Working Conditions: The Writings of Hans Haacke
(MIT Press, 2016)
Hans Haacke’s writings, like his art practice, bring to light the largely obfuscated systems of social relations that circumscribe an art object and its experience. Institutional interests and their relations determine power and ideology, of which an artwork circulating in this context may become a complicit representation. In Working Conditions, his writings are given a generous conceptual and historical framing in the excellent and comprehensive introduction by art historian Alexander Alberro, who prismatically unrolls the movements, processes, social dimensions, and effects of corporate sponsorship that inform Haacke’s work and his writings.
Haacke writes throughout about the influence of other artists on his own work, beginning with the early invocation of the “authentic interpreters of the forties” (Hans Hartung, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning, among others). His discussion of Marcel Duchamp’s revelatory symbolic power of context and the spectator as integral to the artist’s creative act is essential. Duchamp’s lasting influence indeed remains as the most frequent artist discussed throughout the book.
Interestingly, Yves Klein is the only artist who receives the focus of a stand-alone essay. Recalling his irritation upon hearing Klein’s professions of the “immaterial” over lunch in 1960, Haacke asks of Klein’s frittering away of gold flakes into the Seine, “Was the sale of ‘Immaterial Zones of Pictorial Sensibility’ an alchemically inspired ‘conceptual’ gesture? Or was it a ploy to draw attention to the exchange value of art and the validating powers of money in the world of culture?” The take-away for Haacke is that “social conflicts and the problems of our material existence do not dissolve through impregnation with ‘pure sensibility,’” which is a variation of a consistent critique throughout this collection: the aesthetic ideal cannot cloak the trappings of the social ideologies to which it’s tethered. Haacke’s interrogation of the aesthetics of art objects and actions—and the constricting powers of the “consciousness industry,” his term for the art world—is illuminating and clear eyed.
Haacke also points out the political engagement of artists throughout history, arguing that artists have been socially engaged for many centuries. Caspar David Friedrich, he insists, was in fact a political artist. Shrewdly redefining “sublime”—a term synonymous with Friedrich’s landscapes—he concludes that cultural events are so desirable for sponsors because, in the context of the otherworld or sublime, art is “transcending self-interest.” This interest in neutralizing the social expression and experience of art is what he calls a “romantic mystification.”
Responding to social upheaval and tragedy, the most topically inspiring piece is a preface Haacke gave in April 1968 about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Last week, Western society […] committed another shameful act, providing hideous proof of how great the gap is between this society’s cherished self-esteem and reality. […] [A]rtists should speak out against society’s attempts to use their work as a means to cover up the failure of tackling urgent issues.” This gap between society’s self-esteem and its reality couldn’t be more prescient in our country’s transition from our first African-American president to a real estate mogul who coerces supporters through racist, xenophobic, and misogynist positions. As we now navigate our shifting responsibilities as both artists and as citizens in our post election topography, Haacke’s writings also remind us of our continuing political agency and the heightened necessity of pushing towards progressive change.