Jenny Holzer Boiled It All Down (So You Don’t Have To)

As I sit up in bed, my wife asleep next to me and Une Femme Est Une Femme playing on the TV, I was struck with the desire to share with you all one of my favorite pieces of art – Jenny Holzer‘s Truisms.

I became aware of Holzer’s piece a few ago watching the documentary HELVETICA, when Stefan Sagmeister is speaking in the 50th minute and a set of posters hang behind him – plain white sheets with a set of short phrases on them:

SAGMEISTER-TRUISMSThough I couldn’t make any of the phrases out at first, a few moments later there is a closer shot of Sagmeister where I could read some of the phrases: “DECENCY IS A RELATIVE THING”, “GOVERNMENT IS A BURDEN ON THE PEOPLE”, “HIDING YOUR MOTIVES IS DESPICABLE”, “HUMOR IS A RELEASE”.  If anyone had ever tried to tell me any of these things individually, I hadn’t been in the right place to be able to understand it, yet I paused the movie and read all the phrases I could, I let them sink in and got a sense of the truth behind them.  Good Lord, I thought, I need those posters!!!  After not-too-much research, I learned that I could not afford the posters since they were reprints of a piece of artwork entitled Truisms by one Jenny Holzer.  I learned more about the piece as well…

The project began as a series of posters that Holzer would put up around New York City in the 1970s, mimicking Manhattan’s ubiquitous wheat-paste advertisements for perfume and Hollywood movies. The project evolved into a number of variations using scrolling-text LED displays, similarly minimal to the posters but updating the physical medium while keeping her true medium – words – at the center, allowing the message’s seeming-anonymity to exploit the same omniscience/omnipresence of ads/news-tickers.   When I found the following video, I was particularly impressed by the way that the scrolling text commanded my attention and caused me to have to really work in order to read the phrases in a way that a poster do not:

Further learning about the project revealed that Holzer has produced her Truisms on movie theatre marquees, Times Square billboards, t-shirts, plaques, benches, and more.  While I am impressed by Holzer’s formal innovation in regards to her message, what I truly love about Truisms is the buck-the-status-quo message inherent in all of the individual “truisms”, which are not “truisms” by Merriam-Webster’s definition: “a true statement that is very commonly heard”.  Holzer’s phrases are encouraging to me as someone who loves art/creativity (and one is informed by a long history of Marxist and “social gospel” thought) and I found myself reading through them and feeling a kindred spirit in the work.  More importantly I was thankful that Holzer’s piece has been presented many times over the years, in many cities, in many iterations – I love remembering that human beings all over the world need to reminders that Holzer offers.  The contradiction of placing personal thoughts/beliefs in the public sphere and imitating the commercial/news culture that dominates our world is such a fascinating form of vulnerability, even going so far as to attract those people who are not actually seeking out art.

I think the world would become a more creative and peaceful place if people would see/read the phrases in Truisms (and look into Holzer’s other work as well), consider them, and – hopefully – relate to them and/or apply them their life. [Please do not be turned off by Holzer’s feminist- and Marxist-leanings. Perhaps they are the things we most need to hear.]
If you would like to read through all of Truisms on your own, the following website has them listed:
Jenny Holzer’s TRUISMS.

I hope you enjoy them and feel the same sense challenge/comp.
(Also, expect selections of Truisms to show up often on this site.)

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