Jenny Holzer and “Life Issues”

Excerpt from my paper on Inflammatory Essays

Speaking on her motivation to change mediums from painting to public art, Jenny Holzer once said that “it’s not art issues that are going to compel [people] to stop on their way to lunch, it’s life issues.”[1]  In all of her work, including the piece I will be examining, Inflammatory Essays, Holzer makes life issues her focus.  She takes art out of the museum, out of the gallery, and onto the street.  While this impulse to bring art into the public sphere had been explored and enacted by many before her, Holzer’s methods and approach to challenging and destabilizing assumptions about art are unique.  She did not seek to bring so-called low art or commercial art into the realm of the museum as did pop artists, nor did she bring obscure and often inaccessible art into the streets as members of the Fluxus movement did in the United states and the Situationsists did abroad.[2] One of Holzer’s explicit aims was to make art that was both accessible and useful. [3] Holzer’s work, as exemplified in Inflammatory Essays, is blunt, to the point, and accessible to those outside of the art world, accessible in a way that the art of the Fluxus movement did not want to, or was unable to be.  While both Fluxus artists and Holzer create art with a political and activist bent, intent on destabilizing dominant and often hegemonic norms, Holzer’s series Inflammatory Essays contained various elements including bold styling and an authoritative but shifting voice that allowed it to successfully destabilize and create fissures in the ordinary lives of ordinary people walking down the streets and back-alleys of Manhattan during the series’ first life as wheat-pasted posters from 1978-1982.


[1] Auping, Michael. Jenny Holzer. New York: Universe, 1992.

[2] Foster, Hal, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin Buchloh, and David Joselit. Art

since 1900: 1945 to the present. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2004.

[3] Joselit, David, Joan Simon, Renata Salecl, and Jenny Holzer. Jenny Holzer. London: Phaidon Press, 1998

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