“Protect me from what I want.” A pithy, almost reactionary statement for our time, acknowledging a certain overindulgence, an excess. What we want is simply too much. Such are the messages behind the truisms of the American conceptual artist Jenny Holzer. Truisms, statements or propositions that are self-evident and need no argumentation to prove their truth, lay at the core of Holzer’s work. From the above truism alone, it’s obvious that Holzer has no taste for excess, and so she eschews all but the most minimal in her work—the most minimal medium being that of text. She sticks to: text on buildings, LED screens, billboards, plaques, and benches; text that’s, illuminated, and printed; text that is, in a rare example, the focal point of artwork.
And what is the point, one would ask, of making art consisting entirely of text? A casual observer may comment—while obviously generalizing—that contemporary art happens to take on a whole manner of forms, whether it’s performance or painting or photography, but it’s always visual at heart, not verbal. But this is where the observer is wrong.
The visual and the verbal is a false dichotomy. There’s no necessity to separate the two; in fact, Holzer’s work shows that both can be one. Words often have as much value in their visual representation as in their semantic content. Presented to the public, as Holzer’s work is, words have the ultimacy something purely visual may not. There’s a reason, after all, why most signs we use in our everyday lives for civic governance are never merely images. The images are always paired with text in order to provide authority.
It’s exactly this political element that Holzer seeks to use in her Truisms. These statements offer an authority that purely visual art could arguably not muster. In their self-evidence, they have a singular, ultimate impact on the viewer, one that leaves the viewer without the ambivalence some art provokes, and instead with some level of certainty.
The nature of this certainty is what is meant to provoke the viewer, as all art must in some way be a provocation. When Holzer presents a truism such as, “Much was decided before you were born,” there is an immediate certainty in the mind of the viewer. The viewer can immediately take it for granted. Take also, for example, this truism of a subtle cynicism: “Ideals are replaced by conventional goals at a certain age.” This is also something any viewer can read and immediately take for granted, as if it’s one of the many notions unconsciously stamped in our psyches.
Herein lies the effect of Holzer’s art. By presenting one with such truisms–truisms that are accepted as truisms for they fit the criteria of being self-evident and immediately ascertainable—Holzer makes us question why. Why is it that we accept these statements as self-evident truths over others? Why, when reading something like, “Fathers often use too much force”—something that is not supported by any objective fact—do we feel a jarring certainty? In this way, by making us uncertain about what we’re certain of, Holzer shows herself to be a refiner and supporter of the skeptical, cynical, yet mindful sensibility–exactly the sort of sensibility one must have in order to navigate today’s world of excess, in order to “Protect [ourselves] from what [we] want.”