The Art Libel


“I’m very upset,” says Hans Haacke, the artist at the center of the city’s latest art scandale. Addressing the furor over his installation at the Whitney Biennial, which opens on March 23, Haacke notes, “I’ve made a number of works specifically dealing with the German past, and now to be suspected of anti-Semitism and accused of making art that is disrespectful to the Jews—that is very painful, yes.”

The uproar began last week when Rudolph Giuliani reacted to Haacke’s Sanitation, a title clearly intended to echo the Brooklyn Museum’s infamous “Sensation” show. Haacke’s homage includes quotes by the mayor threatening the museum, along with similarly philistine comments by Pat Buchanan and Jesse Helms, all of it set against a wall of trash cans and the sound of marching troops. But what gave Giuliani an opening to attack is the font in which his words are set: a typeface called Gothic Fraktur. That’s the archaic German script Hitler tried to revive, and it led Giuliani to conclude that he was being compared to the Führer. That’s “a grave injustice” to Jews murdered by the Nazis, the mayor fumed, accusing both Haacke and the Whitney of “demeaning” the Holocaust.

The Fraktur fracas might have faded like the usual mayoral hissy-fit if the Anti-Defamation League hadn’t jumped into the fray with a letter to the Whitney reiterating Giuliani’s charges. Sensing a hook for his own mayoral ambitions, Alan Hevesi chimed in, and by the weekend, a Whitney heiress was demanding that the family name be taken off the museum.

“It’s a total misunderstanding of my intentions,” Haacke insists. “I speak in no way of the Holocaust. There are no Nazi insignias in the show, no images of Giuliani or any other politician. Freedom of expression is the focus of the work.” Indeed, the real contrast in Sanitation is between the mayor’s words and the text of the First Amendment. But Rudy has made his point. Now, it’s off limits to call him a fascist; one must speak respectfully about his authoritarian tendencies. And now, any artist who uses imagery associated with the Nazis to make a statement about the contemporary world risks being tarred with the brush of anti-Semitism. Call it the Art Libel.

Slander is nothing new to Hans Haacke. He’s risked lawsuits from corporations and suffered censorship from museums. (The Guggenheim canceled his 1971 show because it detailed the holdings of several unsavory New York realtors.) Yet, even for this veteran provocateur, the current charges are a wrenching irony. Haacke is perhaps the world’s most prominent living anti-fascist artist. His oeuvre includes numerous pieces intended to remind the world—and especially the German people—of the Nazi horror. At the 1993 Venice Biennale, Haacke tore up the floor of the German pavilion—as Hitler once did—leaving the ruin as a powerful contrast to the word blazoned on the wall: Germania, Hitler’s name for a Nazi Berlin. This track record is clearly one reason why the Jewish Museum included Haacke’s work in its 1994 exhibition “The Art of Memory: Holocaust Memorials in History.”

The fact that Haacke is German (though he lives in New York) gives his message a special urgency. But his nationality also makes him the perfect target for a politician expert at manipulating the fears of Jews. “This is a clever move on the part of the mayor and his sympathizers to deflect attention from his conflict with the First Amendment and turn it into an ethnic issue,” says Haacke. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist—or a political artist—to detect the signs of a coordinated campaign.

Consider the mayor’s most reliable media ally, the Post: They kept the scandal boiling, adding daily fuel to the fire. Then there’s ADL director Abraham Foxman, who has never uttered a discouraging word about Rudy: He went way beyond protecting the sanctity of the Holocaust when he called Haacke’s piece “a very harsh political statement, inappropriate in an election period.” As for Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney Conner, one of two offended heiresses, it’s significant that she, too, chose to focus on the impropriety of dissing Rudy in a work of art. “Politicization,” she told the Post, “is a bad thing for a museum.” (So much for Picasso’s Guernica.)

The prospect of being a ratchet in Rudy’s rise may well be the reason why Haacke is reconsidering his use of Fraktur. “As far as the typeface, I have no idea at this point,” he says, noting that, in installation art, “you only know after you’ve installed it what it is. No one has seen this work. Not even me.”

Given its unfinished state, how did the press get such a definitive sense of what Sanitation will look like? One theory is that the Whitney is responsible. The museum’s director, Maxwell Anderson, has acknowledged that he informed City Hall about the Haacke installation “as a courtesy.” From there, any strategist could have contacted the Times—and once that occurred, the museum cooperated. “They want this out there,” says Leon Golub, an accomplished political artist. He notes that the Whitney is battling a conservative image, and that its director is widely dismissed as a newcomer to the New York scene. “Now he’s demonstrating that he’s young enough, strong enough, and activist enough. I think Max is trying to make a point.” (Anderson did not respond to requests for an interview.)

Golub sees the Haacke affair as “the first counteroffensive by the New York museum world, telling Giuliani to keep his hands off.” Museums, after all, are “the playpen of the rich, and wealthy people do not want politicians getting involved in their playpen.” How does this theory account for the outburst from the Whitney heirs? “They’ve been out of running the museum for some time,” Golub says, “so they may be feeling aggrieved, and this may be the way to show their anger.”

The Whitneys, their eponymous museum, and the mayor all have something to gain by the publicity—and so, ultimately, does Haacke. His career has hardly been hurt by frequent run-ins with institutional authority. His works reportedly sell for between $25,000 and $250,000. (For a discussion of Haacke’s dealings in Downtown real estate, see “The Art of the Deal,” by J.A. Lobbia.) But even on an ideological level, this is an artist who believes that the viewer’s interaction with an artwork is what determines its meaning. “It’s important that when we see something on exhibition,” he has said, “that we think not only in terms of where it comes from but also where it leads to.”

In the end, Rudy’s imprecations may be the best thing that’s happened to political art since Jesse Helms’s tirades on the Senate floor. These outbursts affirm the importance of works like Sanitation. “I mean, we don’t even know what it looks like,” says the conceptualist Danny Tisdale, one of many younger artists who consider Haacke a mentor. “Just the ideas are powerful. Even if Haacke doesn’t do the work, he’s done his job.”

Research: Josh Lefkowitz