Journalism into Art (Part 5): The question.

by Chris Nash

Chris Nash was Professor of Journalism at Monash University, and previously Director of the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism at UTS.

Image credit: Hans Haacke, Der Bevölkerung, 2000. Photo by Richard Alois.

In his final article for EXTRA!EXTRA! on the work of Hans Haacke, Chris Nash delves deeper into the art/journalism divide. Intriguingly, Nash argues that Haacke’s art work is “replicable” in the sense that scientific research or journalistic investigations are replicable, because the artist asks very explicit questions which shape each of his projects. It is in the playing out of these questions in specific circumstances that the work’s impact is made. As Nash points out, “meaning resides in the social reaction to an artwork, whatever its form and substance, and is not intrinsic to the work itself” – and this is also something that is clearly evident in the most significant of the works in the Making Art Public exhibition.

In his catalogue essay for Hans Haacke’s cancelled Guggenheim exhibition in 1971, curator Edward Fry made the following points about Haacke’s practice as an artist:

“Haacke so treats his own ready-mades that they remain systems representing themselves and therefore cannot be assimilated to art.  Thus he violates the mythic function, to which art has long been assigned, of acting as a buffer between man (sic) and the nature of reality.  His work instead presents a direct challenge, not only to the fatal but convenient bourgeois separation of art from life, but also to the related view that art functions as a symbolic transformation and interpretation of experience.”

“The approach to reality offered by Haacke acts not only as a severe critique of previous modern art, but also serves to eliminate arbitrary boundaries within our culture between art, science and society.”

“Haacke’s world is rigorously materialist, not symbolic, but his materialist view is of such large dimensions and possesses a logic and truthfulness of such clarity that it reaches the level of an almost transcendental moral force.”

To rephrase and elaborate on Fry’s observations, we can say that Haacke is establishing a direct verifiable relationship between the content of his art and some selected instance of the real material world, such that the selected instance is both the art work, and also continues in the world with its own existential integrity regardless of its status as art. 

This art/reality relationship is the same as a science/reality relationship, where a scientific observation or experiment lifts the empirical object/process under observation into the realm of scientific research, but at the same time that event/process continues in the world with its own integrity and can be reproduced or observed and verified by other scientists independently. 

It is also the same as journalistic research, where the essence of the truth being asserted is that the object/event, even if it was produced through a photo opportunity or an interview question with the goal of being reported, continues in the real world as a verifiable event/object.  It is thoroughly founded in a rigorous empirical materialism, with no required interpretive or symbolic transformation through an artistic representation or symbolic interpretation. Of course, original empirical evidence can be transformed into myth or symbolism, or ornamented with aesthetic flourishes, but the point is that that requires an active process of production and interpretation, and is not intrinsic to the evidence itself.

Like any scientific experiment or observation, Haacke’s art is replicable by other artists in the same way that scientific research has to be replicable and verified to be validated.  The same validation requirement applies to journalism, which is why Haacke could use journalistic methods in his research, and also why highly regarded social scientists like Pierre Bourdieu attributed a scholarly research status to his work alongside its artistic merit. 

So Fry is correct, and Haacke’s work “serves to eliminate arbitrary boundaries within our culture between art, science and society”.  As a direct consequence of this approach (or methodology), Haacke is blowing up the notion of the artist as a creative, highly individualised sole operator whose authentic work is necessarily singular and can be copied but never truly replicated.  He is destroying the notion that the artwork must be an object that can be decontextualized and commodified – abstracted and hung on a wall or put on a pedestal. True, intellectual property laws can be applied to artistic processes as much as to scientific ones, but such laws are an external social imposition on the work in question, and by no means immanent to the processes and works themselves.

So if the authenticity of Haacke’s art does not reside in the uniqueness of its material content, where does it reside?  As with science and journalism, it resides in the questions that the artwork poses. What makes for good scientific research is a good research question, as any scientist will tell you.

What makes for good journalism is a good set of questions: what’s the story? Who are the players? What is at stake?

What unites Haacke’s conception of art with science and society is the fundamental focus on what scholars call methodology – what is the question that you are wanting to ask? Why is that a good question? How, where and when are you going to pose it in order to achieve an answer?

Journalists, like artists, are generally terrible at discussing methodology – when pushed, journalists tend to fall back on ethical justifications, and artists on ‘creativity’ or ‘imagination’.  But ethics, creativity and imagination apply to research in the social and physical sciences just as much as to art and journalism. And journalists are very good at identifying questions, and the methods they might use to achieve answers; similarly, artists can discuss methods in great detail.

The ‘how, when, where and why’ of asking questions is at the very centre of Haacke’s contribution to art and to journalism.

  Information about the real estate moguls in the cancelled Guggenheim exhibition of 1971 could have been published in newspapers, leaflets, radio programs (all of which it was), but the Guggenheim’s issue was the content in relation to the art gallery location for exhibition.  What Messer’s response in cancelling the exhibition demonstrated was that it is absolutely not acceptable to question how New Yorkers make money from real estate in the elite art galleries that depend on wealthy patrons for their income and public status. And it is especially not acceptable to pose that question in the form of an artwork.  That is the meaning of Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 and Sol Goldman and Alex diLorenzo Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971.

Similarly Haacke’s large garden box of untended weeds that constitutes the controversial DER BEVÖLKERUNG (“To the Population”) artwork in the north courtyard of the refurbished Reichstag building in Berlin would be uncontroversial on a vacant block anywhere outside that building.  But when it was proposed in 1998, in the temporal context of public and parliamentary debates about changing the definition of German citizenship away from the 1938 racial basis, the decision went to the full parliament and the Bundestag spent more time discussing the proposed artwork than it did the deployment of German troops to the Balkan War (the first extra-territorial deployment of German armed forces since World War II).  The debate was frontpage news in the German media. The commission was finally approved by a majority of 360 to 358 votes, with 32 abstentions – no doubt a highly curated result. Collectively, those facts are essential to the meaning of DER BEVÖLKERUNG.

Clearly Haacke also has what journalists would call a ‘news sense’, or what scientists might call an intuition, for the social context and meaning of an issue.  Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, with whom Haacke collaborated on a book Free Exchange (1995), would suggest his concepts of habitus and cultural capital are highly relevant.  The fundamental consideration for art, journalism and science is that meaning is a social construct, it can be highly political if it challenges social and political elites, and that meaning resides in the social reaction to an artwork, whatever its form and substance, and is not intrinsic to the work itself.

Haacke’s work is enormously liberating to artists, journalists and scientists of all disciplines in opening up the range of ways that questions about the real world can be posed with great forensic power.  It exposes institutional silences, and sheets home accountabilities, usually by way of self-identification in the public debates that ensue. Very exciting!

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