Kruger's perspective is an education for all of us. The serious compendium of writings valuable gathered here is otherwise hard to retrieve. But there is still something privileged, isolated, and graphically self-beautified about Kruger's position that is essentially one of High Art and High Culture looking down. For those chiefly interested in contemporary art, this is an invaluable book of a major artist's writings; for those interested in contemporary culture, this is one limited point of view.
Richard Martin The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity. Ed. John R, Gillis. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.
Few people will deny that the course of humankind, though it might make no progress, is a giant force and movement, like a varicolored ball, that rolls through the corridors of time, growing in size and force, destroying or altering the environment and throwing off debris that come to be known as nations and peoples. …