Michael Palumbo

I have worked at the New School University for over twenty-five years and an art work from the university collection that I would often see on the walls of the New School and which always evoked strong feelings is Hans Haacke’s “Helmsboro Country”. The work is politically specific and layered, and contrasts corporate-political manipulation (Philip Morris Corp. & North Carolina Sen. Jessie Helms) vs. American political ideals (The Bill of Rights). At the time, this piece was specifically referring to Sen. Helm’s attack on the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) for paying $30,000 for Robert Mapplethorp’s homoerotic photos.

While the NEA controversy from the 90’s has long past I still wonder what has happened to this kind of political sophistication resulting from one artist’s research of political and cultural systems? Haacke is a visual artist provocateur, in this case raising the question can Sen. Jessie Helms serve two masters the U.S. government and Philip Morris Corp (i.e. corporate America).

I came upon this work often over the years and it captured my attention every time, and I never discuss it, in part, because I did not understand it, it was in a class by itself although it was labeled conceptual art at the time. Today many artists do researched based art. Although I am an abstract painter I have followed politics since I was a teenager, Haacke was a curiosity to say the least, he was clearly creative but more of a political activist than a humanitarian. I grew up believing, artists were uniquely perceptive about what is going on around them. Now I come upon an artist that is more analytical than perceptive and in the context of the visual arts community. Haacke is a unique critical voice that fleshes out the damage that the collaboration between corporations and politics does to democ

racy. It is difficult not to appreciate the moral courage in his work. In part, I respect the honesty of the work, speaking truth to power always carries some risk. In addition to this risk, Haacke is a sophisticated communicator finding complex conditions and transforming them into elemental visual signs for all to understand it a glance.

Question: All artists operate both inside and outside the cultural system, can we effectively understand the cultural systems we are all striving to be a part of without research?

Question: In the light of a work like “Helmsboro Country” that hangs in NYC (the cathedral of capitalism) can Hans Haccke be exposing conflicting American values? Can the American desire for financial security be in direct opposition to its democratic values? Is Hans Haccke, through his research, exposing some of the complexities between American political ideals and American political reality?

Question: Part of the effectiveness of “Helmsboro” is the inherent contrast between the individual artists vs. the state. Is institutional oppression (be it the state, a corporation, a museum, or a university) an elemental human condition and what can creative individuals do about it once they have researched the matter?

Michael Palumbo