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Barbara Kruger photographed in her New York studio. (Chester Higgins Jr. / The New York Times / Redux)

Barbara Kruger's Artwork Speaks Truth to Power

The mass media artist has been refashioning our idioms into sharp-edged cultural critiques for three decades—and now brings her work to the Hirshhorn

The official title she’s given her installation is Belief+Doubt. In an earlier work (pictured below), she had used the phrase Belief+Doubt=Sanity.

I asked her what had happened to “sanity.” Had she given up on it?

“You can say ‘clarity,’ you can say ‘wisdom,’” she replied, but if you look at the equation closely, adding doubt to belief is actually subtracting something from belief: blind certainty.

The conversation about doubt turned to agnosticism, the ultimate doubt.

She made clear there’s an important distinction between being an atheist and being an agnostic, as she is: Atheists don’t doubt! “Atheists have the ferociousness of true believers—which sort of undermines their position!” she said.

 “In this country,” she added, “it’s easier to be a pedophile than an agnostic.”

Both sides—believer and atheist—depend on certainty to hold themselves together. A dynamic that also might explain the deadlock in politics in Washington: both sides refusing to admit the slightest doubt about their position, about their values, about the claim to have all the answers.

“Whose values?” is the Kruger extraction at the very summit of her Hirshhorn installation—and its most subversive question. With the absence of doubt, each side clings to its values, devaluing the other side’s values, making any cooperation an act of betrayal.

“Everybody makes this values claim,” she pointed out, “that their values are the only values. Doubt is almost grounds for arrest—and we’re still perilously close to that in many ways, you know.”

And so in its way the Hirshhorn installation may turn out to be genuinely subversive. Introducing doubt into polarized D.C. political culture could be like letting loose a mutation of the swine flu virus.

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