Barbara Kruger, whose work is currently being exhibited at New York’s Whitney Museum, comes as close as anybody can to being the official artist of American consumerism. You know who I’m talking about, even if you don’t know her name. Kruger is the collagist who slaps sarcastic slogans boxed in red on old black-and-white photographs. “I shop therefore I am”; “It’s a small world but not if you have to clean it”; “Your body is a battleground”–you’ve read her aphorisms on shopping bags and coffee mugs and bus stop shelters and magazine covers and the Op-Ed page of the New YorkTimes. Slightly more than a quarter-century after quitting her job as the head designer of Mademoiselle to turn the techniques of mid- and late-20th-century propaganda and advertising against themselves, Kruger has come full circle. Hers is the voice that suffuses today’s airwaves and magazine pages and that contemporary marketers work hard to emulate. The edgy, ironic, supposedly self-hating but really self-congratulatory advertisement or commercial–we owe it largely to her.
Kruger wouldn’t like the idea that she incarnates the spirit of our time, the bourgeois bohemianism that David Brooks meanly calls “Boboism.” She’s against the commercial exploitation of anything, her many market tie-ins notwithstanding. If her work consciously advances a position, it’s feminism. But although she’s a feminist, she’s also a theorist trained not to impose her values on other people. She doesn’t like to be for things. Instead, she identifies herself with a stance: critical, suspicious, oppositional. Kruger has made a career out of denouncing oppressors, from anti-abortion agitators to wife-beaters, homophobics, racists, and the editors of glossy magazines. A typical Kruger piece is a long room swathed from floor to ceiling in giant red and black type and 1950s-magazine-style photographs. In one such installation, the wall text screams: “All violence is the illustration of a pathetic stereotype.” Underneath it is the photograph of a screaming woman and the words, “hebe kike yid hymie spic wop dago mex cunt gash snatch pussy spook sambo …” and so on. In another installation, the photographs are of preachers railing, a man and a woman kissing through surgical masks, medical deformities, magnets picking up nails. “Pray like us,” says the text imposed on the magnets. In smaller type: “Your tired rituals. Your power trips. Your pompous scoldings. Your insane strictness.” Out of the mouth of the preacher comes the phrase, “Hate like us,” and in a box that’s perched on the tip of his nose: “Your fear and loathing. Your mean spirit. Your constant contempt.”
You might object that for an artist opposed to stereotyping she has few qualms about doing it to people she doesn’t like. She would reply that that’s the point. Unlike their stereotyping, hers is a necessary counterassault against people who reduce other groups of people to derogatory nouns. It’s also commentary–education and critique by way of appropriation and allusion (to Dada montage and Soviet constructivism, mainly). In other words, speak unto others as they speak unto you. In an interview with writer Lynne Tillman (the one good article in the show’s otherwise shockingly sycophantic catalogue), Kruger says: “Direct address has motored my work from the beginning. I like it because it cuts through the grease. … It’s everywhere and people are used to it.”
You can imagine the appeal of Kruger’s bluntness for the New York art world in the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan came to power and seemed to threaten everything it held dear, and maybe even again in the early 1990s, with the rise of hate radio. Contemporary art tends to be oblique. Political messages are delivered in a language that their non-artist recipients can’t begin to decipher. Kruger’s unsubtlety, her frank mimicry of mass media, her unconcern about the distinctions between high and low art, must have been quite satisfying in their heyday. But they were also self-defeating. When you shout back at someone who’s shouting at you, one shout cancels the other out. Kruger clearly meant her shouting to deconstruct the very act of shouting, her message to be an anti-message. But communication doesn’t work that way. Kruger makes the classic rhetorical mistake of focusing so completely on what she means to say that she overlooks how she says it. She’s oblivious to the way her carefully reasoned critical positionality actually comes off.
What does it feel like to walk inside a Kruger installation? It feels awful. There’s no other way to put it. It’s like being buttonholed by a snob who has either never met or never made an effort to sympathize with the Middle Americans she rails against. Wherever she may have actually traveled, Kruger views the world the way someone would who has never ventured out of the four-square-miles of Soho and Tribeca and the East Village. Her slogans are sophomoric. Her sarcasm is cheap. Her politics are provincial–dismissive and demonizing and suffused with know-it-all-itis. While you’re standing there, you don’t care what larger pedagogical purpose or deeper intellectual meaning her declarations are supposed to have. They just seem like the windy pronunciamentos of an art-world bully.
It’s this air of unearned smugness that makes Kruger’s art such a tempting target for commercial re-appropriation. Her knowing negativity is perfect for creating the insiderishness, the us vs. them, that lifestyle marketing thrives on. She asks you to question yourself, true, but before you really do so she lets you congratulate yourself for being the sort of person who’d do a thing like that. “Why are you here?” demands the wall copy at one installation. “What do you want?” But she never follows that up with a fresh political insight or anything else that would give the typical art-gallery-goer reason to rethink his or her most cherished prejudices. As in the most effective commercials, her message is one of comfort and solidarity. Barbara Kruger fans are good because they see through those other people who are bad. Maybe if she’s lucky, they’ll stop and pick up some Kruger product at the museum store on their way out the door.
All photographs courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art. All rights reserved.