Even though some may challenge the ideological messages behind Barbara Kruger’s work in the 1980’s, it brought about a change in society. She criticizes everything that is wrong with the stereotypical society using a conceptual approach to her artwork. Kruger challenges gender, sex, religion, consumerism, greed, power and her work becomes fueled by the mass media.
Kruger was born in 1945 in Newark, New Jersey. In 1964, she studied at the School of Visual Arts at Syracuse University. After a year at Syracuse, she went to the Parson’s School of Design in New York and studied graphic design. After a year at Parson’s, she received an entry level position at Mademoiselle Magazine in New York. She was soon promoted to head designer at the magazine.
By working for a magazine, she was able see how words and photos can have a certain power to consumers. She became familiarized with these concepts of graphic design and started applying them to her artwork. During the late 1970’s she started off using her own photography as the medium for her work as a female artist.
In the 1980’s she developed a different approach to her work by integrating images and text. In the book “Thinking of You” Steven Heller states, ” Kruger’s method was influenced by reductive Modernist graphic design, the kind that began somewhat idealistically but has dominated corporate identity during the postwar years, as well as the so-called “Big Idea” or “Creative Revolution” advertising style of the sixties, known for clever slogans and ironic single images” (Heller 112).
Kruger’s artwork is considered postmodern. For Kruger, as for many contemporary theorists, postmodernism is not a style of succeeding the dissolution of modernism but rather a historical condition, marked by new philosophical relations; it signals a rupture with the notion of sovereign and individuality inherited from the Enlightenment (Linker 12). Postmodernism is an art movement that happened after modernism during the late 20th century. Kruger’s work impacts postmodernism because it sets a precedent for social constructs.
Barbara Kruger uses space, text and photos as a way to bring her messages to a grand audience. Her use of words and pictures convey a deeper meaning. Her artwork shows the viewer how fast people are to label someone in society. The work shows how another person’s view can impact society as a whole by letting the hierarchy in society manifest our culture. Barbara went beyond this to get a reaction from society by raising this social awareness in her art.
Some may argue that her work disrupts the space or environment in which it is displayed. In the article “Jam Life into Death”, Ana Balona de Olivera talks about how Kruger uses the explicit artistic violence of disruption in order to raise awareness of hidden social violence (Balona de Olivera 752). I don’t agree that her artwork is violent or disruptive in relation to the space itself. In our vast world we see large advertised displays all around us. There is more violence viewed on television and in news. I believe her work is more about the message than the actual disruption of the space it occupies. She makes us stop and wonder what we are looking at.
When viewing her work, we are challenged to see the actual message behind the work. She tries to communicate messages that she feels are beneficial to society or ironic in nature. The images she chooses may or may not have anything to do with the text on top of the images. Kruger states, “As long as pictures remain powerful, living conventions within culture, I’ll continue to use them and turn them around” (Squiers 148).
Kruger uses black and white images that she has come across in magazines, advertisements and other media. She uses these images that aren’t her own but started to weave them with text to make them her own, which is called appropriation. Kruger’s work will be necessary to a visual representation for the 1980’s, her influence now permeates all the forms of media culture that she appropriated (Garrard 263).
Her juxtaposed images shaped how people view society. In Michael Foucault’s thesis “What is an Author” & “A Lecture”; he states, “The modes of circulation, valorization, attribution and appropriation of discourses vary with each culture and are modified within each” (Foucault 952). Kruger’s works are a reflection of corporate consumerism and are viewed daily by many people. As a consumer, it is evident that we are buying into corporate America and there is no sign telling us it happens all the time. Sometimes images stay with us and later in life we can identify with them. Some images will leave as soon as we see them with little or no effect on our lives.
Working as a graphic designer, Kruger was aware of how certain images sell to a grand audience. In graphic design, the font you use depends on the message you are trying to convey in the advertisement. The font that Barbara uses is called Future Bold Italic. I appreciate the fact that Kruger uses the same font in every piece so the viewer can’t convey a certain feeling or mood attributed with it. She let the words do the talking. Even though her images are collage, they possess a graphic quality to them. With this experience she could use images through repetition and recognition that impact our social culture.
Kruger uses the color red behind the text invoke a range of feelings by the viewer. The color red can make people feel angry, loving, warm or powerful. Her color choices were something you would see in a newspaper or for marketing a brand like Coca-Cola during the 1980’s. Again, her graphic design abilities came into play. By using these colors she could grab people’s attention to them. These colors seem to resemble Russian constructivism but I don’t think she was influenced by the art produced during that time.
Kruger chooses larger than life public displays. She uses billboards, bus stops, posters and other remote areas. There isn’t an average size of her work. She can work as large as a 14 x 48 foot billboard or as small as a print on a coffee cup.
Kruger also incorporates her work inside local settings. Her work is viewed in galleries, museums, and storefronts. Her artwork has also appeared in Rage Against the Machine videos and album covers. Kruger’s artwork is sold as a commodity on T-shirts, postcards, bags and other paraphernalia. What better way to convey a message like “Don’t be a Jerk” on your coffee cup.
The artist Jenny Holzer also uses declarative sentence structures that are similar to Kruger’s artwork. Her work is projected electronically onto a public space using text to convey a message. Kruger’s work represents typical feminine stereotypes as well as other stereotypical issues that existed during the 1980’s. Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger’s art was situated at the complex intersection of the postmodern avant-garde of appropriation and simulation art with feminist critical theory coming from England and France (Garrard 254). Kruger sets a discourse for other feminine artwork done in the 1970’s. Kruger, like others, has voiced her concern not to “illustrate” theory. Nevertheless, crucial notions that circulated within theory about the relations among sexuality, meaning and language found their way into these artists’ works (Linker 60).
Kruger’s silkscreen image “Untitled (Your body is a battleground)” 1989 (figure 1) speaks about patriarchy, stereotyping, and consumption. It is a photographic silkscreen on vinyl and is approximately 112×112 inches. There is a vintage photo of a woman who looks like a stereotypical housewife. The words “Your body is a battleground” lay across the image inside a red box. The woman in the photograph has a remarkably intent gaze. She also has subtle features and her face is split symmetrically revealing two different looking images. One side of her face is black and white where you are able to recognize her visual features. The other side of her face is reversed black and white. The features become mechanical and not easily recognizable. We are looking at the same women with two extremely different sides to her. It looks like she has a good side and bad side to her.
This photo relates to how women may not feel human all the time in a male-dominated society. And one can note, on the other hand, the ideology of the spectacle as authorized by the dominant order, in which one part of society represents itself to the other, reinforcing domination (Linker 61). The text relates to the struggles women have had over how they are portrayed in the media.
During the 1980’s women were fighting for their own reproductive rights. They were preserving the woman’s right of choice to have an abortion against the pro-life movement. Kruger allowed a campaign by the Pro-Choice Public Education Project to adopt her style in a 1998 ad for abortion rights (Dieckmann 172).
Kruger took this image to an even larger display for the art world. By agreeing to let herself be copied for a cause, Kruger displayed yet another of her facets- call it Barbara Kruger, Anti-Author (Dieckmann 172). The essay “What is an Author” & “A Lecture” by Michael Foucault calls for the death of the author. He states, ” The author is the principle thrift in the proliferation of meaning. We must reverse the traditional idea of the author” (Foucault 952). Kruger has set out to take authorship away from this work.
Foucault asks the issue in his essay, “What difference does it make who is speaking?” (Foucault, 953). The image “Untitled (Your body is a battleground)” was speaking for women and women’s rights. Kruger let the people repeat her work for a greater protest in her favor. Kruger wanted to get a reaction from society by using her work to promote a cause.
Another example of her work is “Untitled,” made in 1987 (figure 2). The image was placed on a billboard for the University of Art MATRIX program. It shows a girl impressively admiring a boy who is flexing his arm. The text reads “We don’t need another hero” near the bottom of the piece. The text is white in a red strip
extending all the way across the image. The photograph is also outlined in red. The text may be in reference to a song written by Tina Turner in the late 1980’s. The lyrics talk about children that are living in fear because they realize there is no such thing as a hero. The black and white photograph is reminiscent of Dick and Jane artwork done in the 1950’s.
The photo raises an issue of the role of gender at an extremely young age. The word “We” suggests women. We shouldn’t think of a boy being able to protect a girl at such a young age. During the 1980’s men were the ones fighting in the war in Iraq, while the women tended to the home. Though women had more rights, men and women still played independent roles in society. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that women began moving up the corporate ladder into a higher social status.
I think this work is suggesting that we don’t need another tough guy in society trying to show women how to act and what to do. It’s enough to say when we are born, are roles in society are predetermined. As girls, we are taught to play with Barbie Dolls. As girls, we grew up with Barbie Dolls and are taught to be gentle and loving as she is. Boys are taught to be aggressive and tough as their war figures and plastic weapons are made for.
In keeping with contemporary feminist theory, she endorses Freud’s refutation of the terms “masculine” and “feminine” in favor of active and passive relations, connecting sexuality to the situation of the subject (Linker 62). This is true in that most artwork depicted women as objects of possession. Kruger challenges the real power of a man’s role in society. It should be noted that those “Emotional and intuitive” men were allowed to get away with imagery whose blatant essentialism would have been condemned if done by a women (Garrard 257).
Today Kruger’s work graces the cover of a consumer driven society. The work “Untitled” 2010 (figure 3) appeared on the cover of W magazine. The magazine showcased various artists and Kruger’s work was on the cover. The cover showcased Kim Kardashian’s naked body. Kruger’s text ” It’s all about you, I mean me, I mean you” laying across parts of her body. This is an example of how a reality superstar made herself a sex symbol for a remarkably young generation of followers.
It isn’t entirely clear why Kim Kardashian is on the cover of this magazine. Kruger has not talked about the work in detail or her intent. Kim Kardashian is using her sexuality to gain notoriety in the public eye. Barbara Kruger’s older work would fight against any imagery like this. I believe she is trying to deal with the issue of the female gaze. I think she is realizing that sex sells in this new generation. It may be that her popularity as an artist is widely from her art in the public eye.
Kruger challenges how celebrities are portrayed by the media though she may be condemned for doing so. Kruger is teasing the male audience by not putting her whole body on display. The play on words cover up any sexual connotations. Kim Kardashian’s body appears to be made plastic or airbrushed but none the less perfect.
The text is broken into three sections: One section lays across her breast saying, “It’s all about me”. This text implies that she is a reality superstar and is the perfect example of beauty. The second text lays across her midsection stating, “I mean you”. The text implies that women are trying to become this perfect women that they may see in a magazine.
In the essay “From Visual Pleasure & Narrative Cinema” Laura Mulvey talks about the pleasure of looking through film. One pleasure is scopophilia: taking people as objects and subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze. She states, “Women, then, stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies through linguistic command by imposing them on women still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning” (Mulvey 983).
I think scopophilia is prevalent in advertising today. In most magazines the front cover always has a women staring at the viewer and some sexual aspect of her body becomes a secondary focal point. Though some of these magazines may be reproduced for women, men also get a visual pleasure from looking at them. Indeed, Kruger’s art is invariably directed at the manner in which visual mastery becomes aligned with difference or, more pointedly, at the way in which representations position women as objects of the male gaze (Linker 61).
As a woman, if I were to use this image and put it on my fridge to look at everyday, I would have to admit that I could never “be” this person. But many women believe that this is reality. The third text is laying across her genital area and states, ” I mean me”. The text implies that it was never about you it was all about her. Her body image is a false reality fueled by the mass media.
In conclusion, Kruger’s work is similarly fueled by the mass media. Using re-occurring ideological messages to communicate her ideas the themes of gender, sex, consumerism, greed and power, she criticizes everything that she feels is wrong with the society we live in.
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