What Would Barbara Do?

What is the relationship between activism and art? I believe it is the responsibility of everyone to be socially engaged; for an artist, that may or may not include creating work which addresses the issues of the day. Either way, one can be pushed to the point where action is required – where one is compelled to say something using any available forum. Art is another platform in which to make one’s voice heard.

Barbara Kruger is an artist with something to say and the ability to make captivating art to say it. Her work is as quotable as it is visually arresting; the phrases “Your body is a battleground” and “I shop therefore I am” are familiar to people who wouldn’t recognize her name and have never set foot in an art gallery. In 1999, I twice saw a retrospective, titled simply Barbara Kruger, of her work at the LAMOCA; it was one of the most aggressive and audacious shows I’ve ever seen.

Kruger arranges a relationship between her work and the viewer with phrases regarding different power structures: sexual/gender-based, political, economic. The words come from different “narrators” and are by turns accusatory (“You substantiate our horror”), questioning (“Who dies first?”), exclamatory (“Hate like us”), aphoristic (“Doubt tempers belief with sanity”). These terse, confrontational phrases, along with her visual acuity, combine to make some of the most provocative art of the last forty years.

Barbara Kruger leaflet (1999). LAMOCA.

In addition to the silkscreens, the show also featured photographs, engravings, lenticular works, sculpture, video, and, perhaps most notably, an installation. One wall was covered, floor to ceiling, with two black and white photos of a screaming face, mirror images of each other, and the words “All violence is the illustration of a pathetic stereotype” in white type on a large black rectangular ground. In a red strip between the photos was a long list of epithets – racial, sexual, religious – which evoked the violence cited in the main text. The other walls, floor, and ceiling were all covered with images and text. Being surrounded by, to be immersed in the piece, had a very visceral impact. Kruger’s work is emotionally hard-hitting, but also invites an intellectual examination of beliefs and behaviors. Incidentally, she can also be very funny.

If you believe in science, civil rights, saving the environment, a woman’s right to choose, taxes for the 1%, healthcare for everyone, if you believe we have the right to peaceful assembly, brownshirts don’t belong in the oval room, Black Lives Matter, immigrants don’t belong in camps – the list goes on and on – please make your voice heard. Please vote.