Project Rhetoric of the image

This project involves reading Roland Barthes essay Rhetoric of the image and make notes. The second part of the project is to make notes on some contemporary advertisments in the light of Barthes views.

Barthes work focuses on the multiple meanings which can be attributed to the visual elements within advertisements. He demonstrates that literal (denotive) and implied (connotive) interpretations are always present. With regards to the linguistic component he argues that the most common role is for the text to provide the context in which the authors wish the denotive elements in the advertisement to be interpreted (he refers to this as anchorage).

In the case of literal messages the relationships between signifiers and signifieds is simply one of recording, e.g. this photograph of an apple simply depicts an apple. In this regard the myth of photographic ‘naturalness’ adds a sense of objectivity derived from the general understanding that for a photograph to be made mechanically it is a given that the thing must have-been-there. 

Connotive interpretations of visual images require an understanding of relevant cultural codes. The photographer’s intervention when producing a mechanical image, i.e. choice of framing, viewpoint, lens etc, also falls into the realm of the connotive. An apple can given alternative meanings depending on how it is photographed.

I have chosen to review some recent advertisments for sports equipment as it is an area of personal interest and is very topical given the upcoming London Olympics.

The first advertisement is this one for Nike.

Nike advertisment featuring runner Mo Farah

The construction of this ad is very simple. It is a photograph of the runner Mo Farah in action overlaid with a significant amount of  text. Looking first at the text. There is an apparent hand written note from Farah stating DON’T DREAM OF WINNING. TRAIN FOR IT. Mo, then a web reference, including the statement MAKE IT COUNT in red and finally the Nike logo. The literal interpretation of this is get out there an train, its the way to win. Dreaming alone simply does not get the job done. Mo’s signature, the web reference and the logo add credibility and legitimise the statement and the use of Mo’s photograph. The photograph shows Mo hard at work. His eyes stare straight ahead. He is not sweating, nor does he appear to be distressed. His body and arms show that he is running. As does the movement of the chain around his neck. He looks very lean, very focused and very fit. On a connotive level the image is saying ‘this is how you will look if you train a lot (using Nike products)’. Mo is associated with speed and success. His endorsement of Nike products transfers the association of success to the use of Nike products. So the implied (connotive) message is ‘use Nike products if you want to be a successful athlete’.

My second advertisment is for Reebok Easytone shoes.

Reebok Easytone shoe advertisment

On a denotive level this ad shows a woman with an enviable figure from the waist down set in a room with a wooden floor. She is dressed in her Reebok shoes and panties. There is a old red telephone on the floor and the telephone wire is wrapped around her legs. On the floor surrounding her are various items spread around untidily – shoes, a clock, a pile of magazines, a pot plant, some dice and some roller skates. The wall she is facing is white and there is a door at the centre of the image. To the left of the door there are various items of clothing hanging, presumably from hooks. On the wall behind there are various photographs pinned up.  Easytone help you tone your butt and legs with every step, Available soon Runtone for running and Traintone for working out. EASYTONE RUNTONE TRAINTONE  is the main subtext on the advertisment. In larger letters to the left centre is Reetone  and to the bottom right Reebok your move. The scene is apparently intended to denote a typical domestic scene of a woman at home. On an implied level the scene suggests a woman with lots going on and little time to keep fit. The fact that she has a perfect body stands in contradiction to this situation as one would think that she might have little time to train. The shoes she is wearing are suggested as the reason for her perfect butt and legs. The message is ‘buy our shoes and you will look like this’.  There is little sign of family life in the stuff spread around the room, so this woman is presented as a single girl with a busy work and social life, suggesting that this is the target market for the product. The text anchors the scene causing the viewer to focus on the shoes. The male audience would no doubt focus on the girl’s figure and men might be seen as a second audience for the ad, with boyfriends and husbands being encouraged to purchase the product so that their girlfriend/wife’s figures might be transformed into the perfect form presented on the ad.


Assignment Two: the displaced image

I am long overdue posting my latest work on the blog… I have now completed assignment two and received feedback from my tutor. The work was regarded as ‘competent’ by my tutor which is I believe a fair assessment. I questioned myself whether I had put my heart and soul into the work and I think I might have done better. I completed most of the work quite quickly and then had a significant time lapse before finishing it off. As a result I lost my flow. My tutor also recommended that I make specific references to my sources from within the text which I will do from now on. She also provided very valuable insight into the work of the artists which I had selected. An overview of the work I submitted is set out below.


This assignment is about exploring the ways in which artists and designers use the work of others in their own art and the effects that this has on the understanding of meaning. 

The scope of the assignment required that I find three examples of work in which the work of others is incorporated and three examples where the work appropriates copies or references everyday objects and reuses them as works of fine art. 

For the former I have selected the following works: 

  • The Artist’s Studio – The Dance by Roy Lichtenstein
  • Canal Zone Invitation by Richard Prince
  • Fountain, after Marcel Duchamp by Sherrie Levine 

In the case of work appropriating/referencing everyday objects I  selected: 

  • Costermonger’s Barrow II 1991 by Michael Landy
  • Bed by Robert Rauschenberg
  • Delores James 1962 by John Chamberlain 

Reflections on the Annotations 

What is abundantly clear from my review of the selected works is that there are many ways in which other works of art and everyday objects can be used and referenced within other works of art. 

In the case of Lichtenstein, he references several other works by both himself and Matisse in creating The Artist’s Studio – the Dance. His work however is not a straight copy. It is consistent with his broader style, which is comic book in appearance. My take on this is that by referencing works thought of as ‘high’ art he was raising questions about the elitism of the art world, although Lichtenstein’s own view on this is far from clear. 

Richard Prince’s work is based on appropriated photographs from a French photographer Patrick Cariou.  Prince, in his own words, ‘[doesn’t] really makes comments with any of [his] work’. This is perhaps why he was insufficiently persuasive to win a court case brought by Cariou for copyright infringement. The judge found in favour of Cariou because Prince’s work was not in her opinion sufficiently transformative. Prince’s appeal has been lodged and the outcome will be known soon. Personally I think it is possible that Prince was adapting Cariou’s photographs of Rastafarians to comment on broader issues of race and identity in society. A less charitable view however might be that he was taking shortcuts to exploit a gullible art market. 

Sherrie Levine’s use of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain as a basis for her own work is curious. In the past Levine has appropriated works by other artists as a means of challenging Modernist notions of artistic originality. The choice of Duchamp’s work is however seems a strange one as Duchamp and the Dadaists were also challenging the prevailing assumptions about what constitutes art through their ‘anti-art’ movement.  Is Levine now challenging Duchamp’s challenge?

Landy’s Costermonger’s Barrow literally presents an everyday object as a work of art. It seems to reference earlier works by Duchamp and other Dadaists from the earliest 20th century. It may also be referring to modern capitalist society’s  ‘mindless overproduction of material goods’, to quote Jean Tiguely, an artist who has been a great influence on Landy. 

Rauschenberg used his bed as if it were a ‘canvas’ to produce a work of art. Rauschenberg presents his work, as art rather than anti-art, but also expresses the view that art has ‘everything to do with life’. I find his work intriguing as the unmade bed in itself, with its dirty sheets and indentation, raises many questions in the mind of the viewer. 

Chamberlain simply seems to have used scrap from old cars as ‘art supplies’ to produce what he intended as expressionistic pieces. By presenting them in a gallery setting, sometimes mounted on the wall the materials suggest new meanings far from their original purpose. 

What I have learned from this assignment is that there are many ways in which other art works and everyday objects can be referenced in one’s art. In all the examples I reviewed the original work or object takes on a new significance or meaning. That said interpretation of meaning is in itself problematic. Most of the artists I reviewed have been reluctant to clarify their intentions. Most likely this is because it is now generally accepted that viewers attribute meaning to works of art based on their own background and experiences and that they will also be influenced by the context within which they are viewing or experiencing the work. However, at the same time this reluctance to spell out how the artist has transformed the original work or object is raising interesting questions over copyright for works involving the appropriation of art.

PDF files of the annotations can be found here:

Rauschenberg bed

Prince Canal Zone

Lichtenstein artists studio

Fountain Sherrie Levine

Costamonger annotation

Chamberlain Dolores James