labels are a cynical indication that as we prepare to
look down the business end of a new millennium, the phrase "human
might yet be considered an oxymoron . What else can we
think when a smiley-face pool toy bears the solemn injunction, "Not
a lifesaving device"? Huh? Did somebody's child have to drown
to get that piece
of wisdom printed on an inflatable vinyl toy?
It bears mentioning
that two erstwhile science-types created (several years
ago, actually) a warning label list that is, perhaps, more appropriate
for these millennial times, and certainly less apt to run
afoul of truth-in-advertising laws.The very presence of warning
labels is an explicit
sign of the paternal authoritarian construct that
undergirds our Western world-view: God as the Eye in the Sky, the
protective father watching over the Garden. Have a great time, kids,
just say no to those bright red apples on that ol' Tree of Life.
But we want that apple, even when we know its not good for us.
So far, so good. The stumbling block comes when someone bites the
apple, then looks around, and say, "D'oh! I didn't know this
was one of THOSE
apples!" It used to be that if you stumbled as you
crossed someone's lawn, it was considered twice your fault: once
for walking on someone else's yard, and twice for not watching your
step. Now the Mad Hatters of liability have inverted this picture:
you are at liberty
to sue the yard owner, both for not fencing off the
yard, and not keeping it smooth and level, so that clubfooted trespassers
would be less likely to trip. The big settlements of corporate
liability lawsuits has spawned a lucrative market for litigants
of every type - and that courts continue to hold in the defendant's
favor in extreme cases is a sign of the infectious, even
viral nature of this warped thinking. Behind every weird warning
label lies a specific
lawsuit, against future occurrences of which the
manufacturer hopes to inoculate themselves. Just like other viruses,
though, bad thinking will mutate and recur in some new variation.
What is especially pernicious about this trend is that it
reinforces a skewed perception of public and private responsibility.
A successful litigation
based on wacky logic extends the possibility of
wacky logic to every potential user of the device. (Gee, how was
I to know I shouldn't eat this laser printer toner? It didn't say
anything about that on the box!) Now manufacturers have been made
liable for everyone's deficient life skills, and with each new
court settlement, we can see the hammer fall on the art world.
By extending the confused
interpretation and application of liability law
to the realm of ideas, mainstream culture expects "art"
and the "art
world" to stay within a relatively predictable topography,
bounded by the
consistent manufacture, labeling and packaging of products
for the art consumer. The art world thus becomes a culture pet,
an industry of safety, and runs the risk only of diminishing the
majority of art transactions to ritual exchanges of unsurprising
goods. The dark
strain of iconoclastic Puritanism that runs deep in
American culture is yet deeply suspicious of anything that does
confess a practical use; hence the dour pragmatism of
the politically prescribed art menu: make art that is uplifting,
healthy, and that
depicts noble virtue.