In today's world, artists are free to pretty much create any image they like, so long as they are willing to devote the time, energy, and nominal cost of supplies to the effort. Thus art today can be VERY personal provided the artist has no need to please the public in terms of sales. However it's when artists must rely on the approval of others in order to survive that they begin to either direct their efforts, or restrain their efforts in various ways in order to sell their work. Pleasing ONE art buyer however is relatively easy compared to the difficulties encountered in trying to please MANY art buyers as in PUBLIC ART, that is, art projects commissioned by tax-supported institutions for public places. Here, when public tastes in art is mixed with politics and social contexts, the artist can almost literally be pulled apart by the various crosscurrents involved.
About 1970, as an undergraduate in a painting course at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, I met an attractive young girl of about 20, (some five years younger than myself) who was also a student in the same class. Her name was Jenny Holzer. Like me, she was a product of southeastern Ohio, having been born in raised near Pomroy where the name Holzer is closely associated with her family's Holzer Medical Center. Had it not been for this I might not have remembered her. Today, her name is synonymous with public art, and remarkably, she has trod the fine line of creative excellence and public approval with a surprising degree of grace and profound insight. While other artist paint murals involving relatively safe public subjects like local history, patriotism, or community pride, Jenny's forte has been not public pictures but public WORDS.
Influenced by readings by Neo-Conceptualists she set out to translate and condense these meandering musings into what she called Truisms. She compiled theses ideas into what we could know today as sound bytes, suited to the two-second attention span of many modern Americans. She then alphabetized them by subject and plastered them in the form of posters all over her neighborhood. Confounding the bon mot that a picture was worth a thousand words, she set out to prove that a few well-chosen words might be worth a thousand pictures. At the Guggenheim, her words wound up Frank Lloyde Wright's famous inclined gallery reaching an ever wider and wider audience. As her reputation grew she moved up to electronic signs in Times Square where her words shouted "PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT." Today, it give me great satisfaction to be able to say, "I knew her when..."