Cady Noland: Death, Publicity, and Politics
"Violence used to be part of life in America and had a positive reputation. . . . There was a kind of righteousness about violence—the break with England, fighting for our rights, the Boston Tea Party. Now, in our culture, there is one official social norm—and acts of violence, expressions of dissatisfaction are framed in atomized view as being ‘abnormal.’"
[“Cady Noland” (interview by Michèle Cone), Journal of Contemporary Art, http://www.jca-online.com/noland.html [accessed January 25, 2010].)
Since the early 1960s, 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 our 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.
Cady 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, Noland asks the viewer to look closely at the media and to question the power it holds over the American public. She emphasizes the complicated nature of the situation by using polished aluminum as the ground for the work, so that the viewer faces his or her own reflection alongside the image of Hearst and the SLA, forcing one to see oneself as implicated in the situation. Noland examines American culture, focusing on the public’s interest in violence and the mass media’s transformation of criminals into celebrities. For Noland, this perverted process is a symptom of how American culture objectifies individuals for purposes of mass amusement.
- What do you notice? 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 http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/32089504/ns/dateline_nbcnewsmakers/. 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?
- Cady Noland’s work has focused on other events rooted in the 1960s
and ’70s that forced Americans to consider the discrepancy between the
professed and actual values of their society, including:
- the Vietnam War era (1964–75)
- the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald (1963)
- the brutal treatment of protestors at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago
- the Watergate scandal (1972–74)
- SLA #4 focuses on events that happened in 1974. In the ensuing
decades, media influence has grown exponentially. What current event
has challenged your previously held beliefs and made you reevaluate
your assumptions? Write an essay about that media story and what about
it made you question your own beliefs.
- Read Noland’s quote at the beginning of this resource unit. 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.