Love for Sale The Words and Pictures of Barbara Kruger Text by Kate Linker
Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, New York
F or nearly a decade Barbara Kruger has made provocative objects: pictures that entice and beguile only to accost us with accusatory words. Typically large, her works incorporate photographs taken from different media sources that she has
cropped, enlarged, and juxtaposed with strident verbal statements or phrases. Art historically, these works belong to the realm of montage, but they resist the smooth coherence associated with that genre. For there is no complacency to her art, which is assertive, aggressive, and argumentative. Kruger’s is an art of interference, of semiotic conflict.
Kruger’s practice reflects the discovery, evident throughout contemporary art, of the formative power of images, the capacity of signs to affect deep structures of belief. However, she applies this realization to a political agenda. Her art is concerned with the positioning of the social body, with the ways in which our thoughts, attitudes, and desires are determined by society’s dictates. Through her arsenal of visual devices, Kruger proposes to intervene in stereotypical representations, disrupting their power, displacing their hold, and clearing a space for enlightened awareness. To this end, she operates within the multiple sites through which signs circulate, produc ing books, posters, and billboards as well as such popular consumer objects as T-shirts and matchbooks. Her works demonstrate the intrusion of the public into the private, much as they mingle major and minor media. They attend to the peregrinations of power, as it places, positions, imposes.
In consequence of these activities, Kruger is at once a social commentator and a political agitator. Her work has both a place and a strategic role within contemporary artistic discourse. On one hand, it testifies to the recent broadening of artistic practice, pointing to the expansion of culture into politics. But it also evinces changes, wrought in the last two decades, that are inextricably linked to the phenomenon of the postmodern. For Kruger, as for many contemporary theorists, postmodernism is not a style succeeding the dissolution of modernism but rather a historical condition, marked by new philosophical relations; it signals a rupture with the notion of sov ereign and transcendent individuality inherited from the Enlightenment. The post modern self is not the centered and controlling subject, set apart from and “master” over history; indeed, inasmuch as postmodernism emphasizes the regulating power of social forces, it can be said to describe the decentering of the self. Its major focus is less the modernist theme of the creative subject of production than the production of the subject, for it inquires into the ways in which our identities are constructed by representations in society. Kruger investigates the underside of this process, examin ing how representation legislates, defines, subjects.
Kruger’s art exhibits other features that are trademarks of postmodernist
practice. Like many of her generation, she develops images by reproducing other images, appropriating the media’s picturings so as to extend and amplify their rhetoric. Her wily manipulations elude aesthetic categorization: no formal criteria can explain them, just as they do not lodge easily within the established traditions of posters, art photography, and so on. In a characteristically postmodernist manner, she erodes classifications, merging images and words, multiplying media, and annex ing concepts from other disciplines.
In Kruger’s art this process is extended, for hers is a “splintered” practice that avoids the unity and integrity that are common to an artist’s oeuvre. In addition to her customary role, Kruger has occupied the positions of editor, curator, teacher, and organizer of lectures; she is also an accomplished writer who has been the monthly film critic for Artforum since 1982 and, since 1987, the author of the magazine’s television column. Her conventional activities as an artist are augmented by her work as a designer of posters, book covers, and announcements for political groups, individ uals, and institutions. Most recently, Kruger has engaged with architects and land scape designers in collaborative projects for highly innovative parks. These activities are not supplemental, but rather fundamental, to a practice that courts multiplicity of sites and meanings. It is a practice that, characteristically, begins elsewhere, outside the artistic frame.
D iscussions of Kruger’s background yield few facts, since she frowns at estab lished historiographic techniques; her key influences, she notes, can be found in movies, television, and the stereotypical situations of everyday life.1 Kruger
was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1945, the only child in a lower middle-class family.2 Her mother was a legal secretary, her father a chemical technician who worked for several companies before settling down with Shell Oil in Union, New Jersey. Kruger attended Weequahic High School, then enrolled at Syracuse Univer sity in 1964, only to return home one year later, when her father died.
In 1965 Kruger began classes at Parsons School of Design, where she concen trated in the fine arts program. At the time, Parsons’ curriculum was conservative, but Kruger was fortunate to have Diane Arbus and Marvin Israel as teachers. Arbus
was important not only as an example of a significant female artist but also as one of the few photographers to expose the complex, seamy (and, to Arbus, totally fascinat ing) underside of suburban life. But the primary influence on Kruger was exerted by Israel, a noted graphic designer and art director of Harper’s Bazaar in the early 1960s. Israel took a personal interest in Kruger, encouraging her talents, introducing her to photographers and, in general, exposing her to the rapidly expanding world of fashion magazines, which formed one of the decade’s salient cultural developments. When Kruger’s interest in art school lagged in the mid-1960s, Israel encouraged her to assemble a professional design portfolio.
Soon Krugeir took her portfolio to Conde Nast Publications, where she was given a job at Mademoiselle. She began by designing small box-shaped advertise ments for mail-order products located at the back of the magazine but was promoted to chief designer within a year. As Carol Squiers has observed, Kruger, “at the age of 22 . . . was single-handedly designing a national fashion magazine”3—a considerable accomplishment for one with little professional experience. At the same time she began free-lance work designing covers for books that, interestingly, were largely political texts.
Kruger describes her experience as a graphic designer as “the biggest influ ence on my work,” noting that it “became, with a few adjustments, my ‘work’ as an artist.” The experience informs her art on several levels. One might be called the level of procedures, evident in Kruger’s sharp eye for scanning and selecting images, gauging their rhetorical potential, and then adjusting sizes and cropping dimensions so as to focus their visual impact. This repertory of devices is the stock-in-trade of the skilled designer, but it has no parallel in the formal manipulations of the traditional artist. More subtle and insidious, however, is the strategic level, manifest in advertis ing’s choreography of seduction, or what Kruger terms its “brand of exhortation and entrapment.” In fashion advertising, Kruger found a means to “hail” and engage the viewer, forcing attention to an image’s innuendos. As Kruger has observed, “This ‘hailing’… is one of the prominent tactics of most public design work, whether it be advertising, corporate signage, or editorial design. In all this work, the economy of the overture is central and involves all manner of shortcuts which waste no words.” Or, as she has elaborated: “I learned to deal with an economy of image and text which beckoned and fixed the spectator. I learned to think about a kind of quickened effectivity, an accelerated seeing and reading which reaches a near apotheosis in television.”
When Kruger turned to the art world in 1969, it was to a sphere in flux, distinguished by the waning hold of Pop and Minimalism and by the initial manifesta
tions of Conceptual Art. Most decisively, it was to a masculine terrain which had not experienced the social transformations of the 1970s that would give new impetus to feminist practice. Kruger’s first efforts as an artist reflect insecurity, unease, and (in her words) “alienation” deriving from her background in another discipline. Indeed, her early pieces, large woven hangings, pertain more to the realm of craft and to a kind of feminist work as yet little known in America. The stitching, crocheting, and weaving in this art (conventional “women’s work,” or, Kruger notes, activity that was “allowed” to women) erupted in whimsical patterns of brightly patterned cloth laced with metallic yarns and rows of sequins, ribbons, and feathers. Kruger soon quit her job, although she continued to support herself and her art through free-lance work as a picture editor. But she was increasingly drawn to New York’s poetry world and to the intrusion of the word into visual art that was manifest in the antiformal impulses of 1970s narrative art and performance. She began writing poems, attending poetry readings and giving her own readings, and publishing her poetry in a little-known magazine, Tracks, a journal of artists writings. Hesitation was also evident in her visual art; for a year she dabbled in painting.
By this time Kruger had moved into a large, spare downtown loft that would be the locus of her art making and writing for some twenty years. She had also begun to establish a reputation in the art world. Her stitch-and-glitter-encrusted painting, 2 a.m. Cookie, was included in the Whitney Biennial in 1973, and she had two one- person exhibitions in New York, the first at the alternative gallery Artists’ Space in 1974, the second at the Fischbach Gallery in 1975. But she was becoming listless with her practice, which increasingly seemed a mere “potpourri of decorative exercises.” She was also troubled by the work’s detachment from her life and from the social and political issues that were becoming her concern. For Kruger was aware that much radical thinking of the 1970s required investigating the social nature of artistic production and reception, inquiring into the role of institutions, cultural conventions, and codes in determining the meaning of works of art. In the fall of 1976 she left New York for the University of California at Berkeley, to take up the first in a series of teaching stints that would occupy her for a four-year period.
In California, Kruger abandoned artmaking for a year and spent her time reading, driving, going to movies, and, as she puts it, trying “to rethink my connec tions to my work, to the art world, and most importantly, to the games and relations that congeal, disperse and make the world go round.” Kruger’s comments are, of course, retrospective, but they point to a growing attention to the complex of social and political activities that make up “real life.” When she returned to making art, it was not to the manual labor of handicraft but to picture taking, to photographing
Book covers designed by Barbara Kruger:
THE ANARCHIST PRINCE. 1971. 8 x 5 1/2″. Courtesy Schocken Book*, New York
THE ILLUSION. 1972. 8 x 5 1/2″. Courtesy Harper/Colophon Books, New York
PEASANT UPRISINGS. 1972. 8 x 5 1/2″. Courtesy Harper Torchbooks, New York
CAPITALISM IN ARGENTINE CULTURE. 1971. 8 x 5 1/2″. Courtesy University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia
residential buildings in California in a deadpan, if somewhat lapidary, manner. These photographs bear a superficial resemblance to the early serial images of Ed Ruscha. In 1977 she published them in an artist’s book entitled Picture/Readings, placing the photographs opposite short narratives she wrote that hinted at possible thoughts and actions of the building’s inhabitants. For the first time in her art, image and text play contrapuntally; the written texts do not so much oppose a “lived” interior with an exterior form as they make sensible or audible elements that remained unseen and unheard, hinting at architecture’s power over social activity.
Social relations as experienced in everyday activities dominate Kruger’s work of the next few years. She addressed this theme in various modes and media, continu ing the double-panel format or composing installations and performances employing slide projections and audiotapes or live readings. A group of four-panel works entitled the “Hospital Series” is indicative of her later production (page 16). Here, image and text are still arranged in disparate panels: the first panel showing photographic details of hospital fixtures; the third, images—now appropriated from other sources—of social situations. But in the second panel are cryptically evocative phrases —“the elimination of the romantic body,” “the honing of the functional gesture”—that hint at Kruger’s suggestive word use to come. In the last panel, language is reduced to a short phrase or word: “Please,” “No,” “Not that.” Although the relations between the different panels are too elusive to trigger a sustained reaction, the heightened economy of the devices points toward Kruger’s mature style. By using language and images derived from other sources, Kruger was developing a culturally informed practice that eliminated the personal elements of art making. In a group of photocollages made in 1979 and 1980, appropriated images are overlaid with phrases or words (page 16). In one, a policeman eyes a man in a coat and tie and the text reads “Business”; in another, an image of a woman surrounded by fashion magazines is stamped with the word “Deluded”; a third work that spells out “Perfect” shows a hierarchically posed photograph of a woman, her hands clasped in prayer. Rectangular planes of color and solid and dotted lines score the surfaces with marks of the designer’s trade. The implications of the works are political, social, feminist.
By the late 1970’s Kruger had become associated with a group of artists that included Ross Bleckner, Barbara Bloom, and David Salle, all of whom were educated at the California Institute of the Arts, the training ground for much acclaimed contemporary practice. To this list should be added Richard Prince, Jenny Holzer, Cindy Sherman, Sarah Charlesworth, and Sherrie Levine, among others, who were developing what Kruger calls “a vernacular sort of signage.” At issue for these artists were not only the strategies of media presentation but also the reality of mediation, or rather, the hold on the real exerted by the plural signs circulating in society. Indeed, many of them were drawn to semiotics, the “science of signs” propounded by such European cultural theorists as Jean Baudrillard and Roland Barthes. However, most of these artists were concerned with exposing the supposed neutrality of signs and examining the regimes of meaning established through representation. Kruger notes the importance of the exhibition “Pictures,” organized by critic Douglas Crimp for Artists’ Space in 1977, which dealt with representation as constructing reality.
This interest is evident in “Pictures and Promises. A Display of Advertisings, Slogans, and Interventions,” which Kruger herself curated for the Kitchen Center for Video and Music in early 1981 (page 17). The language of the accompanying press release is now typically Kruger’s, as are the strategies outlined. Delineating the scope of her inclusions (“magazine and newspaper advertisements, artists’ works, television commercials, posters, ‘commercial’ photography, corporate insignia and public sig nage”), Kruger remarked on contemporary artists’ “demystification” of “popular visual language,” describing the critical shift effected by repositioning social dis course: “The quotational qualities of these words and pictures remove them and their ‘originals’ from the seemingly natural position within the flow of dominant social directives, into the realm of commentary.” The diction (“seemingly natural,” “domi nant social directives”) strikes at characteristic themes of the artist’s mature work. Elsewhere, she remarked on how the appropriation of devices from the media permit ted a counter to its fascinating promises, affording “a doubled address, a coupling of the ingratiation of wishful thinking with the criticality of knowing better.” Kruger’s distinctive strategy is encapsulated: seduce, then intercept.
Plates, page 16:
HOSPITAL. 1978. Photograph and text, 19 1/4 x 48″.
UNTITLED (DELUDED). 1979. Photograph, 32 x 32″. Photograph courtesy D. James Dee
UNTITLED (DUAL). 1979. Photograph, 32 x 32″. Collection Ross Bleckner. Photograph courtesy D. James Dee
UNTITLED (PERFECT). 1980. Photoprint, type on paper, 3 3/4″ x 37 3/4″. Collection Henry S. McNeil, Jr., Philadelphia
Plates, page 17:
HOSPITAL. 1978. Photograph and text, 19 1/4 x 48″.
PICTURES AND PROMISES. 1980. Exhibition curated by Barbara Kruger. Installation view, The Kitchen, New York. Photograph by Paula Court
In 1981 Kruger was included in “Public Address,” a group show held at the Annina Nosei Gallery. The exhibited pieces, along with concurrent work, bear what has become her trademark “look.” Red enameled frames enclose sharp black-and- white images culled from old photographic annuals, instruction manuals, and maga zines and overlaid with phrases set in blocks of bold-faced type. The planarity of the imagery simulates the two-dimensionality of printed media, while their sharp fore grounding has an expository quality, a visual punch that assaults the viewer. Kruger’s words are explicit, impertinent, declarative. In one piece (page 68), a shadowy picture of well-shod feet is confronted with the charge “You make history when you do business”; in another, the chasm separating a man’s face from a woman’s is inundated by a cascade of incriminating words: “You destroy what you think is difference.” A third work (page 53) shows the mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion and bears the caption “Your manias become science.” In the ensuing years Kruger would circulate these images outside of conventional venues; thus, when she was included among the few women invited to exhibit in the prestigious Documenta VII art fair in Kassel, West Germany, in 1982, she distributed posters spelling out the slogan “Your mo ments of joy have the precision of military strategy” throughout the town (page 52). And increasingly Kruger would intercept the flow of signs within different channels of distribution, using both large public billboards (and the Times Square spectacolor sign; page 27) as well as the more intimate form of books. With astonishing rapidity, Kruger expanded her focus to address the global etiquettes of power.
I’M HOT TRYING TO SELL YOU ANYTHING.
Language is legislation, speech is its code…. To utter a discourse is not, as is too often repeated, to communicate; it is to subjugate.
B arbara Kruger’s art depends on a broadened sense of the political and on a redefinition of the human subject as constructed by the very social forces over which it formerly claimed control. She develops these focuses through a concept
of power, which, like that advanced by Michel Foucault and seconded by Roland Barthes, is opposed to the “traditional” interpretation of power as constituted or embodied in a sovereign, state, or juridical apparatus. To Kruger, power is not localized in specific institutions but is dispersed through a multiplicity of sites, operating in the range of discursive procedures that govern sexuality, morality, the family, education, and so on. Conceived in this manner, power cannot be centralized; rather, it is diffuse, decentralized, and, in consequence, anonymous; it exists less as a “body” than as a network of relations unifying social apparatuses and institutions.
According to Foucault, this power is a strategy operating through “disposi tions, manoeuvres, tactics, techniques, functionings.”4 It subjects the individual as much as the social body; hence, “power relations. . . invest [the individual or group], mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs.”5 Foucault emphasizes that power is not exerted through physical violence but through symbolic effects and that its efficacy derives from the subtlety with which it penetrates the most delicate mechanisms of social exchange:
What makes it accepted, is quite simply the fact that it does not simply weigh like a force which says no, but that it runs through, and it produces, things, it induces pleasure, it forms knowledge, it produces discourse; it must be consid ered as a productive network which runs through the entire body much more than a negative instrument whose function is repression.6
For Barthes, the instrument in which power is inscribed is language, just as for Bertolt Brecht it is the social rhetoric of gesture. For Kruger, power implements its impositions through the imagistic stereotype, the pose.
Kruger’s attention, like Foucault’s, is directed to the control and positioning of the social body, a control that is instrumental to society’s aim of producing normalized subjects that can be inserted into its ideological, social, and economic orders.7 In Vision and Painting: The Logic of the Gaze, the art historian Norman Bryson elaborated on the implications of Foucault’s theme, arguing that in Western societies based on visual culture, physical control is an infrequent mode of subjection; authority is invested in the signifier or sign, and recognition becomes the central mode of interaction. Bryson describes this mode of domination by systems as “managerial,” noting that in it “the ruling group must justify its authority through cultural values and forms; management, rather than control, is the customary expression of authority
I JUST WANT YOU TO THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU SEE WHEN YOU
WATCH THE HEWS ON T.V.
WARS HAPPEN WHEN THE MEN WHO LEAD THE NATIONS OF THE WORLD GET THEIR
ONE GUY SAYS HE’S THE
STRONGEST BECAUSE HE HAS THE BIGGEST
HIS RIVAL SAYS.”NO, MINE IS BIGGER ANDD I WON’T
REDUCE ITS SIZE
BECAUSE THEN I WILL BE LESS POWERFUL
AND THE MORE POWERFUL I AM,
THE RICHER I WILL BECOME.”
THESE ARGUMENTS WILL BLOW US
WE ARE ALL BEING HELD HOSTAGE BY A
BUNCH OF GREEDY GUYS WHO ARE
THE SIZE OF THEIR WEAPONS: WORRIED ABOUT THEIR MANHOOD.
SO I GUESS THE T.V. NEWS IS REALLY
THE HOTTEST SEX SHOW GOING
Everything belongs to design, ev erything springs from it, whether it says so or not: the body is de signed, sexuality is designed, po litical, social, human relations are designed, just as are needs and aspirations.
—Jean Baudrillard (“Designs and Environment” in for A Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. St. Louis: Telos Press, 1981)
Our present age is one of exile. How can one avoid sinking into the mire of common sense, if not by becoming a stranger to one’s own country, language, sex and identity?
—Julia Kristeva (Our Present Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982)
once overt and bodily subjection becomes impossible. The entire society must submit to these forms, if their regulatory intention is to become effective; a veiled exercise of power arises, through mechanisms that obey a new imperative: not to touch the body.”8 It is this “veiled” management of subjection, evident as much in fashion and entertainment as in other areas, that turns these separate spheres into an integrated public realm. Bryson concludes by noting that the “public acknowledgment of consen sual fictions” is central to the “stability of the social formation.”9
Kruger’s mission is to erode the impassivity engendered by the imposition of social norms: hence the gist of a work from 1982, in which the statement “We have received orders not to move” is superimposed on an image of an immobile woman’s body, pinned against a wall (page 28). The image is at once an invocation of social stasis and a feminist retort to the controlling structures of patriarchy, which perform the function—remarked on by Sigmund Freud—of getting woman into place. In another work from the same year, a counterfeit coin imprinted with the profiles of two men is overlaid with the slogan “Charisma is the perfume of your gods”—a statement that refers less to an explicitly feminist message than to the way in which the standardiza tion of social currency is enacted by our subscription to society’s suasions (page 29).
Kruger exposes the sterotype as the prime instrument of this submission, the ideological cliche that, Bryson observes, “knows . . . only one mode of address: exhortation.”10 To a degree, the stereotype is a component of all speech (which, Barthes remarks, comprehends “the authority of assertion” and the “gregariousness of repetition”11), and for this reason Barthes views language as invariably operating in the service of power. Kruger, though, approaches the stereotype in its most general semiotic meaning as a code, convention, or standard by which power is arbitrarily imposed. It is a means to subdue and, implicitly, to “decarnalize” the body; as Craig Owens observes, the stereotype’s function is to “disavow agency; thus the body is dismantled as a locus of practice and reassembled as a discontinuous series of gestures and poses—that is, as a semiotic field.”12 The stereotype produces docile and submis sive subjects, lacking any transformative capacity; hence Kruger refers to the stereo type’s domain as that of “figures without bodies.”
Throughout her art, the stereotype wears multiple guises, appearing as ges ture (the handshake in Admit nothing/Blame everyone/Be bitter; page 51), as situa tion (You make history when you do business; page 53), or as a continuum of social commands (the run-on directives from a self-help book in What me worry?; page 28) and the political idees recues in the Pledge of Allegiance; page 26). Often she invokes stereotypes in their most insinuating forms, as paradigms of identity that are socially inscribed rather than “chosen.” Since much of Kruger’s practice deals with represen
tations of femininity, many works contest the peremptory imposition of masculine terms; hence she may contest the place assigned to women in her 1981 You thrive on mistaken identity or ironically propose “I am your reservoir of poses” (page 35).
Through her work Kruger aims to intercept the stereotype, to suspend the identification afforded by the gratifications of the image. To do this, she deploys the stereotype’s “double address,” by which it constructs the viewer twice over, address ing him or her both personally and impersonally, as individual (you, here . . .) and as type.13 The stereotype makes use of the arsenal of its rhetorical powers to solicit and seduce, engaging the viewer through the particularities of its details, only to with draw into the detached and disembodied reductions of the generalized image, the pose. In Kruger’s hands these devices are both mimicked and arrested: she assumes the stereotype’s exhortative techniques, employing its foregrounded, expository qual ity, only to block its fascinations through the intrusion of contrary and divisive texts. These relations of image and word contradict the conventions of the media, which tend to repeat an image’s meaning either through captions (in the case of print media) or through a narrator’s authoritative voice (in film). Thus, her devices serve to inhibit these pictures, to (in her words) “intercept the stunned silence of the image with the uncouth impertinences and uncool embarrassments of language.”
Our current world is less a bureaucracy or even a technocracy than a medi- acracy, in which the construction and management of society are controlled by the ever-extending sway of the media. Increasingly the media comprise distribution channels for orders. Kruger has remarked that coercion, today, is effected less through submission than through receivership, a state in which we consume the codes circulated by anonymous sources of power. Her statement points to the new impor tance accorded to consumption in the process of social incorporation; moreover, it suggests the role played by the media as the agent of mass repetition and reinforce ment. For as the French writer Jacques Attali has observed, repetition functions as the arm of consumption to ensure both the diffusion and durability of power: “Possess ing the means of recording allows one to monitor noises, to maintain them, and to control their repetition within a determined code. In the final analysis, it allows one to impose one’s own noise and to silence others . . (Here Attali quotes Hitler: “Without the loudspeaker, we would never have conquered Germany.”14)
In various written texts Kruger has described her focus as “the panorama of social relations mediated by images,” noting that the control once achieved through language has yielded to the picture—and, most recently, to pictures of electronic origin. Elsewhere she remarks that “the cool hum of power [resides] not in hot expulsions of verbiage, but in the elegantly mute thrall of sign language.” Kruger’s
What liberates metaphor, symbol, emblem, from poetic mania, what manifests its power of subversion, is the preposterous. The logical fu ture of the metaphor would there fore be the gag.
—Roland Barthes (Barthes by Barthes, New York: Hill and Wang, 1977)
Tragedy is if I cut my finger. Com edy is if I walk into a sewer and die.
Plates, pages 19-30:
UNTITLED (YOU INVEST IN THE DIVINITY OF THE MASTERPIECE). 1982.
Photograph, 71 3/4 x 45 3/8″. Collection, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through an Anonymous Fund
UNTITLED (AN EROTIC RELATIONSHIP TO PROPER NAMES). 1988.
Photograph, 72 x 48″. Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, New York
UNTITLED (TELL US SOMETHING WE DON’T KNOW). 1987.
Photograph, 49 x 65 1/2″. Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, New York
UNTITLED (ALL THAT SEEMED BENEATH YOU IS SPEAKING TO YOU NOW. ALL THAT SEEMED DEAF HEARS YOU. ALL THAT SEEMED DUMB KNOWS WHAT’S ON YOUR MIND. ALL THAT SEEMED BLIND IS FOLLOWING IN YOUR FOOTSTEPS). 1989.
Installation view. Courtesy Fred Hoffman Gallery, Los Angeles. Photograph courtesy Squids & Nunns
UNTITLED (WHY YOU ARE WHO YOU ARE). 1987. Photograph, 29 7/8 x 38 3/4″. Collection Robert and Meryl Meltzer, New York
UNTITLED (YOU ARE GIVING US THE EVIL EYE). 1984. Photograph, 48 x 72′
UNTITLED (PLEDGE). 1988. Photographic silkscreen on vinyl, 124×80″. Collection Emily Fisher Landau, New York
UNTITLED (VOW). 1988. Photographic silkscreen on vinyl, 124 x 80″. Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, New York
UNTITLED (QUESTIONS). 1989. Photographic silkscreen on vinyl, 124×80″. Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, New York
UNTITLED (WILL). 1988. Photographic silkscreen on vinyl, 124×80″. Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, New York
UNTITLED (I’M NOT TRYING TO SELL YOU ANYTHING). 1983.
“Message to the Public.” Spectacolor lightboard. Times 5quare, New York. A protect of the Public Art Fund, New York
UNTITLED (WHAT ME WORRY?). 1987. Photographic silkscreen on vinyl, 109 1/2 x 127 3/8″. Collection Norman and Irma Braman
UNTITLED (WE HAVE RECEIVED ORDERS NOT TO MOVE). 1982.
Photograph, 72×48′. Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, New York
UNTITLED (GOD SAID IT/I BELIEVE IT/ANO THAT/SETTLES IT). 1987.
Plastic letters, felt, and aluminum, 59 x 20 x 14″. Collection Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation, Toronto
UNTITLED (CHARISMA IS THE PERFUME OF YOUR GODS). 1982.
Photograph, 48×48″. Collection Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio. Gift of Carl R. Gerber, 1983
observations point to the tendency to reduce the plural spaces of lived life to surfaces, the shimmering expanses of the movie, television, or video screen, the billboard or magazine advertisement. As Jean Baudrillard comments, the reflexive spaces of humanism—scene and mirror—have been replaced by screen and network;15 sim ilarly, bodies give way to eviscerated figures, while the weight and substance of objects are abstracted into the beckoning visibility of commodities. This direction speaks to the tendency in Western society to privilege vision over other senses, intimating the eye’s propensity for mastery, for captivation and control. Kruger’s main concern is coercion achieved through that most prevalent form of imagery—the imagery of women.
Images and symbols for the woman cannot be isolated from images and symbols of the woman…. It is representation, the representation of feminine sexuality … which conditions how it comes into play.
K ruger’s art is inconceivable outside of the feminist movement and the complex of social issues in the 1970s that conferred new visibility on women artists. Like Kruger, many women turned toward photography, opposing its simple me
chanical means of picture taking with the masculine ethos of creativity that was celebrated in the traditional media of painting and sculpture. But if Kruger is a spokeswoman for feminism, she is also its barometer, for beginning in the early 1980s her work registers a profound change within the women’s movement. At this time in the United States, and several years earlier in Europe, a specific branch of feminism began to express dissatisfaction with the equal-rights strategies that infused cultural politics in the 1970s. At issue was the failure of these strategies—based on eliminating discrimination and establishing equal access to institutional power—to disturb the ideological structures of which discrimination is symptomatic; attention was focused on their rigid and deterministic definition of sexuality as “natural,” pregiven, or biological. Among Kruger’s generation, gender was not regarded as an innate or “essential” condition, but rather as a construction produced through representation. Sexuality was regarded as the result of signification and semiotic effects, rather than of biology—a perspective that offers the possibility of changing our restrictive defini tions of gender. Masculinity and femininity came to be seen as the products of adaptation to social standards of sexuality, in which the impact of signs play a determining role. In a manner with radical implications for the visual arts, discussions converged on the politics of the image.
These debates concerning the construction of gender informed the practices of a number of women artists, writers, and filmmakers, whose ideas were echoed by sympathetic critics. Besides Kruger, one can count among the ranks of those working in New York the artists Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, Silvia Kolbowski, Sarah Charlesworth, and Laurie Simmons, writers Carol Squiers and Lynne Tillman, video and installation artist Judith Barry, and such filmmakers as Yvonne Rainer and Chantal Akerman. Sharing their concerns was a group of British artists, including Mary Kelly and Victor Burgin, whose work was well known in New York. Reflected in these practices is the influence of European theory, in particular the writings of Foucault, Baudrillard, Julia Kristeva, and Jacques Lacan, whose account of the construction of sexuality in language, the paradigmatic system for all representation and discourse, was taken as offering an account of the way in which patriarchal values are assigned. Also significant were the writings of the philosopher Jacques Derrida, which comprise an extensive critique of Western representation and its central concepts of originality, authority, and selfhood. Most texts were read only generally or
“Love” is entangled with the ques tion of woman’s complicity: it may be the bribe which has persuaded her to agree to her own exclusion. It may be historically necessary to be momentarily blind to father- love; it may be politically effec tive to defend—tightly, unlucidly— against its inducements, in order for a “relation between the sexes,” in order to rediscover some femi nine desire, some desire for a mas culine body that does not respect the Father’s law.
—Jane Gallop (The Daughter’s Seduction. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1982)
Don’t threaten me with love^ baby. Let’s fust go walking in the rain.
The notion of a universality of hu man experience is a confidence trick and the notion of a univer sality of female experience is a clever confidence trick.
—Angela Carter (The Sadelan Woman. New York: Pantheon, 1978)
These ravings, observations, etc., come from one who, beyond vows, is without mother, gender, or coun try. who attempts to bleed from the word a system, a space base, no rock island but a body of phrases with all the promise of topsoil or a star.
—Patti Smith (Witt. New York: Gotham Book Mart, 1973)
were disseminated through discussion; in fact, Kruger, like others, has voiced her concern not to “illustrate” theory. Nevertheless, crucial notions that circulated within theory about the relations among sexuality, meaning, and language found their way into these artists’ works.
An important source was the British journal Screen, which during the 1970s and early 1980s published articles that applied continental theory to the analysis of mainstream films. In text after text, popular movies were analyzed as major vehicles of sexual indoctrination, as complex apparatuses that worked to “position” their viewers according to established codes of gender. If we note that in 1982 Kruger herself began to write criticism dealing with the sexual ideology of mainstream film, we can assume that the issues of sexual positioning and specularity were available to her.
Feminist film theory, like other psychoanalytical theory, draws impetus from Freud’s reading of sexuality as an ordering or assignment, one that is always attained through the mediation of signs. For Freud, looking held the key to sexual identity; in a critical moment before the oedipal state, he wrote in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), the child’s look establishes its mother, or another, as lacking the masculine organ and therefore inherently “less than” the male.16 Sexual difference thus derives from a visible difference, which structures woman as “castrated” within the patriarchal order. Freud’s concept, however, should not be interpreted as anatomi cal determinism, for the play of absence and presence is only significant insofar as it already has meaning within a formation of sexual difference: it is specific to patriarchy and to its particular attribution of values. Lacan extended Freud’s concept, describing the phallus as the privileged signifier, or signifier of privilege, in our society. In the Lacanian system, the phallus is the mark around which subjectivity, social law, and the acquisition of language turn; human sexuality is assigned and, consequently, lived, according to the position one assumes as either having or not having the phallus and with it, access to its symbolic structures.
Freud and Lacan’s accounts indicate the problematic position of the girl-child in the social order. Denied access to language, she cannot represent but is, instead, represented—hence the prevalence of images of women in our society. The French psychoanalyst Luce Irigaray has addressed this exclusion of women through a play on words, “rien a voir equivaut a n’avoir rien” (nothing to see/show equals having nothing), hinting at woman’s consignment to otherness, to the realm of the disen franchised. 17 Many works by Kruger address the theme of absence (“I am your almost nothing” states a work of 1983 and “You delight in the loss of others” says another of 1982). In a piece from 1983, an image of a woman is overlaid with the words “We
construct the chorus of missing persons,” alluding to the construction of woman as a category (page 51) defined by the phallic term. Elsewhere Kruger adopts the tone of a tease, collaging the proposition “Now you see us . . . Now you don’t” to an image of a rubber stopper suspended above a drain. Here Kruger gives literal form to the definition of woman as incomplete, partial, not “whole,” or, more bluntly, a “hole”.
Feminist theory has extended this critique by addressing the eye’s propensity for mastery, exposing it as a distinctly masculine prerogative. Thus, Irigaray ob serves that “investment in the look is not privileged in women as in men. More than the other senses, the eye objectifies and masters. It sets at a distance, maintains the distance. In our culture, the predominance of the look over smell, taste, touch, hearing, has brought about an impoverishment of bodily relations. . . . The moment the look dominates, the body loses its materiality.” (Note, again, the theme of the body’s reduction in its transformation into image.18) Several works by Kruger com ment on the illusion of visual detachment, disclosing it as a tool of masculine aggres sion, Indeed, Kruger’s art is invariably directed at the manner in which visual mastery becomes aligned with difference or, more pointedly, at the way in which representations position women as objects of the male gaze. For as the British writer John Berger has observed, these sexual positions become culturally inscribed, result ing in a hegemony of representations: “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.”19
Freud commented on the impure pleasures of looking, observing that vision is always implicated in a system of control. In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, he cited pleasure in looking as an independent drive, evident in children, where it assumes both active and passive forms. Thus, voyeurism gives pleasure by position ing oneself against another—submitting the other to a distanced and controlling gaze—while the desire to be both subject and object of the gaze characterizes exhibitionism. Adult life, Freud wrote, is marked by the social predominance of one form over the other. Lacan later distinguished between the narcissistic impulse, which consists of erotic investment in one’s personal image, and the inherently sadistic pleasure of the voyeur. Representations do not actually produce these objectifying effects; instead, they reproduce and reinforce modes of mastery that are found in early psychic structures of control. Nevertheless, the social shaping of the scopic drive is manifest in the regimes of looking enforced through ideology. One can discern, for example, the narcissistic investments of consumption, which invoke an ideal self-image through the acquisition of objects. And one can note, on the other hand, the ideology of the spectacle as authorized by the dominant order, in which one part of society represents itself to the other, reinforcing domination. Woman’s con-
I am a foreigner to myself in my own language and I translate my self by quoting all the others.
—Madeleine Gagnon (In New French Feminisms. New York: Schocken, 1981)
In respect to political rights, we hold woman to be justly entitled to all we claim for men. We go further, and express our conviction that all political rights which it is expedient for men to exercise, it is equally so for woman,
—Frederick Douglass (From Northstar, July 28, 1848)
There was I, trapped. Trapped like a trap in a trap.
But if flesh plus skin equals sensual ity, then flesh minus skin equals meat. The skin has turned into rind … the garden of fleshly delights becomes a butcher shop. My flesh encounters your taste for meat. So much the worse for me.
—Angela Carter (The Sadelan Woman. New York: Pantheon, 1978)
Is that a pistol in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?
signment to this position of “otherness” is displayed across the panoply of social relations, appearing not only in aesthetic conventions (such as the female nude) but also in advertising, fashion photography, and the prescriptions of social decorum. Perhaps the clearest embodiment of this drive to master is found in popular film, where the dyad of passive woman versus active male is repeated (as Kruger mentions in her criticism) in the “silent stereotypical figure that settles the male gaze.”20
Thus, when Kruger collages the words “Your gaze hits the side of my face” alongside the image of a stone female portrait head (page 62), she may be referring to the power of the gaze to arrest—literally petrify—its object (a tactic that Craig Owens has described as the “Medusa effect.”21 Elsewhere, she comments on this socialized immobility, configuring a subject held in place by dental appliances (the 1982 You are a captive audience). Here Kruger may also be referring to the conven tion in film and literary narrative by which the masculine protagonist arrests or advances action, controlling the course of events (a tendency she counters in one work with the admonition “You kill time”; page 49). Throughout her art women appear in static or supine poses, displayed according to cliched conventions of popular represen tation. The binomial oppositions of active/passive, surveyor/surveyed, standing/ supine, like the conceptual category culture/nature, are means by which society imposes its authority so as to subject one half to the privileged term. Although Kruger employs—even accentuates—these images, she suspends their masculine pleasures with the impertinences of superposed texts. When Kruger reproduces a photograph of a recumbent woman, her eyes significantly blinded by leaves, she disrupts its impositions with a feminist retort: “We won’t play nature to your culture.”
Kruger has stated her desire to “welcome the female spectator into the audi ence of men” and “to ruin certain representations.” Her approach is directed toward an active viewer who can refuse or accept the address of the work. In keeping with contemporary feminist theory, she endorses Freud’s refutation of the terms “mas culine” and “feminine” in favor of active and passive relations, connecting sexuality to the situation of the subject. Another way of saying this is that masculinity and femininity are not absolutes but rather positions in language, whose values can only be determined through the set of relations in which they are inscribed. This concern with the “place” of the subject in representation is evident from Kruger’s use in her art of the terms “I,” “me,” “we,” and “you,” which do not indicate objects that exist independently of discourse but instead suggest the positions of partners in a conversa tion. The linguist Roman Jakobson has designated these personal pronouns as “shift ers,” because their referents change place in the course of conversation, denoting differing relations of speaker and addressee.22 In Kruger’s hands, these pronouns
work to dislocate the mastering effect of the image, showing that the viewer’s place can shift, be indefinite, and refuse alignment with gender.
If sexual roles are constructed in representation, they can also be revised and restructured in discourse; thus, feminist theory contrasts the multiplicity of subject positions in language with the rigid paradigms of identity generated by and for the social order. The feminist approach to art and media has, in consequence, entailed a broad critique of signification, for all representations position their viewers, allowing for active participation in or subjection to meaning in an attitude of passive consump tion. Since society depends on repetition to stabilize meanings, most images and texts confirm and duplicate subject positions. Consumption, therefore, sets the stage for ideological domination; as Barthes has suggested, the reproduction of the system
I long to become the best ver sion of myself I can be… I want fantasy to appear and never go away; I want all my papers in order and clutter down to a bare mini mum. I want to have already hap pened, and yet I love it just the way it is.
—Sandra Bernhard (Confessions of a Pretty Lady. New York: Harper and Row, 1980)
Plates, pages 31—64:
UNTITLED (YOU ARE NOT YOURSELF). 1982. Photograph, 72 x 48* Collection Edward R. Downe, Jr.
UNTITLED (YOU THRIVE ON MISTAKEN IDENTITY). 1981.
Photograph, 60 x 40″. Collection Mathias Brunner, Zurich
UNTITLED (WE ARE YOUR CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE). 1983.
Photograph, 144 x 96″. Photograph courtesy the artist. Collection Philadelphia Museum of Art: Hunt Manufacturing Company Arts Collection Program
UNTITLED (NOW YOU SEE US/NOW YOU DON’T). 1983.
Photograph, 72 x 48″
UNTITLED (I AM YOUR RESERVOIR OF POSES). 1983. Photograph, 72 x 48*
UNTITLED (I AM YOUR SLICE OF LIFE). 1981. Photograph, 60 x 40*
UNTITLED (USE ONLY AS DIRECTED). 1988. Photograph, 72 x 48″. Collection The Saint Louis Art Museum
UNTITLED (MEMORY IS TOUR IMAGE OF PERFECTION). 1982.
Photograph, 61 x 33 3/4″. Collection Henry S. McNeil, Jr., Philadelphia
UNTITLED (NO RADIO). 1988. Photograph, 51 1/2 x 68 1/2″. Private Collection, San Francisco
UNTITLED (YOU ARE SEDUCED BY THE SEX APPEAL OF THE INORGANIC). 1981.
Photograph, 37 7/8 x SOW. Collection Henry S. McNeil, Jr., Philadelphia
UNTITLED. (THE MARRIAGE OF MURDER AND SUICIDE). 1988.
Photographic silkscreen on vinyl, 81 x 102*. Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, New York JJN Collection
UNTITLED (YOU ARE THE PERFECT CRIME). 1984. Photograph, 48 x 96″
UNTITLED (WHAT BIG MUSCLES YOU HAVE!). 1983. Plexiglass with type, 60 x 85*. Collection Mus6e National d’Art Moderns Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
UNTITLED (YOUR COMFORT IS MT SILENCE). 1981. Photograph, 60 x 40″. Courtesy Thomas Ammann, Zurich
UNTITLED (WE DON’T NEED ANOTHER HERO). 1987. Photographic silkscreen on vinyl, 108 3/4 x 157 3/4″. Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, New York
UNTITLED (YOUR LIFE IS A PERPETUAL INSOMNIA). 1984.
Photograph, 72 x 48″
UNTITLED (YOU KILL TIME). 1983. Photograph, 72 x 48″. Collection Chase Manhattan Bank, New York
UNTITLED (BUSY GOING CRAZY). 1989. Photograph, 70 x 48″. Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, New York
UNTITLED (ADMIT NOTHING/BLAME EVERYONE/BE BITTER). 1987.
Photographic silkscreen on vinyl, 100 3/8 x 179 3/4″. Collection Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation, Toronto
UNTITLED (ENDANGERED SPECIES). 1987. Photographic silkscreen on vinyl, 107 1/2 x 191 1/2″. The Beckman Collection, New York
UNTITLED (WE CONSTRUCT THE CHORUS OF MISSING PERSONS). 1983.
Photograph, 48 x 84″. Collection The Israel Museum, Jerusalem Gift of Martin Sklar, New York
UNTITLED (YOUR MOMENTS OF JOY HAVE THE PRECISION OF MILITARY STRATEGY). 1980.
Photograph, 37×50″ Courtesy Rhone Hoffman Gallery, Chicago
UNTITLED (YOU CONSTRUCT INTRICATE RITUALS WHICH ALLOW YOU TO TOUCH THE SKIN OF OTHER MEN). 1983.
UNTITLED (YOUR MANIAS BECOME SCIENCE). 1981. Photograph, 37 x 50″. Collection Dr. and Mrs. Peter Broldo, Chicago
UNTITLED (YOU SUBSTANTIATE OUR HORROR). 1986. Photograph, 144 x 96′. Collection Musee National d’Art Moderne Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
UNTITLED (GOD SENDS THE MEAT AND THE DEVIL COOKS). 1988.
Photographic silkscreen on vinyl. 111 x 131 1/2″. Collection Marc and Livia Straus
UNTITLED (FREE LOVE). 1988. Photograph, 84×48″. Collection Gallery Bebert, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
UNTITLED (TURNED TRICK). 1988. Photographic silkscreen on vinyl, 122 1/2 x 109″. Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, New York
UNTITLED (YOUR BODY IS A BATTLEGROUND). 1989. Poster for march on Washington, 29 x 24′
TAKING LIBERTIES. 1987. Cover design by Barbara Kruger. Courtesy Serpentine Press, London
UNTITLED (YOUR GAZE HITS THE SIDE OF MY FACE). 1981.
Photograph, 60×40″. Collection Vijak Mahdavl and Bernardo Nadal Ginard
UNTITLED (IF YOU CANT FEEL IT, IT MUST BE REAL). t9B8.
Photograph, 51 1/2 x 58 1/2″
requires our consumption of its codes. In our capitalist world, characterized as it is by privatized forms of gratification, there is an increased investment in leisure goods and services that are far from simple organs of entertainment. The array of enticements these commodities offer cannot conceal the limited meanings they convey; instead, they extend the regime of control implemented through the signifies Kruger encapsu lates this fascination with a gloss from Walter Benjamin: we are “seduced by the sex appeal of the inorganic.”