Mass media is a form that encompasses all aspects of daily life in the Western world. The constant inundation of images through television, social media, and the public space occur on such a monumental level that it has forced individuals to unknowingly discard autonomy and embrace a constructed collective identity. Many postmodern artists have focused on the power of mass media, and in their work, have used mass media approaches in an attempt to critique it. This paper will focus on Barbara Kruger, who is an example of an artist who utilizes the advertising techniques of reproduction and repetition to undermine the capacity of mass media and to subvert her audience’s expectations.
Mass media is a powerful force, which consists of photography, cinema, radio, television, video, advertising, newspapers, and magazines. The phenomenon of mass media is specific to the 20th century onwards and, due to its widespread nature, it is difficult to avoid becoming a consumer of culture for those living in the Western world. An advertisement can be distributed all over the world at such a rapid speed that individuals are incessantly bombarded with thousands of images per day. Mass media is said to “dominate human consciousness” particularly in “advanced, industrial, consumer societies”. Due to this invasion of media that individuals experience every day, our perceptions of identity and reality have been shifted and shaped accordingly. Not only do the images we see aim to sell us products and services, but they have transformed the way individuals relate to one another in that mass media has formulated a sense of identity that we, as consumers of culture, inadvertently adopt. Guy Debord, a French Marxist theorist, called this immersive overload the “spectacle” and believed that to cope with the alienation prompted by capitalism, individuals must accept its intrusion into their lives. The spectacle itself is referred to as “a social relation between people that is mediated by images”. It is used to substitute social relationships, control the masses, and induce isolation amongst individuals of a capitalist society. While he doesn’t perceive there to be a complete escape from the spectacle, Debord believes that it can be disrupted temporarily. He refers to this disruption of the spectacle as “détournement”, which manifested from “modernist avant-garde artistic practice”. Détournement, known today as “culture-jamming”, is referred to as a form of propaganda and involves the reprocessing of components of an image or idea used by the media to recreate it with a completely new meaning to defy and analyze the power imbalance and control of identity constructed by the media.
The nature of a society saturated by images situates images of contemporary and past artworks parallel with the billions of images that exist due to mass media. This reproduction of images in mass media diminishes the value and skill of fine artists in that their art is viewed on the same level as images aimed to sell products, services, and experiences. Nonetheless, there have been many artists who, implementing the concept of détournement, have utilized mass media techniques to criticize it, which causes their art to function and appear similar to that of images in advertising and other mass media. Artists such as Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Prince, and Barbara Kruger have been concerned with the saturation of images with which we are bombarded and attempted to capture the attention of the audience by making their work operate like mass media images with a subversive twist. This overlap between art and mass media works to create a disturbance within the mind of the viewer so they will in turn question their role as consumers and the effect this has on their identity.
Barbara Kruger is an American conceptual artist, born in Newark, New Jersey in 1945. After studying at Syracuse University in 1964 for one year, she moved to New York to study at Parsons School of Design in 1965. Particularly influenced by two teachers, Diane Arbus and Marvin Israel, she began working at Condé Nast Publications as a graphic designer and freelance picture editor in 1966. Kruger went on to work at a nationwide fashion magazine, Mademoiselle, where she was promoted to head designer, and later at House and Garden and Vogue magazines. In these positions, she was given a selection of images from fashion photographers, which she was responsible for photocopying into various sizes and placing them into layouts before the introduction of the text. Kruger perceives that a high percentage of her later work was informed by these earlier experiences as a graphic designer. She states “I didn’t pop into the art world with a beret on, clutching a pair of scissors and a stack of old magazines”, and in fact, her earliest artworks were woven wall installations consisting of beads, yarn, feathers, sequins, and ribbons. She admits that she focused on traditionally “women’s arts” as she was originally disheartened by the patriarchal art world. Her art was included in the Whitney Biennial of 1973 and had solo exhibitions at Artists Space and Fischbach Gallery in New York. In 1976 she moved to Berkeley, California to teach at the University of California and this became a time of self-reflection and growth for Kruger. She felt that her work was not a successful critique of art practice, and so she began writing prose and poetry. In contrast to her brilliant writing, she felt that her art was ‘busy work’, separate from her life and the issues she was aiming to engage with and she stated that “the work was silent”. In 1978 she published a small photography book called picture/Readings, which consisted of her photographs supplemented with conflicting pieces of text. She began overlapping text on her photography, and it was not long before she began appropriating found images from other sources. This lead to the work understood today as Kruger’s iconography; black and white images, overlaid with textual captions set in bold oblique Futura type.
Kruger’s art is profound and bold. She layers inflammatory and confronting textual statements over highly contrasted black and white imagery to criticize cultural power structures and to unveil myths about traditional art and contemporary society. She utilizes found images from traditional art, pop culture, and mainstream magazines and juxtaposes them with statements that protest the conservative and harmful ideologies they represent. Her use of pronouns such as ‘you’, ‘your’, ‘I’, ‘we’ and ‘they’ are directed at each viewer which demands self-critique. This technique, which is used in advertising to entice individuals to buy and consume mindlessly, is used by Kruger to make ironic statements about society and humanity and urges her audience to question mass media, advertising, and their role as consumers and members of society. Her use of aggression and irony in her text intends to cause tension in the mind of the viewer, as there is typically a separation between the subject matter of the imagery and the text statement. The boundaries between advertising images and Kruger’s work are blurred, in that they are similar in their function, repetition, and appearance. She states “I live and speak through a body which is constructed by moments which are formed by the velocity of power and money. So I don’t see this division between what is commercial and what is not commercial. I see rather a broad, non-ending flow of moments which are informed if not motored by an exchange.” She criticizes the idea of utopianism to deal with the unavoidable pull of power and exchange in society – which could be referring to the powerful influence of mass media and advertising - but believes that with recognizing these social realities that we can make an impact. She once said “Do you know why language manifests itself the way it does in my work? It’s because I understand short attention spans.” She recognizes that there is a saturation of images in today’s society, which has contributed to the shorter attention spans we have developed. Through her artistic practice, Kruger aims to use shortened attention spans to her advantage, by creating subversive and eye-catching images to capture the attention of the spectator and keep it there.
Kruger’s images feature on billboards, posters, postcards, T-shirts, matchbooks, umbrellas, tote bags, mugs, and can be found in galleries and museums, the public space, and in magazines and books about her and her work. While she recognizes the differences between these spaces, she does not perceive them to be separate from each other. Kruger wants to occupy all of these sites as she “desires their effectiveness”. She works with images and words as she believes they have the power to define us and recognizes that these images and words can operate in as many spaces as possible. She appreciates the value and importance of art galleries that support her work, however, she still wants to influence a range of audiences in a variety of ways. While in advertising, imagery is competing for the maintained attention of the viewer, Kruger states that the criteria for her images depend on context and audience. She does not see her works as binary oppositions, in terms of success and failure but rather that some images work for some people and some are ineffective. Once she began working with the appropriation of found images, she “became more aware of and receptive to the constant flow of images that we see in our everyday lives”. Kruger is “interested in how people are to each other” and this is interesting to note about the concept of the spectacle, as Debord perceives that our relationships are defined according to mass media.
Untitled (I shop therefore I am) (1987) is one of Kruger’s most iconic works. People recognize this image as the epitome of her work in that it has come to encapsulate her artistic practice and prominent concepts. It is a photographic silkscreen consisting of the white bold Futura text “I shop therefore I am” on a red rectangle, which is layered over a black and white image of a hand, with a red border surrounding the entire image. The “I shop therefore I am” statement references French philosopher Rene Descartes’ famous quote “I think therefore I am”, in which he theorizes that as long as a person engages in thinking, their existence is worthwhile. Kruger’s reinterpretation of this theory implies that in contemporary society, we are obsessed with the consumption of material goods, rather than engaging in critical thought. She is condemning the materialistic culture we live in, which she understands to be a patriarchal form of control aimed to coerce women into buying and consuming endlessly to maintain their value. Untitled (I shop therefore I am) brings forth ideas about consumerism and identity, urging the viewer to question their role and purpose in a capitalist society. The work is reminiscent of advertising in that it uses strong colors - black, white, and red - also utilized in advertising to capture the attention of individuals. The red rectangle appears to be held by the hand and could be seen to represent credit cards, which are symbols for shopping and consumerism. The red used against the black and white image is eye-catching and powerful, and the text existential. The slogan remains in the mind of the viewer, and it gets repeated in an attempt to understand the magnitude of what it represents. Ironically, the image and slogan have been reproduced on tote bags, in advertising, and on T-shirts. This is important to note, as Kruger is criticizing and questioning this culture of consumerism and yet this image is being used to sell and glorify consumerism.
While the reproduction of Kruger’s images attempts to reach the largest audience possible, it leads to the question of whether the repetition of her work would normalize and desensitize us to her powerful messages about society and culture. As they function similarly to those in mass media, which she is aware of, it’s possible that we become too familiar with Kruger’s images and no longer feel challenged by them due to their mass production. While her work has been reproduced to the extreme and even utilized to promote materialism and consumerism, the confronting nature of her art still stands strong, consisting of statements and slogans that will always be relevant to those living in capitalist societies with hierarchies and power imbalances. Barbara Kruger’s body of work is iconic and influential and will stand the test of time.
* All images are courtesy of the Artist
Written by Beth Sorensen
JM Art Management
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