Project Author? What author?

The title of this project is interesting and very relevant to the subject matter. ‘Project Author’ with a capital A suggests the Modernist view of the author – ‘a privileged creator of meaning and authority in the work in question’. “What author’ with a small a presents the contemporary/post modernist view – this implies ‘The Death of the Author’ as Barthes has it with meaning being largely derived from the reader/viewer’s interpretation.

The first issue for consideration within this project is to consider whether the work of two contemporary artists (the notes suggest Cindy Sherman and Sherrie Levine) are better explained as a result of my reading of Michel Foucault’s essay What is an Author? and Barthes’ essay The Death of the Author.  I have decided to look at the two suggested artists.

Cindy Sherman’s seminal work was her Untitled Film Stills, 1977–1980. This  is a series of photographs which of Sherman acting out the role of various female characters from anonymous Hollywood ‘B” movies. Interpretation of what the characters represent is left to the viewer. To me the images include characters such as the bored and sexy housewife, the innocent and vulnerable secretary, the battered wife and such like. Sherman is said to have stopped producing the images when she ran out of cliches. I have looked at her work in the past and had generally thought it to be about the way in which women are presented as a series of stereotypes in the movies. I had perceived the work to be largely about gender and identity. I had thought that Sherman was illustrating how identity, and in particular female identity,  is unstable and constructed and how we are driven to consider in terms of media driven preconceived norms. What occurs to me now is that Sherman might also be acknowledging the ideas put forward by Foucault and Barthes. By presenting a series of cliche identities for women in the movies she is demonstrating how (to quote Barthes) “text is a tissue [or fabric] of quotations,drawn from innumerable centers of culture”. Sherman’s stereotypes have become so because they have been recycled by numerous authors and writers of film scripts over time. In this sense it can be seen as a direct challenge to authorship.

In the case of Levine I think I have always considered her work as a direct challenge to the concept of the author. Her work is largely based on appropriation which directly challenges the originality of work by artists, authors etc. By rephotographing the work of other artists she is confronting directly the originality of art and proposing that art is an amalgam of influences from a huge array of sources.

The project also calls for me to consider ‘If the birth of the reader is at the expense of the author is there still any of Benjamin’s aura left?’. In a previous post,  I have defined Benjamin’s aura to be ‘something which a work of art loses because of the removal of its uniqueness in time, place and history’. At its heart ‘aura’ is about the sense of wonder that something engenders as a result of its unique and imposing presence. In a physical sense I best understand this in terms of the feeling I get when I look at a wonder of nature – a great mountain, a monumental waterfall etc. These are things which are unique in terms of place, time and history. So the question is how does my understanding of the ideas of Foucault and Barthes influence my sense of awe about an original piece of art. Well I know and accept that the work may well have been constructed from ideas gleaned from myriad sources and that is may well have been defined by cultural conventions prevailing at the time it was produced. So I would certainly question the originality of the content. However, I still feel drawn to admire the artist’s skill and intellect. This could be about their mastery of the media in painting or sculpture or about their synthesis of ideas in more conceptually based art and literature. I am beginning to wonder if I have become so conditioned by the [Modernist] norms that I am unable to see beyond these but I genuinely do feel a sense of awe when I stand in front of a great work of art. I think this sense of an ‘aura’ may well derive from the sense of place and time associated with the work, in the same way that looking at an historical building or artefact causes one to reflect on its history. On balance therefore I do believe that there is something left of Benjamin’s aura, but I feel my explanation of why is somewhat inadequate.

The next question posed in this project is ‘Does any of this explain or validate the un-regulated nature of the internet’. There is no doubt in my mind that the content one sees on the internet demonstrates very clearly how ideas are recycled and in this sense it is a clear demonstration of Foucault and Barthes’ thinking. As to whether it explains the lack of regulation of the internet I am not convinced. I think this is due to the fact that the internet us a world-wide ‘space’ and there is  no body in a position to regulate it. Many individual countries have tried to suppress it but people in these countries have found ways around such local censorship.

The final question posed is ‘Does this invalidate the interest in the artist’s or creator’s intent at the time of making?’. From a personal perspective I am always interested to find out what the author was intending. I will generally read artists statements and have some frustration with artists such as Richard Prince who claim never to comment of their work. So does this mean that I am forced to look at the work within the narrow confines of the artist’s direction. No it does not. I feel free to form my own views. I read a comment from Peter Haveland an OCA tutor on this topic recently which I think summarises very well how I would view this issue now –

“Once a work has been finished and moves out into the world it has an existence all of itself, rather like children having left home, and whatever the maker intended and however well that intent was realised, a whole range of other factors come into play. Not least of which is the variety of knowledge and experience that each viewer, reader, listener etc. brings to the work. Then there is the passage of time and the new things that have happened since it was made added to which we have the new situation of the image (or whatever), for example the meaning of a painting made to hang over a fireplace (Rubens’ Samson and Delilah for example) in a specific private house may well be changed by being hung in a gallery amongst other works. The maker’s intentions cannot take these things into account and so although it is fascinating and often enlightening to know what the maker was getting at the real artistic value of the work can be independent of this”


Project Myth is a type of speech

This project called for me to read (several times) Roland Barthes essay Myth Today  and to consider a number of questions:

  • Who was Minou Drouet and why does Barthes cite her?
  • Consider Barthes reference to a bunch of roses and a black pebble and find other examples of elements signifying passion, emotions,or other objects or events from images I know.
  • Myth changes the real into the ideological. Find an example of an image which exemplifies this.
  • Consider carefully the passage on meaning and form “The meaning is always their to present the form; the form is always there to outdistance the meaning’. Annotate and artwork to illustrate my thoughts on this passage.

Minou Drouet was a child prodigy who published a book of poems Arbre Mon Ami (Tree my friend) in 1957 – the year Barthes published Mythologies. There was much controversy at the time as to whether Drouet wrote the poems herself or whether she was assisted by her parents. I suspect that Barthes refers to her because her poetry transformed real objects into myths. Trees took on a meaning beyond that of the tree. I also wonder if Barthes considered Drouet herself to be a myth, signifying the idea of the child genius. It is also clear that the Drouet affair was a major news item at the time Barthes was producing his work and this may have been a current affairs issue which intrigued him.

When considering how elements within an image can signify passion, emotions etc I thought about the way in which portrait painters have incorporated elements within their works to present a broader picture of their subjects. Holbein’s The Ambassadors is an excellent example of this.

The Ambassadors by Holbein

This image incorporates a multiplicity of references. The globe signifies the international nature of the role of the subjects, the lute and the books testifies to the fact that they are cultured men and the skull signifies the inevitability of death. It is a memento mori (Holbein has disguised this such that when the painting is viewed from the front it appears as a slash across the mid bottom of the frame, but from the side it is revealed as a skull).

Magnum photographer Rene Burri’s iconic photograph of Che Guevara has come to stand for so much more that just a ‘Cuban with a cigar’. It signifies revolution and opposition to western capitalist imperialism. It is now a strong idealogical statement.

Che Guevara by Rene Burri

To understand what Barthes means by “The meaning is always their to present the form; the form is always there to outdistance the meaning” one needs first to understand the terms he is using. He defines ‘meaning’ to be a sign which has become the signifier in a myth and ‘form’ to be the signified. So in the case of the above photograph this means that the ‘Cuban with a cigar’ becomes the ‘meaning’ within the myth and the ideological concept of opposition to western capialist imperialism is the ‘form’. The combination of the two Barthes called the ‘signification’. When Barthes refers to ‘The meaning is always there to present the form’ he is stating that the ‘Cuban with a cigar’ is a signifier in a myth. By ‘the form is there to outdistance the meaning’ he is saying that the ‘form’ takes on a meaning beyond the original concept of the ‘meaning’. In other words the ‘form’ in the myth goes beyond ‘Cuban with a cigar’ to stand for the idealogical concept of opposition to western capitalist imperialism.

Project: Structuralist analysis

I have annotated two portrait paintings.

The first is Gainsborough’s portrait of Mr and Mrs Andrews, which represents the subjects within what appears to be there country estate. The second is Velasquez’s portrait of Philip IV in brown and silver.

Both portraits are formal portraits and are constructed to showcase the wealth, power and influence of the sitters. They have a  number of features in common which might be regarded as portrait conventions.

The poses of the sitters show them in role. Mr Andrews as protector of his family and estate, Philip IV as statesman and protector of the nation. In both portraits the subjects engage confidently and directly with the viewer, indicating their status. Their expressions are quite serious demonstrating that they are not to be regarded lightly. The environments in which they are shown are directed at illustrating their status – a great landscape in the case of the Andrews and rich fabrics and furniture in the case of Philip. The paintings have detailed elements which are intended to be signs telling more about the subjects. Mr Andrews is carrying a gun and has a hunting dog beside him. Mrs Andrews is in a pose which a woman would adopt when nursing a child. Philip holds papers in one hand and a sword in the other.

One gets the impression that these portraits are intended to present  the subjects both literally as a naturalistic representation and perhaps more importantly symbolically as individuals of power, influence and wealth.

PDF files of my annotations can be found here:

Gainsborough Mr and Mrs Andrews annotation

Velasquez Philip IV annotation

For the second part of this project I have reviewed two portrait photographs – one formal and one informal. The idea is to determine what features the two have in common. The formal portrait is from Rineke Dijkstra’s Beach Portrait series. The second is an informal portrait of a friend’s son. Here are the portraits:

Beach Portrait by Rineke Dijkstra

Informal portrait of friend's son by Keith Greenough

The aspects in common with these two photographs are as follows:

  1. Both show a young boy
  2. Both boys are looking at the viewer
  3. Both are full body portraits
  4. Both have water in the background
  5. In neither portrait is the boy smiling.

The key points of difference are as follows:

  1. In the formal portrait the boy is posed standing full square to the viewer whereas in the informal portrait the boy is captured midway through climbing onto a wooden platform
  2. In the formal portrait the boy has a neutral expression whereas in the informal portrait the boy looks a little surprised and is exerting himself.
  3. In the formal portrait the boy is the key point of interest in the frame with no other distractions whereas in the informal portrait there are many other elements in the frame – the wooden platform, red lettering,  a notice leaning against the platform, white bars jutting out into the water and what appears to be the end of a pier reaching out into the water.
  4. In the formal portrait the boy looks a little awkward and self conscious whereas in the informal portrait the boy seems natural and unselfconscious.
  5. In the formal portrait the boy seems to be ‘on display’ almost as an ethnographic study. In the informal portrait what I see is a snapshot of a boy at play.

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

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. .


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.


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

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


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.


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


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).


Guggenheim. (2011) Collection Online: Thomas Demand b. 1964, Munich. The Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation (SRGF). Available from: Demand&page=1&f=Name&cr=1

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

Available from: [Accessed 30 November 2011]

Rosenberg, K. (2005) Artist: Richard Prince. New York Art. Available from: [Accessed on 2 December 2011]

Whitney Museum of American Art. (1992) A Conversation with Richard Prince. American Suburb X. Available from: http//  [Accessed on 5 December 2011)

ThinkQuest. (2011) Chuck Close (1940-present). Oracle ThinkQuest Educational Foundation. Available from: [Accessed on 1 January 2012]

Kosters, B. (2010) Interview with Chuck Close. Fnews Magazine, School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Available from: [Accessed on 1 January 2012]