in Interviews | 14 NOV 05
Featured in
Issue 95

Bringin’ it All Back Home

An interview with Martha Rosler about politics, feminism, the art world, media, religion and integrity

in Interviews | 14 NOV 05

Christy Lange: You’ve made a new series of photomontages about the war in Iraq (‘Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful, New Series’, 2004), after your series about the Vietnam War, ‘Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful’ (1967–72). How was the original series received at the time?
Martha Rosler: I kept those works outside of the art world while the war was still raging. I published them in the alternative press at the time, or simply distributed them as photocopies, so the question of reception would have to be posed regarding the anti-war community, which seemed appreciative. In general, I think my work was likely viewed by the art world as rude or incomprehensible. In one of the first articles about my work, in Artforum in 1975, Peter Plagens ended his text with, ‘She’s not a serious artist’. But later he included me in a show he organised. There has typically been a ten-year gap between the time I make the work and the time when I start receiving positive critical reactions.

CL: Do you think that is because you are a woman, or because the work deals directly with political and social issues? Because even now there seems to be a stigma about that kind of work.

MR: The stigma of politics is worse now than it was then. Partly it was the political elements, though not everything I did was overtly political, in the sense of macropolitics. I think the bad category – to which political, including feminist, work was routinely consigned – was ‘anti-aesthetic’; the work just seemed unlovely. But considering how directly it comes out of Pop art and Conceptual art, that always struck me as odd.

CL: But it was around the same time that people like Bruce Nauman or Vito Acconci were …

MR: Men! And that’s where the male element comes in: there was a reaction against Feminist art – which my work clearly was – though it was covert: it took the form of exclusion, or ghettoization. But you also have to remember that those guys showed in and were promoted by New York galleries. I was happy to stay outside that scene, in San Diego. Leo Castelli tried to market video, and although he didn’t succeed, that formed the basis for its eventual commodification and sale in limited editions, as opposed to the majority of artists working with video, who were making unlimited copies. So I think there were a number of things converging. But I wasn’t ‘success’-oriented; I was seeking an audience, and I had plenty of that. I was invisible to the critics who focused on the kind of practices that were already validated by dealers and museums. I wasn’t at all concerned about any of this. I wasn’t sitting there and chewing my fingernails, going, ‘Why don’t they notice me?’ I chose to speak for myself – I wrote about my own work and that of others. I was told that’s why critics were reluctant to take on my work.

CL: Looking at video works such as Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) or Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained (1977) in which
you use objective means to accomplish something slightly absurd, reminds me of Bruce Nauman’s performances in his studio, and then I wonder why, generally speaking, men’s performances on video seem to proliferate.

MR: Ironically, feminism is responsible for the reinvigoration of performance. We do have to go back to Allan Kaprow’s Happenings, alongside other New York performers in the 1960s like Carolee Schneemann and Yvonne Rainer, since Kaprow was the teacher of a number of young feminists at CalArts in Los Angeles – though Martha Wilson and Jackie Apple in New York, and Nancy Buchanan, Barbara Smith and Rachel Rosenthal in LA, Lynn Hershman in San Francisco, and Ellie Antin and I in San Diego, among others, were doing performances in the early 1970s as well. The women were largely ignored, and then Paul McCarthy and Chris Burden, and a few other guys from the same LA milieu, also started doing these ‘women’s things’ – that is, performance – and then performance received validation. Video was excluded from Documenta VII in 1982 because the director, Rudi Fuchs, had supposedly ruled that video was a women’s form, and therefore not really art. There were no female artists in ‘West Kunst’, a huge survey exhibition in Cologne in 1981, and that was taken as a big statement: ‘Feminism in the art world is passé, over.’ This sentiment has a long pedigree, ‘If women do it, it isn’t art, and if men do it, it must be art’. ‘Women cook, but men are the chefs’.

CL: How has that situation changed? Do you feel any sense of retribution that your work is being received so readily now and do you think that reflects an improvement?

MR: I think men’s careers follow an upward path, while women become invisible in their 40s, and then reappear only as grande dames. So you are erased, and then all of a sudden they discover that you were walking the earth the whole time. If you look at people like Valie Export or Carolee Schneemann, for instance – people who appear to have holes in their careers – they didn’t. They had holes in their visibility. It’s true of actresses as well.

CL: Is this also because you didn’t have a gallery for so long?

MR: Of course that had an impact. These days it’s probably the most important factor in whether you are ever noticed by curators.

CL: How did you support yourself?

MR: By teaching. I never expected to make a living from my work. It was a different era; I think many artists chose alternative routes. Market success as a routine goal didn’t appear until the 1980s. I took Bertolt Brecht’s caveat to heart: don’t expect rewards from the society you kick. One of the reasons I ultimately agreed to join a gallery in the early 1990s was not just because the so-called alternative system was disappearing, but for administrative reasons – I needed someone to manage my slides and CVs. This move had a big impact on my visibility. Yet, as I like to point out, I don’t think I’m in any more shows per year now than I was before I joined a gallery.

CL: What is it about work that has a political or social context that many people find uncool? It’s as if it’s put it in a separate category from art and is just ‘political art’.

MR: I think there are a number of reasons. One is a fairly backward-looking idea of what art represents: some notion of the good, the true and the beautiful. If something seems too incident-bound, too tied to current events, it doesn’t suggest a universal reading – it’s too tied to ‘the news’. And people think, ‘Well, that’s propaganda – because it’s about something specific.’ Of course, if it’s something like Goya’s ‘Disasters of War’, then the news value has long been replaced by a mythologized, universalized message. People can look at the Vietnam War works now and see universal messages. Which is why it was time to do a new series.

CL: What do you think separates political art from art about politics?

MR: Art about politics will often have an ironic distance, or it signals to you that this is really about the subjectivity of the artist, as opposed to addressing the viewers as citizens. So psychologizing and subjectivizing have a tendency to depoliticize the political.

C L: So is that something you consciously try to avoid in your work?

MR: I don’t think about it, because we also need to subjectivize things in some way, or we are just bureaucrats. Although there is a need for Agit-prop, I don’t feel like being a poster-maker, if you’ll allow me to insult poster-makers. When I started working on ‘Bringing the War Home’ in the mid-1960s, I thought, ‘OK, people will say this is propaganda. Do I care? Well, if I have to choose between making these and being called a propagandist, or not making these and being called an artist (because I was still painting and doing other things), I’ll take propagandist, at least for these works.’ But some people saw my work as not political or univocal enough. Some feminists criticized Vital Statistics, because it’s not only about women and representations of their bodies, but also about the way in which governments use various forms of normalization to exclude people defined as of other races. That I was invoking racism as well as internalized standards of beauty annoyed some people. Similarly, Losing: A Conversation with the Parents (1977), which is about a young woman who dies of anorexia, also invokes the Nazis and racism, and political prisoners who starve themselves, and this frustrates people who want you to go from A to B and say, ‘Here’s the problem; now here’s the solution’. But I don’t do that.

CL: Reading about Losing made me think it was either parents discussing their daughter’s death, or was a re-enactment of actual dialogue.

MR: It’s complete fiction. It’s based on six months of research about food, anorexia and hunger. It also looks at the way TV handles victim narratives It changes from paragraph to paragraph, and there’s a different point of view on the subject of starvation in each utterance, so it’s ‘incoherent’. But of course, people are incoherent; they are constantly contradicting themselves, and each other. This work was originally done as a text work for a magazine – it was meant to look like the LA Times’ Q&A feature, where people are interviewed about their beautiful lives and their beautiful homes. And then I made a video out of it.

CL: With its juxtaposition of text and image, and the confusion between truth and fiction, I find that work, out of all of your works, the most – if I can use that word – Postmodern.

MR: Why not use the word Postmodern? I, and the people I was working with in San Diego, while maybe not employing the rhetoric of Postmodernism, saw what we were doing as an attack on Modernism. We understood very well that Modernism, whatever its virtues, was interested in separating out individual works of art as ‘works’ and separating art production from the rest of life – there was always a frame or a barrier. We were specifically interested in pushing that aside.

CL: There seems to be a bind in your work with the question of authorship – you want to dismiss it but then, on the other hand, use it.

MR: I don’t think I have to have a position about it; I think this is something that critics develop. Authorship is one of these flames that burns low or high, depending on its strategic usefulness. I was looking recently at the ‘Postcard Novels’ (197–75) and I saw that I had decided in one version to stamp my name on the reverse side in large letters, whereas the first few times I sent the works out, my name was minuscule, and the cards just appeared in the mailboxes of people who had never heard of me; I didn’t exist as an artist. And it was of absolutely no importance to me whether anyone noticed my name or not.

CL: But also, in a work like Semiotics of the Kitchen, I think I can see that you’re enjoying yourself, enjoying performing and making the work.

MR: I’m glad you can see that. But why are you mentioning it? Because you would think that I wouldn’t want to let that show?

CL: You seem to try to purge subjectivity in some of your work, here it didn’t seem like you played this part out of a strictly functional decision, but because you yourself wanted to enact it.

MR: The work is pretty deadpan, but I felt, ‘I gotta be the one to do this’. It’s performance or theatre, after all. I wrote other scripts but never produced them, because I was conflicted about whether other people could act my material.

CL: Is there anything autobiographical about Semiotics of the Kitchen? Did you cook for your son?

MR: There’s nothing autobiographical about that work. It’s part of a body of work about food and cooking and their social place. But yeah, I did cook – it was kind of fun, actually. I enjoy cooking.

CL: The work A Budding Gourmet (1974), where you’re reading from the cookbook, for example, is a very biting satire, but on the other hand I could easily imagine that you might make a recipe from that same cookbook. So is there an internal conflict for you, between criticizing the system and taking part in it?

MR: It’s like criticizing the air for being dirty, but you’re still breathing it, even being happy to breathe it. But with domesticity I was criticizing an element of my culture that I didn’t see myself as so much a part of. That’s what ‘counterculture’ means, though we don’t really have one anymore ... alienation is no longer understood.

CL: Do you associate yourself with any kind of Jewish liberal tradition?

MR: I guess so, though I don’t think much about it. I was raised within an Orthodox tradition, and I went to a yeshiva. So I was raised in a tradition that said that women couldn’t do anything outside the family, and particularly can’t have any contact with the sacred, or transformative or leadership roles. So I have a lot of rage about this kind of stuff.

CL: So did you reject Judaism?

MR: Well, I certainly rejected that part, didn’t I! But I think culturally being a Jew is important for me, and I think it’s really important, as a people with a long history of being persecuted, that we retain a voice.

CL: Do you think that has something to do with your interest in issues like homelessness and other social issues that don’t necessarily touch you directly?

MR: The Jewish tradition taught me first and foremost that a sense of social justice was the highest ethical standard. I always say that being a Republican is against my religion. Progressive Jews felt very strongly that Jews generally had made out very well in America, and therefore had no right to continue to claim generalized victim status, although anti-Semitism certainly still exists. But the tradition of solidarity with others remains an obligation.

CL: In the original ‘Bringing the War Home’ series, there was a simple dialectic at work: the ‘here’ and the ‘there’. With the new series you’ve made, it seems like the things you are juxtaposing are a lot more complex – fashion, consumerism, globalization. Is that because you think the messages we receive about it are more complex?

MR: It wasn’t a conscious decision. When I started collecting the material, these are the pictures I chose. It’s about the types of representations that jump in our faces now. And yes, ‘the here’ and ‘the there’ are now one place in terms of representation. But I have to say that this war is less visible – not more – than the war in Vietnam.

CL: Do you think that Pop culture itself has got more sophisticated? And does that make it harder to criticize it?

MR: I’m not critiquing Pop culture; I’m critiquing mass culture. Mass culture may be just a watering down of what’s hip, but what’s hip is not so interesting to me, and it’s inevitably simplified for mass culture. Mass culture is where most people live, in my opinion – it’s the water we swim in. Still, I don’t have cable and I don’t give a shit what’s on TV – my son recently told me that there are no more music videos on MTV. MTV without music videos?

CL: They have MTV2 now. That’s for the videos.

MR: I’m astonished. But TV entertainment isn’t my field of endeavour – that’s not what I look at, and I don’t feel required to. And I also don’t feel required to look at Details, or Wallpaper or all this hip stuff. It’s not what my work is about.

CL: What about art magazines?

MR: I don’t look at them either... I don’t have to take my medicine.

CL: But you are involved in other things that are not art-related.

MR: Some. I read a lot, from theory to science fiction to politics. But I’m not a member of a group or a party. I am involved in Artists Against the War, which we started ad hoc, after a series of living-room meetings in the summer of 2002, when it became clear that the US was going to invade Iraq.

CL: Do you feel like it has an effect?

MR: It’s like asking, ‘Does my vote count?’ No, not alone, but everybody’s vote counts. There needs to be constant mass activity. ‘Grass roots’ literally means that activism takes place at a ground level, almost invisibly. Political activity has a longer time-frame than the pop world. It took ten years to stop the Vietnam War, but there is no question – no question – that political opposition is what stopped the war. Otherwise, it could have gone on forever. There was no reason for it to start, and no reason for it to stop. We wound up losing a war because the public would no longer support it. And why did the public no longer support it? Because there were people out there screaming and raving constantly about the costs of the war.

CL: So you’re saying it has to be taken to the streets. But do ‘the streets’ still have the kind of impact they had back then?

MR: Well, of course. The only thing that can really bring down a government is having people inhabiting the streets and invading the spaces of the city, and governments know this, even if citizens may not. When we were kids, protesting against the Vietnam War, everyone said to us, ‘That’s been done, it doesn’t work’. And we just went, ‘Later for that’. So it’s now my job to say, ‘Yeah, it works’. It doesn’t work in a minute, but it works.

CL: Do you think that integrity is something that makes a good artist?

MR: Integrity is a diffuse concept. I know so many people who are really good artists, but they’re tormented, fucked up – of course, that’s another cliché about artists.

CL: Are you tormented?

MR: Not tormented, but I sometimes have irrational fears, like anybody. Sometimes I’m too worn out by the state of things to do anything but gardening or puzzles or embroidery. I fix myself by organizing things.

CL: Do you ever fear how your work will be received?

MR: Yeah, but I push it aside. I can’t be bothered with that, otherwise I wouldn’t do anything.

CL: When you look at works from 30 years ago, do you feel differently about them from when you were making them? Can you spot when something wasn’t – let’s say – ‘authentic’, in the sense that you didn’t express what you wanted to express?

MR: I am not looking for authenticity. I look at the attitudes that are embodied in the work, and I go, ‘Oh yeah, I used to think that way’, or, ‘I was really naïve’, or ‘Oh, that’s interesting, why didn’t I pursue that?’ But most of the time they’re dead labour, in a sense. You can’t have remorse about something that’s been so objectified outside you.

CL: What are you working on now?

MR: I have a project in Helsinki and I’m continuing to photograph streets and modes of transport, like airports and especially the Tube. But for the moment – and that’s the problem with making this body of work – people want to see the montages, and it’s my job to put them out. They’re anti-war works! I have to get them out! I have a responsibility to my work, so I am doing a lot of administrative work that I wish I weren’t doing.

CL: But that’s every artist’s plight.

MR: Yes! We become secretaries. I was really shocked that that’s what my life turned out to be.

Martha Rosler lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. She has published ten books, and several more are forthcoming. She has exhibited and lectured extensively and teaches at Rutgers University. Her upcoming projects and exhibitions include a public art project in Helsinki, Finland, and participation in Skulpturprojecte07 in Münster.