Inside the museums. Bob Dylan and Jenny Holzer (sort of)

“Who, now who wants to go get whipped, you know, and if you do wanna go get whipped, hey, aren’t you really being entertained?”

imagesThe Dylan-Judson match-up offers all kinds of thrills, including Bob Dylan’s  severe and undated insight in his sallies against  Horace Judson’s apathy. The great moment for me is the comment above, and I ask everyone to watch the scene again simply for Dylan’s vicious elocution of the word *whipped.* 

Indifference and condescension are Horace Judson’s weapons against the wild-haired boy animated to a frenzy by what only looks like the practiced purposeless  rage of his generation. Dylan’s impassioned efforts to get Judson to take the interview seriously, eventually lead  Judson to wearily ask the question that would make him famous in certain circles:  “Do you care about what you sing?” and Bob Dylan’s famouser answer “Would you ask the Beatles that?” It’s Dylan who demands Judson agree that someone would not “go see somebody if they didn’t want entertainment.”  And there’s Bob’s  flash of wisdom: an artist can set out to whip an audience with pedantry, polemics, obscurantism,  but  no artist can fight the desire for pleasure.

holzer_monument4_100x100Being whipped/being entertained–this is what I kept returning to when I visited the current Jenny Holzer exhibit at NY’s Whitney Museum.  Holzer is a familiar and admired artist among my demographic–liberal/intellectual/informed/always ready at a moment’s notice to critique our privileges. This exhibit displayed several works that employ text and sophisticated technologies for hypnotic effects of words transmitted with light, color, movement. The texts in this exhibit are of two general types: the cryptic and suggestive platitudes she’s known for, and material transcribed directly from declassified government documents including interrogation transcripts, and  reports involving  political prisoners held by the US, including the report of the death of at least one prisoner.  The walls of one room are covered with enlarged photocopies of interrogation transcripts and reports, easy to read and of course containing many blacked-out passages too sensitive to be declassified.

images-1Anyone who visits Holzer’s exhibit must necessarily become the sum of characteristics that distinguish them from the conditions that made these works possible, and not much greater than that sum. How can I put this clearly? While I am reading the transcript of a young man’s testimony regarding having been beaten while held as a political prisoner, I am right that minute safe, free, sheltered, clean, able to understand my surroundings and welcome to communicate in any way I choose with the people around me, and with  no necessary  responsibility towards the material I’m reading. If I work as a framer and I happen to be admiring the mounting job done on this display, none of the above changes. Even if I was the person who held the interrogation, there in the Whitney I’m still the sum of what separates me from these words. I am very certain of what I am in that moment and that place. What is the pleasure here? A voyeurism quickly checked by guilt? Then being flooded with the knowledge of my privileges and securities? And then the  confrontation with the sobering fact that I still occupy the same world as the one recorded in these documents? Submitting to a vague complicitness and a vaguer desire to be an agent of rectitude in this world? Of course–I came to get whipped, and I got what I wanted.

holzer_thorax_100x100The installations with text and flashing colored lights offer the pleasures of flashing colored lights, the game of reading the text as it shoots by, and the cleverness of many of the platitudes which are just that hair’s breadth away from hackneyed truisms to appear thought-provoking or witty to people with exercised critical thinking habits, people who go to Jenny Holzer exhibits at the Whitney Museum. Forget about the technology of flashing colored lights, just think about the sheer quantity of electricity needed to keep these installations running each day–it’s a condition beyond the dreams of much of the earth’s population. I came to get whipped, and I got what I wanted. 

images-3” You know what they say, man, they say it’s all good.”  I wanted this song broadcast through loudspeakers all through the Whitney Museum.  I wanted to see people dance on those floors, dance lovely and dance ugly, and I wanted to hear them holler “It’s alllll goooood,” and I wanted to hear them laugh, and the widow’s cry still going unanswered, and Jenny Holzer’s flashing colored lights and Dept of Defense files all around, and all of us so awfully heated up and so entertained.

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