Art Sheds Light on Reality

One of the highlights of my trip to New York was an excellent exhibit at the Met looking at Andy Warhols influence on artist that came after him. I was introduced to an artist I had not heard of before named Hans Haacke. His art is bold and political and unapologetic and I think I love him. Hi works look like everyday pictures or objects at first glance but when you take a closer look, you get the real story. This is one of the reasons I love it so much. So often, things are not what they appear to be on the surface and we don't know what's going on unless we stop to take a closer look.

This was the case with the piece that left the biggest impression on me. At first glance it looks like an ad from a 70's women's magazine. It has a picture of a beautiful woman with beautiful hair - just like the Breck ads from the 70's with the picture of the beautiful girl and the text underneath telling you who she is, what she likes to do, and how she keeps her hair so shiny and gorgeous. But the text underneath this picture was a little different. It told the story of how the parent company of Breck, American Cyanamid, used chemicals in their plants that were believed to be dangerous to fetal development. Did AC stop using the chemicals when they learned about this? No. They launched what they called 'The Fetal Protection Policy'. Under this policy, women were not hired to work in that area and those that were already there, were given a choice. They could quit, they could move to a lower paying job in another department, or they could be voluntarily sterlized and continue to work there. No Hans Haacke and I are not making this up. This really happened. Five women who worked there chose to be sterilized because they believed it was the only way to keep their job.

What's even more bizarre than the fact that this actually happened is that both American Cyanamid and a federal judge seemed to think this was all hunky dory. AC presented the policy as if they were champions of women's health and choice because they were offering them options to keep them safe from the hazardous chemicals. 13 woman pursued charges alleging that the policy has violated the civil right act. In 1984, a judge sided with AC saying that it do not violate their right because they were offered a choice, they were not forced to do anything. Great, what a choice! Do I want to feed my family and give up my chance of having more kids and risk complications from sterilization or do I want to lose my job or take a lower paying job, keep my uterus and struggle to pay my rent?

In 1991, the US Supreme Court finally ruled that this choice did not constitute an actual choice and that policy was a violation of the women's civil rights. Unfortunately, that ruling came 13 years too late for the women affected.