Sanitation, Sensation
and Glorification
Stefano Pasquini



Oh, not again. What a bore. Once again someone decides to withdraw fundings to a museum because they donít like a work of art, or even better, what the work allegedly stands for. Recalling the Sensation debate at the Brooklyn Museum last year, Hans Haacke produced a work titled Sanitation whereby quotes from the Mayor of the city (I shanít say which city, letís just call him Mr. G.) and the First Amendment are printed in the Gothic Fraktur typeface, the font preferred by the Nazis and now used by neo-Nazis sympathizers for their clever pamphlets. Beneath is a row of trash cans that blare the sound of marching troops. This work is on show at the Whitney Biennial, and because of this very work, a major contributor of private fundings to the museum (letís not quote her name, weíll just call her Mrs. W.) has withdrawn all her donations in favor of another museum. And the story continues. Now what weíre expecting to see in the future is the work of yet another artist, to make a huge portrait of Mrs. W. made of elephantís dung, little plastic swastikas and pubic hair allegedly belonging to Mr. G.
And the circle will continue ad infinitum. Of course, if the Whitney decided to withdraw the piece on the basis of its political statements, it would be an infringment of the right to free speech. The withdrawal of Mrs. W.ís donation is a matter of her own personal choice. So whatís all the fuss about? Allegedly, Mrs. W. was aware that making a fuss about the issue (and the main issue does not seem to be the citation of our Mr. G., but the trivializing of the Holocaust) would mean that people will ďline up for six blocks to see this trashĒ. Yet she still makes a fuss about the piece. Maybe she does want her face in the next controversial artwork in the Brooklyn Museum. Or could it be that sheís a friend of Mr. G.? After all, to me he is the one who should be offended about the piece. Ok, maybe using a Nazi parallel for such a trivial issue (the freedom of expression of the artist) can be upsetting. Personally, anything that reminds us of the Holocaust and how it started is a positive proof that after all we havenít forgotten, and we would still like it not to happen again. Sadly, killings and torture and disappearances are still happening, right now. And any work of art that still addresses these issues is a happy discovery that maybe this society is still awake, that there is still some neurological movement under our hats. The sad truth is that these issues make it to the press only when there is a large sum of money involved. Fringe theaters across the Five Boroughs daily display political artwork but, sadly, their funding is so limited that nobody cares who could be offended by a play attended by fifty people every night. What I find absolutely amazing is that Mrs. W. could come up with the following statement: ďGertrude [Whitney] wanted to help American artists, thatís why she called it the Whitney Museum of American Art. Itís not supposed to be for any foreign artist. [...] Iím terribly upset with this work. Itís in such a bad taste. And the museum should not be used politically.Ē I didnít know she was a Native American, and even so this would not justify her xenophobic comment. And what is so different with political art that it should not appear in a museum? Artists are free to use any subject matter (and sex and religion have been sensationally trendy for a while) but politics gets turned down even by the most alternative spaces. Political art doesnít sell. And nobody is at ease with it. It uncovers the conscience of our own controversial position in the world. People die and we do nothing about it. I praise the artist who has the courage of making political art, even if itís about our silly Mr. G.
After all, if one stroke of paint can give one person an extra particle of conscience to make forty-one gunshots become forty, it would have been worth the effort.


 



Hans Haacke
Sanitation, 2000. Mixed-media installation, dimensions variable. Collection of the artist
photograph ©2000 George Hirose