LA JOLLA — America hates a mystery. Oh, we like mystery stories as well as the next country; the telly is full of them. But when you get right down to it, Americans only like to flirt with the mysterious. We prefer the understandable. It's OK with us if the country is inundated with immigrants as long as they quickly learn English, get a jogging suit and drive like everybody else. No double parking. No making right-hand turns from left-hand lanes. Behave in predictable fashion.
We like to understand and we like being understood. We are nice, reasonable folks, so it doesn't make sense to us that there can be a whole country full of people who misunderstand us to the point of hatred. Take Iran. One of the biggest mysteries on the telly is pictures of black-shrouded women learning to shoot us with .45s and crowds of bearded guys telling us we are the Great Satan. There has to be some misunderstanding here that we can clear up by finding the moderate elements and sending them Bibles, cakes and missiles. Every time we try this, we get clobbered because we don't want to deal with the idea that those folks are ineluctably mysterious.
Art used to be mysterious, and that drove people crazy. Why do these guys want to go around making art that no good American can understand? Anybody who would do that must have something to hide. Must be a mountebank or a commie. Why would anybody paint a picture that is a complete enigma no matter which way you hang it? Intolerable.
For the last 20 years or so, Americans have been working on making art understandable. They have had a lot more success with this project than with the Iranian caper. By now, art has been pretty well reduced to merchandise. Americans really understand merchandise because you can go shopping for it. Something you shop for is worth money, has a use and is therefore understandable. What a relief.
Art is useful because it is expensive luxury merchandise that confers social status on wealthy persons along with their cars, houses and tony spouses. It is useful because it comes complete with a social scene. It is a ticket to exclusive parties populated by flirtatiously mysterious exotics who are sometimes celebrities. If you buy enough, you too can become a celebrity and get your picture in People magazine or at least Town and Country. If you invest shrewdly, your purchase actually accrues in value and you can sell it and buy a condo in Paris. If, instead, you wait and bequeath your art to a museum, you become a Cultural Immortal and are hailed as a secular saint.
When something is that useful it must mean something and, come to think of it, who cares if it doesn't?
Only a few grousers and malcontents like Hans Haacke.
Don't be embarrassed if the name is vague. Haacke, who was born in Germany and lives in New York, has been a figure to contend with inside the art scene since the early '70s, when the Guggenheim Museum canceled a show they had promised him. Since then, his work has been seen mainly in commercial galleries and piecemeal in large international exhibitions like Germany's Documenta. He has never had a major museum show on the West Coast for the simple reason he had never had one anywhere until last winter, when New York's New Museum for Contemporary Art organized the traveling retrospective now visiting the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art until Sept. 27. Interested parties will not want to miss the event, particularly because it is bracketed with another revealing show, called "LA 2 DA," which will be reviewed presently.
Haacke's work kicks up a regular maelstrom of questions including the old one about whether or not it is art, but one thing is certain: It is not merchandise. A man who makes a tableau of a Met museum banner advertising "Treasures of Ancient Nigeria" sponsored by Mobil and also needling them about their South African interests is not out to kiss up to the big boys.
Haacke's troubles and art-world notoriety began in 1971 in the wake of a wave of political activism among art folks, who were protesting everything from bad working conditions in museums to prejudice against women artists and excessive manipulation of the sphere by critics and dealers who were said to be artificially rigging waves of styles like Pop and Minimalism.
Haacke went a step further into the real world by making a piece for a proposed exhibition at the Guggenheim titled "Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971." The work was a complex dossier of photographs, charts and notes documenting the holdings of one Harry Shapolsky, alleged Lower East Side slumlord convicted of rent gouging.