Sothebys Institute of Art

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Present a compelling interpretation of one work of art using two of the art historical methodologies that were introduced in the final part of the course. These methodologies include social history, post-structuralism, feminism, and queer studies. You may choose two methods that you believe will work well together OR two conflicting approaches. In either case, please provide a nuanced summary of the selected texts OR a clear explication of difficult passages in those texts.

You may introduce other works of art for comparison, but limit your primary focus to ONE work. Use clear visual analyses; refer to Michael Baxandall's essay on art historical interpretation, and avoid empty formal descriptions.

You are required to demonstrate your knowledge of the discipline of art history as well as the art object. In your critique, please keep in mind the following issues. How do cultural values and socio-political commitments affect artistic production? How do those agendas change over time? What is the role of subjectivity in historical interpretation? What are the limits of subjectivism?

Please consult a style manual for the proper formatting of footnotes, and proofread your work for spelling, grammar, punctuation, and organizational errors.


Barbara Kruger -- an iconoclast, feminist, and innovator - is an artist whose work engages the merging of found photographs with curt and aggressive text that involves the viewer in the struggle for power. Kruger straddles the line between language and composition - in the hybridity of text and photography, she calls for the viewer to both at once read and synthesize the visual properties of her image. Much of her language questions the viewer about feminism, consumerism, power and desire while subverting the magazine aesthetic.


Kruger's 1983 work We Won't Play Nature to Your Culture appropriates the use of the editorial magazine aesthetic, seen in both print ads and the covers of women's magazines, to shout out her concise text-based demands, challenging and evoking a response from the viewer. The title of the piece forces the viewer to question and confront the assumed notions of gender in response to the prevailing patriarchal control systems that lie at the helm of society's institutions. In examining the work from a broader context, the viewer is able to engage the work in the way that it functions symbolically. The piece underscores the extent to which Kruger directly refutes the concept of men as producers of culture and women as products of nature.

In this work, Kruger heavily references the visual properties of a closely cropped image, likely from a vintage 1950s fashion layout or advertising campaign. "We Won't Play Nature to Your Culture" is a compositionally striking piece, Kruger overlaid a ready-made photograph of the head of a classically beautiful female sculpture with horizontal rows of text spanning over her face. She incorporated the layout techniques of the mass media to create a familiar advertising format that she then subverted in order to expose the deceptiveness of the media messages. The large, irregular letters of the text placed over the sculpture's serve to represent the relationship between women and their relationship with culture, specifically media. By juxtaposing the leaves with the stonework (classical sculpture making a connection to the arts) underneath the large, block editorial letters (referencing culture through mass media), the composition of the piece speaks to this dichotomy between women being relegated to the natural world and the domestic burden that comes from following the patriarchy's view of a woman's 'natural' place in the world.

It is no coincidence that Kruger chose to mimic the magazine aesthetic seeing that she was a former photo editor for Condé Nast women's magazines. Her experience working within this medium allowed her to challenge the notions she was once paid to promote; the idea that one can subvert the subversive by appropriating and then negating the connotations of given imagery is what fuels Kruger's work. Specifically, in this piece Kruger invites, nay, coerces the viewer challenge the supposed patriarchal notion that women are supposed to 'play nature' to the patriarchy's 'culture.'

In viewing this work, one wonders if the viewer is entitled to feel a certain sense of betrayal in being coerced to abandon her natural proclivities in order to claim an oppressed title offered by Kruger's assertion. Similarly, Kruger's language establishes the righteous and victimized 'we' against an oppressive 'your,' which polarizes the viewers into an 'us vs. them' dichotomy. The viewer isn't given the luxury to muse upon the significance of this claim, nor the room to question or refute it.

Cultural values and socio-political commitments affect artistic production insofar as these dynamics are what often provide the catalyst for creating art. The rise of feminist art from the 1970s spoke towards the growth of the equal rights and the women's liberation movement that presented a radical and aggressive response to the systematic suppression of women's power and ultimate place in the world. By confronting the patriarchy head on the feminist movement, Kruger creates a hybrid representation of the way in which the female image is appropriated and sold for profit by using the female figure as seen in classical sculpture and challenging that visual identity. It is here that language and composition play a pivotal role in how Kruger argues her point to the viewer.

In his essay, Patterns of Intention, Baxandall discusses the complexities of describing a picture through language. Due to our linear interpretation of language and our simultaneous interpretation of sight, a fundamental incompatibility arises when trying to describe a picture using words. He recognizes this split, and considers the influence of our own memories, experiences, and thoughts in constructing a visual image from a written description. It is useful to examine Kruger's work through this lens since while viewing We Won't Play Nature to Your Culture, the viewer is struck with the task of both analyzing the graphic composition of the piece while also burdened with reading the text on the page. It is this dynamic that poses the question as to which is read or processed first. Does the text overtake the image or vice versa? Baxandall asserts that, "a description of a picture is less a representation of the picture… than a representation of thinking about having seen the picture." [1] Here, he references Kenneth Clark's account of Piero della Francesca's, "Baptism of Christ" which reflects Clark's awareness of a 'geometric framework' which may or may not be obvious to other onlookers.

Further, Baxandall posits that a viewer is compelled to explicate a picture by describing it with certain words that reflect the feeling the picture evokes in the viewer. The words we choose are circuitous and gain meaning through their relationship with the picture. For example, the description will have a different intention and effect depending on if the work being described is present or known, just as when speaking of a 'big' dog, the intention and effect will shift depending if the dog is present. Through this, the meanings that arise will point to certain interests we hold in the picture. This interpretation plays into Kruger's play with balancing out textual descriptions and visual depictions that seek to challenge the status quo.

This idea translates nicely to Amelia Jones' article "Postfeminism, Feminist Pleasures, Embodied Theories of Art" (1993) and her assertion that postmodern strategies of 'distanciation' "aim to displace and provoke the spectator, making [them] aware of the process of experiencing the text and therefore precluding [their] identification with the illusionary and ideological functions of representation." [2] It is this postmodern association with the concept if distance that is utilized as the reasoning behind 'less-subject' oriented analysis, which distances itself from the self, and subject-hood. Kruger's piece works within this framework by challenging the pleasure that the viewer would ostensibly gain from objectifying the female sculpture through the gaze of the patriarchy. Jones argues that it is this 'distanciation' that requires a resistance to pleasure- "a prohibition of the objects seduction of the spectator as an embodied and desiring subject" [3] . She suggests that it is ultimately under these dominant conceptions of postmodern discourse that art objects that refuse visual pleasure is valued over more, overtly seducing, sensual or 'decorative' work [4] .

This notion which Jones presents of higher valued art, being able to resist the patriarchal gaze and confront the implications of visual pleasure, play nicely into the construct Kruger has created with her work. The problematic notion of the post-feminist theory according to Jones is by examining the work of second-wave feminists who take the body as a site for their art and through the corporeal analyze the issues of gender and sex that are misued by the patriarchy. Jones uses this method of re-viewing and re-illuminating the work and feminist practice of second wave feminist artists as a useful way to explore and also contrast the negative effects of postmodernism and 'postfeminism' [5] . Jones clearly values the way these artists use their feminist strategies as embodied female realizations of their own libidinal forces and generativity. She argues that it is through this embodied nature of practice, that an empowering meaning for feminism is created and maintained in Western culture. [6] She situates these practices as those which in the wake of 'postfeminism' has been ignored and disregarded. Jones suggests a way of rethinking what she considers limited notions of sexual critique that she argues accompany postfeminism, through theorizing feminist interpretative pleasures that these feminist activated and embodied works evoke [7] .

Further, Jones' traces the development of the antifeminist cultural discourses which she posits "veil their hostility to feminism" through the purportedly "historicizing term 'postfeminism'" [8] . She sets out to explore the "discursive means by which the death of feminism (its status as 'post') has been promoted through media constructed photographic images and written texts, examining what is at stake- politically, culturally, and economically, in this promotion" of post-feminism [9] . In addition, Jones believes feminism has been merely reduced to a unitary construct, which becomes further stratified and disbanded through the discursive visual depictions of women and the subsequent labeling of this commodification as being that of post-feminism vis-à-vis popular culture and the mass media. She discusses the ways in which feminist thought, and feminist politics are stripped, watered down, dismissed altogether, or de-activated through the use of post-feminist discourse, specifically in relation to art theoretical discourse, and analysis of art work produced by feminist artists.

In TJ Clark's seminal 1984 work "The painting of modern life" the issue of social history becomes a lens from which to view art and the historic cannon from whence modernity came. Clark asserts that modern art was derived from the depiction of quotidian life that impressionist painters brought to the cultural milieu during that era. The work of Manet is what Clark uses to analyze modern life in Paris during the nineteenth century and the implications the social history of a movement has on the work produced from within. At the fore, Clark posits that the modernization of Paris gave way to the work of Manet, whose painting of Olympia represents an aspect of modern life that went unrepresented in modern culture. Further, Clark argued that the middle class, especially, despite assertions otherwise, could see some aspects of modernity, contrary to the prevailing opinion at the time which saw the modern emergence as unknowable. Furthermore, Clark asserts that Manet's painting of Olympia showed the class of the prostitute depicted in the composition which created uproar in the art world at that time - the realistic nature in which the unglamorous was depicted in fine art created a definite sea change in the way modern life was depicted. How can I connect it with Kruger's piece?

Clark goes on to illustrate this fact by asserting that "Manet's attitude towards the Folies-Bergere - towards modern life in seems to me also that a degree of conflict exists between that attitude and the beliefs about painting and vision - the metaphysic of plainness and immediacy...that Manet held both sets of beliefs is incontestable, and the tension between them was never more visible than in his last big painting [10] . Further, Clark saw the portrayal of daily Parisian living as the imitation of life which was depicted within the cultural and artistic tableau. Modern living became an idea onto itself - modern life became defined by the activities, conversations, and outings one takes on to pass the time. "There are pictures by Manet and which the environs of Paris are recognized to be a specific form of life." [11] Manet's scenes of Paris influenced artists such as Monet and Degas, as he was the first painter to paint in this new style of showing people in ordinary activities. Society was no longer elevated to an effable state - the true joy of living became defined by the banal. This shift in thinking marked a great departure from how social history colored the motivations and interpretations of art of that time.

Another scholar examining the social history of art can be seen in Nochlin's watershed "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" Upon first reading this work, one is either in agreement or shocked and adamantly standing in opposition against Nochlin's claims. First, the reader is confronted with the self-awareness required to examine Nochlin's statement accurately. She suggests there has been a cultural amnesia within the art history world that has rendered scholars and historians unable to pose the tough questions and truly analyze why the patriarchal systems of academe and art patronage have systematically shut women out.

Nochlin states, "The feminist's first reaction … to rehabilitate rather modest, if interesting and productive careers; to rediscover forgotten flower painters or David followers and make a case for them…in other words, to engage in the normal activity of the specialist scholar who makes a case for the importance of his very own neglected or minor master." [12] . This, she argues, is not the way to answer the question, because it simply reinforces the negative implications.

Secondly, Nochlin throws up her hands and admits defeat with the idea that the notion may indeed be true, that there really have been no great women artists, and, she states "no amount of manipulating the historical or critical evidence will alter the situation; nor will accusations of male-chauvinist distortion of history." [13] She asserts that feminists cannot have their cake and eat it too -- either there will be equality for both men and women, or the standards for women's art will be different. Conversely, Nochlin argues it is too simplistic to attempt to prove whether or not there have been any great women artists - that investigation alone does and will not answer why women are absent from the collection of great artists. Nochlin writes that to overcome the misconceptions involved in the question, we must look beyond it and investigate the entire profession of art history. "To encourage a dispassionate, impersonal, sociological, and institutionally oriented approach would reveal the entire romantic, elitist, individual-glorifying and monograph-producing substructure upon which the profession of art history is based, and which has only recently been called into question by a group of younger dissidents" [14] She asks, what exactly is this "Great Artist" that everyone seems to be so infatuated with? What is this notion of a great artist and can navigating the medium of visual culture seek to answer this?

In pondering the question of access, education and cultural biases towards favoring men over women when it comes to artistic production and recognition, this draws into Kruger's original question of challenging the "natural" place for women in that of nature. Is the nature that which prevents women from receiving their gainful place in the art world or is the nurture of the patriarchy who has prevented this from being so? Nochlin states, "This question "Why have there been no great women artists?" has lead us to the conclusion, so far that art is not a free, autonomous activity of a super-endowed individual, "influenced" by previous artists. And more vaguely and superficially, by "social forces" but rather, that the total situation of art making, both in terms of the development of the art maker and in the nature and quality of the work of art itself, occur in a social situation, are integral elements of this social structure, and are mediated and determined by specific and definable social institutions, be they art academics, systems of patronage, mythologies of the divine creator, artist as he-man, or social outcast." [15] 

After looking at women's demand for equality, the intellectual substructure and limitations of the discipline of art history Nochlin concludes by saying "I have suggested that it was indeed institutionally made impossible for women to achieve artistic excellence, or success, on the same footing as men, no matter what the potency of their so-called talent, or genius." [16] She says that not only is it incredibly difficult to achieve greatness in general, the members of all minorities must work even harder for their recognition in the art world.  She calls upon everyone to "reveal institutional and intellectual weakness in general, and , at the same time that they destroy false consciousness, take part in the creation of institutions in which clear thought- and true greatness- are challenges open to anyone, man or women, courageous enough to take the necessary risk, the leap into the unknown." [17] 


While examining Kruger's piece "We We Won't Play Nature to Your Culture", one can explore the question of feminism and social history as lenses from which to view the artwork of women. By utilizing both visual images and text, Kruger's referencing of the tabloid format appropriates and rejects the grip media has on women. Her quest to challenge the accepted nature of feminine representation in visual culture has laid the groundwork for future contemporary artists to further tie the element of the literal with the figurative, to blend text with sight, and reevaluate the cultural milieu as an arbiter for artistic and social change.