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Hans Haacke, Art actuel: Skira annuel 77, No. 3, 1977
from: Grasskamp, Nesbit, Bird (2004); Hans Haacke, Phaidon Press; pp 108-113

Hans Haacke
The Constituency (1977)

Two polls, conducted respectively in 1972 and 1973, at the New York John Weber Gallery, a commercial gallery for contemporary art, showed that 70 per cent of 858 (first poll) and 74 per cent of 1,324 (second poll) gallery visitors who responded to a questionnaire during a two-and-a-half-week period each, declared that they had a 'professional interest in art'.(1)

The visitors of commercial galleries of contemporary art in New York seem to be an extremely select audience recruiting itself from the ranks of the college-educated middle and upper middle classes. The professionally uncommitted public of the gallery can hardly be suspected of representing 'the proletariat' or the mythical 'man in the street'.

Those who have a professional interest in art (artists, students, critics, the directors, curators and their assistants in museums and comparable institutions, gallery owners and their assistants, advertising and public relations executives, government and party bureaucrats in charge of the arts, art advisors of foundations, corporations and of collectors, etc.) influence, although not with an equal vote for everyone, and frequently only in a nominal capacity, which products and activities are to be considered 'art' and how much attention should be paid to each artist and the often competing art 'movements'. Many members of this diverse group are not independent agents but act rather on behalf of employers and clients whose opinions they might have internalized or cannot afford disregarding.

By no means is the art quality of a product inherent in its substance. The art certificate is conferred upon it by the culturally powerful social set in which it is to be considered art, and it is only valid there and then. The attribution of value, particularly if this value is not supported by the needs for physical survival and comfort, is determined ideologically. Unless one invokes God or the quasi-divine inspiration of a disembodied party, the setting of norms and their subtle or not so subtle enforcement, throughout history, is performed by particular individuals or groups of people and has no claim to universal acceptance. Their beliefs, emotional needs, goals and interests, no matter if the particular cultural power elite is aware of and acknowledges it, decide on the ever shifting art criteria.

Usually there is no quarrel about the existence of ideological determination if it emanates from a political or religious authority. The fact that man-made value systems and beliefs reflecting particular interests are also at work in liberal surroundings is not quite as readily admitted by the liberal culture mongers. Ideology, of course, is most effective when it is not experienced as such.

Still, in the liberal environment of the John Weber Gallery, the question 'Do you think the preferences of those who financially back the art world influence the kind of works artists produce?' received a remarkable answer 30 per cent of the 1,324 respondents of the aforementioned poll answered 'Yes, a lot.' Another 37 per cent answered 'Somewhat'. The preformulated answer 'Not at all' was chosen by only 9 per cent. To fully appreciate the gallery visitors' feeling of dependence, potential conflict and, possibly, cynicism and alienation, it is worth noting that 43 per cent thought their standard of living would be affected if no more art of living artists were bought.

Apparently, a sizeable portion of the visitors of the gallery (remember, 74 per cent of them declared a professional interest in art) believed at the time that the economic power of private and institutional collectors, foundations, publishers, corporate and private contributors to art institutions and governmental funding agencies does, indeed, play a decisive role in the production and distribution of contemporary art.

The validation of certain products as contemporary high art, which, of course, guides future production while feeding on the consensus of the past, obviously is not independent of the art industry's(2) economic base. A cursory look at the art world in liberal societies might therefore lead to the conclusion that it is, in fact, as stringently controlled as the cultural life in societies where street cleaning equipment is called out to take care of deviant art, where a palette of blood and earth is used or an occasional blooming of a thousand flowers is announced with great fanfare.

It is true that the trustees and, perforce, the directors of many big museums probably agree with the declaration of one of their director-colleagues: '... we are pursuing aesthetic and educational objectives that are self-sufficient and without ulterior motive. On those grounds the trustees have established policies that exclude active engagement toward social and political ends.'(3)

Such policies pretend to be based on the sociologically and philosophically untenable premise of a self-sufficient education and free-floating aesthetics while ignoring that a museum, by its very existence, actively engages in the promotion of social and political ends. Thus many museums which constitute some of the more powerful agents in the validation and distribution of art are closed for a whole range of contemporary work, and, if applied consistently, also to many works of the past.

Such a ban has the further effect of seriously impairing the economic viability of the incriminated works in commercial galleries, another of the major validating agents. Therefore in fact, if not by design, this posture has far-reaching consequences and leaves a politically neutral stance far behind, if such a thing exists at all.

The idealist notion of an art created out of and exclusively for 'disinterested pleasure' (Immanuel Kant), a claim contradicted by history and everyday experience, is upheld by formalist art theory as promulgated and normatively established by Clement Greenberg and his adherents. Formalist thinking, however, is not confined to his accredited followers; it reigns wherever formal qualities are viewed in isolation and their pure demonstration becomes the intended message.

This theory of cultural production and dissemination obviously overlooks the economic and ideological circumstances under which the industry and formalist theory itself operate. Questions as to the content and the audience and beneficiaries of art are heresy for a true formalist. Neither contemporary thinking in the social and political sciences nor psychoanalytic theory support such views. The pressures and lures of the world do not stop respectfully at the gate to the 'temple', Giscard d'Estaing's term for Paris' Centre Pompidou (!), or the studio door.

It is not surprising, then, that the designers of public spaces and the corporate men who dominate the boards of trustees of cultural institutions in the US4 are so fond of these nineteenth-century concepts of 'art for art's sake'. The fact that many works done in this vein today are abstract and enjoy avant-garde status no longer poses a problem and now is often seen as an asset in the hunt for cultural prestige. The corporate state, like governments, has a natural allergy to questions such as 'what' and 'for whom'? Unwittingly or not, formalist theory provides an alibi. lt induces its clients to believe that they are witnessing and participating in important historic events, as if artworks which are purportedly done for their own sake still performed the liberating role they played in the nineteenth century.

Aside from this powerful ideological allegiance and confluence of interests, the curators, critics, artists and dealers of the formalist persuasion, like the producers and promoters of any other product or system of messages, also have an economic interest in the maintenance and expansion of their position in the market. The investment of considerable funds is at stake.(5)

In spite of these constraining forces, it is demonstrably false to assume that their control over the art world in liberal societies is complete. Examples could be cited in which certain cultural products are censored outright or discouraged from surfacing in one corner and accepted or even promoted in another corner of the same liberal environment.(6) Although in all these instances ideology or more crudely apparent financial considerations also guide the decisions, the individuals and social forces behind them do not necessarily share the same beliefs, value systems and interests.

The consciousness industry,(7) of which the art industry is an integral but minor small shop operation for a custom-made output, is such a far-flung global operation, with so many potentially conflicting elements, that absolute product control is impossible. It is this lack of total cohesion and the occasional divergence of interests that secures a modicum of 'deviant' behaviour.

The relative openness to non-conforming products - not to be equated with so-called pluralism - is further aided by the consciousness industry's built-in dialectics. For it to remain viable and profitable, it requires a pool of workers and a clientele with the judgement and the demand for ever new forms of entertainment, fresh information and sensual and intellectual stimulation. Although rarely in the foreground, it is the 'deviant' elements that provide the necessary dynamics. Without them the industry would bureaucratize and stagnate in boredom, which is, in fact, what happens in repressive environments.

Ironically, the ideological stabilization of power in the hands of a given power elite is predicated on the mobilization of the resources for its potential overthrow. If 'repressive tolerance' were as smothering as Herbert Marcuse fears, there would be no need to spend enormous amounts of money for propaganda and the public relations efforts of big corporations (Mobil Oil Corp spent $21 million alone for its 'Goodwill Umbrella' in 1976). These investments attest to the race between an ever more sophisticated public and newly developed techniques of persuasion, in which art is also increasingly used as an instrument.(8)

The millions of white-collar workers of the industry, teachers, journalists, priests, art professionals and all other producers and disseminators of mental products, are engaged in the cementing of the dominant ideological constructs as well as in dismantling them. In many ways this group reflects the ambiguous role of the petite-bourgeoisie,(9) that amorphous and steadily growing class with a middle and upper middle income and some form of higher education, oscillating between the owners of the means of production and the 'proletariat'. This embarrassing and embarrassed class, in doubt about its identity and aspirations and riddled with conflicts and guilt, is the origin of the contemporary innovators and rebels as it is the reservoir of those most actively engaged in the preservation of the status quo.

The general art public (not to be confused with the relatively small number of collectors), the public of museums and art centres, comes from the same social pool. It is a rather young audience, financially at ease but not rich, college-educated and flirting with the political left rather than with the right.(10) Thus there is a remarkable demographic resemblance between the art professionals, the art public at large, and probably the readership of this publication [Art actual]. Apparently art is no longer the exclusive domain of the bourgeoisie and nobility as it was in the past.

Decades of doctrinaire interpretation of only a few aspects of the economic base have prevented us from adequately understanding the complexities of the art world and the even more complex functioning of the consciousness industry, of which the art world appears to be a microscopic model and a part. Nor have we learnt to understand the elusive character of the expanding petite-bourgeoisie in industrialized societies, which has become a considerable force in the consciousness industry and among its consumers. It seems to play a more important role in societal change than is normally recognized.

Nothing is gained by decrying the daily manipulation of our minds or by retreating into a private world supposedly untouched by it. There is no reason to leave to the corporate state and its public relations, mercenaries these satisfactions of our sensuous and mental needs or to allow, by default, the promotion of values that are not in our interest. Given the dialectic nature of the contemporary petite-bourgeois consciousness industry, its vast resources probably can be put to use against the dominant ideology. This, however, seems to be possible only with a matching dialectical approach and may very well require a cunning involvement in all the contradictions of the medium and its practitioners.

(1) Complete results of John Weber Gallery Visitors' Profile 1 and 2 are reproduced in Hans Haacke, Framing and Being Framed: 7 Works 1970-75, Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Halifax and New York, 1975. Most visitors to the John Weber Gallery also view exhibits at the Castelli, Sonnabend and Emmerich Galleries, contemporary art galleries in the same building. Personal observation of the gallery public, however, suggests that the margin of error is not excessive so as to make the survey useless. For the purpose of this essay, collectors are not considered art professionals.

(2) The operating budget of non-profit arts groups in New York State for the 1976-77 fiscal year alone is given as $410 million in a survey by the New York State Council on the Arts.

(3) Thomas Messer, director ofthe Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, in a letter to the author 19 March 1971, explaining the rejection of works dealing with New York real estate for exhibition in a scheduled one-man show at the museum. The exhibition was eventually cancelled and Edward F. Fry, the curator, dismissed.

(4) Boards of Trustees of New York Museums: Guggenheim Museum: President, Peter O. Lawson-Johnston (mining company executive, represents Guggenheim family interests on numerous corporate boards). Metropolitan Museum: Chairman, C. Douglas Dillon (prominent investment banker). Vice Presidents, Daniel P. Davison (banker, Morgan Guaranty Trust Co.), J. Richardson Dilworth (investment banker, Rockefeller & Family Associates), Roswell L. Gilpatrick (corporate lawyer, partner Cravath, Swaine & Moore, prominent New York law firm). The Museum 0f Modern Art: President, Mrs John D. Rockefeller 3rd. Chairman, William S. Paley (Chairman CBS). Vice Chairman, Gardner Cowles (publisher, Chairman Cowles Communications Inc.), David Rockefeller (Chairman Chase Manhattan Bank). Whitney Museum 0f American Art: President, Flora Miller Irving (granddaughter of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney). Chairman, Howard Lipman (managing partner Neuberger & Berman, securities company).

(5) The Andre Emmerich Gallery, a major outpost for formalist art in New York, resumed advertising in Artforum after a two-year pause as soon as the anti-formalist editor/publisher, John Coplans, and his executive editor, Max Kozloff, were dismissed or forced to resign by the magazine's owner, Charles Cowles (son of Vice Chairman of Board of Trustees at The Museum of Modern Art), in December 1976. Other prominent New York Galleries had also withheld advertising when Artforum editors did not abide by the tacit understanding that their galleries' artists receive ample attention and the art world's infra-structure remain a taboo subject.

(6) One example from the author's own experience: in 1974 the Cologne Wallraf-Richartz-Museum banned Manet-PROJEKT '74, a large work, for obvious economic and political reasons. Two years later it was prominently displayed at the Kunstverein in Frankfurt. Both institutions are funded by their respective cities and both city councils, at the time, were dominated by the Social Democratic Party. Before the Frankfurt exhibition, the piece had been shown in a commercial gallery in Cologne (Paul Maenz), at the ICA, London, and the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels. It also had been reproduced in its entirety or extensively covered in German, Belgian, Italian and US art magazines, and it had been purchased by a Belgian collector.

(7) Title of an essay by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, in Einzelheiten I, Bewusstseinsindustrie, Frankfurt, 1962.

(8) 'Exxon's support of the arts serves the arts as a social lubricant. And if business is to continue in big cities, it needs a more lubricated environment.' Quote from Robert Kingsley, Manager of Urban Affairs, Dept. of Public Affairs, Exxon Corp., New York.

(9) The contemporary petite-bourgeoisie is the subject of many relevant essays in Kursbuch 45, Berlin, September 1976.

(10) Supported by data from polls conducted by the author at Milwaukee Art Center, 1971, Museum Haus Lange, Krefeld, 

1972, documenta 5, 1972, and Kunstverein Hannover, 1973.

First published in French as 'Les adhérants' in Art actuel: Skira annuel 77, No. 3, Geneva, 1977. Reprinted in English (slightly modified) in Hans Haacke: Volume. 1 (cat.), Museum of Contemporary Art, Oxford; Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 1979.