FEAR IS THE MOST ELEGANT WEAPON,
YOUR HANDS ARE NEVER MESSY.
THREATENING BODILY HARM IS CRUDE.
WORK INSTEAD ON MINDS AND BELIEFS,
PLAY INSECURITIES LIKE A PIANO. . . .
ECONOMIC, SOCIAL, AND DEMOCRATIC
INSTITUTIONS CAN BE SHAKEN.
—Jenny Holzer, “Inflammatory Essays” (1979–82)
IN 1979, THE YEAR Ronald Reagan launched his presidential campaign with the slogan “Let’s Make America Great Again,” Jenny Holzer printed a series of incendiary tracts on colorful sheets of paper and posted them around Manhattan. Holzer’s “Inflammatory Essays,” are consistent in form: all are one-hundred-word texts composed of short sentences set in italicized capital letters. Their content, however, is dizzyingly erratic. Presented without attribution, the “Inflammatory Essays” variously chide, extoll, threaten, and browbeat, sometimes shifting tone and tenor from one sentence to the next. Though devoid of proper names and references to specific topical issues, many of the texts read like they could have been excised from commentaries on the pressing social and political issues of the day. Some could have plausibly been cribbed from a sermon at a megachurch or an extemporaneous lecture on a subway; others seem like they might have been shouted through a loudspeaker at a protest or broadcast by a talk radio pundit. Readers today might associate the texts with polemical sources like Fox News or the Intercept, or with the hotheaded rants posted on social media. Which is to say that the work Holzer created forty years ago now feels strangely contemporary.
CHANGE IS VALUABLE BECAUSE IT LETS THE OPPRESSED BE TYRANTS. EVERYONE’S WORK IS EQUALLY IMPORTANT. EXCEPTIONAL PEOPLE DESERVE SPECIAL CONCESSIONS. MORALS ARE FOR LITTLE PEOPLE. These are just a few of Holzer’s “Truisms” (1977–87), a series of text-based artworks she began two years prior to the “Inflammatory Essays.” In one version of the multivalent project, Holzer printed forty of the epigrammatic statements in alphabetical order on cheap paper and wheat-pasted the posters to walls and lampposts in various New York neighborhoods. The concision and conviction of the language invites easy agreement—a feeling that is quickly complicated by the contradictions that become apparent when the statements are read together. ENJOY YOURSELF BECAUSE YOU CAN’T CHANGE ANYTHING ANYWAY. FREEDOM IS A LUXURY NOT A NECESSITY. GOVERNMENT IS A BURDEN ON THE PEOPLE. GRASSROOTS AGITATION IS THE ONLY HOPE. MOST PEOPLE ARE NOT FIT TO RULE THEMSELVES. The “Truisms” are a compilation of ideological positions distilled into pithy slogans that would fit seamlessly into the endless scroll of a Twitter feed.1
Holzer began writing the “Truisms” while she was a student in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program (ISP) in New York. Many of the phrases originated from what she described in a 1985 interview as a “self-help maneuver”: her attempt to boil down each book on the program’s notoriously rigorous reading list into a one-liner, a way to “convey knowledge with less pain.”2 Holzer also composed an equal number of statements expressing positions at ideological odds with those derived from the critical theory that dominated the ISP’s curriculum. “There’d be left-wing ones, there’d be right-wing ones, there would be loony ones, there’d be heartland ones,” Holzer explained of the mix of phrases.3 Holzer’s aim was egalitarian: to translate complex theories into plain language. By giving each statement equal visual treatment and presenting them anonymously, she seemed to offer no judgment, instead inviting readers themselves to evaluate the ideas conveyed in this accessible, succinct way.
If the “Truisms” offer statements to ponder at a cool remove, the “Inflammatory Essays” that followed read like impassioned diatribes. Holzer described the works as “uneasy and hot,” and she hoped they would provoke passersby, perhaps even moving them to take political action.4 “Sometimes I’d choose certain texts for certain neighborhoods. It was fun to put particularly frightening ones uptown,” she later recalled of her jaunts to the Upper East Side.5 Occasionally people would scrawl responses directly on the posters. Holzer often lingered around sites where she had distributed the work to monitor strangers’ reactions.
Anonymity was central to Holzer’s project when it was first launched. By the late 1970s, the utopian call for liberation issued by social movements in the 1960s had been transformed into the ideology of the free market, and the slogans of the decade prior had come to seem to her like platitudes. Holzer wanted to find a mode of communication that could circumvent readers’ preconceptions. By detaching provocative language from a readily identifiable author, Holzer sought to short-circuit biases, especially those about gender. “I always try to make my voice unidentifiable,” Holzer disclosed in a 1986 interview. “I wouldn’t want it to be isolated as a woman’s voice, because I’ve found that when things are categorized, they tend to be dismissed. I find it better to have no particular associations attached to ‘the voice’ in order for it to be perceived as true. Yet, I do want my voice to be heard and, yes, it’s a woman’s voice.”6 Holzer knew that any statements she signed would be read in relation to her identity, so she chose to cloak her own voice in that of an abstract, disembodied authority. In effect, she spoke through others to make herself heard.
IN ADDITION TO offering a critique of authorship, Holzer’s work confirms that how we read a phrase has everything to do with where it appears. The meaning we glean from a statement, and even our inclination to believe or dismiss it, is inextricable from our attitude toward its source. This is as true of news coverage of an election cycle as it is of the testimonials of sexual assault survivors. In an era marked by algorithmically defined online bubbles, fake news, and credible journalism dismissed as fake news by its detractors, the status of truth is newly in question.
Today, the most provocative truisms and inflammatory essays are not to be found in a collection of wildly contradictory statements offered by an artist; instead, many now issue directly from the president of the United States. Hal Foster, writing in this magazine in 1982, described Holzer’s “Inflammatory Essays” as more concerned with “the force of language rather than its truth value.”7 It’s hard to conjure a pithier description of Trump’s rhetorical style.
I didn’t wait long. I didn’t wait long. I wanted to make sure, unlike most politicians, that what I said was correct—not make a quick statement. The statement I made on Saturday, the first statement, was a fine statement. But you don’t make statements that direct unless you know the facts. It takes a little while to get the facts. You still don’t know the facts. And it’s a very, very important process to me, and it’s a very important statement. So I don’t want to go quickly and just make a statement for the sake of making a political statement. I want to know the facts.8
This is the president’s response to a reporter’s question about why he initially declined to condemn the neo-Nazis whose violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, culminated in the killing of counter-protester Heather Heyer. His first statement about the events pointed the finger at “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides,”9 though he later attempted to backpedal under intense public pressure with the above “clarification.”
Frequently pairing affirmations with denials, advocacy with dismissal, Trump’s public statements can be difficult to summarize and disconcertingly easy to interpret as sympathetic to a broad range of views. Once transcribed, his speeches bear an uncanny resemblance to the freewheeling incoherence of Holzer’s “Inflammatory Essays” as well as to the contradictory rhetoric of the “Truisms.” Still, simply pointing out inconsistencies and outright lies—his bogus claims of mass voter fraud are among the many statements that journalists have diligently fact-checked and debunked—does little to undermine Trump’s appeal to his committed base. His ability to recast reality has earned him the honor of belatedly being named the “first postmodern president.”10
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, as postmodernism was on the rise, Holzer and her Pictures Generation peers appropriated existing texts, images, and ideas to reconfigure their meaning. Critics like Craig Owens read this as a feminist critique of patriarchy, private property, and the state, and Foster described this move as “subversive complicity.”11 Trump, too, is a master manipulator of meaning. He has effectively appropriated “fake news,” a term originally popularized to call out fabricated news stories during the 2016 election, to cast aspersions on any journalist who covers him unfavorably. The process makes clear that strategies initially associated with postmodern art can just as easily be used for reactionary ends.
Political scientists Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Doron Taussig argue that Trump’s speech patterns convey a “double-edged rhetorical identity” that is compelling precisely because it remains unstable, his true intentions impossible to pin down.12 Such a description could just as easily have applied to Holzer’s early work. But there are important differences between Trump’s lies and Holzer’s “Truisms.” Those like Holzer who questioned truth, tradition, and history under the banner of postmodernism sought to destabilize inherited notions of value and authority that often stemmed from patriarchal power. Holzer deployed contradiction to add grit to the mechanisms by which meaning is produced and to provoke critical analysis of readymade ideological positions. Trump uses the same methods—perhaps unwittingly—to steamroll his detractors and shore up increasingly authoritarian modes of governance. Holzer sought to counter the abuse of power; Trump seeks to perpetuate it.
HOLZER’S EARLY WORK may have expressed her disillusionment with political sloganeering, but in the context of the current presidency, her texts have been used for specific political aims. Galvanized by the allegations of misconduct against Artforum’s then-publisher Knight Landesman, the collective We Are Not Surprised formed in 2017 to speak out against sexual harassment. The group published an open letter in October 2017 demanding an end to complicity with sexual abuse. “Many institutions and individuals with power in the art world espouse the rhetoric of feminism and equity in theory,” the letter states, “often financially benefitting from these flimsy claims of progressive politics, while preserving oppressive and harmful sexist norms in practice.”13 (A second letter, from February 2018, demanded that Artforum exclude Landesman from its operations.) With Holzer’s permission, the group borrowed its name from the very first truism on her list: ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE. An image of the phrase on an electronic billboard in Times Square in 1982 appears on the collective’s homepage and was circulated widely on Instagram. Reflecting on the parallels between abuses of power inside and outside the art world, Valerie Werder, a member of the group who is named in the lawsuit against Landesman, observes that “the voice of power is contradictory, opportunistic, and vacillates wildly between opinions: it’s something we see not only in Trump, but in various institutions caught up in scandal or controversy.”14
It’s remarkable that a statement initially intended to be read as just one entry in a long list of competing ideological declarations has now been effectively reappropriated as a rallying cry in the growing #MeToo movement. The initial letter circulated by We Are Not Surprised was signed by nearly a thousand women (including Holzer) and nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people. Speaking for “workers of the art world,” the missive states that “we have been groped, undermined, harassed, infantilized, scorned, threatened, and intimidated by those in positions of power who control access to resources and opportunities.” The organizers opted to remain anonymous to emphasize the group’s collective voice. As an individual artist, Holzer issued anonymous proclamations that mimicked the voice of authority without committing to a position. The organizers of We Are Not Surprised found within Holzer’s work language for generating resistance to systemic power imbalances that guarantee a platform for powerful individuals while silencing those who would speak out against them.
Holzer had some previous experience using her artwork for direct political action. On the eve of the 1984 presidential election, she traveled around New York City in a truck on which an LED sign and sound system had been mounted, disseminating artists’ agitprop messages and live interviews with bystanders. In March 2018, she adapted this action to support the students calling for gun control after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Holzer’s “Anti-Gun Truck,” vehicles outfitted with LED screens, were present in major US cities in conjunction with student-led rallies and marches, flashing phrases such as TOO LATE / KILL RATE; AMERICAN STUDENTS SHOT / THE PRESIDENT BACKS AWAY; SHEILD ME / NO SHELTER. The slippery ambiguity of her early posters is here supplanted by the explicit condemnation of a system that enables gun violence.
“It is within speech that speech must be fought,” Roland Barthes said in 1977, the year Holzer printed her first sheet of “Truisms.”15 Barthes’s statement seems to suggest that the most effective antidote to Trump’s incendiary rhetoric would be the development of a counter discourse, a rhetorical strategy capable of combating his distortions. But is this viable now that the dominant form of contemporary political speech seems to draw its power from internal contradictions? The president has turned the instability of language into a political weapon, but he does not hold a monopoly on meaning. The commonalities between Holzer’s use of language and Trump’s make clear how easily aesthetic strategies used by artists with radical intentions can be recuperated for opposite ends. This is both a vulnerability and a strength. In the period between the debut of Holzer’s work and the present—which brings us from Reagan to Trump—the critical value of her artwork has shifted. We Are Not Surprised and Holzer’s “Anti-Gun Truck” show that altering how these strategies are used, and by whom, gives them new potency in the present. The tools of direct action and fearless speech have once again become urgent and necessary.16 A commitment to rethinking critical tactics in response to changing circumstances is crucial to combatting oppressive manifestations of power. This insight was embedded in Holzer’s “Truisms” from the start.
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