Project Good taste (work in progress)

In this project I have reviewed the Dick Hebdige essay The Bottom Line on Planet One (Evans, J. and Hall, S., 1999, pp 99). The aim of the project is to present my answers to a series of questions:

Does Hebdige make a clear distinction between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture?

He does not specifically do this. Instead he compares two magazines Ten.8 and The Face. He constructs two imaginary Worlds, one to represent each of these magazines.

In the  First World the relations of power and knowledge are ordered so that priority is given to the written word. There is a strict hierarchical system system wherein a priestly caste of scribes proscribe the form and content of all legitimate discourse and control the flow of knowledge. These priests are served by technical operatives who produce engravings of images to supplement the texts of the priests. The scribes also have responsibilty for placing the engravings within an historical and theoretical frameswork. At no point does Hebdige specifically mention ‘high’ culture but the First World is a clear parody of it. The structures and activities of First World  fall squarely into the ‘Sphere of Legitimacy’ as defined Bourdieu in his hierarchy of legitimacies.  (Evans, J. and Hall, S., 1999, pp176). This is the world of Ten.8.

In the Second World, which is a much larger planet, images take precedence over words. The use of language is to supplement the image by describing the moment it embodies. It no longer has the role, as in the First World of presenting the image in its historical or theoretical context. There is no explanation of  the origins of images, their functions, effects or meanings. There is no hierarchical system of priests and scribes. Knowledge and information is disseminated by a motley crew of disparate sources. It is as if the Bourdieu’s hierarchy of legitimacies has been collapsed into the Sphere of the Arbitrary – the domain occupied by ‘popular’ culture (Evans, J. and Hall, S., 1999, pp176). This is the world of The Face.

So indirectly it could be said that Hebdige makes the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture in the way in which he contrasts the two worlds. However, his real intention is to contrast Modernism with Postmodernism.

What are his arguments against the ‘People of the Post’?

Hebdige’s argues that the ‘Posts’ ‘have been working to liberate the signifier (image) from the constraints imposed upon it by the rationalists’. What he means by this is that they have challenged whether it is possible to analyse images to decode what they mean – in their view it is not- or if it is possible for an author to create a unique work which is not just a series of references to other sources – again they believe it is not . They have launched a multi-facetted attack on authority (which provides the structures to decode representations) and authorship (which claims originality for particular works). The consequence of all this is that what is left is a world devoid of meanings, history or structure. Hebdige describes the results of the actions of the ‘Posts’ as a ‘drift into autism’.  (People with autism say that the world to them is a mass of people, places and events which they struggle to make sense of).

Explain my views on the difference between high and popular culture today?

‘High’ and ‘popular’ culture are essentially defined by the cultural activites which society has determined fall into each category. What falls into each category has over time been strongly influenced by class and educational divisions. ‘High’ culture activities are those which are deemed of high value by the higher social and better educated classes. They are generally surrounded by an establishment of learned societies, universities, colleges, art historians, curators, art critics and such like. ‘High’ culture events tend to be eliteist. Access to them is difficult and can be very expensive. Given the mystique surrounding the activities in ‘high’ culture those who are not ‘in the loop’ may avoid participating, seeking to avoid appearing foolish.

‘Popular’ culture is the set of cultural activities which are readily available to all. There is no establishment structure and access is relatively inexpensive – it is the domain of the mass market. In order to attract people there is a tendency for those promoting ‘popular’ culture events to sensationalise and to appeal the the more lurid aspects of society. .

Sources

Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing  London: Penguin

Evans, J. and Hall, S. (1999) Visual Culture: the reader London: Sage

Project The society of the Spectacle

This project is review of  a chaper  Separation Perfected by Guy Debord (Evans, J. and Hall, S., 1999).  The project calls for a number of questions to be answered. I deal with each of these in turn below. It has to be said that I found Debord’s language and ideas very difficult to understand. My responses are therefore my best attempt. I have some doubts as to whether I really got to the bottom of his ideas.

Weltanschauung – a comprehensive philosophy or world view?

To answer this question I first needed to explore what the term Weltanschauung means. An excellent summary of the term is provided by Sigmund Freud (Freud, 1932) as follows:

‘By Weltanschauung, then, I mean an intellectual construction which gives a unified solution of all the problems of our existence in virtue of a comprehensive hypothesis, a construction, therefore, in which no question is left open and in which everything in which we are interested finds a place.’

So Freud presents the concept as an intellectual construction, or  a philosophy. I am not sure though that this is the way Debord uses the term. He believes that people see the Spectacle as real not just as a set of ideas. In his view a process of social alienation has taken place whereby the Spectacle is taken as reality. This goes beyond just a set of intellectual ideas.

What do you think Debord means by ‘the Spectacle’?

Debord refers to the physical manifestation of the Spectacle as follows: ‘In all its specific forms, as information or propaganda, as advertising or direct entertainment consumption, the spectacle is the present model of socially dominant life’. So he regards the mass media as a physical manifestation of the spectacle, but he also uses the words ‘the spectacle, taken in the limited sense of the mass media’, so clearly he sees the spectacle as much more. What comes through within his essay is the sense that he sees the spectacle as the dominant means by which the  ‘existing systems administration’ exerts control over society. So the Spectacle is not just another word for mass media, it is more a method of controlling society in the interests of the the ruling classes.

Have Debord’s ideas been confirmed or contradicted since 1967?

Without question in my mind the scale of the physical manifestation of Debord’s Spectacle, i.e. the mass media, has mushroomed since 1967. So if one believes his basic argument then it seems likely that the level of control exerted on society by the ‘existing systems administration’ has grown. However this assumes that one accepts the notion that the mass media is being used as a means of control. Or indeed that it can be controlled. An alternative view is that the mass media is a cacophony of messages from competing interests and that it is not a system of control, rather it is out of control. The democratisation of the mass media through the internet which allows individuals to present themselves and their ideas to the world also complicates matters.

Are we having our world view controlled or do we simply not know what is propaganda?

My view is that Debord used the term ‘see the world by various specialised mediations’ to propose that we are having our view of the world controlled. He uses the expression ‘the Spectacle subjugates living men to itself to the extent that the economy has totally subjugated them.’, which supports this view. He also makes the point that the spectacle is a one way form of communication – there is no capacity to question or interrogate. My own view is that it is more that we are unable to distinguish between what is real and what is not, nor for that matter what is real and what is propaganda. The sheer volume of information with which we are bombarded these days makes it even more difficult to distinguish truth from fiction. However as I indicated above I remain unconvinced that the Spectacle can be managed as a grand plan by the ruling classes.

Is the Spectacle seeing the real as abstract or as an extreme reification?

The strict definition of reification is to make a thing (greek: res) out of an idea.  I believe that the concept of reification is at the heart of Debord’s Spectacle. The Spectacle relies on the Marx’s concept of fetishisation of commodities, ie when an output from productive processes is transformed into a commodity it becomes a marketing idea disengaged from its original form and value based on its intrinsic cost of production. Commodities are presented through advertising etc as something more. For example young men buying Lynx cosmetic products are not buying a glass bottle or aerosol can with perfumed liquid in it, rather they are buying the idea that if they have this product then they will become more attractive to women. This idea becomes reality in the minds of the purchasers and as such is reified.

Sources

Evans, J. and Hall, S. (1999) Visual Culture: the reader London: Sage

Freud, S. (1932) A philosophy of life Available from:

http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/at/freud.htm [Accessed on 2nd January 2012]

Project Barbarous taste

This project involves reviewing Pierre Bourdieu’s essay The Social Definition of Photography  considering the following statement he makes:

‘in conferring upon photography a guarantee of realism, society is merely confirming itself in the tautological certainty that an image of the real which is true to its representation of objectivity is really objective’

The aim is to interpret what Bourdieu means by this and whether or not I agree with his contention.

Meaning

Bourdieu contends that people sees photographs as real. In his view they do so because of the mechanical nature of photographic reproduction, the social uses of photography and because it is consistent with the  ‘representation of the world which has dominated Europe since the Quattrocento’,  in other worlds the conventions of  European painting since the Renaissance. Photographic images are projected through perspective onto a flat plane, just as in painting.  He is not specific about what he means by social uses, but he is most likely referring to photography’s use in everyday portraiture, public services such as passport and criminal photography and everyday family ‘snapshot’ photography. These factors result in society ‘conferring upon photography a guarantee of realism’.

Thus what I believe Bourdieu means is that an image of something which is real, or exists, which is made according to the socially accepted conventions of objectivity, i.e. photography, is considered by society to be objective. In doing so society overlooks the capacity for the photographer to influence the image through selection of  subject, framing, lens, shutter speed, aperture and viewpoint. The fact that a photograph for most of its history has been a black and white rendering of the visual onto a flat plane is also ignored.

Do I agree?

The old adage ‘the camera never lies’ exists for a reason. Certainly I agree for most of the time since the invention of photography society has seen photographs as real and people did believe in this adage. More recently however this notion has been undermined – particularly since the birth of the digital age. People today are much more suspicious about photographs. They are more likely to question whether they have been manipulated. Do people really believe that the women in the advertisements and magazines have such  perfect skin – I think not. Scandals about the manipulation of press photography have also undermined photography’s reputation for objectivity. I also wonder whether video has taken over the mantle of reality.  The rise of the internet as a means of distributing un-mediated video coverage of events could well be impacting on perceptions of reality.

Project The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction

This project is based on study of the Walter Benjamin essay The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction and Chapter One of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing  that is based on Benjamin’s essay. The project calls for the following questions on Berger’s book to be answered:

  • Do you find his (Berger’s) case convincing?
  • Do you think that a work of art removed from its original location grows or diminishes in meaning?
  • Does familiarity breed contempt?
  • Has Benjamin’s ‘aura’ been removed by the postcard?
I have set out my thoughts on each of these in turn below.
Do you find his case convincing?
I found Berger’s presentation of Benjamin’s ideas very compelling. The style of presentation seeks to simplify what are very complex ideas. Berger’s intent is to question some of the notions about the tradition of European painting and in particular about how we now see such art today.
He begins by suggesting that how we see things is directed by habit and convention. He focusses particularly on the convention of perspective in European painting. This convention implies that the viewer has to be a a particular place, at a particular time to see a particular scene. The convention of perspective gave European painting its sense of reality. He uses the 1923  film and quotation from Soviet film director Dziga Vertov to illustrate how the camera has changed this convention. We can now see things which happened a long way away and at different times. He also references how the birth of photography led to artists such as the Impressionists and Cubists to challenge the conventions of perspective. These arguments are compelling.
He moves on to show how mechanical reproduction of images has changed how we view paintings made long ago. He contends that originally such a painting would have been unique in terms of what it showed, where and when it was displayed, its history and how it was used in ritual, e.g. religious art. All of this created a unique presence or ‘aura’. In the age of mechanical reproduction its uniqueness now relies solely on the fact that it is the original work. The ‘aura’ is lost. Once again the arguments are persuasive.
He next illustrates how the art world has sought to mystify original works based on the rarity value. He references the fact that the National Gallery’s  catalogue entry for Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks  runs to over 14 pages and the way in which Leonardo’s cartoon The Virgin with St Anne and St John the Baptist  has become the most popular exhibit at the  National Gallery purely because of the monetary value it achieved. His argument is further supported by statistical data which shows that the majority of people when questioned say that Museums remind them of church demonstrating that a bogus religiosity has been created. Once again these arguments are effective.
He shows how reproduction gives images information value. Through isolating details, presenting narratives and introducing text the same image can be used to convey different meanings. He also demonstrates how the context in which images are viewed can create different readings.
In the final section he argues that for the first time images of art have entered the mainstream of life over which they have no power. He argues that very few people have noticed this as the means of reproduction are used to create an illusion that nothing has changed. I am less persuaded by this last point today as in the post modern 21st century there is much wider awareness how images are used to influence opinion.
Does art removed from its original location diminish or grow in meaning?
Most original works of art would originally have been created for a specific purpose and as such would have had a well defined meaning. This is not to say that the power of the art would have been limited. Indeed religious and iconic art would have been highly influential. With the mechanical reproduction the  capacity to display images of art in many different locations has been hugely broadened.  As explained above, they have now entered the ‘language of images’ and can be used to convey a far greater range of meanings.
Does familiarity breed contempt?
I think there is information overload taking place in society such that we now take for granted images which 50 or 100 years ago would have seemed miraculous. This most likely also applies to images of art. A contra view is that the democratisation of images of art may encourage a wider cross section of society to explore an interest in art.
Has Benjamin’s ‘aura’ been removed by the postcard?
In effect Benjamin defines ‘aura’ as something which a work of art loses because of the removal of its uniqueness in time, place and history. So yes, if one uses the term postcard as a metaphor for the many forms of reproduction of images of art, then ‘aura’ has been removed by the postcard. There may be those in the art world who would wish to move away from Benjamin’s original concept, and to suggest that original works of art still retain an ‘aura’ because they are original, but a strict interpretation of Benjamin would  reject this notion.

Sources

Evans, J. & Hall, S. (1999) Visual Culture: the reader London: Sage

Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing  London: Penguin

Assignment one: the interaction of media

Introduction 

This assignment is an investigation of how artists since the beginning of the 20th century have been influenced by new media, such as photography, film, television etc rather than traditional painting. I have analysed works by the following three artists to consider this question:

Thomas Demand

Richard Prince

Chuck Close

Each is discussed below.

Thomas Demand 

Thomas Demand was born in 1964 in Munich. He studied at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Munich, the Staatliche Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, and Goldsmiths College in London. He originally trained as a sculptor but has developed a photographic practice involving the construction of life-size models out of paper and cardboard. (Guggenheim, 2011)

The work I have chosen to study is Demand’s Corridor, 1995 Chromogenic process print with diasec. 183.5 x 270 cm. (below)

Corridor, 1995 Chromogenic process print with diasec. 183.5 x 270 cm by Thomas Demand

The work is a photograph of a paper model sculpted by Demand. The model is based on an original photograph, culled from the media. He most often chooses banal, yet historically relevant, photographs as his source material. Corridor for example represents the corridor outside the apartment of the American mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer. When constructing the model, he carefully removes traces of human intervention in the scene. The finished sculpture is photographed using a large format camera and then destroyed.

On the face of it the work is a banal photograph of a corridor in a building. However when one looks closer something seems wrong. Everything looks too clean. There are no traces of human activity. There are points of detail missing – no switches on the light fittings and no handles on the doors. So just what is it that we are seeing? This is the question that Demand is posing. His work challenges our perceptions of the reality. The work of art is three times removed from the original scene it depicts. It is a photograph of a sculpture of a photograph.

He is also questioning how an artist is able to express their intentions through different forms of visual representation. In an interview with Alexander Kluge Demand comments  ‘You can walk around a sculpture as often as you like, and with photographs – mine are very large so that, as with the sculptures, you can also walk around them – you have a moment and my particular angle of vision. My tyrannical condition, as it were, is that I prescribe your vision’ (Kluge, 2006). Essentially what Demand is saying is that by photographing his sculptures he is not only able to insist upon what we see but also how we see it. By so doing he makes his artistic intention absolutely clear.

Richard Prince 

Richard Prince was born in 1949 in the Panama Canal Zone, then a United States territory. He moved to Boston in 1954. In 1973, after applying to the San Francisco Art Institute without success, he moved to New York, where he became familiar with Conceptual art. Working in the Time-Life Building as a preparer of magazine clippings, he became aware of the possibilities of advertising imagery and began to use this as the basis of his art. (Rosenberg, 2005)

One of his best-known works is Untitled (Cowboy), 1989 Chromogenic print 50 x 70 in. (127 x 177.8 cm). (below). What Prince did was to “re-photograph” an advertisement for Marlboro Lights, but removed the picture of the cigarette pack, the advertising copy (“The spirit of Marlboro in a low tar cigarette”), and the Surgeon General’s health warning. He produced a gallery-sized print of the photograph and represented it as a unique piece of art.

Untitled (Cowboy), 1989 Chromogenic print 50 x 70 in. (127 x 177.8 cm) by Richard Prince

In some senses Prince’s work references earlier work by Andy Warhol who produced images of boxes and cans of consumer goods. It is essentially a conceptual piece commenting on how the advertising industry hijacks and even creates American myths to sell consumer products. Prince believes his work is about photography and how photography is used. In a 1992 interview Prince stated ‘I mean I still think it was about how photography and certain media representations are like the Antichrist. It gets me angry, some of these representations, the way that media manipulates and doesn’t tell the whole story’. (Whitney, 1992).

By presenting in a large print for gallery exhibition he also forcefully demonstrates the importance of context is when photographs are read. A Marlboro advert in a magazine is easily overlooked, whereas a large photograph in a gallery commands attention.

Prince’s appropriation of photographs challenges the concepts of ownership and authorship. His work also probes how through photography the mythical status of cowboys, bikers, customized cars, and other icons have been used in the construction of American identity.

Chuck Close 

Whilst American Chuck Close is a painter, he has clearly been heavily influenced by photography. He paints in a style known as photorealism that emerged in the USA in the late 1960s. It involves the making of a work of art, which is an exact recreation of an original object (in the case of sculpture) or photograph (in the case of painting). Close has been a leading artist in this field.

Close’s Big Self Portrait (1967-1968) is one of his early works and is a prime example of photorealism. (below)

Big Self Portrait (1967-1968) by Chuck Close.

To produce this portrait he made a photograph of himself onto which he drew a grid. He transcribed the content of each element on the grid onto a much larger canvas to produce the final painting. (ThinkQuest, 2011). The grid he used for Big Self Portrait was very fine and from a distance was not apparent to the viewer. From close up however the painting becomes more abstract. In a sense when viewed close up his paintings can be compared those of the abstract expressionists whose work had no clear focal point. On the other hand the realistic nature of the paintings viewed from a distance represented a move away from the abstraction of earlier artists.

The technique applied by Close is one which dates back to the Renaissance masters and was later also adapted by contemporary billboard painters. The process is important to Close. In his own words he has ‘embedded in the work itself is all kinds of information about how it got made’. Viewers can ‘decode the process and figure out what happened’. His paintings are also very large. His view on this is that ‘the bigger they are the longer they take to walk by’, indicating that he wants his work to be studied. (Kosters, 2010)

In 1988, Close had a spinal blood clot, which left him a quadriplegic, unable to move either his legs or his arms. Over time he recovered some use of his arms, but he clearly had to develop a new way to paint. His continued in his signature style of painting portraits of heads from source photographs which he now allowed his assistants to grid off. However, he moved away from exact replication of the elements in the grid towards a technique akin to pointillism as illustrated by this detail from a recent untitled self-portrait shown below. From a distance the subjects remain clearly recognizable.

Untitled Self Portrait (detail) by Chuck Close

Close does not like the terms “photorealism” and “superrealism”. In a recent interview he stated that he has always been “interested in the artificial as the real,” and that mark making has always been important to him. In his view it is this physicality that distinguishes painting from photography. (Kosters, 2010).

References

Guggenheim. (2011) Collection Online: Thomas Demand b. 1964, Munich. The Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation (SRGF). Available from:

http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/collections/collection-online/show-full/bio/?artist_name=Thomas Demand&page=1&f=Name&cr=1

Kluge, A. (2006) Thomas Demand In Conversation with Alexander Kluge. Saatchi Online.

Available from:

http://magazine.saaatchionline.com/culture/reports-from/los-angeles-reports-from/thomas_demand_in_conversation [Accessed 30 November 2011]

Rosenberg, K. (2005) Artist: Richard Prince. New York Art. Available from:

http://nymag.com/nymetro/arts/art/11815/ [Accessed on 2 December 2011]

Whitney Museum of American Art. (1992) A Conversation with Richard Prince. American Suburb X. Available from: http//www.americansuburbx.com/2011/04/interview-conversation-with-richard.html  [Accessed on 5 December 2011)

ThinkQuest. (2011) Chuck Close (1940-present). Oracle ThinkQuest Educational Foundation. Available from: http://library.thinkquest.org/C0118063/time/close.htm [Accessed on 1 January 2012]

Kosters, B. (2010) Interview with Chuck Close. Fnews Magazine, School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Available from:  http://fnewsmagazine.com/2010/05/interview-with-chuck-close/ [Accessed on 1 January 2012]