Do we all have status anxiety?

A sentence, for Jenny Holzer, isn’t about stating the obvious. It can be an arbiter of hidden meaning. It can declare unspoken rules. The legendary artist, who grew up in Ohio, is best known for Truisms, a sequence of maxims—money creates taste, abuse of power comes as no surprise—that appeared in the late 1970s. They were printed cheaply and affixed to billboards and shopfronts in New York City.

To make Untitled, a work from her 1980-82 Living series, she embraced the plaque: a symbol of authority associated with government buildings and cultural landmarks. You can watch people align themselves when trouble is in the air. Some people prefer to be close to the top and others prefer to be close to the bottom. It’s a question of who frightens them more and who they want to be like.

In a few sentences, Holzer depicts the world as a place where a capacity to survive depends less on individual strength and more on your social allegiances. Or, put simply, who you side with in times of crisis and why.

Untitled will show in June as part of Namedropping at the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) in Hobart. The exhibition explores the pursuit of status. Jane Clark, Mona’s senior research curator, tells me that the show builds on ideas raised during the 2016 exhibition On the Origin of Art. It suggests that the urge to look good in the eyes of others might be rooted less in the culture than in biological instinct: the desire for sex, a need for social protection.

Jenny Holzer, Untitled, from the Living series, 1980–82, enamel on metal, 53.5 x 58.5 cm. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Copyright: Jenny Holzer. Image courtesy National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

It is interested in how objects possess intrinsic qualities that render them desirable. This, the exhibition argues, is by no means fixed. Among the 200 works in the show, there are pieces by Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol, references to the Centre Pompidou, Alexander the Great, Marilyn Monroe: markers of status that are legible to almost anyone. Then there are pieces that speak to the ways that status is governed by a changing world. It includes the likes of Carl Andre, Chuck Close and Donald Friend. The men of recent art history that have come, post #MeToo, to symbolise individual abuses of power rather than symptoms of a system that protects the powerful, working precisely as it was designed to.

On show, there’s Darren Sylvester’s Filet-o-Fish, 2017, a sculpture that recalls a sleek chaise longue, the kind you would find in a psychologist’s office. It’s covered in a pattern that recalls the McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish packaging the artist loved as a child. In Sylvester’s work, the low and highbrow blur. We are what we consume. Katy Perry famously draped herself over Filet-o-Fish, posting the image to Instagram at the 2018 Melbourne Art Fair. In the age of the celebrity endorsement, the personal brand, status is increasingly about a proximity to fame. In the attention economy, when your livelihood is linked to how visible you are, there’s no such thing, really, as selling out.

1977 Holden Torana (LX) SLR 5000 A9X Sedan (a hotted-up Torana). Private collection, Hobart. Image courtesy Museum of Old and New Art. Photo credit: Jesse Hunniford.

Namedropping also features a hotted-up Holden Torana, a car associated with working-class aspiration. It’s preceded by a campaign in which its make and model are emblazoned on the floor of Bondi’s Icebergs pool, the habitat of Sydney’s moneyed influencers. The point, beautifully made, is that how we confer status is a consequence of class and money and taste. This, of course, is worth deconstructing—especially in an art world, as Phoebe Cripps argues in a 2023 Vittles essay about the scourge of the gallery dinner, shaped not just by social hierarchy but by a self-congratulatory belief in its own progressive credentials.

Among the highlights of Namedropping is Simon Denny’s Power Vest 6, 2020, a puffer vest—the unofficial uniform of tech bros in Silicon Valley—alongside scarves once owned by Margaret Thatcher, who helped shape neoliberal economics as we know it. It’s astute and darkly funny.

Simon Denny, Power Vest 6, 2020, Scarf formerly owned by Margaret Thatcher, Patagonia M’s Down Sweater Vest parts, down sourced from second hand San Francisco garments, Ripstop nylon, Salesforce and Quip embroidered logos, wood, glass, photo paper, cardboard, 124 x 143 x 12 cm. Museum of Old and New Art. Copyright: Simon Denny. Image courtesy the artist.

Chasing status, as Namedropping argues, might be part of human nature. But what happens when the willingness to critically reflect on social standing itself accrues a kind of cultural capital? Today the traditional signifiers of status—champagne, private jets—read as gauche at least without a public disclaimer, as if to distance yourself from privilege, you simply have to acknowledge it.

Yet inequality is also entrenched not just by the pursuit of status but by the performance of status. What happens when the way status is referenced or pulled apart obfuscates material reality, creating the illusion of a playing field that’s even? We see this, for example, in the way that the rhetoric of diversity and inclusion employed by so many galleries and cultural institutions is undercut by structures that are inhospitable to people from marginalised backgrounds. Or in that charade in which working-class artists juggle multiple jobs to pay rent while, as Cripps puts it, salaried curators and collectors enjoy post-show dinners at dumpling bars to prove that they really are egalitarian.

But what happens when the willingness to critically reflect on social standing itself accrues a kind of cultural capital?

On social media, where we are all our best advertisements, how we perform our status is also how we perform ourselves. Proof of our moral compass. The way we telegraph our values to the world rather than its most shallow measure.

Namedropping launches with a gala, open for the first time to the public. Tickets are $400. A proportion of the price will be donated to charities. We all want to look good in the eyes of others. But if we owe our status to looking good in the eyes of others rather than being good when nobody’s looking, what should we do with our namedropping then?

Museum of Old and New Art

15 June—21 April 2025

This article was originally published in the May/June 2024 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Feature Words by Neha Kale