Catalogue entry

Jenny Holzer born 1950

T03959 Truisms 1984

Programmed electronic display sign made of metal and plastic 169 x 1539 x 162 (6 5/16 x 60 5/8 x 6 3/8)
Not inscribed
Presented by the Patrons of New Art through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1985
Prov: Purchased by the Patrons of New Art from Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York 1985
Lit: Friends of the Tate Gallery Report 1984-5, 1985, p.15, repr.; Jeanne Siegel, ‘Jenny Holzer's Language Games', Art Bulletin, vol.60, no.4, 1985, pp.65-8; Bruce Ferguson, ‘Wordsmith: An Interview with Jenny Holzer', in Jenny Holzer: Signs, exh. cat., Des Moines Art Centre, 1986, pp.67-9, repr. p.75 (another version); John Howell, ‘Jenny Holzer: The Message is the Medium', Art News, vol.87 no.6, 1988, pp.125-6

T03959 is a commercially obtainable electronic display sign that the artist has programmed to display a series of statements taking the form of aphorisms or slogans.

Holzer wrote the statements used in the poster and electronic display works that make up the ‘Truisms' series in the years 1977-9. In all there are nearly three hundred of these aphorisms. They have never all been included in any one work and some exist in different versions. Holzer has recently published a list of over two hundred and seventy of these ‘Truisms' in [Brian Wallis (ed.)], Blasted Allegories: An Anthology of Writings by Contemporary Artists, New York 1987, pp.103-111. T03959 displays a partial selection of statements from this list with a few additions and some slight changes of phrasing. The memory of the electronic sign, which has a capacity of approximately 15,000 characters and commands, limited the amount of material that could be included. It was because the machine's memory could not hold the full text of ‘Truisms' that the artist chose to exclude the first and last sections, beginning A-D and S-Y. The messages displayed by T03959 are as follows:

CHANGE IS VALUABLE WHEN THE OPPRESSED BECOME TYRANTS
CHASING THE NEW IS DANGEROUS TO SOCIETY
CHILDREN ARE THE CRUELEST OF ALL
CHILDREN ARE THE HOPE OF THE FUTURE
CLASS ACTION IS A NICE IDEA WITH NO SUBSTANCE
CLASS STRUCTURE IS AS ARTIFICIAL AS PLASTIC
CONFUSING YOURSELF IS A WAY TO STAY HONEST
CRIME AGAINST PROPERTY IS RELATIVELY UNIMPORTANT
DECADENCE CAN BE AN END IN ITSELF
DECENCY IS A RELATIVE THING
DEPENDENCE CAN BE A MEAL TICKET
DESCRIPTION IS MORE VALUABLE THAN METAPHOR
DEVIANTS ARE SACRIFICED TO INCREASE GROUP SOLIDARITY
DISGUST IS THE APPROPRIATE RESPONSE TO MOST SITUATIONS
DISORGANISATION IS A KIND OF ANESTHESIA
DON'T PLACE TOO MUCH TRUST IN EXPERTS
DON'T RUN PEOPLE'S LIVES FOR THEM
DRAMA OFTEN OBSCURES THE REAL ISSUES
DREAMING WHILE AWAKE IS A FRIGHTENING CONTRADICTION
DYING AND COMING BACK GIVES YOU CONSIDERABLE PERSPECTIVE
DYING SHOULD BE AS EASY AS FALLING OFF A LOG
EATING TOO MUCH IS CRIMINAL
ELABORATION IS A FORM OF POLLUTION
EMOTIONAL RESPONSES ARE AS VALUABLE AS INTELLECTUAL RESPONSES
ENJOY YOURSELF BECAUSE YOU CAN'T CHANGE ANYTHING ANYWAY
ENSURE THAT YOUR LIFE STAYS IN FLUX
EVEN YOUR FAMILY CAN BETRAY YOU
EVERY ACHIEVEMENT REQUIRES A SACRIFICE
EVERYONE'S WORK IS EQUALLY IMPORTANT
EVERYTHING THAT'S INTERESTING IS NEW
EXCEPTIONAL PEOPLE DESERVE SPECIAL CONCESSIONS
EXPIRING FROM LOVE IS BEAUTIFUL BUT STUPID
EXPRESSING ANGER IS NECESSARY
EXTREME BEHAVIOR HAS ITS BASIS IN PATHOLOGICAL PSYCHOLOGY
EXTREME SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS LEADS TO PERVERSION
FAITHFULNESS IS A SOCIAL NOT A BIOLOGICAL LAW
FAKE OR REAL INDIFFERENCE IS A POWERFUL PERSONAL WEAPON
FATHERS OFTEN USE TOO MUCH FORCE
FEAR IS THE GREATEST INCAPACITATOR
FREEDOM IS A LUXURY NOT A NECESSITY
GO ALL OUT IN / ROMANCE / AND LET THE CHIPS FALL WHEREVER
GOOD DEEDS EVENTUALLY ARE REWARDED
GOVERNMENT IS A BURDEN ON THE PEOPLE
GRASS ROOTS AGITATION IS THE ONLY HOPE
GUILT AND SELF-LACERATION ARE INDULGENCES
HABITUAL CONTEMPT DOESN'T REFLECT A FINER SENSIBILITY
HIDING YOUR MOTIVES IS DESPICABLE
HOLDING BACK PROTECTS YOUR VITAL ENERGIES
HUMANISM IS OBSOLETE
HUMOR IS A RELEASE
IDEALS ARE REPLACED BY CONVENTIONAL GOALS AT A CERTAIN AGE
IF YOU ARE TRUSTING YOU HAVE CONFIDENCE IN YOUSELF
IF YOU AREN'T POLITICAL YOUR PERSONAL LIFE SHOULD BE EXEMPLARY
IF YOU CAN'T LEAVE YOUR MARK GIVE UP
IF YOU HAVE MANY DESIRES LIFE WILL BE INTERESTING
IF YOU LIVE SIMPLY THERE IS NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT
IF YOU UNDERSTAND THE PARTS YOU'LL UNDERSTAND THE WHOLE
IGNORING ENEMIES IS THE BEST WAY TO FIGHT
ILLNESS IS A STATE OF MIND
IMPOSING ORDER IS MAN'S VOCATION FOR CHAOS IS HELL
IN SOME INSTANCES IT'S BETTER TO DIE THAN TO CONTINUE
INHERITANCE MUST BE ABOLISHED
IT CAN BE HELPFUL TO KEEP GOING NO MATTER WHAT
IT IS HEROIC TO TRY TO STOP TIME
IT IS MAN'S FATE TO OUTSMART HIMSELF
IT'S A GIFT TO THE WORLD NOT TO HAVE BABIES
IT'S BETTER TO BE LONELY THAN TO BE WITH INFERIOR PEOPLE
IT'S BETTER TO BE NAIVE THAN JADED
IT'S BETTER TO STUDY THE LIVING FACT THAN TO ANALYZE HISTORY
IT'S CRUCIAL TO HAVE AN ACTIVE FANTASY LIFE
IT'S GOOD TO GIVE EXTRA MONEY TO CHARITY
ITS IMPORTANT TO STAY CLEAN ON ALL LEVELS
IT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO RECONCILE YOUR HEART AND HEAD
IT'S JUST AN ACCIDENT YOUR PARENTS ARE YOUR PARENTS
IT'S NOT GOOD TO LIVE ON CREDIT
IT'S VITAL TO LIVE IN HARMONY WITH NATURE
JUST BELIEVING SOMETHING CAN MAKE IT HAPPEN
KILLING IS UNAVOIDABLE BUT IS NOTHING TO BE PROUD OF
KNOWING YOURSELF LETS YOU UNDERSTAND OTHERS
KNOWLEDGE SHOULD BE ADVANCED AT ALL COSTS
LABOR IS A LIFE-DESTROYING ACTIVITY
LACK OF CHARISMA CAN BE FATAL
LEARN THINGS FROM THE GROUND UP
LEISURE TIME IS A GIGANTIC SMOKESCREEN
LISTEN WHEN YOUR BODY TALKS
LOOKING BACK IS THE FIRST SIGN OF AGING AND DECAY
LOVING ANIMALS IS A SUBSTITUTE ACTIVITY
LOW EXPECTATIONS ARE GOOD PROTECTION
MANUAL LABOR CAN BE REFRESHING AND WHOLESOME
MEN ARE NOT MONOGAMOUS BY NATURE
MODERATION KILLS THE SPIRIT
MONEY CREATES TASTE
MONOMANIA IS A PREREQUISITE OF SUCCESS
MORALS ARE FOR LITTLE PEOPLE
MOST PEOPLE ARE NOT FIT TO RULE THEMSELVES
MOSTLY YOU SHOULD MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS
MOTHERS SHOULDN'T MAKE TOO MANY SACRIFICES
MUCH WAS DECIDED BEFORE YOU WERE BORN
MURDER HAS ITS SEXUAL SIDE
MYTHS MAKE REALITY MORE INTELLIGIBLE
NOISE CAN BE HOSTILE
NOTHING UPSETS THE BALANCE OF GOOD AND EVIL
OCCASIONALLY PRINCIPLES ARE MORE VALUABLE THAN PEOPLE
OFFER VERY LITTLE INFORMATION ABOUT YOURSELF
OFTEN YOU SHOULD ACT LIKE YOU ARE SEXLESS
OLD FRIENDS ARE BETTER LEFT IN THE PAST
OPACITY IS AN IRRESISTIBLE CHALLENGE
PAIN CAN BE A VERY POSITIVE THING
PEOPLE ARE BORING UNLESS THEY'RE EXTREMISTS
PEOPLE ARE NUTS IF THEY THINK THEY ARE IMPORTANT
PEOPLE ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR WHAT THEY DO UNLESS THEY'RE INSANE
PEOPLE WHO DON'T WORK WITH THEIR HANDS ARE PARASITES
PEOPLE WHO GO CRAZY ARE TOO SENSITIVE
PEOPLE WON'T BEHAVE IF THEY HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE
PHYSICAL CULTURE IS SECOND-BEST
PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE IS ESCAPISM
PLAYING IT SAFE CAN CAUSE A LOT OF DAMAGE IN THE LONG RUN
POLITICS IS USED FOR PERSONAL GAIN
POTENTIAL COUNTS FOR NOTHING UNTIL IT'S REALIZED
PRIVATE PROPERTY CREATED CRIME
PURSUING PLEASURE FOR THE SAKE OF PLEASURE WILL RUIN YOU
PUSH YOURSELF TO THE LIMIT AS OFTEN AS POSSIBLE
RAISE BOYS AND GIRLS THE SAME WAY
RANDOM MATING IS GOOD FOR DEBUNKING SEX MYTHS
RECHANNELING DESTRUCTIVE IMPULSES IS A SIGN OF MATURITY
RECLUSES GET WEAK EVEN IF STRONG ORIGINALLY
REDISTRIBUTING WEALTH IS IMPERATIVE
RELATIVITY IS NO BOON TO MANKIND
RELIGION CAUSES AS MANY PROBLEMS AS IT SOLVES
REMEMBER YOU ALWAYS HAVE FREEDOM OF CHOICE
RESOLUTIONS SERVE TO EASE YOUR CONSCIENCE

The sign then repeats the messages from ‘EXTREME BEHAVIOR HAS ITS BASIS IN PATHOLOGICAL PSYCHOLOGY' to ‘IF YOU AREN'T POLITICAL YOUR PERSONAL LIFE SHOULD BE EXEMPLARY' before returning to the beginning. In conversation with the compiler the artist revealed she had been unaware that this section of the text was repeated and said that she thought the factory which duplicated the programs must have been responsible for this.

The sequence takes approximately twenty-five minutes to run and the statements always reappear in this set order. Each statement is complete in itself, although the artist also likes them to be seen as a coherent group. As is clear from the above list, they appear in alphabetical order according to the beginning word of each. In an interview in 1986 Holzer said she hoped this element of order would comfort viewers perhaps disoriented by the strangeness of the text (Ferguson 1986, p.68).

Most, but not all, the statements move right to left across the screen. Some texts move left to right while others roll up or down the screen. Some words and individual letters flash and others appear in large type-faces. Many of the typographical effects are humorously fashioned to suit the content of the statements. ‘DREAMING WHILE AWAKE IS A FRIGHTENING CONTRADICTION' is set in large type and appears to flutter gently whilst moving slowly across the screen. ‘CHASING THE NEW IS DANGEROUS TO SOCIETY' runs past twice very quickly before returning at a more sedate and readable pace. By and large, these special effects are used to echo the patterns of human speech in all its tones and moods. The pausing of individual words or phrases on the screen, for example, suggests the emphasis created either by pausing or by speaking loudly or softly in conversation. ‘A great feature of the signs', the artist has said

is their capacity to move, which I love because it's so much like the spoken word: you can emphasise things; you can roll and pause which is the kinetic equivalent to inflection in the voice. I think that it's a real plus to have that capacity. I write my things by saying them or I write and then say them, to test them. Having them move is an extension of that (quoted in Jeanne Siegel 1985, p.67).


The brevity of the separate messages and the hypnotic appeal of the rhythmic pacing of the succession of statements are the twin tactics Holzer uses to win and keep the viewer's attention. Much of her work of the late 1970s and early 1980s was designed for public spaces in which she had to attract the attention of members of the general public who might see her posters or electronic signs only for a few seconds as they passed by. Comparing the static medium of posters with the moving sign display units Holzer has commented

With a sign or a poster in the street you have the space of time it takes a person to walk four feet. But with the series, I try to have things that will work in three seconds or in 30-minute blocks for someone who's willing or able to concentrate. I think you must remember that viewers are volunteers. If they don't want to look for more than several seconds, fine. There are things that are complete messages, that you can absorb in an instant, but, if someone wants to stay longer, there's an entire series in which these three-second lines are embedded that gets more complicated (quoted in Ferguson 1986, p.74).


Before working with electronic signs Holzer had worked briefly as a typesetter simply as a means of earning money and through this was familiar with the range of available typefaces and with methods of displaying texts. She chose the various typefaces and the special visual effects of T03959 herself. In conversation with the compiler on 12 May 1988 the artist said it had been a relatively simple task to teach herself to program the sign and to familiarise herself with its technical abilities. Her choice of this medium did not reflect any great enthusiasm on her part for computers: it simply was ‘appropriate'. The machine's memory had allowed her to put across to her audience a larger amount of text than had been possible with the posters she had used previously. At the same time, she thought that the signs, being eye- catching and modern, would be attractive and accessible to a general public. When asked in an interview in 1986 if her use of these moving message units made a comment on ‘our overloaded media-bombarded world' she replied ‘It's funny, though, it's only in the art world that it's a "comment on". When it's in the real, world, it's just a modern thing. It's a good gizmo. I'm not interested in the self-referential aspects of it' (quoted in Jeanne Siegel 1985, p.67).

Holzer first worked with electronic signs in 1982 when she used a Spectacolor electronic advertising hoarding to display a sequence of ‘Truisms' on a building in the centre of Times Square in New York (for a photograph of the work see Des Moines Art Centre, exh. cat., 1986, p.74). This was One Times Square (formerly the Times Tower) which under the auspices of the Public Art Fund was used as part of an ongoing project in that year by a group of artists as a site for installation works. About this work Joan Simon has written, ‘The location of the sign at the very crossroads of Broadway and 42nd Street marked Holzer's texts' entry into the world of entertainment as well as news ... her texts had to bear up in the context of bright lights, night life and low life that demand the attention of a mass of pedestrians and motor traffic' (‘After/words', in Des Moines Art Centre, exh. cat., 1986, pp.80-1). Wanting to develop this further, Holzer hit upon the idea of using the commercial sign display units commonly found in banks and shops and located the manufacturers of these signs by simply by looking through the telephone directory.

The artist has stated that the origins of the idea of ‘Truisms' can be traced back to the years 1976-7 when she attended classes at the Whitney Museum as part of its Independent Study Program:

The ‘Truisms' series is partially a response to a wonderful reading list in the Whitney program. It included numberless books, all of which were heavies, so just the prospect of wading through them was enough to make me do Jenny Holzer's Reader's Digest version of Western and Eastern thought. I loved all these great thoughts on Western culture, but I figured I was reasonably bright and reasonably well-educated, and if I couldn't plow through it, certainly a lot of other people couldn't either. I realised the stuff was important and profound, so I thought maybe I could translate these things into a language that was accessible. The result was the ‘Truisms' (quoted in Ferguson 1986, p.67).


She had worked as an abstract artist but increasingly she wanted to be explicit about certain subjects which, she felt, neither abstract nor narrative painting could deal with successfully. In conversation with the compiler Holzer commented that her discovery of the form of the truism had been a decisive turning point in her career as an artist and in her life. It was after she began to paste up posters listing collections of some of her invented ‘Truisms' in the streets of Manhattan that she realised that her work was similar to that of conceptual artists such as Daniel Buren. Commenting on how she viewed her work within a historical perspective she has said, ‘my predecessors include everyone from the Conceptualists to the Dadaists and even back to some Utopian social theorists who advocated that things be made useable, enjoyable and comprehensible to anyone' (quoted in Ferguson 1986, p.68).

When writing her ‘Truisms' Holzer thought either about a topic such as war, food, love or about a particular type of person and imagined what opinions such a person might be likely to have. Seeking in works of the ‘Truisms' series to reflect a wide spectrum of views, she was careful to check for, and correct, gaps either of subject matter or political slant. In all of this she was concerned to consider what people believed and then tried to write a short sentence summarising the nature of these beliefs. In conversation with the compiler Holzer said, ‘You can imagine that a truism is a distilled belief. And you can also think that beliefs are the basis of action'.

‘Truisms' is more neutral in tone and diverse in content than ‘Inflammatory Essays' (P07847 [subsequently renumbered P77382-P77412], repr. Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1982-4, 1986, p.408). This work, produced in the period 1979 to 1982, is a series of posters displaying a range of rhetorical statements culled from the texts of political theorists, religious fanatics and ‘folk' literature. In this Holzer aimed to ‘show how dangerous and absurd it is to be a fanatic, but how important it is to be get things done' (quoted ibid.). By contrast, ‘Truisms' expresses a broad range of opinions, some inconsequential, many contradictory, which reflect a diversity not only of thoughts but also of types of people. In this work the artist wants to encourage viewers to reflect on the reasons why people think the way they do and why they act the way they do. When asked by the compiler what effect she thought the work would have on its viewers, the artist replied that she hoped the effect of being exposed to a wide spectrum of opinions, some of which viewers would like and others they would be indifferent to or hate, might foster greater tolerance. In particular, she hoped the more humourous and ridiculous statements would sharpen people's awareness of the ‘the usual baloney they are fed' in daily life.

T03959 is the third of an edition of four examples of this work which is approximately five feet in length and uses a yellow display. Other works of the same size with slight variations in the text were made in editions of four with red and green displays. There are also thirty such works with red, yellow and green displays and an edition of signs ten feet long which have only red displays. The artist stipulates that the work be displayed just above eye level. She also wants the sign to be seen in the dark or in reduced light. Her reason for this is not only to make the text more easily readable but also to intensify its dramatic effect: the more sparkling the work, she commented to the compiler, the more it is like the signs in Las Vegas.

This entry has been approved by the artist.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.180-4