Historical Survey

By Griffin, Tim | Artforum International, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Historical Survey


Griffin, Tim, Artforum International


In 1970, HANS HAACKE presented his famous MOMA-Poll in the "Information" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, asking visitors whether New York governor Nelson Rockefeller's position on Nixon's Indochina policy would be reason not to vote for Rockefeller in the upcoming November election. Despite many differences between the political situation of that time and the present one, in preparing the current issue of Artforum, the editors were struck by an uncanny contextual doubling: Many voters will surely consider President Bush's invasion of Iraq a defining issue in casting their ballots, and artists too are working within a resonant situation. TIM GRIFFIN contacted Haacke to discuss his thoughts on the piece and the political possibilities for artmaking today.

TIM GRIFFIN: Could you describe the thinking that originally went into MOMA-Poll? What were you attempting to measure, and how did you interpret the results?

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

HANS HAACKE: Like many of my fellow artists, I was incensed over the Vietnam War. Cambodia had been bombed and invaded as part of Henry Kissinger's strategy for President Nixon to shore up the fortunes of the corrupt regime in Saigon (Kissinger also advised Nelson Rockefeller). Two months before the opening of "Information," four students at Kent State University had been shot dead by the Ohio National Guard during nationwide protests. We saw a glaring conflict between the politics of museum trustees and our own liberal-left attitudes. David Rockefeller was then the chairman of the MOMA board. In his 2002 autobiography he speaks of the "infamous 'Information' exhibition" and quotes my question about his brother Nelson. He calls this and other works "quite outrageous." Sixty-nine percent of the ballots in my poll were cast "against" Nelson Rockefeller. The results cannot claim to meet professional standards. However, they probably reflect the sentiments of the world of contemporary art in 1970. My piece gave these sentiments visibility in one of the most prominent institutions of modern art.

TG: Another striking echo between MOMA-Poll and present circumstances has to do with the mechanisms of museum patronage. Your poll implicitly raised the issue of the relationship between the Rockefeller family and the Museum of Modern Art. Today museum trustees may have even more power over the programming of a given cultural institution, often overseeing a curator's choice of exhibitions and individual acquisitions. How would you compare the political and cultural activities of museum patrons then and now?

HH: At the risk of overgeneralization and misinterpretation of what I observe from the outside, the women and men calling the shots in today's cultural institutions don't differ essentially from those of the '60s and '70s. Then and now there are liberal-minded individuals, people who adhere to the principle of noblesse oblige and fight for the independence of the professionals they employ. But they are in the minority. I am told the boards are dominated by supporters of the Bush administration. Therefore, I don't believe any museum today would allow a survey like my MOMA-Poll to be conducted on its premises. The fear of alienating donors and sponsors has institutionalized self-censorship, a form of censorship that is rarely recognized and impossible to prove.

I believe it is relevant to add that the question for my poll was not known to the museum until the night before the opening. I was later told that the museum director and an emissary of David Rockefeller had a nervous meeting. Given the political sensitivity of the period, censoring a work that was designed to engage MOMA visitors in a democratic process would probably have caused more trouble for the museum than letting it proceed.

TG: Has your thinking about MOMA-Poll changed since its execution? Or how does the piece stand, for you, within the greater trajectory of your work? …

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