Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 29, 2000
Catherine de Zegher, ed. Martha Rosler: Positions in the Life World MIT Press, 1999. 304 pp.; 47 color ills.; 97 b/w ills. Cloth $40.00 (026204174X)
International Center for Photography, New York, July 29-October 1, 2000; in collaboration with The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, July 15-October 8, 2000.

Like other post-conceptual artists of her generation who adapted the 1960s’ formal convention of the series to sustained analytical investigations of social phenomena (think of Allan Sekula’s Aerospace Folktales, for example, or Mary Kelly’s Postpartum Document), Martha Rosler has produced a body of work over the last thirty-five years that has proven difficult to assimilate to the promotional ways and means of the art world. From her photodocumentary-cum-image/text work The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (1973-74), through videos such as Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) and critical essays such as “Lookers, Buyers, Dealers, and Makers” (1979), to the curatorial project If You Lived Here (1989), and her recent photo-essay In the Place of the Public: Observations of a Frequent Flyer (1990-1998), Rosler has consistently relied on the bringing together of far-flung images and ideas in compound narrative forms to make her point. The difficulty posed by this approach is exacerbated by the fact that she works the gamut of post-conceptual media—photomontage, performance, photodocumentary, image/text, video, installation, billboards—falling short only of the Internet. As such, no single emblematic image or text, no masterpiece or signature style, no single medium identification can encapsulate her position as an artist; there is no easy way to frame or isolate the meaning of her work as art without it immediately opening back up into the larger, non-art context it came from. Even her early, more-suitable-for-framing series Bringing the War Home makes this point, albeit more crudely: powerfully coherent images of business-class stylishness, protected intimacy, and relaxed grace taken from the pages of House Beautiful are opened up and made vulnerable to the violent exterior of geopolitical conflict and war-torn Southeast Asia. As with all of Rosler’s work, the primary artistic gesture was to expose the image or idea under investigation to its larger historical context, thereby breaching the expected institutional and phenomenological frame, and bypassing the whole question of how the work can claim the name of art.

She pinpoints the formal properties that create this difficulty in an interview with Benjamin Buchloh included in this volume. The discussion moves back and forth between her relationship with the work of Walker Evans and Robert Frank on one side and that of Ed Ruscha (and, by extension, what she calls conceptualism’s “photography degree zero”) on the other:

A strong aspect of Evans’ American Photographs (and later of Frank’s Americans) was its powerful sequencing—so much of the meaning of the work is in the interstices. . . Now, if you compare Ed Ruscha’s Twenty-six Gasoline Stations (1963) with American Photographs or The Americans, you can see they have structural elements in common: the structured image itself and the sequencing. Yet they are opposites. In Twenty-six Gasoline Stations, the sequence is one plus one plus one, and it is simple accretion that makes the point. In Evans and Frank, it is one plus two plus three plus four, so the actual sequence and the content make a difference (37).

This emphasis on narrative sequence and content did not mean a simple return to an older, realist tradition in the wake of the appropriation of photographic means by modernists like Ruscha, Warhol, Rauschenberg and their conceptualist heirs:

Buchloh: So you oppose conceptualism’s photography degree zero with your photography model, which rediscovers American traditions of the 1930s, namely FSA photography?
Rosler: I came to it using two different models. . . . But surely you can see the remnants of my own interest in that conceptual tradition in all my photography, including The Bowery (36).

Indeed, it is the conceptual tradition emerging out of the work of Ruscha and Warhol that provided the model for the critical engagement with the documentary genre of Evans and Frank that Rosler and others would raise in the mid-seventies looking for “more complex ways of address—the opposite of the ‘parachuting photographer,’ who would go somewhere, take pictures of some crisis, and get the hell out” (46).

When understood as post-conceptualist, however, Rosler’s focus on the structural limits of documentary drawn from her 1960s’ forebearers and their roots in the self-critical traditions of modernism is of less relevance than her move away from the conceptual model toward a narrative form whose lineage can be traced back through Frank and Evans, through the avant-garde reportage aesthetics of Tretyakov and Eisenstein, through the exposé photography of Hine and Riis, and beyond. It is this other tradition that supplied a missing “working-class vitality” (43) and a formal complication of the 1960s’ serial paradigm. The resulting difference, in sum, is a practice that aims beyond its own specialized limits and professional self-definition, a practice that identifies itself against its own expertise and with its subject of investigation. For example, it is difficult to imagine Rosler making the statement Hans Haacke did in the fall of 1968 just prior to the turn in his work that “art is utterly unsuited as a political tool.” For Rosler (as for Haacke’s own post-‘68 work), art is only a political tool. Paradoxically or not, this may well justify the grandiose honor recently awarded her in the pages of The New York Times by New Museum curator Dan Cameron: "She’s the purest artist there is."

Finally, understanding Rosler’s art to be difficult because it pays little attention to the question of what art is and is not helps us to address the somewhat obscure curatorial/editorial claim made in the volume’s title—that her work is somehow exceptional or distinctive by virtue of the fact that it takes up “positions in the life world.” The “life world” concept used here comes from phenomenology, but the most apt or immediate source for it is the social theory of Jürgen Habermas who defines it against a companion concept: “system.” The main difference between the two terms in Habermass account is that while one refers to ideas, intuitions and practices that emerge as expressions of lived experience, the other refers to abstract models of understanding conceptualized from the perspective of the observer rather than that of the participant and institutionalized as social forms. The abstraction of such forms means that they are always partial, that any system is always a subsystem with rules and expectations that segregate it from other subsystems and from full participation in the life world as a whole. Rosler’s work struggles to position itself in the life world, in the realm of lived social experience broadly conceived, and not to be reduced to being merely a player in an institutionalized subsystem such as the art world. Works like The Bowery or If You Lived Here articulate and experience their value as social entities above and beyond the one-off image of the “parachuting photographer” or the anti-image of the photographer “degree zero” by articulating their concern from the vantage point of citizen or community member rather than the art or photography professional. “Walk through any city these days and you are likely to see people living on the streets,” she begins her curator’s essay, “Fragments of a Metropolitan Viewpoint” (173).

The distinctive or exceptional character of Rosler’s work, thus, is a function of her speaking from a position that is not distinctive or exceptional, a function of an individual metropolitan viewpoint, not the professionalized perspective of an artist or a photojournalist. There is little movement to the side of the subject on view, little critical detachment or empathic attachment; there are few distinctions to hang an artist’s identity on, leaving her in the position of being little more than somebody who lives here. This position is perhaps best summarized in Rosler’s voice-over to her 1980 video Secrets from the Street: “The secret is that to know the meaning of a culture you must recognize the limits of your own. You can’t know a culture by coming to visit—you can see its ‘facts’ but you cannot see its meaning. There is no universal meaning—we share meaning by living it. The picturesque signs of commercial decoration form one pole of this culture’s meaning. The secret is that the other pole, the one in which your eyes cannot linger or focus—cannot focus—is the pole representing the secret of life-as-lived” (219).

It is for this reason that Martha Rosler: Positions in the Life World and the exhibition it accompanies are of particular interest, perhaps even more so than is usually the case for retrospective evaluations: by bringing together much of the work produced over the course of a thirty-five year career and the substantial critical reflection on that career provided by the catalog essayists and interviewer, we are given greater access to difficult work by being given greater approximation to the “secret”: the complex of perspectives of a life-as-lived. A fully accurate representation of such a point-of-view is beyond the pale of any art, of course, and even more so beyond any art appreciation—this is what makes Rosler’s work so unavailable for easy framing as art—but drawing near such an elusive ethical ideal, being put in the position of imagining it, provides occasion for aesthetic experience of the highest order.

Blake Stimson
Professor of Art History at University of Illinois, Chicago