Thursday, January 21, 2016

Blogging about Image and Influence

Image and Influence

  Johanna Drucker, “Signs of Life / Spaces of Art: From Standard Brands to Integrated Circuits,” in Gunnar Swanson, ed., Graphic Design and Reading: Explorations of an Uneasy Relationship (New York: Allworth Press, 2000):
30 – 49.
  Joan Gibbons, “Art Invades and Appropriates,” in Art and Advertising (London: I. B. Taurus, 2005): 29 – 51.
  Victor Burgin, Between (Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1986): cover – 60.    

We have heard from critics (such as Max Kozloff, in our first week) who dismiss design as “expendable” and “babble,’ and designers as “the most unashamed predators imaginable… in search of ideas, rather than a vision.” But if popular visual culture seems easy to dismiss in theory, how do design and art relate to each other in actual practice?
Drucker suggests art’s rhetoric, its visual logic and the approaches it uses works through a myth, of private, personal space and deep self-expression. Design, on the other hand, suggests the myth of public, open, and shallow spaces. So both of these ideas are myths, or fictions. And anyway, with current technology and the prevalence of marketing, signs exchange with increasing freedom across this art/design, private/public divide. As art’s imagery is appropriated by the rhetoric of signs from mass culture, art also becomes images of signs, in effect signs that are representations of other signs. Images lose all context and history and connection to the material world. She sees a world of endlessly circulating, branded and artificial meanings as a single integrated circuit, located nowhere and everywhere. (Perhaps she is referring to what Jean Baudrillard called the hyperreal).
Gibbons outlines the same process, really, seen from the other side of the (eroding) art/design border, as artists move out of their literal (museums) and symbolic spaces (rhetorics and languages), to “invade and appropriate” the world of design, advertising and propaganda; on billboards, magazines, streets, protests, and beyond. Burgin is an interesting, and particularly reflective and intellectual, example of this, bringing an analysis of class (who produces wealth, who accumulates it) and gender (something we choose and perform, as opposed to our sex at birth) into his visual practice.
In your presentations, we looked at:
  Joseph Kosuth, bringing philosophy texts and definitions to gallery walls
  Les Levine running a restaurant as art, and his mass-production of abstract, vacuum-formed, plastic shapes (‘disposable art’)
  reclaiming ad spaces by whitewashing billboards
  taking up and displaying photography on site in war-torn Nicaragua
  pop art and hip hop culture, which span spaces from high fashion, global celebrity to gritty street gangs, drug undergrounds and queer culture
  the anarchist Situationist International, loose in the streets of Paris
  images from sexist advertising to the feminism and activism of the Guerilla Girls and their angry exposure of art’s dirty truths, and other cross-boundary and slightly illicit visual cultures
  and more.
What this variety of unusual approaches suggests is that high and mass culture, artists and designers, both have some flexibility and some say in whether we choose to accept the terms on which our identities are created, for us and against us. These examples, I think, all critique the way that dominant culture “naturalizes ideology,” how the media we absorb makes it seems normal that women have certain roles; that men should act a certain (tough, dominating) way; that there just are different races and it’s better not to mix them; and that everything should be a commodity, that is, have a price, to be bought and sold in private exchanges.
Designers are in a position to critique these ideas as they work most closely with the systems and tools that produce and reproduce signs, and that in fact create the system of signs and symbols we live within. That critical questioning might begin by asking why designers own or control almost nothing of what they produce, beyond the skills and visual intelligence they acquire in producing it: not the computers or software they use, nor the fonts and images that they choose, the offices they work in, nor, above all, the symbols, styles and actual works of visual art they produce. We work for a wage.
Artists, however, produce everything ‘on spec,’ at their own expense, hoping it will sell on the market later—something the professional designer vows never to do. Seen this way, art is anything but a genuine, private, pure space that does not sell itself in  the circuits of value, money and commodities in our world. All art today is made to be sold, and is sold, or it is just nothing, a hobby at best. How is it that Banksy, even as he appears to resist being bought and sold in galleries, finds his work dragged into the art world and given absurd prices? Maybe he’s so interesting to us because we know that all the ‘public’ space around us is already taken, already hijacked by whoever happens to own it. When activists ‘hijack’ or ‘hack’ or ‘culture jam’ ads and websites and billboards, aren’t they in some sense really just taking them back?
The question of gender, feminism, and the Guerilla Girls fits into this in an interesting way, too. (The pun, of course, is between the gorilla masks they wear, and guerillas, meaning small groups of irregular fighters, from the Spanish word guerra, war.)  Just as we find there is no essential quality, medium, or visual truth that divides the rhetorics of art and design, there is not absolute rule or border that divides male and female genders. How we perform our identities is not simply or entirely determined by any biological command or genetic accident. Burgin produces posters with somewhat puzzling caption/image combinations, but which suggest that the mass media fails to represent us or reflect who we are. Rather, mass media create and shape our self-image, always into easily digested but restrictive stereotypes.
Burgin digs into contemporary theory to understand that we in fact lack an essential, authentic, interior self or role. It’s constructed from the sign systems and visual mass around us, just as the Marlboro ad looks out on and shapes the viewers passing it, or the woman, described in the caption, gets her hair cut to look exactly like the (much younger, blonder) photo.

In our so-called public spaces, who has the right to boldly look at other people? Who gets to capture and reproduce images and identities on a mass scale? Does mass media really represent us? Do you feel your personal reality is reflected in the websites, shows, and ads you consume, even the social media self-images we carefully cultivate? Or do we just work to measure up?

Just like any human-made sign, our identity is determined by where we fit in relation to all the other signs in a given system; as new signs change the shape of the overall collection of signs, the meaning of existing signs change. David Bowie and Lady Gaga enter into our map of existing gender images, and our idea of male/female, and our own self-image, is inevitably affected, even possibly changed outright.
The rhetoric of design, that overwhelming, spectacular, global circuit of visual clichés and stereotypes, from Santa Claus to Star Wars, Bollywood to Hello Kitty, Murikami and Jeff Koons, Helvetica and minimalism, is shared by all image makers in our integrated, globalized world. But it does seem that the barrier between art and design is still enforced, a difference is maintained between them, not because designers or even artists want it that way, but because of how private property works with images: it needs advertising and design as a productive investment, to reach masses of consumers; but it also needs the art market for the exchange of absurdly valuable and useless objects, as a way to invest enormous sums of money and to speculate, as collectors and museums bet huge sums against each other to control the status and value of these objects.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Picasso at the AGO

The co-founder and former cellist of Velvet Underground, John Cale, recorded a great song (written by Jonathan Richman) shouted in his hoarse, atonal voice:  “Pablo Picasso / never got called an asshole / He could walk down your street / and girls could not resist his stare.” Cale added a wonderfully grinding, monotonous and discordant arrangement, then trails off with the somewhat redundant taunt, “Not like you.” (1)
Seeing the show of Picasso’s work at the Art Gallery of Ontario prompted me to hum along, if only because of how the show is marketed, in breathless one-word superlatives: “Genius. Rebel.” and so on. While one expects museum marketing departments to use myth-making and hyperbole to sell tickets, is such a worshipful atmosphere really helpful to understanding what he was thinking, or how Cubism helped shape and change modern vision and visual culture? But even art historians, who should know better, tell us we live in a world of “post-Cubist design principles,” attributing to the movement a “sweeping influence on contemporary and subsequent culture” that changed all of art and design, architecture and photography.(2) So, it makes me wonder.
A disclaimer: I don’t enjoy most of Picasso’s work. I think his color is muddy and vulgar (uninterestingly vulgar), and misses the point of exploring color. He was always drawing, not painting, and the rough contours that he outlined everything in equally miss the point of questioning the application of paint. His constant reference was past art and his target was the act representation, and indeed the idea of the individual genius itself. These are semiotic, social, and historical puzzles more than they are purely visual innovations or work that goes beyond the boundaries of the field. He should have been a cartoonist, actually – and I say that out of the greatest respect for comics and cartoons. Linear simplification and literal message was what his eye and hand always seemed to be doing.

There is one painting in the show that caught my attention, as it had all the sly earmarks of naughty Pablo, variously labeled Nude in a Garden, or Nudes in a Garden; or Female Nude in a Garden (you get the idea) from 1934. John McDonald puts it this way:
“Cubist devices had gradually been reappearing in Picasso’s work for over a decade. At this point of his career he would jump between styles as the mood dictated, breaking the body of a model into pieces and reassembling it in various artful ways.
Nude in a garden is an image of sensual abandon and submission, with Marie Thérèse compressed into a ball of pink flesh, with breasts, genitals and buttocks all on prominent display.” (3)

And this is taken as evidence of Picasso as “adoring lover,” not “the misogynist portrayed in various biographies.” Once I had puzzled out the various body parts, I noticed something quite central to the picture: yes, breasts, genitals and buttocks are all on prominent display, but so is her anus. It’s that single black smudge to the left, which in the original fades into drybrush as it smudges up and to the right, lending it a truly profound depth and realism. A masterful smear, and a perfectly vulgar (interestingly vulgar) celebration of the woman as completely exposed, all at once and at a glance, highly vulnerable and available.
Picasso is so much about biography, about his personal pleasures, conquests, and indulgent self that he is the perfect object of adoration. He doesn’t profoundly challenge how art works or the role it plays, or try to take us very far past the comfort zone of classical themes and subjects. He simply shifts his one message (the male ego dominated by its id, perhaps?) from style to style, and across different semiotic registers. He gives us the pleasures we deny ourselves, assholes that we are. For me, he embodies the logic of pornography quite perfectly, which is at least a nice change from the legion of tortured and self-damaging artists so often celebrated in art historical narratives.
These works do need to be seen and studied, as direct representations of their times and as exemplars of modernism that utterly dominated the visual conversation of art for decades. But they have also dominated art historical writing, and had a truly “sweeping influence” on the reception of painting and art, shaping so much of critical and, more to the point, resolutely non-critical writing and theory for almost a century.
If we argue that Picasso was a powerful leader in modern art’s struggle for an autonomous logic of form, for self-reference and self-definition, aren't there much more ‘advanced’ and challenging artists and works? (Why did he never really paint about painting, or move to the issues of, for example, non-objective abstraction?) And if we argue that he captured the social and political tenor of his times, aren’t there better examples of that, too? Like design, for example; or commercial comics and cartooning; or advertising, with its poundingly oppressive, infinitely varied and seemingly unstoppable application of the memes and idioms of visual messaging – just like Picasso, only better: more effective, more honestly pornographic.
Picasso, I think, keeps us rooted in the past; we really can’t “resist his stare.” He blinds us to the obvious: the most important art of the last century wasn’t about self-expression, or even art at all, but its defiant, irrepressible Other. That would be marketing, and what Debord called “spectacle,” the ways in which capital is visually expanded and publically expressed and coded across many media, in design, photography and illustration. Always looking forward, drawing its poetry from the future, not the past.

Oakville, ON / 2012.Aug.24
(1) John Cale, from Helen of Troy (Island Records, 1975).
(2) Mark Antliff and Patricia Leighten, Cubism and Culture (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2001): 7. To their great credit, Antliff and Leighten have carried the tough arguments against the many overly formalist reading of Picasso, which imply he only ever thought about styles and his medium, placing him squarely in the anarchist and, later, Stalinist political currents of the day.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Design art

Ha. Tried to post this little meme on the National Gallery "Community Page," but it immediately disappeared. Arrogance is its own reward on the art world.

Anyway, check this out:

Copies of designed catalogues on exhibition, design colonizing visual culture. PS, I worked at the office (eiko emori inc.) that I believe may have designed the original Judd catalog.

Now check out this: you. too, can have your copy of the original catalog, from Amazon:

United Kingdom Softcover, ISBN 0888842775
Publisher: National Gallery of Canada, 1975
Used, Usually dispatched within 1-2 business days


Sunday, January 8, 2012


This is an excerpt from from a paper I delivered at the Universities Art Association Conference in October, 2008. I still like it, especially the last paragraph: one great whacking sentence with everything in it, like a big leftover stew. It was fun to read out loud.

Gottfried Semper spent his lifetime (1803 – 1879) searching for the “inner laws”
of art. His great work, Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts; or, Practical
Aesthetics, spends 1,000 pages examining the so-called decorative arts (and he
didn’t even get to his principal interest, architecture). He describes the
relationship between how a water vessel is carried and used, and its design and
centre of gravity: the low-slung Egyptian situla is for drawing water from the earth;
the upright Greek hydria is for catching water from springs.

In the German romantic tradition, Semper could not resist attributing national
characteristics or, in the words of translator Harry Francis Mallgrave, a “collective
psychological demeanor,” to such things: the ancient Egyptians were earth bound,
heavy, and low; the Greeks soaring and spiritual. Every object, for Semper, was
replete with evidence of a culture’s inner meaning.

Today, such sweeping attributions might strike us as overreaching; simpleminded;
or even just racist. But perhaps we can venture an equally broad
conclusion from the prevailing non-style of the blank commodities that choke the
aisles; namely, that the cultural logic of capitalism is on such a massive scale,
compels such a level and intensity of stylistic variation, has made the artificial so
compelling, and has penetrated our lived experience to such a total degree, that to
map and diagram the prevailing visual logic around us is to point not towards the
justification of extraordinary practices, spirals of earth shimmering in a salt lake,
but instead towards the inescapable truth that even the most familiar of objects,
like the most difficult, are and must always remain utterly arbitrary; social
constructs beyond an individual’s private use or control; incapable of sincerity; the
products of an imposed logic.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Learning to write

An interesting experience, stopping for a while and surveying what it is you have done and are doing. A moment of reflection, or reflexivity, or maybe both. (A quick googlecheck yields: But also a professional necessity for job applications. What have I been doing? Some quick online advice suggested that a research statement should state what you have been researching, a few of the results that have come from that, and outline where you are going and what you are planning to do next.

So, in the process of applying for a couple of design history positions, I came up with a one-page statement of my research project. Felt better than years of therapy. This is it:

Research statement
My research project is based on documenting and explaining the origins of professional graphic design in Canada after 1945. This project has been highly successful, as I am still working through and making sense of the wide range and sheer volume of artifacts and images it has unearthed. My research fills a huge gap in our understanding of global design. Although Canada enjoys status as a major developed economy, there has been little academic writing on its graphic design, and no single survey text or major exhibition to provide context and continuity in design studies in this country. My immediate goal is to finish writing and curating the images for such a survey text. This process will be aided by my new status as Research Associate at the Royal Ontario Museum, which houses the design archives of a number of Canadian designers.

In addition to digging back in time, my doctoral research studied how design works, going beyond the simplistic phrase “visual language” to examine how visual culture produces meaning through iteration and mimesis, without any working grammar or syntax. Design produces aesthetic, disciplinary, discursive, and even economic effects without having any regulating structure and without being a systematic language. In this sense, it is far more interesting than language. Revised parts of my dissertation have been published as articles, such as “Touch, Community, and Aesthetics: Where Harold Kurschenska’s Designs Take Us,” in DA, A Journal of the Printing Arts (2004). In addition to completing the publication of various other chapters from my doctoral work, I have another book project started, on Canadian designer and illustrator Eric Aldwinckle.

I have also sketched out a plan for a text on design history and theory. But far from adding another survey to the pile (I have taught the history of design from four different existing ones: Meggs, Raisman, Joubert, and Eskilson), I want to link key readings in critical theory to various periods and design movements, as work-shopped over ten years of teaching: Kant and typography; Saussure and Dada; Benjamin and Bauhaus; Adorno and International Style; Jameson and Grunge, etc. 

I am also continuing my reading into post-structuralism, globalization and Marxist economics, and the implications for visual culture represented by the loss of presence and positive meaning that such analyses suggest. I am developing a series of articles, and hopefully a book, on how capitalism creates value (which it measures as the cumulative price of goods and services), and how design’s fluid, mimetic, and open source generation of value points not only beyond any professional design language, but beyond the capitalist mode of production itself. This thesis was the basis for my most recent paper, “Identities, Mimesis and Ownership: How Does Design Create Price and Value?” for a session I co-chaired at the Universities Art Association conference in Ottawa last month.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Contemporary Problems, Response to Chapter 10

Chapter 10, The Global Flow of Visual Culture

Many ways to respond to globalization, as well but I will focus on one of my favorite authors: about the same time as cultural and other theorists were writing about postmodernism (see response to Ch. 8), Terry Eagleton returns to a key theme of modernist political theory, ideology
Terry Eagleton, Ideology, An Introduction (Verso, 1991)
Reject the concept of ideology, as if we are free of collective interests that determine and direct us?
Postmodern rejects representation, skeptical of any real knowledge, sees power arising everywhere
Idea of “ideology” is said to be closed, old school, too deterministic (it looks at how we are structured)
But to lose concept of ideology while remaining driven by ideas is to fight ourselves,
       as one does in psychoanalysis: the self at war with itself, a very postmodern condition
Ideology, range of meanings: any guiding ideas, or just the false ones? Necessary to all, or specific to just some misguided souls? Is ideology enabling or dominating?
Often seen as false, source of blindness, distortion, and error; but all thought requires pre-conceptions
Technocratic society wants to deny any bias, as though its power is scientific, inevitable, objective
Foucault’s concept of ideology too broad: power and ideology found in every gesture, practice, habit
Language, technology, institutions all tools, specific to some forms of power, 
not the source of oppression
Source of religion, for example, not just power or domination: it may be false but not absurd,
       responds to real needs, pain, fear, alienation, lack of identity in fluid, changing world
Ideologies often obviously false: one people are inferior, e.g., or capitalism always brings democracy
But sometimes ideology can be based on factual things, but interpreted and used deceptively
Like advertising: no lies in a cigarette ad that shows cowboys smoking, but clear implication is false:
       cigarettes don't make you manly, they make you sick or dead
Problem: facts can be confirmed, but values cannot
Is there a basis for deciding between fundamentally conflicting values, or is it all relative?
Louis Althusser’s concept of ideology: not true or false, merely our lived relationship to situation
Ideas may be warped, but are necessary, natural, and unconscious, come from our real circumstances
Ideologies pragmatic (they get things done) and constitutive (they shape and determine our actions)
But are they really natural, neutral? Surely in a society of real freedom, there would be no ideology
There would be “nothing to explain away,” (28), no reason for complex narratives and illusions
Ideology is more than everyday practices, and not all are equal: the colour of a country’s mailboxes
       not as powerful, profound, or important as the size of its army
Six broad definitions of ideology (in order of rising specificity, power, and domination):
       All general ideas or beliefs held in common
       Ideas of any group or class
       Ideas used to promote and legitimate a group’s collective interests
       Ideas of the dominant group
       Distorted ideas used to defend the dominant group’s interests
       The distortion and deception inherent and systemic in any unequal, material social structure
The last suggests that ideologies arise from historical and material circumstances; so can they be
       changed simply through changing ideas?
Or does society have to change? Or do they change each other?
Is it crude and simplistic to see ideology as a product of economic compulsions, a systematic distortion that keeps wages low, or prevents workers from running their own workplaces collectively

Jürgen Habermas: rational, technocratic, pragmatic, instrumental ideas replacing rational “public values”
Places capitalism beyond ideology? Society run on basis of pure utility, technical solutions, not values
We become “exchange-value” only, no subjectivity to work on: “capitalism flattens the human subject to a viewing eye and devouring stomach.” (38)   
But complex, modern production requires independent, creative thought: can’t all be ironic machines
Summarizes other theories of ideology: it is all around, in the air we breathe, but is it immutable?
Frankfurt School (Adorno, Marcuse), single, monolithic, deceptive, identical, reified culture
Reified = abstract ideas made concrete, embodied, frozen in material relationships
       (usually not for the best)
Raymond Williams: varieties of social experience, local cultures, allows resistance:
       no hegemony is absolute, there are many “structures of feeling,” paths to action
Michel Foucault, power is absolute, rises from a micro-physics, like sap in our veins
       (but then how to explain critical thinking? How to explain Foucault himself?) 
Important link: all ideologies must appear (be made to seem) natural, inevitable, universal, eternal
Althusser again: “ideology has no outside,” each one seems infinite (58)
But surely some interests really are universal? Equality, women’s liberation, e.g.
Only truth can survive being truly self-aware; ideology cannot understand itself to be ideological,
       or it ceases to work as, or to be, ideology
Our ideologies must be based on who we really are, or we must reject them
Eagleton then traces a broad swath of intellectual and political history, from the Enlightenment to Marx and the Second International (1914); through Lukács and Gramsci; to Adorno and Bourdieu
Chapter 7 is key for design: “Discourse and Ideology,” how words and other signs give us concepts
Tracing power through how we use language, prefer to imagine ‘deep meaning, closed systems;
       we want to imagine that the visual is a reliable language, when it is open and contingent
Our social position does imbue us with interests and specific ideas, like a galley slave vs. its master
Situation doesn't determine everything about the slave’s thoughts, but surely constrains it
And a slave’s thoughts surely represent that situation, the class position of slavery, if imperfectly
Do people become conservative from simply voting Tory? Or do they have real property to defend?  

For a detailed and challenging book on this same theme, but read through the philosophy of art and culture, see Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthtetic (Blackwell, 1990).