Encryption code as art?

What was the Whitney Museum thinking when it mounted Laura Poitras’ installation “Astro Noise” featuring extracts of NSA’s encrypted surveillance program uncovered by whistleblower Edward Snowden? What are classified cypher texts doing on art museum walls? Where’s the art connection in striped and curved lines that look like after-images of crop dusting spray?

Poitras won an Oscar for her documentary about Snowdenlast year. Apparently, she felt the need to mine the leaks for more kudos.

What’s next, Laura, a line of shower curtains patterned with more classified material?

As if anticipating the question, she spoke to the press about one of her exhibit examples this way: “This is not just an abstract painting. It’s a communication from an Israeli drone flying over the occupied territories and then it has a very interesting subtext.”

You could have fooled me, Laura. If “Astro Noise” is meant to look sinister, it doesn’t. It looks too balanced, too benign. Given that your subject is the stuff of subterfuge, one may wonder why “Data Feed with Doppler Tracks from a Satellite Interception 2009” has the look of Joan Miro’s elegant and elusive painting “Blue II” made in 1961.

Or why “Anarchist: Power Spectrum Display from a Satellite Interception 2009” resemble the handsome post-painterly abstractions of Richard Lohse’s “Fifteen Systemic Color Scales Merging Vertically” from the ‘50's and ‘60's?

It’s not that the Snowden data isn’t of vital public interest. But, it’s not an art experience or shouldn’t be. Evidence of a spy program is not some lemon to make lemon juice out of.

If you’re trying to raise consciousness about government excesses, should your evidence be so winsome?

I’m not asking for something as ghastly as Eric Fischl’s sculpture “Tumbling Woman,” his tribune to those who leaped to their deaths from the crumbling WTC. Clearly there’s such a thing as too forthright. The sculpture had to be uninstalled from Rockefeller Center by public demand. But even abstract imagery about bad things needs to carry the message.

Not that Poitras’ effort is the only example of hateful things made attractive in art. I’m thinking of Theodore Gericault’s “The Raft of the Medusa” – a description of the dead and dying drifting on a makeshift raft after losing their ship. The composition is so ordered, so harmonious that the tragedy doesn’t readily come to mind. Peter Paul Rubens painted men attacking women in the “Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus” in such an ebullient and sensual way that it comes across as fun. That’s certainly how Kerry Downes, a British authority on Rubens, saw it when he tagged the painting a "romance, not, violence.”

In the end, if we subtract the criminal act of spilling state secrets from the Whitney Museum exhibition, and if we forget that the state keeps secrets, what we’re left with are images resembling those in paintings made more than half a century ago.

We’re left with derivative art -- hardly museum fare.

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