From the point at which I was making work out of objects I became interested in how, actually, under which circumstances people treat other people like objects. I became interested in psychopaths in particular, because they objectify people in order to manipulate them. By extension they represent the extreme embodiment of a culture's proclivities; so psychopathic behavior provides useful highlighted models to use in search of cultural norms. As does celebrity . . . I remember reading several interviews with Paul Newman where he talks about being treated like an object. Strangers want to walk up to him and prod him, vent feelings on him and knock on his surface to find out ‘who's home 1.
In recent decades, artists have delved into the media culture that has become an integral part of everyday life. Artist Cady Noland (b. 1956, Washington, D.C.) focuses on media stories that challenge the promise of the American Dream. She addresses what she sees as America's anxiety over the country's failed pledge of freedom, security, and success for all. Her work looks at aspects of the dark side of the American psyche, including the country's fascination with violence, celebrity, and abnormality. She incorporates press photographs, newspaper copy, and advertisements to comment on a culture in which the media and corporate interests distort events and objectify people. The anxious America that Noland depicts developed in part in the wake of the Vietnam War, the Kennedy assassinations, the brutal treatment of protestors at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and Watergate-events that threatened the country's image as a united, just, and invincible society.
Noland has devoted many works to antiheroes. In 1974, 19-year-old media heiress Patricia Hearst was kidnapped from her Berkeley, California, apartment by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a left-wing guerilla group. Several months later, Hearst publicly announced that she had become a member of the SLA, and soon thereafter she was photographed wielding a semi-automatic rifle while taking part in a bank robbery in San Francisco.
Noland's SLA #4 features a torn newspaper photograph of Patty Hearst and members of the SLA-her kidnappers and later comrades-standing in front of the group's symbol, a seven-headed cobra. The clipping has been enlarged, distorted, and silkscreened onto a sheet of aluminum. Silkscreen is a process associated with mass production and consumption, and by using it, the artist asks the viewer to look closely at the media and to question the power it holds over the American public.
Noland examines American culture, focusing on the public's interest in violence and the mass media's transformation of criminals into celebrities. For her, this phenomenon is a symptom of how American culture objectifies individuals for purposes of mass amusement.
1 "Cady Noland" (interview by Michèle Cone), Journal of Contemporary Art .
- Show: SLA #4, 1990
What do you notice about SLA #4? Create two lists. On the first, list all the things that you can identify. On the second, include all the things that are puzzling or difficult to decipher about this work. Which list is longer? What questions do you have?
- In order to understand this work, it is helpful to know something about the event that Noland is referencing. Television news reports following the 1974 story of Patty Hearst’s abduction are archived at MSNBC‘s Web site. Hearst’s kidnapping and the events that followed became a major news story and commanded the attention of the America people. Why do you think this story was so compelling?
- Now that you know more about the events that this work alludes to, what questions from your lists can you answer? Which are still puzzling?
- Today, with vast expansion of media and communications, events as varied as the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the deaths of celebrities such as Princess Diana and Michael Jackson have the ability to become traumatic on a global scale. Is there an event that you found out about through the media that affected you? What was it? How did it affect you? As a class, create a list of these events, then discuss the pros and cons of having instantaneous and pervasive media.
- Do you believe there are times when violence is justified, even positive, or do you believe that resorting to violence is always negative? Debate this subject in class, with students gathering support for one side of the issue or the other.