07 October 2008

On Martha Rosler: New York Magazine Critic Trips on His Own Resentments

“Invasion” (2008) © Martha Rosler

What is it with male critics in NYC writing about woman artists? Last week Ken Johnson produced a caricature of Susan Meiselas for The Times. Now it is Jerry Saltz doing the same to Martha Rosler here in New York Magazine. Who hires these guys?

It will be no surprise to readers that I think Rosler's work is impressive. I've said as much numerous times [1] [2] [3] [4]. Even if one were to disagree, it is difficult to see how or why a critic writing for what truly is no more than an advertising circular could be so snide and dismissive. Let's have a closer look at what Saltz has to say.

He starts off with the standard practice of damning with faint praise:
"In the late sixties, Martha Rosler became known for a so-so series of collages titled “Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful.” She juxtaposed images of models, home décor, and the Vietnam War: A Vietnamese woman carried a bleeding baby in an unsullied American home, housewives dutifully cleaned battlefields, and so on. Although on a formal level Rosler simply mixed the harshness of John Heartfield’s thirties photomontages of the Third Reich with the pop-surreal sensibility of Richard Hamilton’s famous 1956 collage of a muscleman and a pinup girl in a contemporary living room, she did spice it with something new—an ironic, media-savvy attitude that changed the look of much art."
Rosler, it seems, is essentially a derivative artist who is influential mostly because she was (gasp!) clever. And as we learn subsequently, she remains "mediocre." Or, maybe, we should take a closer look. What I offer here are some of Saltz's more astute comments followed by my replies.

(1) "Four decades later, Rosler turns out not to have changed the look of her own work at all. In “Great Power,” her current skin-deep effort at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, Rosler tries to turn back the clock to her glory days, essentially remaking the Vietnam series. Only now she’s inserting images of models into pictures of the Iraq War. Clearly, there are parallels between the two wars, and activist art is valid. But Rosler lapses into simplistic nostalgia and undermines her older work while basically making pretty war porn. The only thing her work says is that fashion designers and women who like to shop caused two wars."

Two comments. First, parallels? Like a war in an exotic locale that elites sold on the basis of lies and the peddling of fear? Like a war that we are losing and to which there is no end in sight? Like a war in which the U.S. military has repeatedly targeted, purposefully or otherwise, civilian populations, thereby creating enemies on a vast scale? Those are not "parallels" Jerry. This is groundhog day. As Rosler herself said: “The downside was that people could say, ‘She’s revisiting something she did 30 years ago,’ . . . But I thought that actually was a plus, because I wanted to make the point that with all the differences, this is exactly the same scenario. We haven’t advanced at all in the way we go to war.” Congratulations Jerry, you took the bait. Maybe you could argue that the "parallels" don't hold, or that the work doesn't capture them. But that would require you to offer more than snotty assertion.

Second, Rosler's work draws parallels between life on the home front and life on the front lines. Do you think she really means to say that fashion designers and their customers cause wars? Or is she maybe saying that even once we all figured out that there were no WMDs, that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, that al Qaeda had virtually no presence in Iraq before we invited them in, there is scant opposition to the current war. Fashion designers and their customers are going on with life as usual. (Hint: Maybe Rosler is not making a literal claim. Maybe the designers and beautiful people, along with their banal preoccupations are meant to symbolize the population as a whole?) That is not a terribly deep reading of her work, but is sure seems plausible to me. Politicians and their cronies cause wars. Some of us pay for them with cash and heartbreak and life and limb. That seems a point well worth making. The fact that Americans are more or less entirely quiescent in the face of the Iraq fiasco and its costs might prompt you to re-think your tirade about the sixties (see below).

(2) "Rosler also includes news clippings about Iraq. Most of the articles are from reliably liberal sources (The Village Voice, The Nation, The New Yorker, etc.), so Rosler is merely filtering the already filtered. Worse, there’s an air of self-serving, pedantic preaching. She basically asserts that, while you may be concerned with current events, she’s so concerned she clipped these items and put them in binders. She turns President Bush’s “Go shopping” into “Start clipping.”"

Saltz might've read in The Times that Rosler clips and clips and clips. She does so because shes uses the clippings in her projects. And given that the mainstream media has, until recently, given BushCo a free ride on Iraq - hell, even the hopeful Mr. Obama mistakenly allows that "the surge" is working - perhaps "reliably liberal sources" are the best place to look for something resembling a realistic assessment of what is happening there?

The sarcasm in the final two sentences of this passage is an insult to readers. Saltz is acting like a middle school kid on the play ground.

(3) "Anyone who thinks any of this is good art, effective activism, or even slightly radical needs to get a grip."

Thanks Jerry. I am sure we all appreciate your advice. And who, precisely, appointed you arbiter of such matters? And who taught you how to write criticism? Note to editor at New York Magazine: This too is schoolyard taunting, no more.

(4) "It is sophistry to think that everything relates to Europe and America in 1968. The very paradigm of revolution, of right versus wrong, good versus bad, is a relic with no bearing on the present. Yet artists, exhibitions, and curators valorize the sixties. People who wrote about these artists 30 years ago still write about them in the same ways, often for the same magazines. Their students and imitators are doing the same—writing about artists, sometimes the same ones, in the same ways their teachers did. Often for the same magazines."

I cannot resist the obvious ad hominem that Saltz invites - which of the "same magazines" has invited his ire, and why? Maybe by not publishing his work? Maybe not.

Saltz apparently wants us to know that he's read Lyotard, Foucault and other post modern theorists who allegedly pronounced the demise of grand narratives, of large scale political projects, and of normative categories. He probably has. It's just that he has embraced the "Post-modernism for Dummies" view of those writers, none of whom endorsed the caricatured views commonly attributed to them. But let's say that Lyotard or Foucault did say something like "the paradigm of revolution, of right versus wrong, good versus bad, is a relic with no bearing on the present." First, nothing in Rosler's work calls for revolution. Second, while her work does provoke viewers to think about right and wrong, good or bad, that seems highly appropriate given the dishonesty, malfeasance, and venality, both official and unofficial, that have brought us war and economic crisis. If some theorist or other claims standard categories of criticism and assessment "have no bearing on the present," the proper response is - so much the worse for the theorist. If Jerry Saltz sides with the theorists so much the worse for him.

(5) "It’s a trap set by a previous generation in order to preserve its legacy a little longer, or at least until its members relinquish their positions in academe, museums, and media. Many things happened in the sixties, but the period is no more significant, better, or more “political” than today. It’s time to turn the page."

Again, the ad hominem is irresistible. Jerry, you mean to tell me that there is some vast conspiracy of '60s radicals that is responsible for this? And if it weren't for the "trap set" by those conspirators, you and your pals would have cushy gigs "in academe, museums and the media?" You're kidding right? Can you check your resentment? It's stopped percolating and started to boil over. And while you are at it, explain why "today" is no less "political" than the alleged golden age of the sixties. I'm willing to be persuaded. I'm just curious if you can make something like a constructive argument. If you could do that you might persuade someone that you actually deserve one of those putatively cushy gigs.

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Blogger CAP said...

I think even a dummy would spell dummy with 2 Ms.

07 October, 2008 17:09  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Are you insinuating that I'm a dumie?

07 October, 2008 20:33  
Blogger studio said...

hey, jim Johnson, thanks for this. The New York reviewer has been seething about me and people like me for years. He and his cohorts have been hurting in their hearts while they watched the events of the world seize the imagination of artists, making their own inaction and devotion to aestheticism tout court seem selfish and paltry in contrast.
It would be interesting to learn what they have done over the past 40 years as citizens or commentators to move the US government away from some of its more pernicious policies.
He actually knows that I have had a diverse practice with quite a few different strategies (since i am at core a conceptualist, interested in representation & universes of discourse as much as in the visual surface of a work)— i've seen him at my shows. And I have a large body of written work that is not irrelevant. But he chose to pretend i have been doing the same ole thing for 40 years (he must not have read the Sunday Times article--see below). That said, I am of course pleased that he recognized the political thrust of the show he was pretending to review, even though he also pretended it was nothing but a bunch of photomontages and "liberal' articles (excluding a 9-foot high sculpture and a videotape, not to mention a DDR machine and a turnstile...).
(And he is an unofficial, albeit contract-labor, part of the ruling clique where i teach that has been consistently derisive about anything but retardataire abstraction in painting and sculpture and against all photography.)
I was so outraged by the shallow and clueless review that the Times gave to Susan Meiselas (ignorant about her, her practice, and the whole field of documentary photo) that I wrote to both the Times (as did many) and to her. Susan is not only a dedicated and very brave photographer and activist, she actually cares about the people whom she has photographed, unlike the great majority of high-profile, overwhelmingly male, hero-photographers who, I assume, would get glowing reviews from every mainstream venue but who “parachute” in to crisis situations, grab their shots and get the hell out. And Susan is the one person in this field who has taken pains to keep the spotlight OFF herself and toward substantive engagement.
Then I got hit myself. But as to myself, I saw it coming: the Times had had a preview of me the Sunday before my solo show opened, and I knew there were going to be snipers awaiting. Such attacks are directly not against me and Susan alone but as you suggest toward a whole field of artistic production, lending their screeds a McCarthyite tinge.

08 October, 2008 10:52  

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