Project 3-1: The Rhetoric of the Image

Read the Roland Barthes essay Rhetoric of the Image on pps. 33-40 of the course reader and make notes.

Notes on ‘Rhetoric of the Image’

In ‘Rhetoric of the Image’, Barthes asks whether images can be analysed in the same way as language and whether methods of semiology can be applied. The relationship between image and text and the nature of photographic truth, amongst other things, are also explored. He asks the questions: How does meaning get into an image? Where does it end? What is there beyond? For his analysis Barthes uses an advertising image for Panzani pasta sauce in order to submit the image to a “spectral analysis of the messages it may contain.” (Evans and Hall, 1999: 33) He chooses advertising because “in advertising the signification of the image is undoubtedly intentional”, any signs within the image are fully formed with a view to optimum reading: “the advertising image is frank, or at least emphatic.” (Evans and Hall, 1999: 34)

Barthes touches on many concepts within ‘Rhetoric of the Image’, below I have summarised some of this and how it has informed my approach to part two of this project which requires analysis of current advertisements.

The Three Messages:

Linguistic message:

This is the supportive text within the image/advertisement, usually in the form of captions, slogans and labels and is easily separated from the image itself. On the first level of signification (denotation) all that is required to understand is knowledge of the language employed. A second order of signification (connotation) can also be implied however. In the case of the Panzani advertisement, Panzani is not only the name of the firm but also suggests “Italianicity.” These romanticised/stereotypical connotations of what constitutes Italian culture are aimed solely at the French audience the advert is aimed at, Italians themselves would not recognise this. The linguistic message works on both a perceptual and cultural level.

Coded iconic message:

This is a symbolic message that works on the level of connotation. The reader must play a part in understanding the image by applying their knowledge of systematic coding to the image.

For the Panzani advert, Barthes asserts that even with all linguistic signs removed from the image we still continue to ‘read’ and understand what we are looking at as it contains identifiable, nameable objects.

Non-coded iconic message:

This works on the level of denotation – a photograph can be described as a message without a code, that is, we simply read the medium itself.

Barthes points out that it is easy to separate the linguistic message from the coded/non-coded iconic messages, however the difference between these is not so easy to separate as they share the same iconic substance. Also, the viewer receives both the perceptual and cultural message at the same time, in other words, the medium cannot be separated from the message.

Anchorage and relay:

Text on an image provides what Barthes termed a ‘parasitic message’, the purpose is to quicken the reading with additional signified, it can also be a powerful method of altering or fixing meaning in an image.

Text has two possible functions when coupled with an image: anchorage or relay –

Anchorage directs us to a preferred reading of an image through what by fixing what Barthes terms ‘a floating chain of signifiers.’ On a coded (connoted) iconic message, the text helps the reader interpret the signifiers they are presented with. On a non-coded (denoted) message, the text aids recognition. Readers are ‘remote controlled’ by anchorage because the meaning has been chosen in advance, is often ideological in purpose and can have a repressive value when applied to an image – an example would be newspapers. Anchorage can also provide meaning to ambiguous texts.

Relay is less common than anchorage and appears to advance reading by supplying meaning which is not present in the images themselves. For example, film dialogue or comic strips which work in a complementary way with the image.

Analogical/digital code:

Near the beginning of ‘Rhetoric of the Image’, Barthes asks the questions: can analogical representation (the copy) produce true systems of signs and not mere simple agglutinations of symbols, and, is an analogical (as opposed to digital) code possible? The terms analogical and digital immediately seem to mean types of media, at least that is the modern understanding, however, this is not what Barthes means here.

Code refers to the framework within which signs make sense. Digital codes are paradigms which contain units that are clearly different from each other but also have something in common, for example the alphabet. Analogue codes are paradigms where the distinction between each unit is unclear, for example music and dance. Many analogue codes are reduced to digital codes as a means of reproducing them in another form, for example, musical notation.

Denotation and connotation:

Connotation and denotation are often described in terms of levels of representation or levels of meaning.

Denotation is a sign consisting of signifier and signified and the first order of signification, is straightforward and refers to the physical reality of the object that is signified. It is the literal, obvious or common sense meaning of a sign about which there is a relatively broad consensus. For example, a photograph of a child always represents a child no matter who takes the actual photograph and photographs of different children all represent the same meaning of a child on a denotative level.

Connotation is the second order of signification and is the way the denotative sign is attached with additional signifieds. It is arbitrary – meanings are brought to texts by the reader based on their understanding of rules and conventions and personal knowledge. As conventions vary from culture to culture the way texts are read varies between communities.

Make brief analyses of two current advertising images you find in your everyday life, either in magazines or on hoardings.

For this project I decided to tackle the suggestion in the brief literally and selected the two advertisements presented on bus stops that were closest to my home. This meant I had no direct influence on the advertisements chosen so my personal preferences and prejudices did not direct my study in any way.

Sugar Free Cherry Coca-Cola

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The linguistic messages contained within this advertisement are simple:

      • Coca-Cola cherry with zero sugar

Presented at the top left of the add in a simple white font – easy to read and directly emphasising the product that is being advertised.

      • The bottle: Coca-Cola zero calories cherry

The text on the label of the bottle reinforces the information given with the text at the top left with the subtle difference that “zero calories” has been added. The lettering of Coca-Cola is in the companies famous house style.

      • The logo: Coca-Cola

At the bottom right of the image, the famous Coca-Cola brand symbol which reemphasises how important branding is to this product.

      • Taste the feeling

Placed below the Coca-Cola brand image showing that this message is important to the brand, indeed “taste the feeling” is a familiar advertising slogan used by Coca-Cola which succeeds in adding a level of trust to what we are being shown in the advert.

The placement of each of these linguistic messages helps us guide the reader through the advert itself: the eye is drawn to the top left corner and “Coca-Cola with zero sugar” before taking in the bottle label and then finishing with the familiar brand symbol at the bottom right with is coupled with the also familiar slogan. This has the effect of moving from something new (or at least not familiar) Cherry Coke Zero to the safe familiarity of the Coca-Cola branding and slogan. The effect of this is to establish trust with consumers who may be familiar with Cherry Coke Zero but are familiar with and enjoy other Coca-Cola products.

The photography in the advert shows a hand reaching from the bottom right toward the bottle of Cherry Coke in the centre. The viewer is placed in the point of view of the owner of this hand, it is immediately suggested that reaching for the bottle ourselves would be something we would like to do. The Coke bottle itself and the hand holding it are the only part of the of the image that is in focus which succeeds in directing our attention to the product being sold. This effect displays conventions shown regularly in photography and film and is a style often employed by glossy magazines showing aspirational lifestyles. This works on the level of cultural perception and subliminally suggests that consuming this product is something that is desirable and important. Beyond the bottle, the figure of a woman with a broad smile is seen to be the person offering the Cherry Coke to us. Although we cannot see the woman clearly a number of clues suggest her appearance and the relationship between her and the man accepting the bottle. Firstly, her smile is wide and genuine – she is clearly happy which could be her natural disposition making her someone it would be pleasant to spend time with, she is also pleased to be recommending and sharing the Cherry Coke itself. The suggested narrative is that this is a product she enjoys and she is pleased it is being accepted by the unknown recipient. Other clues are long hair which seems well kept – she is someone who cares about her appearance. Her arm is bare and it appears she is wearing a vest top which suggests confidence in her body and appearance which in turn would mean she is attractive. There is an idea of youthfulness without being specific to age that allows the viewer to apply their own thoughts on the woman’s possible age. Her nails are clearly visible holding the bottle and are well manicured and painted red. This reinforces assumptions that have already been made: the picture is of a woman, she cares about her appearance and is probably quite attractive, she has some sort of relationship with the recipient of the bottle – definitely positive, possibly romantic, she is of a happy, confident disposition. The cherry red of the nails also echo the flavour of the Cherry Coke, the colour of this being indistinguishable from normal Coca-Cola.

The foreground hand can only be assumed to be male, the shallow depth of field do not allow a clear visual clue about this although the size of the hand is a factor combined with it being slightly darker on the forearm which could be an effect of the lighting conditions or indicate dark arm hair. The nails are a point of difference in that they are not painted as opposed to the woman’s hand, a plain band wedding ring can just be made out on the left – this style of ring would be more likely to be worn by a man and also reinforces the connotation that we are looking at the interplay between a married couple. The hand dominates the bottom left corner of the advert without overpowering the image, being put into the recipient of the Coke bottles point of view we are made to identify with his perspective making it a logical extension that we should enjoy the Cherry Coke in the same way he is, that trying the product will not only be enjoyable but will also lead to a desirable lifestyle and the approval of our close companions.

The gender stereotypes at play here are subtle but significant – Cherry Coke as a product is one that would appeal more readily to women than men, particularly the zero calorie variant since women are thought to be more conscious of the health and slimming advantages of diet products. Despite this, the advert manages to subvert the generalisation that this is a product for women by suggesting that all men need to do to enjoy it is to put aside their unfounded prejudices and machismo and give it a go – not only will they be pleasantly surprised but they will also have the added lifestyle and relationship benefits that are suggested within the coded-iconic message of the advert. Despite this subtle subversion, the overriding ideology of the advert is traditional and conservative showing a domestic scene between a heterosexual married couple which suggests Cherry Coke is not something to be suspicious of but a product to be enjoyed by ‘normal’ people.

 

Sky Q

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This advert is for a new service launched by Sky television: Sky Q. The linguistic message describes one of the features and benefits of the service, that the viewer can “pause in one room and carry on in another” this is topped by the words Sky Q and what appears to be a logo for the service, a large Q which appears futuristic and has connotations of space travel. The circle of the letter is broken by at the bottom right by a line that appears to be a bright light, this indicates speed of movement and is reminiscent of the way space craft in orbit moving at high speed are represented in science fiction which contains suggestions of being not only fast but futuristic. This new logo for the service is countered by the much smaller but also familiar Sky logo, that this is recognisable and trusted provides counterpoint to the unknown and untested new Q symbol and empowers it with a level of faith in the service being offered. In between, the message “This is fluid viewing” provides anchorage to the image presented at the top of the advert: a television form which bubbles of liquid are escaping across the mainly blank space ahead of it. (they have the appearance that liquids take on in zero gravity – which links to the futuristic/space age appearance of the Q logo.) Without the text we may struggle to identify what we are looking at, however, the term “liquid viewing” combined with the statement that we can “pause in one room and carry on in another” allow us to make sense that this is a metaphor for the natural yet futuristic service Sky are now offering. Below the television is a remote control which is both familiar and new to anyone who is aware of Sky’s current products. The controls used for Sky television would be familiar with the styling of their remote controls, and while the one represented here is similar it has enough difference to enable current customers to realise that this new service represents a continuation of what they are already familiar with while also being something new and interesting.

This advert is part of a larger campaign linked by the analogy of “liquid viewing” and focussing on the further benefits of the Sky Q service. On a basic level the ads are concerned with product awareness, further from that they work on the level of connotation to suggest the new television package is futuristic, space age, natural and organic to use. It appears that the advert is mainly targeted at existing customers, enticing them to sign up for the new service by showing ways it will improve their current experience. The subtle use of the new remote control here is both exciting and reassuring – it represents a continuation of what the customer already knows about the product and service while suggesting developments that it is desirable to take advantage of and be part of.

Thoughts…

I began this project buoyed with completion of the second assignment and with a set of new, self imposed rules about time keeping and limits of research. Unfortunately, I almost immediately broke these rules and found myself sucked down the familiar rabbit hole of masses of reading and note taking, albeit I managed to convince myself that this was a benefit. There are massive ideas within this project, studying Barthes alone proved a time consuming task and I decided to spend more time on this in the belief it will be of benefit for the rest of the section as his writings are used for another three projects. Semiotics is also an enormous and complex subject area and one that I am being unrealistic about if I believe I can gain a handle on it through this project. The majority of my notes fell under these broad headings which led to an element of confusion when I came to write my notes as I was not disciplined enough to keep on topic.

So what now? Again I will attempt to reign myself in and work in a more concise manner. The words of advice given by a fellow UVC student in recent email correspondence resonate with me: “I think we cannot cover all the important reading for a certain subject but to open windows for future enquiry. There are whole courses developed for every theme in some universities and those might take several months.” This is exactly what I have been telling myself, somehow hearing it from someone else helps however. So, plans going forward:

      • Set a deadline, but make it realistic. A book about time management I read a while ago talked about how we often set unrealistic deadlines which are rarely if ever achieved and recommended doubling the timescale that is initially arrived at.
      • Be more concise with note taking. This is what is taking up the majority of my time – I need to spend more time analysing what is important in the material I am reading and noting this down.
      • Break projects down into more manageable pieces. My practice up until now has been to do all my reading and then start to write up. I am increasingly finding however that the process of writing helps to solidify thoughts – the process of writing itself helps explore ideas.
      • Write projects more in note form. I have often been too hung up on trying to present each project as if it is an essay which in turn has taken more time.

Bibliography:

Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press inc.

Chandler, D. (2008) The Basics: Semiotics. Oxford: Routledge.

D’Alleva, A (2012) Methods and Theories of Art History (2nd Ed.) London: Laurence King Publishing

Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage

Hall, S (2011) This Means This This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics (Second Edition) London: Lawrence King

Howells, R. Negreiros, J. (2011) Visual Culture 2nd Ed, Cambridge: Polity Press

Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books

Pooke, G. and Newall, D. (2008) The Basics: Art History. Oxford: Routledge.

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press

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Project 2-4: Good Taste?

Read the Dick Hebdige essay ‘The Bottom Line on Planet One’ on pps 99 – 124 of the course reader before answering the following questions:

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

‘The Bottom Line on Planet One’ is an examination of the differences between Ten-8, a serious, academic magazine about photography and The Face, at the time the essay was written (mid 1980s) a cutting edge magazine about, amongst other things, music and fashion. While Hebdige is a clear advocate of Ten-8 (indeed, the article first appeared in the magazine) his thesis is not as simple as stating that Ten-8 represents high culture and The Face popular culture. Indeed, Hebdige does not use the terms ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture, rather, he sees Ten-8 and The Face as being so different that they are divided by a chasm which is as absolute and inaccessible as the gulf which separates one element from another. In order to compare and contrast the two he takes the unusual step of imagining that they are represented by completely different worlds within a galaxy.

Ten-8 is world one: here, power and knowledge are ordered and precedence is given to written and spoken language over “mere (idolatrous) imagery”. He imagines that on the first world  there are a priestly caste of scribes who are guardians of knowledge who determine the rules of rhetoric and grammar. A subordinate group of technical operatives serve the priesthood in the engraving of images to illustrate, verify or supplement the text produced by the scribes. Although a progressive faction within the priesthood has granted provisional autonomy to pictures meaning that the scribes now seek to situate them within an explanatory historical and theoretical framework, the same old order of a clearly defined society prevails.

On the second, much larger world represented by The Face, the hierarchical ranking of word and image has been abolished. Truth is first and foremost pictured, “looking takes precedence over seeing.” Language serves to supplement the image and functions to explain its origins, functions and effects. The world’s vertical axis has collapsed and organisation of sense is horizontal – that is it is flat. Rather than scribes, priests or engravers knowledge is dispensed by a “motley gang” of bricoleurs, ironists, designers, publicists, image consultants, hommes et femmes fatales, market researchers, pirates, adventurers, flâneurs and dandies. The place that is occupied by religion and politics in the first world is replaced with “winning the game” in the second. The name of this game is the conversion of the now into the new. Due to the piracy and multiplicity of images there is a plurality of gods – space and time are discontinuous and in a sense do not exist. Because there is no history there is no contradiction and sense resides at the level of the atom. The world turns like a kaleidoscope – each month the cycle is completed in intense, vivid configuration.

Rather than making the distinction between high and popular culture, Hebdige is describing an ideological struggle. Despite being clearly a citizen of the first world and worried about what the future holds for his society due to the second world’s influence on it, he cannot fully condemn The Face. He states that it goes out of its way to confound expectations, the writing, photography and design are good and occasionally excellent which he sees as rare in British pop journalism. Despite describing the first and second worlds as being at war throughout his essay, towards the end he states that, “a text is not the world” and that no one has to live there or even pay a visit. Clearly he is worried that serious, academic work with a political edge is under threat by magazines like The Face that prize style and consumerism above all else. Written in 1985 at the height of Thatcherism, there is a sense he is trying to make sense of how the world is changing through his article but is unable to launch into full polemic by either completely defending the first world or condemning the second. He seems to recognise that he is not part of the culture for which The Face represents their way of life so cannot really break into or understand their world. The staid, elite, highly controlling world of planet one seems much less appealing to me than planet two, despite all of its apparent faults. The extended analysis of planet two is also the major part of the essay with the amount of space dedicated to examining planet one taking up much less time and space. I wonder how well it would fare put under the same extended assault?

Whether he does or not, what are his main arguments against what he calls the ‘People of the Post’?

Hebdige uses the term ‘People of the Post’ to refer to the position adopted by second world critics – post referring to poststructuralist and postmodern thought and theories. Unlike critics of the first world (John Berger is used as an example) who seek to place images within a web of narratives designed to authenticate its substance and allow the image to tell its story. The disciples of the Post (Jean Baudrillard and Roland Barthes are mentioned) work in the opposite direction – instead of trying to restore the image to its authentic context they set out to undermine the distinction between good and bad, legitimate and illegitimate, style and substance. He refers to the ‘project of the Post’ as being to replace the dominant (Platonic) regime of meaning with a radical anti-system which promotes the articulation of difference as an end in itself. The factions of the Post are described as multifaceted and interests include attacking the authority and authorship of the first world discourse which guaranteed truth, hierarchy and the order of things. Second world forces include “anarchists and mystics” who form an impossible class refusing law and demanding subjectivity with guarantees. The referent disappears, then the signified and we are left with a world radically empty signifiers: “no meaning. No classes. No history. Just a ceaseless procession of simulacra.”

Explain what you see as the difference between high and popular culture today.

In the modern world I am not sure that the terms ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture have much use. Previously, high culture would be used to describe literature, fine art, classical music and opera but this list has changed over time. For example, novels were not studied in Universities until the mid-twentieth century because they were deemed too low brow. Cinema was originally seen as a mass, popular medium and while this remains the case arthouse cinema which would be considered high exists alongside blockbuster, mainstream popcorn movies.

Some examples of the blurring between high and low culture:

Classical music – many orchestras now hold concerts of film or popular music while pop and rock bands collaborate with classical orchestras.

Poetry – on the face of it one of the most highbrow of all art forms and yet there is a growing popularity taking poetry back to its origins as a spoken, performance art form with slam poetry events.

Cinema – Christopher Nolan can direct a hugely successful trilogy of Batman films while also producing work like Inception which has been described as arthouse for the multiplex.

Literature – Fifty Shades of Grey becomes a publishing phenomenon despite being savaged by reviewers, driven by word of mouth, yet shares space on supermarket booksellers shelves with prize winning authors like Ian McEwan.

Comic books – have long been tagged as only for children or the uneducated but are now seen as being a cutting edge art form that can tackle adult subjects in complex and challenging ways, as well as being a popular form of storytelling.

It may be useful to explore where the term culture before deciding if the terms ‘high’ and ‘low’ mean anything anymore. Raymond Williams describes culture as one of the most complicated in the English language, among other things, culture refers to a way of life as well as to works and practices of artistic activity. (Williams, 1983) Adam Kruper believes it is best to break culture down in component parts, that is: beliefs, ideas, art and traditions. James Clifford believes culture is a consensus opinion, along with taste being linked to class and upbringing with the privileged being the ones who enjoy high culture and the masses partaking in low – the assumption being that high culture equals quality. There is also the idea that exposure to high culture can be an improving force and that our taste can be developed and improved. (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009)

If being able to distinguish between high and low culture is based on taste, the question this then raises is who are the tastemakers? Taste is not something that is innate but is culturally specific and relates to class, cultural background, education and aspects of identity. In ‘Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste’ (1979) Pierre Bourdieu provided a description of tastes and their origin in patterns of class distinction. Through extensive research he found that taste is used by individuals to enhance their positions within social order and that distinction is the means through which they establish their tastes as different from that of the other, lower classes of people. He found that this did not translate to class position as we traditionally understand it as based on economic status but was linked to the concept of cultural capital:

“Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier. Social subjects, classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make, between the beautiful and the ugly, the distinguished and the vulgar, in which their position in the objective classifications is expressed or betrayed.”

He concluded that taste is learned through exposure to social and cultural institutions that promote class based assumptions about “correct taste.” An example would be museums and art galleries which exist not only to educate about the history of art but to instil a broader sense of what art is tasteful and not.

A key criticism of Bourdieu’s ‘Distinction’ is that it only sees taste as trickling down from the educated elite to the lower, less educated classes. This does not take into account how cultural forms that begin as expression of marginalized culture or class can trickle up to more affluent groups. An example could be Jazz music in the 1920s and a more recent rap and hip-hop in the 1980s. Globalisation also means that cultural values are able to travel and influence in a variety of directions with speed and ease, despite large geographical and political distance youth culture can look very similar in their clothing choices in both the USA and central Asia.

The changing attitudes towards kitsch artworks is an interesting aside in this question. Previous to the pop art movement of the 1960s kitsch was a term generally used to describe bad taste or tacky items. This changed however when kitsch aficionados began to recode objects and artworks that had previously been judged to have little or no artistic value as good rather than bad taste and the term began to be used in the affirmative sense when referring to items of nostalgia. Enjoying kitsch however is an ironic statement not least because the ability to appreciate kitsch items requires understanding that they are in opposition to what we traditionally think of as good taste or high culture – that is you need to be able to recognise good aesthetics in the first place to appreciate kitsch. What seems in the first place to be a democratic rather than elitist way of appreciating art is really more exclusive than the traditional forms of high culture.

In the light of developments in the media and other branches of the arts and culture, which is ascendant today, the First or the Second world? Is it flat or round?

I am not sure that the metaphor of the two worlds at war used by Hebdige is either useful or attractive way of thinking about the divisions between high and popular culture. Certainly, if his intention is to show the issues inherent in world two he fails because in spite of the negative aspects he dwells on at length the rigidity of world one simply leaves me cold. The chaos of planet two is worth embracing simply because it offers more freedom and choice than that which is offered in the first world. Hebdige knows this and his essay has an air of lament for what has passed and will never return.

In the 30 years since his article was written the real world has moved on immeasurably. Rather than thinking of the flatness of planet two as unnatural I like to think of it as a way that everything becomes level, hierarchies are broken and artworks lose the distinction between high and low and the connotations of good and bad taste that they contain. Today, there is an unprecedented access to information and culture of all types which is truly democratic. We no longer have to wait for validation and can produce artwork ourselves and put out into the world through the internet – almost everyone has the access and ability to do this.

This is what I think when I am feeling optimistic. When I am feeling less so the weight of choice is so heavy that I find it quite bewildering, when you have access to everything where do you start and how do you know what is good? The choice of any cultural form I consume, be it music, film or art is driven by the finite amount of time I have available. With this in mind I rely heavily on taste makers helping me with my choices. For example music: I grew up listening to independent music in the early 1990s, it was a time when access to this type of music was difficult to gain and the bands I followed were introduced to me by New Musical Express. Records had to be sought out and it was not uncommon for me to purchase music based only on what I had read about it, sometimes never having even heard the band. This process of having to go out of my way to follow bands and musicians made me feel like I was in some sort of ‘in crowd’ – my taste was validated by the amount of work and research I had put into seeking it out.  Now, I am still interested in music and genre is less important as there is an increasing cross pollination between styles. Music is readily and instantly available through the internet and I no longer need to search out what I want to listen to. And yet, my time is more of a premium so I need to make sure that which I do have available is used wisely, I need to rely on arbiters of taste like newspapers and magazines to point me towards something I might enjoy listening to – so have things really changed that much?

Maybe the freedom of choice of that the flat planet two represents is nothing more than an illusion and we still live in the highly stratified planet one, a world that pretends to be flat but is really round.

Find four  or  five  examples  of  contemporary  popular  culture,  the  same of ‘high’ round-world culture and the same of high referencing popular culture. You might like to see if you can find examples of popular culture referencing high culture.

Contemporary popular culture:

Pop music

Reality television

Soaps

Popular novels

Celebrity magazine – Heat, Hello, OK

Tabloid newspapers

Sport

High ’round world’ culture:

Fine art

Theatre

Opera

Ballet

Classical music

Foreign language/art house cinema

Broadsheet newspapers

Literature

Poetry

Art galleries and museums

High referencing popular culture:

Pop art

Street art

Orchestras playing popular music

Plays turned into films

Popular culture referencing high culture:

Advertising

The concept album e.g. The Who’s rock operas

The Simpsons

Fake antique furniture

‘Fine art’ Ikea prints

Bibliography:

Bennett, Tony; Grossberg, Lawrence; Morris Meaghan (Eds.) (2005)  New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society, Wiley-Blackwell, Revised Edition

Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press inc.

Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage

Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Williams, R. (1983) Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. London: Fontana Press.

Project 2-3: The Society of the Spectacle

This project requires reading an extract from “The Society and the Spectacle”, ‘Separation Reflected’ by Guy Debord on pps. 95-98 of the course reader before considering the following questions:

Weltanschauung – a comprehensive philosophy or world view?

Weltanschauung is defined as a particular philosophy or view of life, the term literally translates as ‘world view.’ It is a fundamental concept in German philosophy and epistemology which was first said to have been used by Kant before being popularized by Hegel.

Freud discusses Weltanshaunng in ‘A philosophy of Life.’ Near the beginning he notes the difficulty in translation as Weltanshaunng is “a specifically German notion which it would be difficult to translate into a foreign language.” Attempts to do this are so futile “it can hardly fail to strike you as inept.” He offers this useful definition:

“By Weltanshaunng, 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.”

The pursuit of Weltanschauung is one of mankind’s ideal wishes – it leads to security in life as one knows what to strive after and how to organize emotions and interests to the best purpose.

It could be argued that the entirety of ‘Society of the Spectacle’ is Debord arguing that the spectacle has become Weltanshaunng, although, he definitely does not see this in the positive terms defined by Freud. The spectacle also represents an intangible and yet ubiquitous way to control society – Debord argues that citizens often do not even realise what is happening. The spectacle represents ideology and alienation.

In paragraph 1 Debord states:

“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles.”

With “all of life” Debord is clearly beginning his case for the spectacle as Weltanschauung – for the rest of “Society of the Spectacle” he will seek to define what exactly the spectacle is, but here we are left in no doubt of the important hold it has over citizens as being omniscient and overwhelming.

The notion that the spectacle is something intangible is quickly asserted with:

“Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”

This suggests the spectacle is ideological while referencing the Marxist notion of alienation.

In paragraph 5 Debord directly mentions Weltanschauung:

“The spectacle cannot be understood as an abuse of the world of vision, as a product of the techniques of mass dissemination of images. It is rather a Weltanschauung which has become actual materially translated. It is a world vision that has become objectified.”

The choice of “world vision” rather than world view here is an interesting distinction – it suggests that the spectacle is forced upon society rather than citizens sharing its ideology. Despite being seemingly intangible and difficult to pin down, “has become actual materially translated” shows that the spectacle is something that is real. “Materially translated” and “objectified” suggest the concept of commodity fetishism, the Marxist idea that misplaced value is placed onto objects due to capitalism – Debord seems to be suggesting here that the concept of the spectacle represents an extension of this idea from reality to the conceptual.

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

This question is accompanied by the reassurance that this is more difficult than it sounds and that it is the attempt that is important here, which, after reading through the extract for the first time came as gentle reassurance! Debord writes in a way that is both difficult and simple, you seem to gain insight for it only to slip away proving allusive. The individual paragraphs in ‘Society of the Spectacle‘ each define what the spectacle is, yet, this can sometimes contradict what we have understood and read previously or can give emphasis to something we have not yet considered. As I come to understand a little more what Debord is trying to achieve through ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ I recognise that this is the point – the spectacle is  a concept which is difficult to define – this is part of the spectacles intention in fact. It is pervasive, far reaching and infiltrates all parts of society without even being acknowledged as existing by a large number of people in society.

Some of the language and terms in the extract are recognisable to me in what has been studied already, particularly from Marxist theory, although not necessarily presented in the same way. The more I read the more I began to be able to pick out ideas of commodification, alienation and ideology which seem to be the main thrust of Debord’s argument. Debord reasons that the spectacle represents a kind of evolution of commodification – the final form of the commodity will be the image – no longer a physical object we can own, having being replaced by appearing. The circulation of images becomes more important than the accumulation of commodities. Buchanan observes that in ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ it is not producing or owning things that drives society forward but how things appear and how they make us appear to ourselves that matters. The spectacle is the illusion that our fragmented, alienated life is in fact whole, true and authentic.

Sturken and Cartwright assert that Debord saw the spectacle as a metaphor for society – we live in an ongoing, constant spectacle. Through the spectacle we no longer experience life directly, life has become representation. The spectacle is an instrument of unification and a world vision that forges a social relationship among people in which images and practices of looking are central.

Pooke and Newhall define the spectacle as being used by Debord to characterize pseudo-events and commodified interactions under capitalism.

My eventual approach to gleaning a closer reading from the text was to break down each paragraph and then write whatever response came into my head. This could be an observation or recognition of some sort of nuance or sometimes a question. This approach helped and yet I still find a personal definition of the spectacle difficult to articulate. In the spirit of Debord’s writing style here are some personal responses represented as bullet points:

  • The spectacle is everywhere.
  • We do not know who controls or orchestrates the spectacle – such a notion may not even exist in a simple way we can comprehend.
  • The spectacle is a means of control but in a much more subtle way than we have come to understand – for example in capitalist structure of worker/owner.
  • We are complicit with the spectacle but may not even recognisee what the spectacle is or even its existence.
  • Debord uses terms, phrases and ideas that have a resonance, particularly with Marxism, but they are somehow changed which emphasises that the spectacle confounds our conventional understanding. For example: “the spectacle which inverts the real is in fact produced” suggests Marx’s description of ideology through which social relations are perceived in an inverted way (Marx uses the analogy of a camera obscura which gives an upside down view of the world) and groups this with the tangible idea of commodity production. This is a difficult but effective combination of both the abstract and the real.

The book was first published in French in 1967. Has the passage of time confirmed or contradicted Debord’s view?

A strength of ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ is that Debord did not confine his argument to specifics that would date his theses. This means that the ideas presented translate to the 21st century making them all the more powerful and Debord seemingly prescient.

Despite this, ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ does not achieve Debord’s revolutionary intent, today it is seen as an important work of philosophy rather than a political manifesto with real purpose to change the world through revolt. Debord himself became depressed in later life that his insights ceased to be a call to arms but rather a banal, if accurate, description of the modern condition. (Hussey, 2001) The spectacle as a term has become a cliché appropriated by post modernism to describe any contemporary process.

Will Self views the “genius” of Debord in ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ as characterising “the totalising capability of late capitalism so early in its post -industrial manifestation” and that it reads “as fresh as paint.” He recognises the importance of the “pseudo-events” which act to convince the citizens of the spectacle that they are able “to progress into a better future” when it is only the anointed few, the celebrities, who are imbued with the money and power that signify the ability to make choices. Debord’s concept of the spectacle has been so thoroughly appropriated by society that it is no longer used as short hand for the consumer society or post-ideological character of western ‘democracy’ which is woven by the internet and late capitalism.

John Harris believes the frequency that the spectacle is used to describe the “image saturated, comprehensively mediated way of life that defines all supposedly advanced cultures” leads to it sounding banal, yet, the frequency used also “speaks volumes about the power of its insights.” ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ points towards much that is prescient in the culture of the 21st century:

-Celebrity culture and the portrayal of lives whose freedom and dazzle suggest almost the opposite of life as most of us live it.

-The driving out of meaning in politics.

-Warnings about “purely spectacular rebellion”, for example, the Che Guevara T-shirt.

-Social media and “the white noise of most online life.”

The book describes that everything we consume, and if we are not careful, everything we do embodies a mixture of “distraction and reinforcement” that serves to reproduce the mode of society and economy that has taken the idea of the spectacle to an almost surreal extreme – ideas which we now term neo-liberalism.

Personally, the more I think about the themes contained in ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ the more I feel it articulates suspicions I have held for a long time – what is it to be a citizen in a late capitalist society in the 21st century? We are told we have never had so much freedom and access to information and yet it is also accepted there is no alternative to the lives we lead. There is so much information that we are unable to process it – what on the internet is real and what is false? There is no longer any distinction in political life, no left or right – only a consensus that this is the way things need to be. Facebook seems to represent the clearest example of how human experience has become inauthentic, spectacular and false – what people now understand as friendship. Our online presence is the way we present ourselves rather than through real life – more real than the real world. As John Harris observes “even the way we relate to each other has been so commodified it is no longer genuine.” There is no more depressing modern sight than that of citizens who seemingly only have an experience through the prism of their smart phone – if we do not record our experiences then they no longer happen and by doing this we lose the ability to live our lives directly.

Does his view that we “see the world by means of various specialized mediations” mean that we are having our view of the world controlled or that we simply don’t know what is propaganda and what is not?

My first reaction in my notebook to this quote from chapter 18 is ‘what does various specialized mediations mean?’ Perhaps it is that the spectacle makes us see (and believe?) the world that it is presenting.

“We see the world” reminds me of the term ‘global village’ popularized by Marshall McLuhan in reference to the growth of media in the early 1960s, and is term that Debord would surely have been aware. The access to information that we can experience through the internet has the potential to make us participants in this global village that is now a reality. The more likely response however, is that we passively take in the view of the world which is presented to us through rolling news and media outlets. We feel connected to what is going on without questioning that the views that we are presented with are those that the broadcasters choose to show – that which is deemed worthy of reporting. We feel a closeness to citizens around the world which is false.

I am not sure when the political world view reached a consensus through neo-liberalism but I am old enough to remember a time when there seemed to be real difference, not only in politics but in art, literature, music, films – even the high street. It seems today that we accept the homogenization of our lives without question, even those who oppose what they see as mass conformity struggle to define how or even what they are against. We believe that we are sophisticated readers of the modern world and its representations, we think that we would know propaganda if we saw it. This is because we think of propaganda in back and white 20th century terms rather than the complex description of the spectacle given by Debord which typifies propaganda in the modern world.

The film maker Adam Curtis seems to be highly influenced by Debord. He uses archive news footage along with a very personal viewpoint expressed through voiceover to try and make sense of the world. In a short segment he made for Charlie Brooker’s satirical Newswipe programme, he presents the idea that the news is so depressing and we are so detached from the events it contains that the only response is “Oh dear” – a defeatist reaction that has also become central to political control. He explains this by examining the political landscape of Putin’s Russia. We would normally associate Russia with the heavy handed propaganda and control of the Soviet Union, Curtis explains however that in modern Russia control is maintained by much more subtle and confusing means. Putin’s director of communications Vladislav Surkov has helped Putin remain in power for 15 years using techniques he learned from his previous life as a dealer of avant-garde art. Surkov turns Russian politics into a “bewildering, constantly changing piece of theatre” the aim of which is to undermine people’s perception of the world so they can never be entirely sure what is really happening. Surkov achieves this by backing many disparate groups in Russia, some of which are even enemies of Putin, before (and this is key for Curtis) letting the people know what he is doing. The effect is that no one knows what is real or fake and all opposition is kept constantly confused – the constant shape shifting is unstoppable because it is indefinable.

Curtis then transfers his gaze to the political situation in Britain and recognises a similar situation – after all, Russia has always had a strange, fractured and controlling political situation so this approach by Putin and Surkov is hardly surprising. He argues that in Britain everything told by politicians and journalists is confusing and contradictory – a position which plays into the hands of those in power. For example: the war in Afghanistan which nobody seems to know was a victory or defeat; ageing disc jockeys who are prosecuted for crimes that alleged to have happened decades ago while no one in the city of London has been prosecuted for the endless financial crimes being revealed there; the war in Syria which was initially against the Assad regime which we were told was evil until we discover his enemies  were even worse and began bombing them keeping Assad in power.

The epicentre of our non-linear world is the economy and Curtis presents George Osborne as the closest we have to a “shape shifting, postmodern politician.” The economy is growing and yet wages go down, the importance of cutting the deficit is used as a reason for austerity policies but it is revealed the deficit is actually increasing, quantitative easing contradicts austerity and debt reduction. Vast amounts of money has ended up in the top 5% of the wealthiest people and this is prevented from becoming a scandal because nobody seems to have a clear idea of what is happening.

The strange mood of our times is that nothing makes coherent sense. We live in a “constant vaudeville” of contradictory stories which stop any real opposition from appearing because they cannot counter with a coherent narrative of their own. Individuals become ever more powerless, unable to challenge anything because we live in a constant state of uncertainty. For me, Curtis’ description of the power of the media and politicians in the 21st century and the techniques they use to confuse and control is compelling and goes a long way to articulate and further much of what I understand from Debord’s arguments in ‘The Society of the Spectacle’.

Reification is the process of viewing the abstract as real (have a look at what Marx said on the subject); is the spectacle viewing the real as abstract or extreme reification?

Marx saw reification as being omnipresent in capitalism with all of its elements invoking a greater or lesser degree of reification. The fact that capitalism subordinates the lives of millions is obscured by commodity fetishism – an extreme form of alienation.

Lukács took this further by stating that modern capitalism is such that commodity fetishism can be extended to all fields of human activity – even consciousness.

John Harris uses the example of Facebook to prove the power of Debord’s argument and its relationship to reification: the Facebook friend is used as a way to monetise everything on the website, this inauthentic incorporation leads us to believe that the Facebook friendship is real when in fact it is classically, unbelievably spectacular. I find Harris’ argument compelling here and am led to conclude that the spectacle is indeed extreme reification.

Thoughts…

I now feel quite seduced with Debord’s thrust in ‘Society of the Spectacle’ although I would by no means pretend to fully understand it. From a position of frustrated lack of understanding that I experienced at the beginning of this project I have slowly began to comprehend what Debord is explaining as well as appreciating his complex means of expression which is necessary to project the complex, contradictory nature of the spectacle. I have read through the rest of the book and it does not get easier as it progresses nor has my ability to glean meaning at first read through improved. I will stick with it however and return every now and again because of the respect I have gained and insight achieved from the first section that is the basis of this project. Hopefully further reading (I intend to ‘dip in and out’ in the future) will broaden my understanding, I can understand what John Harris means when he describes the well-thumbed copy of the book that he owns.

Workflow wise this project has helped me get back on track somewhat. Having felt a little lost and disappointed following the previous project I was initially quite perturbed by the even more dense and difficult to understand words to be studied for this project. Rather than take a ‘hopefully it will all make sense soon’ approach like I had with Bourdieu I stuck with this and revisited the text a great deal, much more than I have for any of the other projects so far, eventually breaking down the extract into digestible pieces and considering these in isolation. I often wrote whatever came into my head as a response rather than trying to come up with definitive answers, sometimes just writing questions. This way of working through a difficult text through writing seems to have been a small breakthrough for me. Similarly, I have tried to worry less about what I am writing for the project and encouraged the words to flow which has given me a strong sense of accomplishment – a lot of what I have written may not be directly relevant and I have certainly missed out much more that I could have said but as is stated in the course notes “it is the attempt [that] matters at the moment.” My new mantra!

Keywords and concepts for further research:

Appropriation art, Weltanschauung, the spectacle, reification, alienation, simulacrum

Key figures for further research:

Sherrie Levine (After Walker Evans), Walker Evans, Michael Mandiberg (www.afterwalkerevans.com), Guy Debord, Andy Warhol, Lichenstein, Jean-Paul Satre, Feurebach, Kant, Hegel, Marx.

Bibliography:

Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press inc.

Curtis, A. (2014) Oh Dear segment on Charlie Brooker’s 2014wipe. BBC. Available online http://youtu.be/wcy8uLjRHPM [accessed August 2015]

Debord, G. (2009) The Society of the Spectacle. Eastbourne: Soul Bay Press

Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage

Freud, S. A Philosophy of Life. New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis (1933) publ. Hogarth Press. Available online https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/at/freud.htm [accessed August 2015]

Harris, J. (2012) Guy Debord predicted our distracted society. The Guardian 30th March 2012 Available online http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/mar/30/guy-debord-society-spectacle [accessed August 2015]

Hussey, A. (2001) Situation Abnormal: the suicide of Guy Debord. The Guardian 28th July 2001 Available online http://www.theguardian.com/books/2001/jul/28/biography.artsandhumanities [accessed August 2015]

Kaplan, R. L. (2012) Between mass society and revolutionary praxis: The contradictions of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. European Journal of Cultural Studies. Sage. Available online http://www.academia.edu/2235717/The_Contradictions_of_Guy_Debords_Society_of_the_Spectacle [accessed August 2015]

Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books

Pooke, G. and Newall, D. (2008) The Basics: Art History. Oxford: Routledge

Self, W. (2013) Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle. The Guardian 14th November 2013. Available online http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/14/guy-debord-society-spectacle-will-self [accessed August 2015]

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Walker, B. (2012) The Big ideas podcast: Guy Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’ The Guardian 28th March 2012. Available online http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/audio/2012/mar/28/big-ideas-podcast-debord-society-spectacle [accessed August 2015]

Project 2-2: Barbarous Taste

Read Pierre Bourdieu’s essay ‘The Social Definition of Photography’ on pps. 162-180 of the course reader and make notes. Consider Bourdieu’s statement that:

“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.”

What do you think this statement means?

This quote comes at the end of the first section of the Bourdieu essay, “An art which imitates art.” Bourdieu suggests that although photography contains elements of realism, society naively (and incorrectly) asserts that a photograph is a purely objective record of reality. Our perception of photographic reality is based on conventions inherited from painting such as perspective:

“photography is a conventional system which expresses space in terms of the laws of perspective (or rather one perspective.)”

Photography was assigned social uses which held it to be ‘realistic’ and ‘objective’, because of this the language of photography, and therefore our ability to understand the photographic image, was already present at its origins:

“the selection which it makes from the visible world is logically perfectly in keeping with the representation of the world which has dominated Europe since the Quattrocentro.”

Photographs are seen as real due to the mechanical nature of photography which deny the artistic role of the photographer – the quality of a photograph is often reduced to the quality of the camera:

“photography captures an aspect of reality which is only ever the result of an arbitrary selection.”

Because of photography’s use of traditional vison of the world, it is not surprising that it is seen as the most objective and true recording. The social use of photography is structured into categories that organize the ordinary vision of the world so photographic images are seen as precise and objective reproductions of reality:

“If it is true that nature imitates art, it is natural that the imitation of art should appear the most natural imitation of nature.”

“Naïve realism” means this representation of the real owes its objective appearance through conformity with the rules of socially conditioned forms of perception and not to reality.

Do you agree with Bourdieu’s statement?

The conclusion I have eventually reached about this statement is that Bourdieu is presenting a simple idea in a complex way and while the concept that photography has elements of truth within it is correct, this is not the full picture. Photography does contain elements of the real world, the contents of the frame show things and people that really exist. The problem arises when we blindly assume that because a photograph is based within the real world it is also the truth. Bourdieu makes the point that all we ever see in a photograph is what the photographer has chosen to show proven by the fact that a black and white photograph, which is clearly not how the real world appears, is the common way documentary photography is represented. (Admittedly this is less so today, but was certainly true at the time Bourdieu was writing. Despite the prevalence of colour photography it could be argued that black and white photography is still loaded with connotations of being somehow more truthful.)

Bourdieu makes much of how different classes respond to photography, much of which left me cold. It seemed that his division along very definite class lines does not translate easily to the modern world and I would argue that everyone in society is now a sophisticated reader of visual communication of which photography is an important aspect, even if they cannot articulate this clearly. Photography’s relationship to reality is something that interests me greatly and I am not sure that there is a simple blanket statement that can sum up the overriding view of this. While it is now accepted that photographs can, and are doctored and manipulated, and we therefore cannot always believe what we see, there is probably still a view that photographs are truthful when presented in some contexts, for example, newspapers.

Thoughts…

I have really struggled with this project, I have found the text difficult and my ability to gain insight has remained seemingly just out of reach – just when I think I am about to gain understanding it seems to slip away. When I have been faced with this problem with other projects I have found leaving a little time and returning to the text has helped, on this occasion however this strategy has not worked and I have only managed to effectively put the course on hold. With this in mind I decided to progress with the next project  – the lesson learned here that it can be difficult if not impossible to gain a full understanding of the texts we need to study for the course and it is the exploration that counts…this is an important consideration and one I will try to bear in mind when I will no doubt be faced with a similar impasse further in the course. This view was even spelled out for me in black and white in the notes for the next project in relation to the difficulty of the pieces which are to be studied: “the attempt is what really matters at the moment.” Maybe I should write this on the wall next to my desk as a reminder!

Keywords and concepts for further research:

Surrealism, Marxism, Situationism/Situationist International, Post-Modern

Bibliography:

Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press inc.

Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage

Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Project 2-1: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

This project requires reading Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ and the first chapter of John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ before considering the following questions:

On ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ by Walter Benjamin:

How does Benjamin state his case for the removal of art’s elite nature?

“for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.” (Evans and Hall p76)

Benjamin argues that works of art are elevated to the status of revered ritual artefacts. Ownership, which can be seen as a closed ritual, and value are based on the status of a work of art as being unique and exclusive. This leads to art becoming a commodity in capitalist culture and the preserve of the privileged and therefore unobtainable to the majority – the masses. Reproducibility means that this system can be challenged and that art can become a democratizing, potentially revolutionary, force in more fluid socialist politics.

Benjamin believed that reproduction would lead to a profound change in the function of art; instead of it’s purpose being ritual it would become political – the potential for images to be used for political purposes would be opened up. This could have potentially liberating effects on human consciousness – artworks that were previously only available to the rich or elite who had the means and capacity for travel and ownership, a relatively rare experience, would become available to the masses who through reproductions could come to know, love and even own a copy of a valued work of art.

What do you make of Benjamin’s ideas of the ‘aura’ of the work?

‘Aura’ is the term used by Benjamin to describe the intrinsic, unreproducible aspect of a work of art that is eliminated through the act of reproduction: “That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.” (Evans and Hall, p74) It is the special quality of a work of art that makes it unique, authentic and original (in both time and space), although ‘aura’ is not inherent in the work itself but imputed by a culture that holds it in high regard. Benjamin states that the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition and allows the beholder to meet the reproduction in their own situation, and therefore, has the ability to shatter tradition and is linked to mass movements. An original work has a unique existence in the place where it happens to be and even the most perfect reproduction cannot capture this fleeting aura. Aura originates from the ritualistic/cultic value of primitive art which is replaced by exhibition value in the modern sense. Benjamin believed the aura to be in decay because the idea of the original does not apply to the new art forms of photography and film as they are always/already a copy.

Reading ‘Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Benjamin seems both critical and nostalgic for the phenomenon of the aura. It seems he is willing to sacrifice that which is desirable of a work of art’s aura in order for art to become liberated from ritual and association with the ruling elite and become a force for politics. It seems to me that even though artworks are more reproducible and accessible now than Benjamin could ever have imagined, an artworks ‘aura’ is stronger than ever – the act of reproducibility has only strengthened the cult of the original rather than diminished it. Famous artworks become part of the popular consciousness, the example used in many of the texts I read was of the Mona Lisa which is now so famous it becomes more than simply a painting and is elevated to reverential status with visitors to the Louvre queuing for hours to spend the average time of 2 minutes in the paintings presence. If reproduction meant an artworks aura was diminished we would expect the  publics interest to be reducing rather than increasing that the increase in museum/gallery attendance seems to suggest is true.

Studying Benjamin and thinking about the subject of the ‘aura’ has made me question my own relationship to original art work. My personal view is that viewing a work of art in the flesh cannot be replicated through viewing reproductions either physical or digital. This is mainly based upon a memory from when I was 16 and a holiday to Paris. I visited the famous Musee D’Orsay and recall being floored by the effect of seeing the real famous impressionist works of Monet and Van Gogh – famous images that I was aware of not through study but because they had entered the popular consciousness. No reproduction could replicate the scale and beauty of the works, the textures of the oil paints added an extra dimension that the flatness of a print could not. I remember being particularly struck by this self portrait by Van Gogh.

As a sixteen year old I was taken in by the tragic romance of Van Gogh and his tortured genius. This self portrait was not one I knew before visiting but the swirling patterns of oil paint around Van Gogh spoke to me deeply about his possible state of mind as well as causing me to recognise that the experience I was having in front of the original work would be impossible to replicate through any reproduction. On the way out I bought a postcard of the painting from the gift shop and was immediately struck by how lacking it was – without realising it I recognised that it was the paintings aura that was missing.

Does the improvement of methods of reproduction, colour printing, digital imaging and television strengthen or weaken his case?

The capacity for reproduction presented by modern technology is almost limitless and would have been impossible for Benjamin to imagine, however, on the main thrust of his argument that reproduction would make art a political force this has not happened – at least not in the way he has envisioned. Although there are many artists who are motivated by political aims, it could be argued that the majority of us view art as a career and business. Art is available to everyone, think google image search, and if anything the aura and fetishism of original works of arts has only increased because of this.

Artwork has never been more prevalent than it is today while the capacity for us all to express ourselves is something Benjamin could never have envisaged. What we understand as the establishment is significantly different too, new money probably outstrips old. If anything however, the proliferation and accessibility of imagery has only increased the cult of works of art and to own an original remains the preserve of the well off. The truth is that it is impossible to generalise about the impact, effect and use of modern methods of reproduction – as soon as I thought about examples of how an artworks aura have been destroyed through reproduction I could immediately think of opposites to refute my argument. The modern world in which we live is incredibly complex and on the face of it access to works of art has never been more democratic, works can be immediately accessed to view via the internet and the increase in admissions to galleries and museums as well as growth of the art market would seem to suggest there is a growing interest in art. The choice available is bewildering to many of us however and it seems to me we are more reliant than ever on the guidance of a few experts to signify to us which art works are worthy of our attention. It is now a commonly accepted truth that art can now be anything, a notion that reproducibility does not take into account of.

Does the failure of the Soviet experiment alter the validity or otherwise of his case?

Benjamin underestimated, and was maybe even naïve, about how political systems could use photography and film for their own ends, the propaganda of the Soviet Union is a strong example of this.

On ‘Ways of Seeing’ by John Berger:

Do you find his case convincing?

‘Ways of Seeing’ is a polemic and reaction against Kenneth Clark’s ‘Civilization’ television series and book which preceded Berger’s series in 1969 – Clark represented the old establishment and the ruling elite while Berger had a radical, modern approach with political intent. It is written in a style that uses generalization and does little to recognise alternative arguments, I can understand Berger’s approach but for me it is somewhat off putting –  recognising opposing viewpoints could have been used as a way to strengthen rather than diminish his argument although this would undoubtedly have increased the word count. The book and television series were intended as a primer to provoke and promote further thought and study of art, and in this respect it is certainly a success – proved by the fact that some forty years after publication and broadcast they are still being studied.

Personally, I find Berger of interest historically but in the end not completely compelling. Some of this is due to his presentation style, although it is intended as a polemic the piece has the air of preaching to the converted to me. The Marxist style of discourse contained in ‘Ways of Seeing’ seems outdated, clearly Berger’s aims were to influence real change not only in the art world but in society in general. The fact that the market and the economic value of works of art is now stronger than ever shows how wrong he was in the future of art.

Do you think that a work of art removed from its original site grows or diminishes in meaning?

It depends on what is meant by ‘original site’ and how it is removed – literally or by means of reproduction, if the latter then as already discussed the artwork would naturally be different anyway. In antiquity artwork was on the main designed to be in a particular place, for example churches and temples which promoted the idea that they were sacred and spiritual and set them apart from normal life. Likewise when artwork became social it entered the culture of the ruling class and was displayed in palaces and stately homes which made the authority of the artworks inseparable from that of the ruling elite. It could be argued that museums and galleries are the modern day equivalent of churches and temples and are places we go to worship art with the custodians of these places are similar to priests. Likewise visitors to galleries and museums are similar to dutiful worshipers in that they are already converted to the cause. On the face of it displaying art work in public places could be a way to break this elitist barrier down, the only problem being however that these public venues then become the original site for the artwork and thus the argument loses all meaning.

Does familiarity breed contempt?

This question depends on our understanding of who would feel contempt toward the familiar. The elite nature of art criticism would seem to suggest that experts certainly feel this way – that popularity somehow diminishes the importance of an artist and their work. This view can be backed up by the way some art experts look down upon those that are popular or successful, this is something that I came across when researching Jeff Koons in project 1-5 (Art as Commodity.) Another example would be how some recent ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions have been poorly reviewed – surely the increased visitor numbers to museums and galleries and the increased appetite for art from the general public that this would suggest would be seen as a positive rather than being attacked? I am sure Berger would be unsurprised by the critics reaction however, to him this would be an example of how experts use mystification to protect their status as pillars of good taste.

Has Benjamin’s ‘aura’ been removed by the postcard?

I would say yes and no. It is true that a postcard does not retain the aura of an original work of art (see my thoughts about purchasing a Van Gogh postcard above) but the very production and distribution of the work of art as a postcard can go a long way to increase the aura of the original. It is also true however that the aura of the original can be transformed through the act of reproduction, again I think of a work of art like the ‘Mona Lisa’ which has become elevated to the status of icon rather than painting with parodies and appropriation being commonplace. It seems to me impossible for the real work to live up to the myth and disappointment seems to be the main reaction of those that have braved the crowds to spend their (on average) two minutes in its presence.

Thoughts…

Reading ahead of the course notes I was conscious that this is a pivotal project in the course; ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’, ‘Ways of seeing’, Benjamin and Berger are work and writers that I have come across often through my research. I felt determined to give myself sufficient time and consideration of these essays and set about taking extensive notes and being planned about my responses. Despite this I struggled to gain the insight that the questions posed in the course material seemed to be pushing me for. In fact, the more I thought about my responses the less certain (and able) I seemed to be able to articulate myself. At this point I am at a loss as to why this should be but clear that this has led to a severe depletion of the momentum I had been building in the course. The only explanation I have is that I have completely missed the point of the questions posed – I have been searching for definitive answers rather than  using them as a jumping off point. I am far from happy with the responses I have posted here but feel that moving on is the best course of action rather than becoming further entangled.

One of the problems I think with these two essays is that they are informed by a particular historical moment that we are now far removed from – Berger’s notion that artwork can be democratized by individuals having a pin board to display postcards seems somewhat bizarre to me. Interestingly, I find Benjamin’s writing and means of discourse much more compelling than Berger’s which, although intentionally polemic, deals too much in absolutes which has a kind of arrogance I find off putting. For me, recognising alternative viewpoints and then showing why yours is more valid represents strength rather than weakness. I found Peter Fuller’s ‘Seeing through Berger’ an interesting read, although I have not directly referenced it, particularly the escalating argument that moved Fuller from a disciple of Berger to a sworn adversary.

Keywords and concepts for further research:

Marxism, surrealism, modernism, the ‘aura’

Key figures for further research:

Walter Benjamin, John Berger, Brecht, Lukacs, Adorno, Frans Hals, Leonardo Da Vinci

Bibliography:

Benjamin, W. (1999) Illuminations. London: Pimlico.

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

Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing (BBC series) – Episdoese 1: Available at – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pDE4VX_9Kk [accessed April 2015]

Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press inc.

Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage.

Fuller, P (1988) Seeing through Berger London: The Claridge Press

Howells, R. Negreiros, J. (2011) Visual Culture 2nd Ed, Cambridge: Polity Press

Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books

Pooke, G. and Newall, D. (2008) The Basics: Art History. Oxford: Routledge.

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Project 1-7: Leisure time and Consumerism – The Flâneur

For this project we are required to search the web for articles on the flâneur making notes on the phenomenon and what thinkers like Walter Benjamin have to say on the subject.

We are also asked to consider what effect we think this phenomenon had on the world of the artist in western society from the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Flâneur is a French term with no direct English translation popularised by Charles Baudelaire in his essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ and linked to the emergence of consumer culture in the late nineteenth century. Baudelaire describes the elegant flâneur, strolling through the streets and arcades of Paris, simultaneously taking pleasure from the act of looking at items of commodity culture and remaining detached from the cityscape around him. He neither belongs to the richest or poorest class and existed on the margins of the city, he takes in the sights – especially the new phenomenon of consumerism found in the displays of the shop windows of the arcades. For the flâneur the act of looking becomes a pleasure in itself.

Sturken and Cartwright offer one of the most concise and interesting definitions of the flâneur that I came across:

“A flâneur is a kind of urban dandy who strolls through a modern city (such as Paris), a space that is newly organised in modernity to encourage a mobile and specular (looking) relationship to urban space and the new consumer goods that are displayed there.”

The phenomenon of the flâneur is tied to the quickly changing landscape of the late nineteenth century: the modern city and its changing architecture, dramatic changes population densities, emergence of factories, industrial manufacturing and production, the growth of the bourgeoisie, advances in technology and communication as well as developments in capitalism. Interestingly, the flâneur of the nineteenth century was always male because society at the time did not allow females the freedoms that men enjoyed.

Walter Benjamin, who was much influenced by Baudelaire, took the notion of the flâneur and turned it into a kind of mythological figure, using it to explore the development of consumer society, that is a society where the practices of consumption rather than production are predominant. For Benjamin the flâneur is a sociological icon of the nineteenth century and emblematic of modernity and his use of the term in his unfinished and posthumously published major work ‘The Arcades Project’ is seen as being responsible for the term entering critical theory.

The ‘Painter of Modern Life’ Baudelaire describes in his essay is the artist he also describes as the archetypal flâneur: Constantin Guys. Baudelaire admires his ability to capture the ephemeral but irreversible changes brought about by fashion and the new commodities of the arcades. Guys paintings employed a new realism both in terms of subject matter and style that marked a radical departure from traditional academic history paintings. This theme was further developed by Manet and then the impressionists before continuing into other avant-gardes such as futurism and surrealism. For me, the idea of the flâneur as artist is perhaps best encapsulated by the street photographer. Researching this project, my mind kept returning to photographers who I have grown to love as masters of street photography such as Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander, Martin Parr and Garry Winogrand. Indeed, the mental image I have of Winogrand prowling the streets, camera in hand, trying to create order and meaning out of the chaos of modern city life is one that stays with me. The image of William Eggleston also springs to mind because although he does not photograph city life his detached style and privileged background (meaning he could concentrate on taking photographs as an interest rather than by any need to make money from it) seem to fit the notion of the flâneur well. I often have the sense when looking at Eggleston’s work that although the subjects portrayed are on the main the banal and every day we are somehow sharing his way of seeing. Personally, being a flâneur is also something I enjoy doing myself. I love nothing more than picking up my camera and exploring the streets with no other preconception than to make images of what I see.

Thoughts…

The subject of the flâneur is an interesting one, but I am not sure that studying this is the real purpose of the project which I suspect is more concerned with study techniques, time management and introducing Walter Benjamin. It is interesting that the course notes offer no direct article or work as reference but direct us to conduct study on the internet. A google search for flâneur invariably makes Wikipedia the top hit before branching into many varied sources. I quickly decided to conduct my research in the way I have all other projects using the text books I am beginning to become more familiar with and learning to trust, making notes and also jotting down  further keywords and concepts to research further. Having done this first I felt much more equipped to tackle internet search results and identify articles potential value as well as being able to directly search for essays and books that I had found referenced. I quickly amassed a large amount of reading material and was left with the difficult choice of how much further research to do – by this point I had probably gained enough knowledge to complete my write up and I must admit being torn between wanting to gain as much understanding by reading as widely as possible and progressing. Up until now I have continued reading until all of the sources I have identified are completed, I decided to moderate this approach here by putting a timescale of a week on my further research. This meant rather than trying to read each source in detail and take notes I needed to skim moist of them and prioritize those which appear of most value. For example, looking at Benjamin’s ‘The Arcades Project’ meant merely skim reading and concentrating on passages that caught my eye. At 1000 pages and extremely complex, trying to assimilate the work would have been a major distraction, but, gaining a sense of the tone of the piece by allowing it to wash over me did help inform the project.

I note that after assignment one, the first project of part two concerns Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, a work I expect to be extremely challenging given what other students have noted. That said, as I have now been introduced to Benjamin as a writer I feel I can tackle the project without becoming side-tracked by studying his biography. The experience of his writing I have gained here also means I have some understanding of what to expect.

Keywords and concepts for further research:

Consumer society, phantasmagoria, modernity, situationism, dérive.

Key figures for further research:

Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire, Edgar Allan Poe, Guy Debord, Constantin Guys.

Bibliography:

Baudelaire, C (1863) The Painter of Modern Life. (translated and edited by Johnathon Mayne) Phaidon Press

Benjamin, W. (1999) On Some Motifs in Baudelaire                                                                                                   in Illuminations. London: Pimlico.

Benjamin W. (1999) The Arcades Project. (Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin from the German volume edited by Rolf Tiedemann) Cambridge:Harvard University Press

Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York:Oxford University Press inc.

Friedberg, A The Mobilized and Virtual Gaze in Modernity: Flaneur/Flaneuse                                           in Mirzoeff, N. (ed). (2002) The Visual Culture Reader Second edition. Oxford:                       Routledge

Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books

Seal, B. (2013) Baudelaire, Benjamin and the Birth of the Flâneur. Available at http://psychogeographicreview.com/baudelaire-benjamin-and-the-birth-of-the-flaneur/ [accessed February 2015]

Sontag, S. (2008) On Photography. London: Penguin.

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Project 1-6: Photography: The New Reality

This project requires reading the essay ‘Photography Versus Painting’ by Osip Brik in ‘Art in Theory 1900-2000’ (Ed. Harrison and Wood) before considering the following questions:

 Do you think that Brik’s article points to a practice that was taken up by photographers or other artists to any great extent?

 Although Brik’s article was written in 1926, nearly 100 years since the earliest surviving photograph by Nicéphore Niépce, he makes a passionate argument as to why photography is an important art form while acknowledging it is still in its infancy. As a Russian Constructivist Brik would have been concerned with art that serves a political and social purpose as well as art’s relationship with the industrial. As a Leninist living in post-revolutionary Russia the ties between art and the ruling classes would have informed his thinking; he recognises how the cost of photography is accessible to everyone, unlike painting, “The cheapest painting is more expensive than the most expensive photograph.” For me, there is a real sense of purpose and urgency to his words along with a belief that photography can form part of social betterment.

For Brik, there is no contest in the battle between art and photography, “Photography pushes painting aside. Painting resists and is determined not to capitulate.” The advantages of photography over painting, “precision, speed [and] cheapness”, mean that painters cannot compete with the “faithful reproduction” that photography can produce. Despite this, the counter attack by painters was centred on photography’s inferior realism to painting because it was black and white. For Brik this argument is flawed in that painters can only approximate the colours of nature: “However much the painter tries s/he cannot go beyond the narrow limits of the palette.” He hints that accurate colour photography is yet to come while dismissing the lack of realism argument with the aside that at least photography does not falsify like painting by giving an object the wrong colours.

For Brik, photography’s difference to painting should be total. Photographers should concern themselves with how a subject looks while “The painter not only has the right to change reality, it is virtually his duty to do so.” he cites artistic movements that have emerged from the mid nineteenth century as proof of this, impressionism, cubism, suprematism, each of which makes a decisive divide between photography and painting. Although he cannot resist disparaging painting again, “The photographer captures life and the painter makes pictures.”

Despite all of his assertions that photography is superior to painting, Brik admits that photography is not yet fully mature as an art form. This is due to photographers not realising their social importance and regarding themselves as humble artisans practicing an “insignificant craft.” The reason for this is that artists are free to make work of anything that they please rather than to commission. (Although I think he is presenting an idealised version of what it is to be an artist here.) The importance of their work is compounded by important exhibitions which are regarded as cultural events. He explains that this is why some photographers try to mimic this style by employing painterly effects, a reference to the pictorialist school of photography. Brik believes however that photographers will attain the social recognition enjoyed by painters by creating their own aesthetic: “The photographer must show that it is not just life ordered according to aesthetic laws which is impressive, but also vivid, everyday life itself as it is transfixed in a technically perfect photograph.” He acknowledges that a new theory of the art of photography is in its infancy but cites photographers like Alexander Rodchenko who understand it’s “mission, aims and development.”

There is much in Brik’s article that I agree with – that photography is a an art form and is separate from painting, that it has the ability to recreate reality more closely than traditional art and that photography can be important politically and socially. He rightly asserts that photography will move away from pictorialism into more realistic modes although today there are many different photographic styles. Because the article is a polemic which does not give any room for multiple view points only the assertion of Brik’s argument, I also have a number of concerns: Brik suggests that there can be only painting or photography when clearly they can coexist side by side. It is quite common today for artists to work in many different media so clearly this is untrue and many exhibitions feature both photography and painting. Brik also completely accepts the view that photography is a faithful representation of reality, a position that although it has some truth has been widely discounted today, or at least approached with caution.

 Do you find any resonances with Brik’s ideas in contemporary discussions of photography and painting?

Until recently I would have said no, that the argument about whether photography could be art was over and had broadly been won. A recent pair of articles in ‘The Guardian’ however show this not to be the case. In response to a photograph (‘Phantom’ by Peter Lik) setting a new world record for the most expensive ever (it sold for $6.5m), the Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones set out an argument against photography being an art form. His main thrust is against ‘Phantom’ which he sees as “derivative, sentimental in its studied romanticism, and consequently in very poor taste.” And “Lik’s photography is beauty in a slick way, but beauty is cheap if you point a camera at a grand phenomenon of nature.” Not only does he find the subject matter derivative of 100 year old painting styles he also has issue with the use of black and white which he sees as a special effect employed solely to elevate the status of the work. Indeed, Jones’ main issue is that anyone could have taken ‘Phantom’ as long as they stand in the right place, at the right time with the right piece of technology: “this hollow and overblown creation exposes the illusion that lures us all, when we’re having a good day with a good camera – the fantasy that taking a picture is the same thing as making a work of art.”

In response photography critic Sean O’Hagan argues that he could as easily dismiss all painting by using a narrow example such as the BP National Portrait Award, an “uninspiring show, a hotchpotch”, which is “mostly comprised of rather old fashioned paintings.” He chooses not to because “the ‘photography is not art’ debate is so old it’s hardly worth revisiting.” He agrees with Jones on one point however, that ‘Phantom’ is not very good, “a rather boring photograph.” However, he argues that the huge selling price shows the problems inherent in global capitalism rather than photography, “obscenely rich people with more money than sense.” He could similarly attack all contemporary art because of Hirst’s “obscene” diamond skull or Jack Vettriano but rather chooses to celebrate the great artists that take photographs and the great photographers that are artists, whose work, “sings on the gallery wall. Their work makes you look at the world in a different way.” On the subject of technology, O’Hagan asserts that digital photography has merely made it easier for people to take and disseminate photographs, “A great photographer can make a great photograph whatever the camera. A bad one will still make a bad photograph on a two grand digital camera that does everything for you. It’s about a way of seeing, not technology.”

So who wins the argument? Although I am biased towards photography myself I would still have to say O’Hagan – a lot of the success of his piece comes down to his difference in tone compared with Jones. While he appears measured in his responses and passionate about his love of photography as an art form, Jones appears spiteful and irrational. It is unclear whether his piece is a knee jerk reaction or simply provocative. It seems that it could be the latter as many commentators on the piece point out he has been an advocate for photography as an art form in the past. Still, the difficulties raised about the mechanical nature of photography, whether it is the machine or the operator that makes a great image and the fact that anyone can take a photograph are probably more commonly shared than I first thought. My suspicion is that many people who are not invested with an interest in contemporary art would prefer ‘Phantom’ over the previous most expensive photograph ever ‘Rhine II’ by Andreas Gursky. The problem though is that we equate cost with quality, and as O’Hagan observes, in this modern capitalist age of inflated prices, this is a dangerous parallel to draw.

Find and annotate two examples of images that demonstrate the impact of photography on painting. How do these images acknowledge the shift in visual culture that came about with the advent of photography?

From my research I found little concrete evidence of photography’s impact on painting, by that I mean that a lot of what I read came down the authors opinion or considered hypothesis of how artists reacted to the emergence of photography. Through my research of different art movements during photography’s initial development I came across a number of thoughts of my own which I will detail. I may be off the mark and my opinion is sure to change as my knowledge of art history improves and I become familiar with more artists, also, my ideas are contradictory in that photography both encouraged a new type of realism (rather than the presentation of an ideal) as well as provoking artists began to experiment with more abstract representations which differentiated painting from photographs.

It is difficult to say for certain whether these changes in painting are a direct result of photography or driven more by the rapid changes in society brought about by the industrial revolution. This notion of photography’s impact is also compounded by the fact that as an emerging art form it would be at least one hundred years after the first photograph before photography started to find its way as an art form.

The realism movement in art of the mid-late 19th century aimed at breaking artistic and social conventions through choice of subject matter and by attempting to show the world as they saw it. Realism was interested in challenging the accepted bourgeois notions of what art should be: the pursuit of the beautiful, moral and improving. In ‘A Bar at the Foile-Bergere’ (1882) Edouard Manet paints a young woman standing behind a bar with the customers reflected in the background. The image was controversial at the time because of the subject matter; many think the girl portrayed is a prostitute – not an accepted subject for a painting. Also the paintings style which rather than using perspective focusses the viewers attention with the distortions and omissions in the reflections of the background achieve a kind of depth of field effect – which has now become part of the language and way we understand a photograph. I think it is doubtful that this would have entered the visual language at the time Manet was painting but the comparison is interesting none the less. It also seems somewhat coincidental that a movement that aims to portray life as seen by the artist emerges at the same time that photography is invented.

The impressionist movement, originating from around 1860, could be seen as a rejection of attempting to compete with photography on the grounds of realism. Impressionists explored ways to capture light, movement and colour through their work and thus provoke a sensory reaction from the viewer. It is only since the 1970s that colour photography has overtaken black and white as the accepted norm (certainly in reference to ‘serious’ photography) so it understandable that the impressionist’s use of colour was one of the central aspects of their work and a key differentiator with photography, see Claude Monet ‘Impressions, Sunrise’ (1872). On a separate note, the early pictorialist movements in photography can be read as an attempt to follow what was happening in the art world (and an attempt to have photography accepted as an art) and appears to me to be heavily influenced by Impressionism. Edward Steichen, ‘The Pond-Moonlight’, 1904.)

As art moved into modernism, painting became less concerned with realism and more abstract,  which again can be read as a further distancing between painting and photography. Certainly a work like Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’, 1907) is unrecognisable as what was understood at the time as a painting through Picasso’s use of flattened perspective and jagged shapes.

A final example of how by the beginning of the twentieth century painting and photography are now beginning to inform each other can be seen in Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2’,1912 which clearly is influenced by cubism but also references the photographic studies of motion by Eadweard Muybridge (‘Woman Walking Downstairs’, 1887.)

Thoughts…

As my main artistic interest and area of knowledge lies with photography and because of this I thought this would be an easy project to complete, the reality has been somewhat more slippery however. The difficulty has mainly come from trying to establish the relationship between painting, photography and reality as it applies to the mid-late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. It quickly became apparent to me that it is impossible to look at only painting and photography in isolation as the development of both was probably influenced far greater by the fast changing world driven by advances in science and technology and also massive shifts in society. It seems probable that any serious artist would be aware of photography as an emerging medium and that seems to be demonstrated by the examples I have given, how much so is difficult if not impossible to assess. It is not unreasonable to assume that artists may have been subconsciously influenced by photography’s development rather than actively seeking it as an influence. That photography was influenced by art seems similarly likely because of the early photographic movement of pictorialism.

Realism in photography is a tricky subject. It is probably only very recently that we have stopped believing the cliché ‘the camera never lies’ and this is only because we are now sophisticated readers of visual culture. In the early days of photography this distinction would probably not have been made, conversely however it certainly took a number of years before photography developed its own visual language (the development of the technology played a part in this)  so it would certainly have been even longer for acceptance of photography as a visual language to be made.

In short, as with all the other exercises so far, what has seemed straightforward at the beginning has become less so as my study has progressed. I feel a little less certain about the relationship between painting and photography now despite my increased knowledge, maybe this is because I recognise that I have only scratched the surface and that the relationship is an extremely complex one with many other outside influences.

Keywords and concepts for further research:

Constructivism, Factography, Reportage, Realism, Impressionism, Cubism, Suprematism, Social Realiam, Futurism, Bauhaus movement, Neo-Classical.

Key figures for further research:

Osip Brik, Alexander Rodchenko, El Lissitzy, Vladimir Mayalowsky, Vladimir Tatlin, Dziga Vertov, Varvara Stepanova, Van Doesburg, Naum Gabo, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Kurt Schwitters, Charles Vantongerro, Pablo Picasso, Eduoard Manet, Marcel Duchamp, Eadward Muybridge.

Bibliography:

Brik, O. Photography versus Painting in Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (eds.) (2002) Art in Theory 1900–2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Oxford: Blackwell.

Jones, J. The $6.5m canyon: it’s the most expensive photograph ever – but it’s like a hackneyed poster in a posh hotel in The Guardian 10th December 2014

Available at http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2014/dec/10/most-expensive-photograph-ever-hackneyed-tasteless [accessed January 2015]

Macey, D. The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory (2000) London: Penguin books

Murray, P and L. The Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists 7th Ed (1997) London: Penguin Books

O’Hagan, S. Photography is art and always will be in The Guardian 11th Decemeber 2014

Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/dec/11/photography-is-art-sean-ohagan-jonathan-jones [accessed January 2015]

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.