Hans Haacke: Financial and Symbolic Capital

Updated: Jun 12, 2020

An analysis of the early work of Hans Haacke.

There is an irrevocable link between artistic and financial landscapes. Although ideally artists and the making of art should be untouched by wealth and sponsors, like everything in the world money rules all major decisions and practices. What is shown in popular museums, what is censored, and who is paid attention to is often decided by the people whose pockets are full. Taking a look at the MoMA’s list of sponsors, associates and benefactors now, one recognizes most names as companies, banks or corporations. Though this association has been apparent since the beginning of the art trade, there have also been artists and their supporters who have stood against this commercialization of art and who expose and criticize it through an array of media. To go against institutions or enormous companies often results in an artist’s work no longer being displayed in museums widely visited by the public. This ostracization makes it difficult if not impossible for certain artists to live off their art, particularly those whose intent is to reveal the corporate influence on major museums. 

One of the most significant artists who incorporates criticism in his installations and pieces is Hans Haacke. Through an unrelenting objection to the way money is correlated with art, Haacke has built a name for himself that is often associated with the cancellation and banning of his work. At one of his first installations at the MoMA -- where he displayed a poll that museum goers answered regarding the political stance of one of the museum’s major donors -- he established himself as an artist committed to institutional critique. Haacke has executed a great number of solo and collaborative shows, and according to his website has never bent to the expectations set up by a sponsor or curator. Through pieces that usually involve reworking printed material, Haacke draws attention to the intersection of popular art and wealthy companies or donors. 

Though he started out collaborating with a group of international artists called Zero during the 1950s in Germany, Haacke moved on to solo projects after he moved to New York City in the 1960s and continues working to this day. Throughout these years, he has focused his art on the exchange of wealth between museums and corporations and those corporations’ leaders. Haacke has been clear in his intention to demystify this arrangement by saying, "what we have here is a real exchange of capital: financial capital on the part of the sponsors and symbolic capital on the part of the sponsored." (Bourdieu, P. and H. Haacke, Free Exchange, Stanford University Press, 1995). Haacke’s art combats this idea, approaching it from a variety of angles and materials, which has resulted in a vast body of work.

 After studying his impressive oeuvre, I chose to focus my analysis on one of Haacke’s later pieces. In 1990, Haacke reworked a drawing by Picasso from 1912 called “Head of Man with a Hat,” an early example of simple cubism. Haacke drew a cigarette in the man’s mouth and pasted on portions of Philip Morris documents, transforming the original painting into an advertisement for cigarettes and calling it “Cowboy with Cigarette.” Haacke’s motive for this piece was to highlight Philip Morris’s support of MoMA’s exhibition, Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism. With this piece he criticized the cigarette company’s involvement and implied that they were pursuing this support not out of their admiration for Picasso’s work or art in general, but the symbolic capital the company would receive by being associated with Picasso and the MoMA. Slight changes and implications in “Cowboy with Cigarette” illustrate his critique. 

 The two pieces appear almost identical, but upon closer examination one sees that where Picasso painted blocks of color, Haacke has added documents in a similar color, in order to match the original. This makes the piece recognizable as Picasso, an aspect I believe Haacke desired, so as to convey the sense that the famous artist was collaborating with Phillip Morris to endorse cigarettes. The documents are press clippings from a tobacco-related meeting detailing how to increase their sales. The drawing of a cigarette is simple, yet clear and familiar as a cigarette always is. Creating a hybridization between the prominent artist and a highly profit-driven company explores how art can be tied to the financial support of mass corporations. 

Haacke’s work is still relevant today and many of his early pieces are now being shown again; for example, his installation News from 1969 was featured at SFMoMA in March, 2018. The very places that turned down his artwork during his early life now understand that it is crucial that many perspectives, even critical ones, be expressed in art. To censor or ban such expression results in a diminished range of artists who can provide necessary outlooks on life. This in turn results in a public that is not aware of what artists receive exposure and why. The question that remains is whether art that is widely shown in cultural institutions can ever evade corporate reach. 

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