LIVIN' IN THE EIGHTIES
By Mat Gleason

Barbara KrugerBarbara Kruger's career retrospective is currently on view at the L.A. MOCA's Geffen Contemporary wing in Downtown. The only way to take this show seriously is to bring a walkman and plenty of Duran Duran tapes. It is not too early for the 1980s to look dated, especially its advertising styles masquerading as art. Kruger's politics, too, tow the line of that politically dead decade. Quite in tune with the entire 80's approach to dialogue, Kruger offers simplistic catch-phrases in lieu of activism. She comes from the decade that invented the sound-byte and it shows! Adding a very 80's "post-modern" twist, the catch-phrases are often just vague enough to apparently shock us! Ooooooh, and we are so shocked! It's a small world, but not if you have to clean it -or- Your body is a battleground -or- Buy me, I'll change your life or how about Malcom X labeled Not Angry Enough. Perhaps in fifty years, one of these will hang next to I want my MTV in the Reagan Library.

When we first watched Michael Jackson moonwalk in the Billie Jean video, a fascinated zeitgeist of style over substance overtook a public freeing themselves of self-imposed hippie restrictions on taste disguised as idealism. In an 80's synchronicity, Kruger's moonwalk gave us the sense that advertising had met its match, that the want for a better world could be manifest by signalling such a preference. With our jaded 90's hindsight, though, we can all see that activism was dead by 1980, though leftist lipservice was at its all time peak. Barbara Kruger reflected the new left's desire for change to happen, preferably on the news after they were done watching the Making of Thriller.

Kruger's retrospective reveals her as a hypocritical, or at least paradoxical, capitalist. MOCA pains to point out that she works in the public sphere, delivering unsellable works in public art projects and a seemingly never-ending billboard series. They ignore that Kruger's signature style, delivering any message in any medium to any audience, always simultaneously delivers the Kruger brand name. That she never detracts from her corporate image belies her market critiques. If Barbara Kruger can't admit that she is a commodity, she is the least self-reflexive person on earth. There are an infinite number of ways to get out a message, so to use the same--as the art world calls it--"signature style" every time you get your message out, is suspicious; doubly so when it dates from the decade when it became cool to be corporate. Even in her critiques of consumer culture, Barbara Kruger is consistently promoting mass consumption of the Kruger brand. The language of advertising used to promote the highest ideals of the vanilla left is an effective, even occasionally entertaining, strategy. The establishments Kruger attempts to "subvert" through her art are far more successfully attacked by her art when it is a poster on a bus rather than in an art gallery. A Kruger works best in a setting where it might actually wake up a brain-dead member of the consumer proletariat.

And yet, even if given every break and had every potential hypocrisy ignored, Barbara Kruger's art is as humorless and pretentious as the stuffiest theoretician, politician or self-absorbed abstract painter out there.

Although her politics would appear to be squarely in the leftist camp, Barbara Kruger exhibits at Mary Boone Gallery, the ultimate art world boutique. And while radical chic has been the mainstay of the monied left since Beatniks were first invited to cocktail parties uptown, Barbara Kruger steadfastly advertises her blue collar roots. It gives the viewer an interesting paradox to consider--art apparently protesting elitist values gets the artist championed by the elite.

But I would argue that biting the hand that feeds her never really occurs in the work of Barbara Kruger. A closer look at her typical targets: the media, the patriarchy, the conservative right--actually brings to consideration a larger overall topic. What is being protested throughout the ouvre of Kruger? Is there a target beyond what appears to be under attack? Could the actual object of her ridicule and attacks not be the media or men, but rather a proletariat unreachable by and unconcerned with her 80's liberal dogma. Rather than attack any elite, Barbara Kruger's art consistently displays an elitist disappointment in the working class, the "victims" of advertising and capitalism. Throughout her retrospective there is a fundamental disdain for the average working person, a sneer at Edith Bunker, a need to "re-educate" Joe Sixpack's children, a haughty certainty the Berlin Wall was built because the people wanted capitalism kept out.

This attitude is illustrated most cogently at the Geffen show in a mural-sized photo of a Kruger in a European Subway. While the message is posted loud, large and clear, the dozens of people are walking to their trains. Of all the photos of a public installation to use, the one of nobody paying attention to your message only belongs in the retrospective of an artist whose art is really a sneer at "those people." Underneath the facade of critiquing Wall Street, Barbara Kruger kicks the shins of Main Street. This blue collar girl has been accepted by the elite because she spits on everyone who "just doesn't get it" in a chuckling upper-class snottiness. Her propaganda-style phrasings are reminiscent of World War II posters inveighing the public that "Loose Lips Sink Ships." The subtext in her work is not, though, to bring about political change, rally the troops, or even proselytize to the converted. It is simply to express a widely-held exasperation by the elite in everyone who does not ascribe to their values. Consumption is vulgar to those who can afford everything they want. The patriarchy seem the perfect enemy of those with enough leisure time to philosophically analyze class and gender suffering they'll never endure firsthand. To reduce the abortion debate to a simplistic "Your body is a battleground" advertisement is more about avoiding debate or dialogue and simply washing one's hands of the whole affair (make your point and leave) than it is trying to do anything about it.

Like so much of the 1980s, Barbara Kruger's art starts off as a critique of commodity, then succeeds as commodity, then ridicules everyone in its presence who can't or won't accept it as existing without a price tag--even though the price tag is the only signifier of the 1980s anyone will eventually ever talk about. --MG