D. ward writes about an art installation around Taos Plaza that disrupts traffic—and the flow of capitalist desires.
When German philosopher Theodor Adorno famously declared that “after Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric,” he did not—despite what some may want to believe when quoting out of context—mean that art should be canceled after the Holocaust. Yet it appeared almost in direct response to this misreading when, taking a leisurely stroll through Taos Plaza on a warm Sunday afternoon last fall, I stumbled upon a sticker reading “art cannot be cancelled” on the back of a stop sign. The scene set by this sticker was enriched further when I looked back from the front of the plaza and observed that this was not a stop sign at all; it was a dream sign—in every way identical to a stop sign but reading “dream” instead of “stop.” I then noticed several of the supposed traffic signs around the plaza had positive affirmations on them: “start,” “receive,” “you are enough,” and so on. Maybe I’m just a wet blanket, but when I realized that this new take on “Live, Laugh, Love” was in fact a piece of public art, it occurred to me that maybe some art should be canceled.
As it turns out, the “art cannot be cancelled” sticker was referring to a specific kind of cancellation: cancellation of events due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. “Art Cannot Be Cancelled!” was a COVID-safe drive-thru component of the annual 2020 Paseo outdoor art festival in downtown Taos, an attempt to not let art be defeated by concerns over public health. (Ironically enough, the 2021 Paseo festival was canceled due to rising coronavirus risks.) Meanwhile, another larger conversation about cancellation in the Artworld-Industrial Complex was occurring, with Instagram accounts such as @cancelartgalleries and @changethemuseum gaining national attention in the summer of 2020 for sharing employees’ stories of discrimination, exploitation, and abuse at the hands of art institutions. In both cases, each addressing a human cost associated with the production of mass-consumable art, we may prefer another Adorno quote:
If the nineteenth-century connoisseur only stayed for one act of opera, partly for the barbaric reason that he would allow no spectacle to shorten his dinner, barbarism has now reached a point, the possibility of escape to a dinner being cut off, where it cannot stuff itself full enough of culture. Every program must be sat through to the end, every best-seller read, every film seen in its first flush in the top Odeon. The abundance of commodities indiscriminately consumed is becoming calamitous.
In Adorno’s endlessly producing, endlessly consuming image of the culture industry, perhaps what one needs is a stop sign. Afforded the plausible deniability of bland platitudes, the art installation around Taos Plaza can disrupt traffic, the flow of capitalist desires. What’s interesting about the traffic signs is that without reading them, these art objects function as actual traffic signs. In fact, perpendicular to the two rows of fake signs around the plaza are two actual stop signs governing traffic, fully integrating the false signs into active traffic patterns. You might have stopped three times driving around Taos Plaza until realizing you weren’t meant to stop at all, but to live. A do-not-enter sign halfway down a street may give you that unsettling feeling of going the wrong way, when it’s really telling you to “celebrate mistakes.” Imagine a “Live, Laugh, Love” highway obstruction so major that it tanks financial markets for the day.1
This is wishful thinking, of course, but there is something satisfying about seeing these little niceties disrupt the economics of everyday living. Capitalism’s barbaric tendency to mask its barbarism in reproductions of the Same has been turned in a tiny way against itself, canceling itself out in the process. The dream sign creates a negative space in this process and invites us to stop inside.