Hans Haacke: I never quite understood what my work has to do with Conceptual art, unless this label is applied to all those things that Duchamp associated with the “gray matter,” rather than the retina. In the late ’60s, I became politicized, like a lot of people. As I had been dealing with what I considered, at the time, to be physical and biological ‘systems,’ it appeared to be only logical from the point of view of general systems theory, and particularly in view of what was happening in the social arena, also to address social issues. That seemed to require a shift in medium. I felt objects or physical ‘process’ works could not accommodate the involvement with social matters. That led me to the incorporation of words. Our social relations are structured and largely intelligible through verbal constructs. This development in my work coincided with the influx of words into the art scene of the period.
Paul Taylor: In Hommage à Marcel Broodthaers (1982) a curious image of Ronald Reagan suggests that there is a perverse relationship between the political figure and the masses. Are you implying that politics has become spectacularized?
HH: No, that wasn’t on my mind. Mass demonstrations are not a new phenomenon. However, politics, as mediated by the press, has indeed become a spectacle. Clever politicians exploit that. Hitler was a master at it, and so is the actor Ronald Reagan.
PT: Would art play a different role in such a context where even the political seems unreal?
HH: Let’s not be fooled. Behind the spectacle politics continues, as hard-nosed and real as ever. And if a policy is built on fiction, its results are nevertheless felt in the world of reality. Blacks rebelling in South Africa are shot down with real bullets! They don’t have the luxury to revel in fiction. What is really frightening though is the degree to which fiction is taken for reality at the Reagan White House. Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ defense concept comes straight from the dream factory. If global policy is developed along the lines of a Hollywood script, we may very well blow up the world. What a spectacle! Reagan as a disciple of Filippo Tommasi Marinetti.
PT: The painting of Ronald Reagan and the one of Margaret Thatcher in Taking Stock (Unfinished) (1983-84) are ironic. What do you think of the widespread use of irony in art today?
HH: I like it a lot, as long as it isn’t just glib and flirtatious. Irony leaves things in abeyance and invites the viewer to fill in the gaps. In other words, it is an appeal to the viewer’s intelligence. I want to have some fun, and so should the audience have. Fun — by using their heads.
PT: People sometimes say that irony is a way of anaesthetizing social injustice and a form of smug complicity with the status quo.
HH: That depends on which audience you are dealing with.
PT: Again, are we talking about the homeless and the blacks in South Africa or the educated middle class?
HH: Of course irony would be totally out of place in Soweto. My sympathies with the victims of apartheid should not be mistaken to mean that they are my audience. I wish though, that they should benefit from my work. People who visit art galleries, museums, and so forth obviously come from a different culture. The same is true for those who learn about what’s in the galleries through the mediation of the press. A good number of them are, in fact, working in the consciousness industry, where opinions are made and promoted. That is the arena where my stuff could perhaps be of use. As I don’t like to be lectured to, so I don’t want to preach with a raised finger. Bertolt Brecht said it quite well, the task is to “make interests interesting.” He was a master of irony.
PT: Why is political art flourishing more than it was ten years ago?
HH: I don’t have a single or conclusive answer. One reason, I’m sure, is the arrival of the Reagan Administration. That served as a reminder that politics didn’t go away, once the Vietnam war was over and the dust of the Watergate scandal had settled. The vacuum left by the political drop-outs was soon filled by the resurgent New Right. In the art world, it ranges from Hilton Kramer to the Saatchi whiz kids. But there is perhaps another reason: among younger artists there seems to be a tremendous sense of alienation. Those who have not joined the yuppies and cynically play the game are thoroughly disgusted with the all pervasive marketing mentality of the contemporary art scene. As a result, they get politicized. The ideological polarization in this country has given such attitudes new legitimacy. They don’t look ridiculous anymore. The Me generation seems to be on its way out, as the nostalgia for the ’50s is fading. You may even look at it in marketing terms. The art world, like the world at large, has been so saturated by the products of a phony individualism and coy rebellion that for no better reason than out of boredom the audience wants something different. Let me add, the type of art I just alluded to with contempt has had as much an ideological and, by implication, a political effect, as so-called political art does. It is naïve to assume that artworks made without a political intent lack a political dimension. This is something Marcel Broodthaers knew very well.
PT: Then there are others, like Sue Coe, who think they are making political art by doing expressionistic illustrations of social injustice. Is that kind of artist a political artist in your book?
HH: Like a number of other artists Sue Coe makes political testimonials. She uses exhortation, and she appeals to the viewer’s compassion for the victims of injustice, a bit like Käthe Kollwitz and artists of that generation.
PT: It is denotatively political.
HH: I believe the means with which I work are as political as the subject matter, that is to say, they play an equally signifying and interventionist role.
PT: If, indeed, such things can be equivalent. Are the media you use — painting, photo-text, sculpture — totally instrumental to your purposes?
HH: I don’t engage in formal exploration for its own sake. I choose the medium that appears to be most useful for a particular occasion or purpose — and on the way I discover things. It is really more explorative and playful than it sounds.
PT: Could you, in the case of Taking Stock (Unfinished), have used photography and collage?
HH: No, because photography doesn’t have the aura of painting.
PT: So it is not regressive to appeal to painting’s auratic status these days?
HH: If you were to embrace the aura, I would be wary. I don’t believe in halo painting. I use the aura ironically. It glows within quotation marks, like the gold frames around my portrait paintings.
PT: You once commented to me that magazines like Manhattan Inc., which have a corporate culture section, are doing what you’ve done over the years, that is, linking the interests of corporations with what we see as culture. Why are such critiques becoming widespread?
HH: The de facto mergers of the Whitney Museum with various companies, the remodeling of the Chase Manhattan Bank’s Soho branch into an art gallery, and particularly the way art is strategically employed to attract tenants for the new Equitable Life Insurance Building in New York, all these events seem to have served as signals that something is afoot. Also the letter of Philip Morris sent to museums who had been recipients of the company’s ‘largess,’ buttonholing them to lobby against pending restrictions on smoking in public places, did not sit well with a lot of people. Nor did the Metropolitan Museum gain in scholarly reputation by mounting a show with the sublime title “Man and the Horse” to promote Ralph Lauren. But these are only the more spectacular and silly aspects of the corporate invasion of the art world. They make flashy copy. While more fundamental problems are not ignored, they are often balanced against the argument that art was always supported by special interest groups like the church, the princes, etc., and that it would be unreasonable to expect that corporations don’t want something in return for their money. This argument is often made in terms that reveal a tacit admiration for the cynicism of the scheme, not unlike the fascination with the entrepreneurial spirit of certain artists. I believe one doesn’t realize what price we have paid for inviting business to take over.
PT: With the return of painting in the so-called advanced art scene, has the concept of art been commodified?
HH: Artworks have always played a multiple role; one of them is that of a commodity. Paintings lend themselves better to performing this function than many of the things that came on the scene in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Much of that was burdened with the additional mortgage of being rather austere and dry. It is therefore not surprising that there was a backlash. One wanted to see colors again, something sensuous, have some fun, and believe again in geniuses and castles. No doubt, there are many other reasons for the ‘hunger for painting.’ The most remarkable phenomenon is, however, that the astuteness of an artist in developing a marketing strategy, to ‘position’ himself — they are mostly males — is valued as an artistic accomplishment in its own right.
PT: Speaking as one who wasn’t around in that era, I have nevertheless thought that the feelings about non-object art ran deeper than that. I thought people believed art had really changed. The concept of art was meant to have been freed from the commodity and to be more ethereally artistic. Is that how artists felt?
HH: Yes, there was a heady sense that making art had nothing to do with making money. Of course, one still had to pay the rent. As always there were people with big egos, but fame was not measured in terms of sales. I am not the only one who feels the clock has been turned back.
PT: Is the idea of historical progress being discarded?
HH: This gets very philosophical. It may sound pretty trivial and also pompous: I would like to believe in a utopia, a more humane society, at peace with the environment. But I confess I’m not very confident. We are getting drained already by the struggle not to let things slip further into barbarism.
PT: Would a revival of Conceptual art be ironic?
HH: Rather than truly ironic it would be sad, like all revivals.
from Flash Art n°126, 1986