When I looked up the key
word "culture" in Bartlett's collection of memorable quotes,
I discovered the startling phrase "When I hear the word culture,
I reach for my revolver."
I did not find the decidedly less militant phrase "When I hear
the word culture, I reach for my checkbook," that I had set
out to research because it seemed pertinent to the topic of symbolic
capital management. After my initial disappointment, I realized
that the martial quotation I had found by accident was not without
relevance and, in fact, complemented the one I was looking for.
The gun-toting speaker is one of the heroes of a play that premiered
in Berlin on Hitler's birthday, a short month after he had seized
power in Germany in 1933.
The author, Hanns Johst, had earlier made a name for himself as
an expressionist writer and poet. With a pledge of undying loyalty,
he dedicated his new play to Hitler, and two years later, Johst
was put in charge of the literature section in Goebbels's propaganda
High culture was recognized by both the protagonist on-stage as
well as the playwright's new bosses as something to be watched,
as potentially threatening and, if need be, to be regulated or even
suppressed. However, as Johst's personal career demonstrates, the
new masters also recognized, as others had before and would do later,
that the symbolic power of the arts could be put to good use.
The Medici in Florence already knew of the persuasive powers of
the arts. But the relations between sponsors and sponsored have
never been free of tension. The Inquisition in Venice, for example,
was suspicious enough of Veronese's treatment of the "Last
Supper" to summon him before its tribunal. As a matter of fact,
they were right to be wary of him.
Mistrust, hostility, an urge to ridicule or censor the arts are
not foreign to our time. Nor are we unaccustomed to seeing them
used as instruments for the promotion of particular interests. We
hardly remember that only 40 years ago, abstract art was suspected
by influential Americans as being part of a communist conspiracy,
and that shortly afterwards, in an ironic twist, Abstract Expressionist
paintings were sent to Europe to play a combat role in the ideological
battles of the cold war. We have fortunately been spared the degree
of fundamentalist fervor that calls for the killing of artists accused
of blasphemy. But we have had our share of incendiary speeches in
the hallowed halls of the U.S. Congress. One indicator of the intensity
of the contemporary culture wars in the United States are the fortunes
of the National Endowment for the Arts. As of today, Senator Jesse
Helms and his cohorts have not yet succeeded in eliminating the
NEA, even though the House of Representatives did vote in July to
do just that. However, it is now a ghost of its former self, with
a fraction of the budget it had in 1989, the year when the campaign
against the NEA was kicked off. For good measure, Morley Safer,
a Sunday painter and well-known TV-journalist, lectured the 31 million
viewers of the CBS program 60-Minutes in 1993 that contemporary
art, the kind shown in museums like the Museum of Modern Art and
the Whitney Museum, was nothing but a hoax.
Hilton Kramer, the neo-conservative critic from New York served
as key witness.
Europe is not far behind. In 1995, the Austrian politician Jörg
Haider counted on winning votes for his right-wing party by attacking
contemporary culture. In response, the governing parties in Vienna
have since been curtailing their support for the arts (in 1999 Haider
was elected governor of the Austrian province of Carinthia). Also
Jean-Marie Le Pen has been betting on a culture war as a strategy
to enlarge his electoral base. He is not alone. The French press
has devoted extensive coverage to a broad campaign for a retour
à l'ordre, in which Jean Clair, of 1995 Venice Biennale
fame, and Jean Baudrillard play major roles. After Baudrillard's
photographs, presented in a Parisian art gallery, in Galeries
Magazine and in a side-show of the 1993 Venice Biennale, did
not receive more than a tepid reception, he thought of getting even
with the art world, whose darling and guru he had been for more
than a decade. Shortly before the 1997 French national elections,
Libération published his latest diatribe against
what he called the "nullité of contemporary
art." According to Baudrillard, this "nonsense" is
being kept alive thanks to a "conspiracy of idiots." However,
the virtual sociologist sees a remedy: "The only real challenge
to contemporary art can come from reactionary and irrational thinking,
i.e. from fascism."
These examples, uneven as they are, and coming from varied historical
periods and diverse social contexts, illustrate a truism of the
sociology of culture: Art works do not represent universally accepted
notions of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Whether viewed
as uplifting, destructive, or nothing more than a profitable investment,
depends on who looks at them. In extreme situations, as the quotation
that triggered these thoughts suggests, culture is silenced with
guns. Contrary to Kant's dictum of "disinterested pleasure",
the arts are not ideologically neutral. They are, in fact, one of
the many arenas where conflicting ideas about who we are, and what
our social relations should be, are pitted against each other. Encoded
in cultural productions are interests, beliefs, and goals. And,
in turn, they affectwhat is at stake for us, what we believe, andwhat
we strive for. Artists and arts institutions - like the media and
schools - are part of what has been called the consciousness industry.
They participate to varying degrees in a symbolic struggle over
the perception of the social world, and thereby shape society. Pierre
Bourdieu, one of the eminent contemporary sociologists of culture
puts us on the alert: "The most successful ideological effects,"
he says, "are those which have no need for words, and ask no
more than complicitous silence. It follows...that any analysis of
ideologies, in the narrow sense of 'legitimating discourses', which
fails to include an analysis of the corresponding institutional
mechanisms, is liable to be no more than a contribution to the efficacy
of those ideologies."
As our notions of the good, the true, and the beautiful, the classical
triad, are contingent, endlessly negotiated or fought over, so the
encoded meaning of cultural productions is not something permanent,
comparable to the genetic code. The context in which they appear
has a signifying power of its own. As the context changes, so does
the way audiences respond. The same artifact can elicit rather varied
reactions depending on the historical period, the cultural and social
circumstances, or, for that matter, its exchange value. The phrase,
"When I hear the word culture, I reach for my checkbook,"
could make us think that the speaker understands that high culture
is an expensive enterprise which needs not only moral but also financial
backing, and that he is willing to chip in. It conjures up the image
of the altruistic private patron who has been the proverbial mainstay
of the arts in the United States. However, the comment also has
a cold, cynical ring. In fact, it was this ambiguity which led me
to research its origin. With the help of knowledgeable friends I
eventually traced it.
Like the "revolver"-quotation, this phrase is uttered
by an actor. Jean-Luc Godard, in his 1963 screenplay "Le Mépris"
(Contempt), puts it into the mouth of Jack Palance.
In Godard's film, Palance plays the role of a movie producer. Working
for him is Fritz Lang, who plays himself as a film director. In
the opening sequence, Lang and the producer look at rushes from
the Ulysses film Lang is shooting. The scene of an alluring
nude siren languorously swimming under water, prompts the producer
to ask the director: "What will go with this?" Lang answers
with a recitation of a passage from Dante, whereupon the producer
jumps up in a rage, tears down the projection screen, tramples on
it, and screams: "This is what I'll do with your films!"
When Lang mumbles something like "culture" or "crime
against culture", the producer cuts him off: "When I hear
the word culture, I reach for my checkbook." In effect, he
pulls out his checkbook, writes out a check on the back of his attractive
young secretary and gives it to the screen-writer, who pockets it,
presumably with the understanding that he will rewrite the script.
The parallelism of the two quotations is probably not accidental.
Fritz Lang certainly knew of the outburst on the Berlin stage in
l933. What we know about Jean-Luc Godard suggests that he had heard
the phrase too, perhaps even from Fritz Lang. It is fair to assume
Godard not only saw a linguistic connection, but invented this scene
as a parable that allowed him to link the violence of the gun with
economic violence. Lang's symbolic capital, i.e. his reputation
as a film director, proves not to be a match for the producer's
economic capital, although the producer is nothing without Fritz
Lang. Symbolic and economic capital constitute power. They are linked
in a complex, often strained, and sometimes even violent but inescapable
relationship. They are rarely equal partners.
In 1972, Marcel Broodthaers presented the Eagle Department of his
Museum of Modern Art at the Kunsthalle in Düsseldorf. In his
preface to the catalogue Broodthaers wrote:
As a foreign artist, I
am glad that, for the purpose of an analytical (in contrast to an
emotional) consideration of the concept of art, I was able to benefit
from the freedom of expression in the Federal Republic. What are
the limits to the freedom of expression an artist is granted? In
practical terms, it is where the political leadership of a country
draws the line. Therefore it is only natural that I express my gratitude
to the chancellor of the Federal Republic, Willy Brandt.
Such a catalogue statement is unusual. All the more did it intrigue
me, as did the exhibition The Eagle from the Oligocene to the
Present. In his fictional museum, Broodthaers equates the power
popularly attributed to the eagle with the aura surrounding art.
He suggests that neither the authority of the state nor the symbolic
power of art, interchangeably represented by the eagle in his metaphoric
universe, are innate, god-given and universally recognized. Rather,
like in the story of The Wizard of Oz, they are projections
of power, social constructs, to which Broodthaers alludes using
the term "ideology." His catalogue preface implies that
public analysis of the ideological underpinnings of power, like
those of art, has political ramifications which may test a society's
limits to freedom of expression.
Indeed, museums - and exhibition ventures like documenta - are
institutions which contribute to the shaping and promotion of the
ideas that govern our social relations. Consequently, whether intended
or not, as managers of consciousness, they are agents in the political
arena. It is perhaps for this reason that Broodthaers paid tribute
to Willy Brandt for having created a climate favoring freedom of
In my view, however, Broodthaers may have overstated the power of
the central political leadership in democratic societies and underestimated
the degree to which local and regional powers, and powerful private
individuals and pressure groups, are able to control the public
But Broodthaers was quite aware that power relationships in the
world of symbolic capital were more complex than the catalogue preface,
isolated from his work and other writings, seems to suggest. In
fact, at the occasion of his entry into the art world in 1964 he
unmistakably alluded to the connection between the symbolic value
of art works and their exchange value. He also knew, of course,
that the reputation of artists is subject to currency fluctuations
and that the art market, like markets of other goods of fictional
value, invite the manipulation of the price for which the ornithological
commodities are traded.
On one of the four installation photos in the retrospective volume
II of the Düsseldorf catalogue, connoisseurs of the German
art scene of the l970s can identify Willy Bongard, the inventor
of the Art Compass. Annually, since l970 and continuing today,
this art stock market analysis has been published in the German
business magazine Capital.
On the catalogue photo, one can discern that Bongard is carrying
a copy of the first volume of the Broodthaers catalogue. He is looking
to the left, in the direction in which a slide projector is pointed.
However, one cannot see what is being projected. On the wall behind
the projector hangs a banner with a double-headed eagle as part
of the coat of arms of Cologne, the city of the first post-war art
fair. Reflecting on his own enterprise, this photo of l972 seems
to restate the artist's understanding that the symbolic and the
economic capital of what Broodthaers, in 1964, called "insincere"
products, do affect each other. But contrary to the perennial suggestions
of the Art Compass of Capital their respective ratings
do not match.
In spite of his professed "insincerity", Broodthaers was
not particularly interested in being a big player in the high stakes
game of the art stock market. In his post-exhibition volume of the
catalogue, he expressed with pride that he had plucked some feathers
from the mythical bird. But he also acknowledged a degree of failure:
"The language of advertising aims for the unconscious of the
consumer/viewer; that is how the magic eagle regains its power."
Closing in a tone of resignation he described a world which, at
the time, appeared to many readers to be the bitter fruit of a paranoid
imagination: "Art is used in advertising with enormous success.
It rules over bright horizons. It represents the dreams of mankind."
Today, marketing is firmly established in museums as a high art.
While sponsors usually underwrite only a small part of the costs
of an exhibition, and never contribute to the operating budget,
they have been gaining indirect veto power over programming in many
institutions. Oblivious to what is at stake, and abetted by an equally
insouciant press, the political class in Europe is shirking its
democratic responsibilities by allowing or even advocating the de
facto takeover of the institutions with which they, as public servants,
have been entrusted. In a neo-liberal frenzy the museums that were
built and are maintained by public funds are, in effect, being expropriated
and made to serve business interests.
Like in the United States, where it is almost a given, exhibition
programs in other parts of the world are increasingly determined
by the degree to which they lend themselves to a positive image
transfer for sponsoring corporations or, for that matter, the public
relations needs of politicians. As a consequence, crowd pleasing,
usually uncritical blockbusters become the order of the day, not
feather plucking events. Under these pressures, programs with low
entertainment value, and events planned with critical, analytic,
and experimental ambitions fall victim to institutional self-censorship.
The press, often in gullible collusion with the sponsors, pays little
attention to less glamorous, and for that reason usually underfunded
projects, because they are not touted by a big publicity machine
like the one that corporations often pay for at the same rate as
the sponsored events. In effect, the public is given the impression
that only blockbusters are worth seeing. It stays away, at other
times. Caught in a vicious circle, the financial health of institutions
that take risks and are governed, above all, by professional criteria
are endangered by poor box office figures. Public officials are
tempted to mistake high attendance figures as a sign of curatorial
excellence that deserves being rewarded when institutional budgets
are set. Eagles mutate into parrots.
Since the arts are no longer seen as the pastime of "effete
snobs," and, in effect, have become fashionable and integrated
into today's entertainment culture, public relations experts are
convinced that the association with culture improves their clients'
standing in the arena of public opinion. Without studying sociology,
the P.R. wizards have understood high culture's symbolic power.
They know it is the aura that matters. The instrumentalization of
the good, the true and the beautiful by business interests is to
affect favorable tax rates, trade rules, health, safety and environmental
legislation, as well as labor relations. And it is to subtly dissuade
elected officials and the press from scrutinizing corporate conduct
and to deflect public criticism.
A PR-man from Mobil Oil once explained his company's rationale for
supporting the arts: "These programs build enough acceptance
to allow us to get tough on substantive issues."
One of the Mobil ads on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times
put it more bluntly: "Art for the sake of business." This
includes, according to Alain-Dominique Perrin, the CEO of Cartier,
to "neutralize critics." Monsieur Perrin is an enthusiastic
practitioner. In an interview he confided: "Arts sponsorship
is not just a tremendous tool of corporate communications,"
he crowed, "it is much more than that: It is a tool for the
seduction of public opinion."
Art institutions, in turn, have learned to woo prospective sponsors
with attractive packages and to assure them, as the Metropolitan
Museum did: "The business behind art knows the art of good
business." For the CEOs who had no taste for word plays, the
museum spelled out what it meant: "Many public relations opportunities
are available through the sponsorship of programs, special exhibitions
and services. These can often provide a creative and cost effective
answer to a specific marketing objective, particularly where international,
governmental or consumer relations may be a fundamental concern."
Art professionals now use their colleagues in the development office
as a "reality check". Philippe de Montebello, the director
of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, is certainly a connoisseur
in these matters. He has no delusions: "It's an inherent, insidious,
hidden form of censorship," he admits.
But the imposition of the sponsor's agenda not only has an effect
on what we get to see and hear. Mr. de Montebello's president at
the Metropolitan Museum explained: "To a large degree, we've
accepted a certain principle about funding that, in passing through
our illustrious hall, the money is cleansed."
His suggestion that the sponsor's money is dirty came in response
to a question about his Museum's collaboration with Philip Morris.
The world's largest maker of carcinogenic consumer products also
happens to be the most conspicuous corporate sponsor of the arts
in the United States and increasingly so in Europe. But not only
of the arts. Philip Morris also gives hundreds of thousands of dollars
to the Jesse Helms Center in North Carolina, a museum designed to
celebrate the right-wing Senator's vision of America. And Philip
Morris sponsors the Bill of Rights. As contradictory as this may
sound, it makes perfect business sense. Jesse Helms was instrumental
in breaking down trade barriers against the import of American cigarettes
in Asia, the one market of the cigarette industry that is still
growing. And he battles untiringly against tobacco tax increases
and efforts to protect the public from the health hazards of smoking,
which annually leads to the death of 500,000 Americans. In 1989,
the Marlboro men paid the National Archives $600,000 for the permission
to "sponsor" the Bill of Rights in a two-year $60 million
campaign. The campaign was designed to frame the cowboys' arguments
against smoking restrictions as a civil rights issue. Their support
for the arts is to build constituencies and to keep the lines open
to the movers and shakers in the media and in politics. When the
New York City Council deliberated in 1994 over restrictions on smoking
in public places, Philip Morris threatened to stop sponsoring cultural
programs in the City and to move its headquarters to more hospitable
environs. Nevertheless the City Council passed the restrictions.
The company's bluff was called. It stays, and continues to believe
in the business rationale of sponsoring art events in New York.
California's penchant for discouraging indulgence in carcinogenic
pleasures probably was also the reason, in l995, for Philip Morris
to sponsor the exhibition "1966-l975: Reconsidering the Object
of Art" at the Museum of Contemporary Art's Temporary Contemporary
in Los Angeles. This investment was not an unqualified success.
A number of the artists in this survey exhibition of so-called conceptual
art, discovering as late as the show's opening, that Philip Morris
was its sponsor, protested vociferously and managed to have the
national press amplify their anger. Adrian Piper withdrew her works
when the Museum was unwilling to substitute them with a work commemorating
her parents, who both died from smoking related diseases. The case
of Adrian Piper demonstrates that artists risk losing access to
the public and foregoing participation in the public discourse,
if they don't want to lend their work and their name for the promotion
of corporate interests - in this example of a company whose products
killed the artist's parents. The non-representation in large survey-shows
can jeopardize the recognition artists receive when history is written
and, of course, also the prices for which their works are traded.
A few months after MOCA's abduction of artists into Marlboro Country,
Sol LeWitt, one of the MOCA protesters, rejected a major commission
from the Guggenheim Museum when he learned that the survey show
Abstraction in the Twentieth Century: Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline
for which the commission was intended, was sponsored by Philip Morris.
The exhibition opened without him.
Fearing that the awareness of the health hazards of smoking with
its attendant legislative consequences may eventually also hit Europe,
Philip Morris is busy developing preemptive strategies. Again, the
arts are to play a supportive role. In Germany, the company held
a competition for art exhibition organizers. The impresarios were
invited to submit proposals for the exhibition they always wanted
to do but could not for lack of funds. Philip Morris promised to
pay for the winning dream project. Covering all bases, Philip Morris,
astutely, chose artists to be the jurors. In contrast to Sol LeWitt,
several prominent artists were happy to lend their names to the
tobacco rescue mission as jurors. Jochen Poetter, the director of
the Ludwig Museum in Cologne was the lucky winner. His exhibition
had the engaging title "I love New York!" It had only
one problem: the reviewers did not
love it. A quick look into art magazines of recent vintage suffices
to recognize that the fashion industry and the art world have entered
into what appears to be a symbiotic relationship. While fashion
and its promotion are treated as high art, art institutions have
become eager partners of the apparel industry. Although Oliviero
Toscani has not yet been invited to a solo show in Jean-Christophe
Ammann's Frankfurt Museum of Modern Art, as he has in other art
venues, for many years a taste of the brave new world of Benetton
has been a part of the filling of Ammann's Frankfurt art cake. Ammann
also invited Karl Lagerfeld and his models for an exclusive performance.
The Frankfurt municipal collection served as a stylish back-drop.
In 1995, as commissioner of the German pavilion at the Venice Biennale,
he moved to the cutting edge. Together with the cowboys of Philip
Morris, he invited Hugo Boss to sponsor Germany's showcase in Venice.
The late Hugo Boss, like the architect whom Hitler commissioned
to give the German pavilion a martial face-lift, was a Nazi party
member in good standing. Politically correct, he had made a living
as purveyor of SA and SS uniforms. The apparel industry is also
close to the heart of Thomas Krens, the director of the Guggenheim
Museum. Appropriate events have been staged under his roof, and
an international art prize and galleries of the museum have been
named in honor of the uniform manufacturer Hugo Boss. After a 1998
motorcycle rally on the ramps of the Guggenheim, sponsored by BMW,
an exhibition to honor Giorgio Armani is planned for the new millenium.
The Guggenheim's predilection for German partners culminated in
1997 in a joint venture with the Deutsche Bank Unter den Linden
Meanwhile, Jean-Christophe Ammann, who does not have a business
degree like Krens, is struggling mightily to match the New Yorker's
visionary schemes. He is campaigning vigurously for a change of
the German tax laws and proudly proclaimed: "We want to become
part of the "philosophy" of a corporation." He also
plans (in competition with Christo) to turn the entire facade of
his museum into an advertising billboard. Designs for a Coca-Cola
and an American Express shrink-wrap exist already. Hans Hollein,
the museum's architect came up with a wise alternative. He proposed
that advertising messages are to be tattooed on the director's forehead.
Since corporate contributions to museums are tax-deductible, we,
in effect, pay for the campaigns that are to influence how we live
and what we think. We underwrite the expenses of our own seduction.
This strategy succeeds as long as we are convinced that we get something
for nothing - and believe in "disinterested pleasure."
Broodthaers chose as the first illustration for Volume II of his
post-exhibition catalogue, the gold-framed painting of a castle
nestled in a romantic mountain landscape. He supplied the following
caption: "Oh melancholy, brittle castle of eagles."
© Hans Haacke, 1997/1999