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.
30 – 49.
• Joan Gibbons, “Art Invades and Appropriates,” in Art and Advertising (London: I. B. Taurus, 2005): 29 – 51.
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.