Martha Rosler: Art as Activism, Democratic Socialism, and the Changing Role of Women Artists as They Age

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Most people don’t associate luxury goods or domestic comfort with the brutalities of war, but Martha Rosler isn’t like most people. In her iconic series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home (c. 1967–72), Rosler combined advertisements depicting happy housewives with war footage, cleverly linking American capitalism and commodity culture with the imperialist forces they fund. Her pop art collages began as a protest against the Vietnam War, but have evolved to include subsequent American wars including the most recent in Iraq and Afghanistan. This hasn’t made her the most popular artist with American museums, whose boards are populated by wealthy people who sometimes fund or profit from such wars, but it has earned her a solid following among artists, activists, feminists, and pacifists.

Rosler has worked in video, photography and text, installation, and performance for over 50 years and is beloved for her ability to visually link the causes and effects of the most serious issues of our time: war, violence, media, capitalism, and the built environment through simple juxtapositions and a wry sense of humor. Now in her mid-70s, the artist is enjoying a recent surge of international exhibitions including her widely celebrated New York solo exhibition, Martha Rosler: Irrespective (which ran November 2018–March 2019), a survey of 50 years of work at the Jewish Museum. Her conceptual critiques borrow the language and imagery of Pop Art and her ever-evolving body of anti-war video, collage, sculpture, and performance have recently been deemed more “relevant” in the #MeToo era, where women are voicing their anger and finally being heard.

The Brooklyn-based artist had been invited to Baltimore to give a public talk at MICA and meet with students. I met Rosler for lunch at Red Emma’s, a fitting space for a Democratic Socialist to dine in Baltimore.


Cara Ober: I keep seeing you described as an artist-activist and I wonder how you feel about the title. It seems like the “artist as activist” combination is really hot right now, with museums clamoring to exhibit artists who combine fine art with public programming outreach into under-served communities.

Martha Rosler: I am not alone in thinking that, especially when you’re an artist, it’s a bit crude to call yourself an activist. You have to earn that title. You don’t get to designate yourself an activist.

What is the difference between doing activist work as an artist and being an activist? You definitely have the protest chops, but this seems more about the way people self-identify in the art world and why.

To be an activist you probably have to be working intensively with a specific community and a specific issue or set of issues, specific outcomes. And if not, you’re something else. When I put together a linked series of shows on homelessness in 1989 at Dia in New York City, one of the very few critics to write about it complained that my exhibit didn’t actually lessen the problem of homelessness and I thought, what is it that you don’t understand about how the world works? I am an artist. I make art. And I was also a full-time professor. Activism is an on-going process, and it’s true that I worked with activists on that project, but one thing is certain: activists don’t expect intractable problems to be solved by an exhibition or a political campaign and certainly not in six months.

“Point and Shoot,” photomontage (2008)

It’s interesting how perception and reality around such issues seem to have nothing in common. I’m always suspicious when artists and institutions claim to be swiftly solving society’s problems.

People were surprised that I wasn’t a member of a homeless activist organization but that’s the role of activists—that’s their life. The “artist as activist” designation is different, but it includes the artist saying that they will only be a part of projects that fit certain criteria and you shouldn’t leave the word artist out of it. In the past, this dual identity was a ticket to be kicked out of the art world, so it’s interesting to see the way it’s being used today, as a special badge of honor.

And also as a selling point in the art market. It seems like the more socially conscious the work claims to be, the higher its price point. This is a huge change from 10 or 20 years ago, when couldn’t call yourself an activist, or a teacher, in order to be taken seriously.

Or have a child. God forbid, especially for a woman artist. I recently was asked to revisit an unpublished interview with a Czech woman, and her questions were all about being a woman artist, asking me did anyone question my having a child? And I have to say that back in the day, when I was a grad student, my own advisor and mentor, a prominent artist whose wife was my closest friend, told me, “You cannot be a part-time artist, and if you have a child, you’re not really an artist.” I was shocked. I was thinking, “You’re really saying this to your mentee when your wife also has a child? That’s bold.” That was in the 1970s but it hasn’t changed that much.

When I was pregnant with my son, I can’t tell you how many people asked me if I thought I would still make art. The question was everywhere, and I felt I had to preemptively prove people wrong. And for a male artist, parenthood is never a question. Nobody doubts the seriousness of a male artist or professional if they have a child.

I have an adult child, and he is a graphic novelist. No one would say to him that he isn’t really an artist because he has a daughter. He is also teaching as an adjunct at SVA, in their department of cartooning.

It must be gratifying for your son to follow in your footsteps and I admire your ability to give him his own professional space, his own name. I am wondering about your relationship with the media, especially over the years as journalism has evolved, whether it has been contentious or one of trust.

I did an interview for the New York Times in 2018, and the interviewer’s questions were interesting, but the editor framed my words to make me seem less sure of myself and my position. I’d observe that the Times engages in gotcha journalism, like they would use for a politician, where they try to use something you say against you.

The last line of the interview has me saying, “Art is puny.” And I thought, that is simply out of context. It’s what I say as a pushback against questions asking me if I think art will change the world. I often follow my deflationary remark with: “People change the world, not art…. art can only help in that effort.” Finally, the headline was “Martha Rosler Isn’t Done Making Protest Art.” Imagine saying this about a woman of color working in a similar manner. The term “protest art” is absurd and dismissive.

NYT Review photo from Martha Rosler: Irrespective review at the Jewish Museum, 2018

Lately you have been having larger museum shows and I am curious about your experiences over the past 40 years, especially since you are a woman whose work confronts uncomfortable issues, ostensibly issues some of their board members profit from.

Museum boards are a problem aren’t they? They can be toxic. The members are so much about the institution and its collecting practices.

Now I’m thinking about Hans Haacke’s work, museums where his work succeeded as institutional critique and others where it was suppressed and canceled.

Hans has long been a mentor, friend, and inspiration to me. Everyone knows, or should know, that his work, tying questionable real estate interests and other property matters to board members of the Guggenheim Museum led, in the early 1970s, to his upcoming show being canceled and his curator being fired. Some things about what art can do have changed, but not as much as we might like.

The more elite the museum in the US, the more likely for an artist to be boycotted and blacklisted for anything remotely interpretable as present-day political or social material. Hans was lucky in that he had a teaching job at Cooper Union, and was still quite welcome in Europe, because it took years for his work to be seen in the US in any major venue. But in that he wasn’t alone—many artists were simply passed over.

 What has been your own experience with museums collecting your work?

For the longest time, nobody was going to buy my work except for peripheral museums and those outside the US, and mostly European collectors, and a handful of women who collected women artists or supported their purchase for museums. At one of New York’s premier museums, a young photo curator got up at a forum and proudly proclaimed that they’d been collecting what one might call edgy work since it had been made or shown, and as an example they showed the work of an unchallenging, long-standing favorite guy. That history of the museum’s practice, in exhibiting let alone in buying, simply wasn’t true. I had to stand up and thank them for recently adding my work of 30 or 40 years earlier to their collection. Museums are telling new stories now, but it’s important not to forget their recent history of exclusiveness and king-making.

Well, at least they’re collecting it now. Does the distinction between American and European museums mirror distinctions between American and foreign artists?

In the past, you could be a foreigner doing political work as long as it wasn’t about the US and didn’t overtly fall into the category of political, and a US museum might buy it. But artists like me, and Lawrence Weiner and Joseph Kosuth, who have been making this kind of less object-based and aesthetically driven, more “stringent” work since we began, our invitations to show, and of course to be collected, have always come far more from European museums than American ones. The usual argument, in Europe at least, has always been that European museum-goers, and thus museum curators, are less put off by being asked to think.

How has your art-making process shifted in recent years?

There is often a 10- to 20-year lag in the reception of my work. I don’t think people realize this, so I have to point it out. These days, people commonly introduce me by mentioning “Semiotics of the Kitchen” [a 1975 video piece that parodies TV cooking shows] and I roll my eyes and tell them that everyone reacted negatively to that work back in the day—everyone except feminists. Men would say they were terrified by it!

Rosler in film still from “Semiotics of the Kitchen” (1975)

 What’s so scary about a woman in a kitchen? Julia Child seems well-loved to me.

It was the way I wielded the knives and the forks—and the ice pick, and the way I mimed throwing things out of the side of the frame. But really—you’re afraid of a television image? Wow. Threatening? I think they were exaggerating their responses—they were psychically wounded to have a woman wielding a knife, even if pointed downward or was not pointed at all. These were art professors, too, saying this. Effectively, my colleagues!

Your work has pushed buttons and boundaries around domestic roles for women, but it seems at the heart of it is still a desire to end war and to remind people that war is a tragedy that affects women and children, all kinds of humans, not just soldiers.

To my mind, my work is about a wider social justice than that, but our wars, certainly after the Second World War, have been simply insupportable. It’s interesting to consider what is tolerable. And there is still a time lag between the work I do before the art world in particular sees it as worth seeing. The worst characteristics of American High Modernism was its insistence on avoiding any slightest hint of engagement with the political, or even with much of the social world.

How do you get around that bias?

I decided not to show my anti-Vietnam War work in the art world. And even then, it took a long time for anyone to pay attention to it, until the war was long over. But recently, when I made the last batch about the ongoing Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the work went right into the art world, even if initially only in a few places, but that included New York.

Are your galleries supportive now of your anti-war work?

The ones I work with always have been, including my New York gallery, Mitchell-Innes & Nash. It’s even less of a question for the European ones, Galerie Nagel Draxler in Berlin and Galleria Raffaella Cortese in Milan. Originally, I had no intention of joining a gallery but then I came to realize, in the 1980s, that you were invisible without one.

Critics had become lazy and wouldn’t chase you down or find you in studios to see who was doing interesting work, which was how it had been earlier, through the 1970s, though you really did need to be located in New York. Galleries were going into MFA programs’ exhibitions, taking on artists right out of art school, and soon that became the very purpose of art school and especially graduate MFA programs. Since they could no longer offer you a tenure-track teaching position as the goal, they could promise to offer you a shot at a gallery. The 1980s gallery system changed everything.

Martha Rosler: Irrespective at the Jewish Museum in NY, 2018

Has your age made a difference in your career? I’m definitely seeing a pattern of women artists in their 60s and 70s, who have been making work all along, but suddenly being “discovered” as a living legend, and presented as such.

Galleries are great at resuscitating careers before you are dead. It’s like the starlet system in Hollywood, where women just disappear in their 40s. Except in the art world women don’t have to graduate into scary (postmenopausal) monsters to keep on being hired.

At a certain age your value in society changes, but for men it shifts in the opposite direction, and they rise to a more elevated status. You’re vulnerable to disappearance, but also hopefully wiser. Women are supposed to disappear into our private lives, then reemerge. It’s like, “Go back to your cave!” Then reemerge, as something new and different. The continuity that means experience simply doesn’t exist, so women have, if they’re lucky, two separate moments.

It does depressingly coincide with a woman’s transition from a sexy and fertile object into menopause only to be allowed back as this nonthreatening but cool grandma type. I wouldn’t mind reemerging as Louise Bourgeois at some point, though.

I don’t know if anyone had heard of Bourgeois until she was 85, which proves my point. The wider art public, the one that has nothing to do with the world of collectors, didn’t know who she was for most of her life.

I wrote about this in 1981 for Exposure magazine, the magazine of the Society for Photographic Education, comparing the buyers, dealers, and makers of art—those are the artists— with the audience for art. I was writing about who is the audience for art and who buys it—and these groups don’t quite overlap—and then what happens when photography rather suddenly becomes considered “art.”

You can see the movements of incorporation into the art system of value and attention. But the construction of the artist’s life is very different from what people imagine. People imagine an upward climb where you burst out fully formed and you jump from triumph to triumph, and of course it’s nothing like that. But for actors it has to be like that or they’re in trouble and don’t get roles, which is why women often stop acting in their 40s…

Is this when they start directing films instead?

What’s wrong with that?

Nothing. Maybe it’s more interesting. I’m thinking about you as a director now of sorts, where you are taking these images from pop culture, mixing them with feminist and anti-war ideas, and then building these series of Pop Art images, which are quite cinematic.

I am a Pop artist, but more centrally a conceptual artist. I moved from Ab-Ex painting into what I call “second nature,” the built world and images of it. And that’s Warhol’s influence, a defeat of the entire artistic paradigm of High Modernism. I knew Allan Kaprow from when I was a late teen and into my early 20s and I saw him periodically in California. About 10 years ago I was invited to do a project that consisted of a redoing of one of his works, and all of a sudden I “got it.” I understood his point about art.

What I and my California friends had always argued with Allan about was, Why do you need a mass audience, why not have a small audience?  I began to see that he was in favor of keeping it small and therefore a restricted activity, which we would certainly have called elitist, but really, what he wanted to do was help art determine how to survive as a distinct discipline, with a distinct way of thinking, despite the tidal wave of mass-market entertainment.

“Cleaning the Drapes” (c.1967-72)

If you can make a living from other sources, it’s fine to have a small but dedicated audience. This is why Baltimore is a fulfilling place to be an artist, I think.

Baltimore is like many American cities before the commercialized art world kind of spread everywhere. I have always enjoyed my periodic visits to Baltimore, to visit an art world in many ways reminiscent of my own when I was stuck in a lovely hellhole called San Diego. This was when I was in school and slightly before and after, in the ‘70s, and San Diego was basically and determinedly a military town. But as far as art was concerned, the place had nothing but us, small groups of people making art together and talking about art. There were museums of sort, but no contemporary galleries, for example, although all the colleges had something or other for displaying art, UCSD actually had a gallery.

For me, the group was the people centered on the UC campus, and within it, my world was the photo group, but the art department didn’t make a distinction between genres of production. So the San Diego art world was provincial, and that was one of its great virtues, since it permitted us to develop in ways that mattered to us without having to face the pressures of the New York-centered art world.

What was it like in the 1970s in San Diego?

I spent much of my time in grad school as a member of a feminist group, the Women’s Liberation Front, and in my department with a group of guys—until I insisted we bring a few more women in, not just me. It was informal, not a secret society, but this was because we didn’t have the pressure of some goddamn gallerist coming by, asking what is that? We didn’t care. And yet our ambition was to change the art world. Which, when you think about it that, is chutzpah.

“We don’t care what you think, but we are going to tell you what to think.” And we just went ahead because we thought we were part of a larger movement of change that was somewhere where we could hardly see it, such as in Europe, which in a sense was true. But that’s what the whole student movement thought—and certainly the feminist groups. People are forgetting what activism was like in those days. It superseded everything.

How did you support your art making if there was no economic investment?

Grad students were paid to be TAs and although the pay was a pittance, it was enough to live on when your diet is rice and beans. A couple of us were actually junior professors. Many did outside jobs, such as working on people’s films or photo shoots. Of necessity, because I had a child, I had a part-time editing job at a publishing house in the area.

Our art group, though, had no interest in or intention to sell our work. We did not expect to be rewarded by the system we were critiquing. We didn’t expect a collector to buy it. We didn’t expect a reward. We wanted to join and rebuild the system in our own way. And considering the highly restricted role of the art market at that point, it wasn’t all that ridiculous an aspiration.  After all, both Pop and its successors, such as Minimalism and more importantly conceptual art, had already done so, not to mention the way feminism was changing the terms of the system.

So you wanted to burn it all down?

Not at all! In the 1960s and even in the ‘70s, some student activists wanted to burn university files and trash professors’ offices, if they were implicated in war research, and some artists may have claimed that museums should be destroyed or dismantled, although I can’t name a single one—but I agreed with those who believed that “this is ours—our heritage.” Let’s reclaim the heritage and reclaim the space, and I still feel this is important.

By being willing to never be in that marketplace in our lifetime, we will make our world and we will tell you how our world will be. That may be pretty shocking to think about now, but that’s how it was. It was great to not chase after making a living in quite the way that people are now trained to think about as a necessity for artists—that is, through art sales. But there is a long history of artists doing other things to make ends meet.

“PHOTO-OP,” photomontage (2004)

Does this kind of thinking still have an impact your decisions about your work? In a way it places you ahead of a new wave of artists and politicians who are rethinking capitalism.

I’m a relic with a long tradition that stretches into the future. We can see this in looking at the Democratic Socialists of America, which I’ve been a member of since it was formed, in the ‘70s, when it was called the Democratic Socialists Organizing Committee, which grew out of a campus-based group called the New American Movement. Today its membership is essentially people under 25. It’s the young Democratic Socialists. The word socialism has lost its automatic stigma now, 10 years after the great economic collapse that came close to a new Great Depression, and almost 30 whole years since the fall of the Soviet Union, which has had political effects that our economic elite, the one-percenters, still haven’t quite come to terms with.

It means that young people can look very clearly at the fact that their future has been stolen from them, especially after that 2008 collapse, and are able to look back to someone even older than me—Bernie Sanders—who is from a neighborhood near mine in Brooklyn. Democratic socialism is a worldwide movement and nothing like state communism. But I am on the left edge of social democracy.

Are you a Bernie supporter?

I’m a Bernie sympathizer, yes. I shocked a lot of women around my own age attending talks I gave during the 2016 election season because of that. The question often came up. Like him, though, I voted for Clinton in the election. But despite certain rigidities that are all too apparent, they result from the fact that Bernie’s had his eye on the ball by arguing for inclusive economic justice for years. Everything else depends on that, as we enter a new Robber Baron age with a yawning social divide that must be addressed or will we lapse into a dictatorship.

Cara Ober and Martha Rosler at Red Emma’s, photo by Nate Larson

Featured Image: “Gladiators” from the House Beautiful series, 2004

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