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zingmagazine10 autumn 1999

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Cautionary Label on a plastic bottle of STP brand engine additive:

Warning Do Not Swallow

These specifically protective warning labels are a cynical indication that as we prepare to look down the business end of a new millennium, the phrase "human intelligence" 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 not immediately 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.