Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Martha Rosler's Garage Sale: not radical

December 7, 2012 - 9:04am -- Carol Diehl
From Martha Rosler's Meta-Monumental Garage Sale at MoMA

When is radical art not radical? When it’s a Meta-Monumental Garage Saleat MoMA. No one, including me, wants to get on Martha Rosler’s case, because her intentions are so good. She’s a feminist who’s against war and into exposing the falsities of the gallery/museum system—nothing I wouldn’t whole-heartedly agree with. Except, instead of satisfying an “enduring taste for subversion” (see the New Yorker article), Rosler’s MoMA venture (November 17-30) was just another case of bullshit masquerading as art. “Subversion” would be if I got a cart and attempted to sell used T-shirts on the sidewalk in front of MoMA or, God forbid, in the lobby—an event that would immediately reveal just how tolerant the museum really is of purveyors of second-hand shit on their premises. The only reason Rosler gets to sell stuff at MoMA and Joe Schmo doesn’t, is because she knows how to navigate the museum system—and by doing so blatantly exposes herself as a player in the exclusive milieu she’s made a career of railing against.

“The Garage Sale [says the MoMA press release]…implicates visitors in face-to-face transactions within a secondary, informal cash economy—just like [my italics] garage sales held outside a museum setting.” You gotta be kidding. Rosler’s Garage Sale was as much like a real garage sale as Lindsay Lohan is like Elizabeth Taylor. First of all, it was stylized and artificial – from the giant American flag on the wall to the tags, cutesy signs, and arrangements of goods that were clearly the work of an artist pretending to have a garage sale (for instance if someone bought something that was tacked to the wall, they had to wait until the event was over to collect it, so as not to disturb the display). Further, it was in a museum and the visitors who paid $25 to experience it did not look like people who would normally consider incorporating second-hand items into their lives – in other words, they were slumming.

I get pissed off when the art world plays at – and therefore mocks – the lives of others, especially “suburbia” and the now mythical “middle class.”  If I see one more arty photograph of a supposedly anonymous ranch house I’ll scream. 

However buying and selling second hand-items—i.e. “junk” – is what some people do for a living. They know where to find the stuff, how to price and sell it. It’s how they get by.

Others are forced to sell their belongings in order to raise cash to pay the mortgage or next month’s rent. As for the buyers, there are people out there who wear second-hand clothing not for a lark, but because it’s only way they can afford to cover their backs.

But garage sales as the iconic activity of the suburban not-desperate are about excess, accumulations of stuff that have to be regularly purged.

Therefore, to invite members of the elite to paw through over-priced discarded items seemed remarkably insensitive, not the least because of its timing—immediately following Hurricane Sandy, when the belongings of so many were reduced to just such piles, only logged with water.

But, it was pointed out to me, this exhibition was planned years ago. So what? It’s conceptual art. If Warner Brothers can remake scenes from a multimillion-dollar film in the wake of a theater shooting, why can’t art, especially conceptual art, respond to the times? As I suggested below, Rosler could have donated everything and left the atrium empty, as the hurricane left so many homes empty.

Again, I’m really tired of accumulations of detritus in all its forms pretending to be art, like Karen Kilimnik or Song Dong, the Chinese artist who laid out his mother’s possessions at MoMA in 2009 and recently at London’s Barbicon. Could we please just make something for a change? Or at the very least, attempt to transform it, as Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt does so beautifully in his work, now at MoMA/PS1.

There's nothing about "institutional critique" that a great work of art doesn't do better.    Toward that end, Olafur Eliasson's swinging fan in MoMA's atrium said it all.

Olafur Eliasson, Ventilator, 1997: Photo by C-Monster


Right on Carol.

Even if we allow that Rosler's 'garage sale' is transformed to the extent that goods and sales process have been aestheticised or stylised by their function as a display in a grand institution - the bottom line is it condescends to a very real and painful experience now endemic throughout the country. It's not something to feel smug or clever about. Both artist and museum should be ashamed of themselves.

But as you point out, it's really another opportunity for insiders to conspicuoulsy flaunt their own tawdry dealings.

too often the default art world attitude (including me) of "No one, including me, wants to get on (artist)’s case, because her intentions are so good" allows too much twaddle to get through unquestioned. thank you for daring to question. some people will throw stones just because you dared to do that. your opinions are worth considering.

Submitted by Sid Garrison (not verified) on
This rules!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on
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Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on
to whom did the profits go from the sales? when i asked an attendant at the GARAGE SALE, she told me she's not supposed to discuss this and would get in trouble, but quickly indicated (while looking over her shoulder) that it was not going directly to the artist or the museum. which could mean anything. there is no capital economy more transparent than an authentic garage sale, where private sales of personal objects compensate individual losses. And all participating parties, both active and passive, understand this exchange.

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