on skepticism, art, and the museum in the 21st century

Image: Barbara Kruger’s rendering of exhibition entryway at the Art Institute of Chicago, Digital image courtesy of the artist/Source photo courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

Kruger’s not so retrospective retrospective, currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, affords an opportunity to reconsider why it is we go to museums and what we do when we get there. 

Visitors aren’t so much greeted by Kruger’s work as they enter it; her iconic font and color palette paper the floor, walls, and ceiling of the first several rooms of the exhibition, before later rooms give way to more traditional modes of exhibition.  The work will be familiar to nearly everyone, her style and some of the works themselves long since immortalized in our contemporary visual lexicon.  “I shop therefore I am.” “Your Body is a Battleground.”  Lurid red juxtaposed with anodyne black and white.

An air of suspicion accompanied my encounter with this work though.  Is it fair to be skeptical of Barbara Kruger’s experimentations with contemporary visual language?  Do the text-image juxtapositions she was experimenting with in the 1980s still have the same incisive impact in an era in which that style of communication is even more ubiquitous?  What about a show comprised almost entirely of text-based work?  The show reveals Kruger’s pen to be as sharp as ever; contemporary examples of her trademark style are interspersed throughout a show which also contains much of her historical work.  It also reveals the artist as a true vanguard: Kruger’s was the language of the epigram and more specifically of the meme before memes were a significant source of our everyday communication.   Maybe that is how we should consider the contemporary impact of Kruger’s work, as historical precedent for how we actually wound up speaking, predicted by an artist working at a moment in which the age of mass media we now inhabit was just starting to reveal itself.  Perhaps we need new ways of interpreting her and her work.  I’m not certain ‘shocking’ or ‘impactful’ does it, not in the same way.  Her work does however remain as legible as ever, which is more than can be said of a great deal of contemporary art.

There is another aspect of Internet culture which is raised in the style of encounter with Kruger’s work offered at the Art Institute; given the status of the art museum in the 21st century as often primarily (or merely) a backdrop for social media, can work which relies on text work in today’s museum?  I want to be hesitant with leveling a critique because I think Kruger’s work still has an edge; her graphic collages feel as aesthetically contemporary now as they did when she began making them, but I worry about the extent to which the Internet has altered how we read.  Whereas in a gallery in the 1980s a work covered in type might have stopped us in our tracks, we barely pause to read these works anymore, not really read.  (Perhaps especially when text is the only thing on offer across multiple rooms of work, I found myself sort of numb to the effects of language after traversing the first several.) I found myself questioning other choices too, such as the scaling up of her text pieces, their transformation into multimedia works, wallpaper, floor coverings, transformations which had the effect of making the text almost unreadable unless one took great effort, while somewhat surprisingly making the works that much better backdrops for photo-takers.   The scaling up of the texts has interestingly been read by critics as a means of making her audience work harder, engage for longer, in order to receive her message.  But what if an audience isn’t reading at all?

The transformation of some of her more iconic pieces into durational video works with intermittent sound effects might be more effective in this regard; they do seem to encourage visitors to spend a little more time with these pieces although that seems to be the only reason for the change in format (in this way feeling a little too much like a gimmick for my taste. the overflowing of Kruger’s work into the other spaces of the museum also felt like a gimmick, lauded as critical intervention, but effectively negligible.)  Kruger also included a number of new minimalist sound works, a voice saying hello, another ‘welcome,’ again demonstrating Kruger’s interest in expanding into new media.  The turn to sound seems indicative of the more general turn to sound in the years between Kruger’s hey-day and the contemporary moment, and their simplicity is charming.  They also represent the most substantial shift in terms of style.  Kruger is otherwise almost shockingly consistent in her visual language across the decades.  (There’s also a selfie room from which a camera broadcasts images to other screens installed throughout the museum which bears little aesthetic resemblance to Kruger’s work but certainly resonates conceptually.)  In all of these transformations then, immersion seems to be an experience Kruger is playing with; sound, moving image, wallpaper, all propose a different mode of engagement, less direct than her traditional work, but perhaps more lasting. A tacit acknowledgement, maybe, that even if the text doesn’t hit as hard, its aesthetic can still force a tonal resonation across senses and through time.

Kruger will have already foreseen any/all critique I would level at her, her work is so cutting, so authoritative, so hyper self-aware (the embodiment of the artist critic).  But the show does feel like a dark joke about the inefficacy of art that Kruger is certainly in on, but also maybe more out of than we (the art world) would like to admit.   Does her self-acknowledgment of the fact that her work has been re-incorporated to death by the mainstream she was critiquing, (the exhibition’s entryway collages, which are full of examples of t-shirts and tote bags and advertisements featuring her work, being the most glaring example) invalidate any critique of our own?  If the dominant critical reception thus far is to take for granted that we are going to read Kruger’s texts and be affected by them, I’ll pose another ‘reading’ of the material transformations she is playing with in the new show: Perhaps Kruger knows we aren’t going to read the text anyway, perhaps she is saying to us just go ahead and take the picture, look I’m taking one for you! This work has been watered down to nothing already, she continuously reminds us, even as the show and its curators are asking us to continue to engage with it, so what? Do what you want with me! You will anyways.

There’s a certain nihilism to it. 

But she doesn’t think those things, does she? She’s not a nihilist, she does still think this work can mean, she is still using it to critique our more contemporary media culture.  Take the 2020 piece “Unititled (no comment),” a video piece riddled with Internet native imagery and text which begs her viewers to take their online life less seriously.    And there is at least one way in which this work may be more salient now, another way in which Kruger foresaw our contemporary moment; we don’t do subtlety online (anymore, at all?) and neither does she.  Despite some arguments to the contrary, I don’t think this work does take time, it doesn’t demand interpretation, it tells you exactly what it is about and it does so in blistering, explicit terms.  It picks sides without compromise.  Sound familiar? If only all of our pithy Internet speech could be this pithy, this succinct, this smart at using so few words to convey a maximum impact.  In the final room of the exhibition there is a piece which describes in short phrases what the ‘work’ is about; it is about ‘witnessing and the anointed moment,’ about naming, virtuality, and the redo of the real.  The work is about hooliganism and the lure of the picaresque.  It’s about broadcast and the short conversation, narrative and the gathering of incidents.’  Although Kruger does not say which ‘work’ these phrases describe, I found myself agreeing that yes, every phrase in the video was exactly what Kruger’s work is about.  

I was thinking a lot about nostalgia in Kruger’s show and how if nostalgia can still (or could it ever?) be deployed critically.  I wondered as well whether the 75 year old Kruger views any of this work nostalgically?  As others have pointed out there was a definitive edge to some of this work, poster child as it was for some of the larger crises and social movements of the late 20th century in America; AIDS, anti-apartheid, feminism.  But it was inevitable that their constant re-circulation through the networks of capitalism over the last forty hears has dulled these images bite.  But constant exposure to images and slogans was already a problem for Kruger, that’s what the work was always about; ostensibly seamless additions to the visual language of consumer (ALL) culture but this time with a difference.  We’re all tired of critique.  But they were tired of it back in the 80s too.  At the time Haim Steinbach wrote of the Pictures Generation of artists Kruger belonged too that; “There has been a shift in the activities of the new group of artists in that there is a renewed interest in locating one’s desire, by which I mean one’s own taking pleasure in objects and commodities…There is a stronger sense of being complicit with the production of desire, what we traditionally call beautiful seductive objects, than being positioned somewhere outside of it.”

I think Kruger’s work was always in and out, always seduced by the commodity as much as not.  She always knew better too, her background in advertising and design put her smack dab in the middle of the operations of manipulation, but that doesn’t mean she couldn’t also have been attracted to these images, to the commodified discourses they stand in for.   As Lauren Berlant showed us, we are always already at least somewhat optimistically attached to these objects and images through convention, even if we sort of always know they are going to forever disappoint us, even hurt us.

So if I were going to question whether or not Kruger’s attention towards the style of these images is nostalgic, I think the answer is that of course it is.  It’s certainly a dominant mode of encountering them. But nostalgia is an ambivalent emotion.  Like Svetlana Boym’s reflective nostalgia which looks back longingly but doesn’t want to actually go back, we can want something while knowing it’s bad for us. We can re-use the same form or language even though we know it might mean something other than we had intended.  It might seem too ridiculous to say of work which on the surface appears to be the opposite, but maybe Kruger’s work itself is more ambivalent than we tend to acknowledge; the longing is unavoidably sedimented in there underneath the provocations and propaganda.  It’s also there formally in the disjunctures crafted between image and text. My skepticism reveals the way in which the museum and our cultural discourses around art are over-determined to such a degree they are always revealing their cracks. Work like Kruger’s is especially ripe for such revelations; given the active, agential impliciations of both its formal object state as well as its critical reception, it’s claims to do so much can only breed doubt, they are after all, merely images, hanging on a wall, in an ideologically charged space undergoing an as yet unfinished redefinition.