On the Corner

by Susan Tallman

September 2011

Once upon a time, prints were critical, socially dynamic, even dangerous things. All those tiresome, indirect and time-consuming print processes were developed, tolerated—and yes, sometimes adored—because they could get the word out: the teachings of Buddha, the mendacity of the king, the imperial tax code, the price on Jesse James’ head. Prints have a great reputation as tools of democracy, but the truth is that both the powerful and the powerless, the crown and the throng, have turned to prints to press their point of view.

The Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition of prints from South Africa, reviewed in this issue by Jay Clarke, demonstrates that prints can still be vital tools of social change. Printeresting.com observed, during last spring’s protests in Wisconsin over collective bargaining rights, that “while twitter and facebook may be amazing organizational tools, holding up your iPhone at a political rally to share a political graphic is less effective [than…] old-fashioned paper and ink.” There is no doubt that, in the right circumstances, prints still have a social role.

That said, their original raison d’être—broadcasting information—has been taken over by other, more efficient technologies, and this has been the case for close to a century. Digital technology just exacerbated the situation imposed by analog devices imposed by analog devices from radio onward: the disembodiment of the message as a condition of its distribution.

Now we live in a world awash in potential pictures. It is probably no accident that this rising tide of ethereal images has coincided with the rise of strategies such as street art, installation art, and artists’ books—forms that emphasize physical locality and corporeality. The beauty of the electronic image is that it can be everywhere and nowhere. Street art, installation art and artist’s books, on the other hand, dramatize the specific: this place, this thing, this moment in time. If the contemporary plenitude of pixels is a logical extension of printing, it would be easy to think of these forms as anti-prints. And yet, rather than being deployed against multiplicity (as, say, much Abstract Expressionist painting was) they frequently exploit it.¨

This issue of Art in Print looks at this conundrum in urban streets from 18th century London to 21st century Los Angeles (Gill Saunders, “Street Art: Prints and Precedents”); in the trajectory of installation art over the past forty years (Charles Schultz, “A Matrix You Can Move In: Prints and Installation Art”); in the hand-held intimacy of book works (Nancy Princenthal, “It is Almost That: A Collection of Image+Text Work by Women Artists & Writers”) and in the odd transformation of the Wiener Werkstätte from high-minded reformers to purveyors of cozy domestic consumables (Heather Hess, “Changing Impressions: Wiener Werkstätte Prints and Textiles”). In all these places, the print acts as a bridge between the particular and the repeatable, the populist and the esoteric, the difficult message and the appealing surface.

The politics of all this are intriguingly convoluted: as street artists have been welcomed into the museum, for example, their work has become both more exclusive (most museums cost money to enter; print rooms have an unstated cover charge paid in cultural capital) and less exclusive (prints in a museum are not going to be painted over, rained on, plastered over—they will be available to all the people who could not get to that particular street corner on that particular week.) Similarly, most print-based installations can only be in one place at one time, which puts them into the same snootily exclusive category as oil paintings, but frequently they are made up of modules that allow them to be recreated in other spaces, and to be responsive to those spaces. Is this exemplary power-sharing between artist and audience, or just a further indulgence of the already over-privileged consumer? Which is more admirable: the total (and necessarily unique) design schemes imposed by the early Wiener Werkstätte, or the bits and bobs of Werkstätte fabrics that American clients added at whim to their mish-mosh interiors?

Prints have always operated at the crossroads: market-friendly and rabble-rousing; elitist and egalitarian. At a time when cultural and political discourse seems so impossibly entrenched, the borders of each camp so cleanly drawn, one can only be grateful to the print for—as ever—mucking up the edges.