We all know Nirvana, the band from Aberdeen, Washington who brought grunge to the masses. Comprised of singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl, Nirvana voiced an entire generation’s angst and frustration.
But did you know that in this picture, in all its angst-ridden glory, Nirvana is actually posing with a work of art?
That’s right. Throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s, an art movement dubbed Appropriation was becoming more and more prevalent. Though diverse, Appropriation includes repurposing images that are already created for a different artistic purpose or playing with the way art is communicated.
Artist Jenny Holzer was fascinated with the latter, including the ways that large institutions aggressively advertise. Her collection of work called Truisms appropriates the large-scale “language” and medium of most advertisements. Holzer would take a one-line aphorism and place it somewhere in the public eye where one would usually expect to see an advertisement, such as billboards and theater marquees. In 1982 she obtained permission to use what was then the Spectacolor Board in Times Square and broadcasted snappy remarks such as “Private property created crime” and, in wonderfully ironic fashion, “Protect me from what I want.”
In her Survival series, Holzer did likewise, but with more messages regarding sexism and sexual violence. One of these was Men Don’t Protect You Anymore, broadcast on New York’s Liberty Theater marquee. And who should come across it but Nirvana?
The result is several pictures of the band together as well as Cobain alone posing with Holzer’s work. As flippant as Nirvana could be, odds are they probably really dug Holzer’s bluntness. Cobain, at least, must have found Holzer’s work more than intriguing, as he was constantly disgusted and frustrated by the sexism and sexual violence he saw in society, as evidenced by songs like “Polly.”
By placing her work in the public eye, Holzer aimed to spark reactions and discussion. And this piece has done just that, becoming iconic in its own right.
Check out a complete list of works in Jenny Holzer’s “Truisms” and “Survival” series here!