Project 4-3: Looking, Observation or Surveillance?

Read chapter 5 of the course reader, Panopticism by Michel Foucault on pps. 61 – 71 and make notes.

Notes on the Panopticon/panopticism:

The Panopticon was conceived by English philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) as a model of prison architecture enabling, what he thought was, a therapeutic form of total surveillance. The design of the Panopticon was based around a concentric building comprising of rings of cells at the centre of which stands a guard tower. This system enabled guards to view prisoners without being seen themselves which causes the inmates to modify their behaviour – what Bentham described as gaining power of “mind over mind.” (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009: 107) The success of the Panopticon design is that a guard does not have to be present – what matters is the idea of being viewed at all times which becomes fixed in the mind of each prisoner – and this is what keeps them under control in a regime of silent discipline. Bentham saw the chief virtue of the Panopticon as being the reduction of the need for violent forms of coercion – the lack of privacy would have a remedial effect on the prisoners, forcing them to internalise socially approved standards of behaviour and rehabilitate themselves for re-entry into society.

In ‘Discipline and Punish: the birth of the prison’ (1975), Michel Foucault explored the idea of the Panopticon which he believed represented an emblematic of shift not only the treatment of prisoners but in organizational rationality of society as a whole. He saw the Panoptic model as being transferrable, and indeed present, in not only prisons but hospitals, educational establishments and the workplace. Foucault was interested in the psychological nature of the Panopticon, the relentless ‘inspecting gaze’ – a feature he viewed as both fascinating and disturbing. Unlike dungeons, which remove prisoners from sight and give them some protection from scrutiny, the prisoners of the Panopticon imagine themselves being constantly watched – and it is this that keeps them in line. They internalise the figure of the imagined observer and modify their behaviour as subjects under surveillance even when no one is watching. Foucault suggested that in modern society we behave as if we are under a scrutinizing, panoptic gaze: we internalise the rules and norms of society as we imagine ourselves to be constantly under a watchful eye that expects us to behave in this way.

Howells and Negreiros (2011: 108-9) compare the Panopticon to CCTV – similarly these cameras do not need to be turned on to exercise a disciplinary function because we self censor and self regulate so effectively. They assert that the relationship between image and power which is enacted through the internalising of the inspecting gaze is a phenomenon associated with the emergence of modernity. The previous relationship could be designated ‘spectacular’, that is, overt displays of power made visible to ordinary people. For example, heavily ritualised power structures such as monarchy, totalitarian regimes and religion – all of which function as a warning against subversion of the status quo. Although the function of power is less overt due to the prevalence of surveillance, it is no less ideologically determinant. Sturken and Cartwright (2009: 108-110) agree that camera surveillance is a form of intrusion that we have come to accept: the physical form of the inspecting gaze that we imagine. Photographic images form part of what Foucault termed the docile bodies of the modern state: citizens who participate in the ideologies of the society through a desire to conform. Homogenous media and advertising images that promote the ‘perfect look’ are manifestations of this.

Notes on ‘Panopticism’ by Michel Foucault in Evans and Hall (1999) pps. 61-71.

The extract begins with a description of the measures taken when the plague appeared in a town in the 17thC: a system of surveillance based on permanent registration – the plague is met by order – it’s function to prevent disease being transmitted by the mixing together of bodies. The evil of prohibition is outweighed by the danger of increased fear and death.

The leper gave rise to rituals of exclusion and the plague to disciplinary projects. The plague stricken town is the utopia of the perfectly governed city and ideal exercise of disciplinary power: traversed with hierarchy, surveillance, observation and writing.

In the 19thC the projects of exclusion and discipline begin to come together in the form of the psychiatric system, the penitentiary, the reformatory, the approved school and the hospital.

Description of Bentham’s Panopticon: at it’s periphery an annular building, at the centre a tower pierced with wide windows that open into the inner side of the ring. The peripheric building is divided into cells, each of which extend the whole width of the building. Each has two windows – one inside corresponding with the windows of the tower, the other, outside allowing light to cross from one end of the cell to the other. A supervisor is placed in the central tower. Each cell has place for a madman, patient, condemned man, worker or schoolboy. The principles of the dungeon, to enclose, deprive of light, are reversed with only enclosure being preserved.

“Full lighting and the eye of the supervisor capture better than darkness, which ultimately protected. Visibility is a trap.”

The negative effect of the “compact swarming masses” found in places of confinement as depicted by Goya are also avoided.

The lack of contact between confined individuals who are constantly seen by the supervisor, prevents disruption as invisibility is a guarantee of order. The crowd/collective effort is abolished and replaced by a collection of separated individualities. From the guardians point of view it is replaced by a multiplicity that can be numbered and supervised. From the inmates point of view a separated and observed solitude:

“Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that ensures the automatic functioning of power.”

The surveillance is permanent in its effects even if it is discontinuous in its action: the inmates are caught in a power situation of which they are the bearers themselves. Bentham laid down the principle that “power should be visible and unverifiable.” In the peripheric ring of the Panopticon, “one is totally seen without ever seeing.” In the central tower “one sees everything without ever being seen.”

Any random individual can exercise power by being the observer in the tower – even the director’s servants. It does not matter what motivates the observer, in fact, the more anonymous and temporary the greater the risk of the prisoner being surprised and anxiously aware of being observed.

No restraints are required: “he who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power.”

The Panopticon makes it possible to observe inmates and draw comparison and differences: it can be used as a laboratory to carry out experiments. For example – to correct individuals, monitor the effect of medicines, monitor the effectiveness of varying punishments, teach different techniques to workers, bring up children under different systems of thought.

“The Panopticon is a privileged place for experiments on men, and for analysing with complete certainty the transformations that may be obtained from them.”

The Panopticon is a generalised model of functioning and way of defining power relations in the everyday life of men as opposed to “ruined prisons littered with the mechanisms of torture.” In each application it is the perfect exercise of power: it can reduce the number who exercise it, while increasing the number of those on whom it is exercised.

Many  video  artists  today  use  themselves  as  their  subject  (e.g.  Lindsay  Seers). Think about this in relation to panopticism.

Lindsay Seers presents a curated version of her life as her artwork using aspects of her biography (which may or may not be true) as her inspiration. Some of her works are presented as identifiable artworks while other aspects are less easy to define and categorise presented in the documentary mode or as interviews with her mother and psychologists which could either back her biography or be part of a fabrication. For example, Seers’ says that she was mute and had an eidetic (photographic) memory until the age of 8. This disappeared and she uttered her first words when she recognised her reflection in the mirror for the first time, however, the experience had such an effect as to drive her to ‘become’ a camera in an attempt to recapture the immediacy of experience she felt during these early years. Her early works involve turning herself into a ‘human camera’ – by putting photographic paper in her mouth and using the opening and shutting of her jaw as the camera shutter to make exposures. This results in images framed by her teeth, stained with saliva and tinged with the blood from her cheeks.

Seers’ work is an example of what Mike Brennan terms ‘neo-narration’: the practice of artists using a variety of narrative devices to produce art. The narrative that Lindsay Seers presents could be read as an extended performance piece,  it is impossible to tell which (if any) of the aspects of her personal biography that she presents as both the subject matter and inspiration is real. This is almost a curation of her life – as viewers we are left with the choice of taking everything presented as the truth, in which case Seers is being almost confessional in what she is showing us, or, questioning how much truth there is in what we see. Either way, the effect is to distance us from the reality or at least puts Seers in control of her own narrative. The total scrutiny someone in the public eye is put under could be likened to the inmates experience in the Panopticon – Seers both takes control and subverts this by putting herself in our apparent full gaze. In a way the wish of many people to curate their lives through social media and present a particular image of themselves could be seen as a less sophisticated example of Seers work – this sort of presentation only shows a particular side of ourselves that we want to project to the world at large.

Find  six  images  in  any  medium:  two  that  are  the  result  of  looking,  two  of observing and two of surveillance and explain your choices.

Before attempting this part of the project I felt it important to consider and define looking, observation and surveillance. For each of the headings I have chosen photography as examples because of the way a photograph gives the illusion that it is a representation of the real world.

Looking:

Looking is the most seemingly benign of the three ways off seeing we are asked to consider – we look all of the time, it is a normal and natural part of our day to day lives, it is one of our key senses that allow us to negotiate the world around us. Except, we do not look in a neutral way – our mind is constantly making judgements about what we see. Our understanding of ourselves is fundamentally based upon the looking at the world around us, we also gain awareness about ourselves by recognising (or even disregarding) visual clues of others who are looking at us. The act of looking can have a sinister edge – when does looking stop and voyeurism begin?

judith-joy-ross-untitled-1988

Judith Joy Ross: Untitled, 1988 (from the series Easton Portraits)

This portrait appears at first benign but on closer inspection presents a problematic view of adolescence and emerging sexuality. Three girls wearing swimsuits stand together for what appears to be holiday snapshot. The closer we look however, the more we can read from the image and the more ambiguous it becomes. The first two girls appear to be twins, although there are subtle differences in body shape which could potentially suggest they are sisters rather than twins. They stand conventionally looking straight toward the camera, and therefore the viewer of the photograph, their smiles are not exactly forced but have the appearance of not being natural – we can imagine them being asked to ‘say cheese’ by the photographer, their hands are crossed at their waist, hands tightly held together suggesting a subconscious lack of confidence in their body image or a need to cover their modesty as much as possible. Another girl stands next to the twins – she appears to be a similar age and does not share the family resemblance of the other two girls. Her pose is quite different from the sisters – she appears relaxed with arms by her side, hips slightly tilted in a way that could be read as provocative. Her smile is natural and she has an air of assured confidence. Unlike the other two girls she is looking to the side rather than straight at the camera. This leads us to consider who she is looking at and question why she has chosen not to perform for the camera, who is it that she is the recipient of her gaze and why does she choose not to look at us? Behind the three girls a male figure, out of focus, shirt off, can just be made out in the background. He is posed in such a way that it is obvious he is viewing the girls. To be looking at them in such a way from behind, so they are unaware of him, appears potentially disturbing – we wonder about his motives. This also has the effect of provoking discomfort in the viewer: are we any better than this man – looking on young girls uninvited and unwanted way? If this is a family snapshot what right do we have to be studying the picture? What right do we have to be making such judgements about the young girls in the picture and what does that say about us?

garry-winogrand-new-york-1969

Garry Winogrand: New York, 1969

 

Street photography, a genre that Garry Winogrand is perhaps the most famous exponent, relies on catching fleeting, often candid, moments. In this picture, taken at a tilted angle that only adds a sense of immediate spontaneity, you feel the protagonists putting the photographer (and the viewer) under scrutiny. A young couple kiss in a doorway at the side of the frame, the man has his back to the camera and does not witness the picture being taken. The girl however sees exactly what is happening, her eyes open and pointed directly toward the camera lens. Another girl stands in the centre of the frame also looking straight toward us. Her expression is challenging, and yet we are left to wonder about the relationship between her and the kissing couple. Is she a friend playing gooseberry to the courting of her more attractive companion? Is she simply a passer by? The suggestion is that it is okay for her to be witnessing the passionate scene but not the photographer, and maybe she is right – her gaze is certainly so powerful that most people would not have dared to press the shutter. Winogrand however is unafraid and seems to recognise the power that this double returned gaze creates in the viewer.

Observation:

Observation has connotations of objectivity and looking with purpose, of gaining empirical knowledge. For example, a physician would be said to observe their patients in order to arrive understand their symptoms and arrive at a diagnosis or cure. It suggests a planned activity with a tangible outcome.

martin-parr-pisa-italy

Martin Parr: Pisa, Italy (from the series Small World 1987-1994)

Martin Parr has made his photographic career through observing. His images often show the world in a different light – not necessarily in a quirky way but more accurately he demonstrates a view of the world that is not usually presented. His Small World series from which this image is taken explores themes of global tourism, particularly our need to document our travels photographically. This image shows tourists in Pisa in front of the famous leaning tower recreating the same pose of seemingly holding the tower up. Of course, this optical illusion is only visible from the angle of their particular photographer. Parr shows the wide view of a number of tourists recreating the same pose which wittily and directly shows the absurdity of the situation combined with the need for the majority of visitors to do the same thing – as if some sort of ritual.

george-georgiou-last-stop

George Georgiou: Last Stop

For his photographic series Last Stop, George Georgiou wanted to explore the diversity and vibrancy of London. To do this he chose to take pictures from the seat of a bus as it travelled around. His viewpoint therefore was always confined to both the route of the bus and what was in front of him at any given time. All street photography relies heavily on chance, and clearly Georgiou always had the choice of when to press the shutter and which direction to point his camera, however, the constraints of the project make this for me an exercise in observation. In this image multiple readings could be taken from the people in the scene varying from the dramatic beginnings of an argument or disagreement to simply a conversation between friends. The three people in the centre of the image could be friends enjoying an afternoon drink – the man standing could be a waiter explaining what the establishment has to offer. Or this could be someone who has seen the couple in the bar and has come in to confront them about something. The hand on the man’s head could either be the most comfortable way for him to sit or an involuntary reaction to what he is being told. The woman in the background could be with the man standing and arriving either to back him up or try to pull him away or she could simply be an unrelated customer. The waiter in the foreground could be reacting to what is being said behind him or simply in the process of turning to face the other way.

The fact that because of reflections and the behaviour of the light in the picture it is obvious we are looking through glass adds another dimension to the image for me and is what makes it observation. This has connotations of animals a the zoo, we are observing the people in this image as they behave in a completely natural way unaware of being watched which would have caused alterations in behaviour as we have seen in the previous images above.

Surveillance:

In some ways surveillance is the simplest of the three terms to define as it refers to attentive observation to gather information. This can either be overt, like CCTV cameras that behave in a similar way to the Panopticon by making us seen without us having the ability to see who is watching us. And covert, for example undercover surveillance – images taken without our knowledge or consent. Often surveillance is an instrument of power used to assert control.

broomberg-and-cahanarin-spirit-is-a-bone

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin: Yekaterina Samutsevich of Pussy Riot, 2013 (from the series Spirit is a Bone)

 

It seems that we have somehow come to accept being under constant surveillance by CCTV cameras as the norm. Indeed, many now welcome the feeling of safety that these imply. With their ‘Spirit is a Bone’ project, Broomberg and Chanarin explore one of the ways surveillance may evolve. They experiment with a Russian made face recognition system that scans individuals faces as they move through public spaces using multiple cameras from multiple angles – a 3D model of an individuals face is produced that can be stored for reference and potentially used in a similar way to finger prints in the future.

The image here, which has an eerie, death mask type quality, is of a member of the band Pussy Riot who have been vocally critical of the current Russian political system and President Putin. The power here is not in the image itself which is unspectacular, but the possibilities of what the technology could mean. The applications in an oppressive regime like that in Russia (and of course the memory of the way photographs were used and altered during the Soviet era also resonate) is truly frightening. Perhaps the application in the so-called ‘free world’ is just as terrifying, perhaps more so, as the sort of surveillance here relies on complicity rather than repression.

dirty-windows-23

Merry Alpern: Dirty Windows #23

Merry Alpern’s series ‘Dirty Windows’ are voyeuristic images taken from her friends loft apartment of a gentlemen’s club on the other side of the airshaft between the buildings. Alpern would wait with her camera and tripod for any activity to present itself at the two visible windows 15 feet and one flight down from her friends flat. Sights recorded range from people going to the toilet to drug taking and sex. Alpern describes herself as an anthropologist fascinated by the different ways the same activity played out (for example, how each man after urinating shakes his penis a little differently, but none seem to wash their hands. Angier, 2006:61)

The images, as can be seen in the picture here, in this series have an overt voyeurism – like a Peeping Tom except the photographer is female. Does that make the images any less lascivious I wonder? Stylistically the grainy, high contrast shots give a raw look that is in keeping with the seedy nature of the subject matter and puts the viewer in to the mind space of the voyeur. I wonder if Alpern would have been so compelled to make these images if the view was less sensational, and if so would they have gained any recognition or notice?

Thoughts…

I have found this project to be fascinating, particular the final question of what constitutes looking, observation and surveillance. Even looking back at the images I have chosen now I can see a great deal of crossover between the headings and I am not sure whether I have encapsulated fully this question – or indeed whether this is even possible.

The power of images is the major theme of UVC and indeed visual culture as a subject in itself. The more I think about it the more nuanced and far reaching this subject is however, the power of images is not simply abut top down systems of control but also about a complex series of interlocking and overlapping themes and concerns. Power is both present within a societies dominant ideology and also with citizens. Control is not about oppression in late capitalist societies but about making us all complicit in the overarching systems. If we take Foucault’s notion of panopticism and apply it as a metaphor for conformity to social norms, we realise how we co-opt ourselves into a world where surveillance is the norm and willingly give away our freedoms and rights – after all, the only people who have anything to worry are those who have something to hide.

Bibliography:

Andreasson, K. (2014) Broomberg and Chanarin’s best photograph: Pussy riot in 3D. The Guardian, 6th February 2014. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/feb/06/broomberg-chanarin-best-photograph-pussy-riot [Accessed on 19 September 2016]

Angier, R. (2006) Train your gaze: (a practical and theoretical introduction to portrait photography). Lausanne: AVA Academia

Borromeo, L. (2010) Tate makes surveillance an art form. The Guardian, 28th May 2010, Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/libertycentral/2010/may/28/tate-modern-surveillance-art [Accessed on 14 September 2016]

Brown, M. (2010) Tate modern in display of voyeurism for photography curator’s debut. The Guardian, 26th May 2010 Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/may/26/tate-modern-voyeurism-exhibition-photography [Accessed on 14 September 2016]

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

Clarke, G. (1997) The photograph: A visual and cultural history. New York: Oxford University Press.

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

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

Jasbar, A. and Augschöll, D. (N.D.) Interview with Judith Joy Ross. Available at: http://www.ahornmagazine.com/issue_8/interview_ross/interview_ross.html [Accessed on 19 September 2016]

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

Morrison, B. (2010) Exposed: Voyeurism, surveillance and the camera. The Guardian, 22nd May 2010. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2010/may/22/exposed-voyuerism-exhibition-blake-morrison?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other  [Accessed on 14 September 2016]

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

Tate.org.uk. (2016) Exposed: Voyeurism, surveillance and the camera  Available at: http://www.marthagarzon.com/contemporary_art/2010/03/exposed-voyeurism-surveillance-and-the-camera/ [Accessed on 20 September 2016]

Wombell, P. (2015) Data Iconoclast in British Journal of Photography, December 2015. London: Aptitude media

 

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Project 4-2: The Mirror Phase

Read the article by Jacques Lacan entitled The Mirror-Phase as Formative of the Function of the I on pps 620 – 624 of Art in Theory 1900 – 2000 making notes.

Notes on the Mirror-Phase

Lacan’s notion of the Mirror-Phase (or stage) is derived from Freud’s theories of narcissism and studies of child psychology and development. It refers to the period in which the ego is formed in childhood.

Lacan reworked Freud’s developmental model the basis for this being their agreement that infants have no sense of self or identity between themselves and their mother – that is, between Self and Other. Like Freud, he proposed three stages of development from child to adult:

Freud – oral, anal, phallic.

Lacan – Real, Imaginary, Symbolic.

During the Real stage all of the babies needs are satisfied, there is no absence, loss or lack. Between 6-18 months the baby begins to distinguish between the body and everything else in the world. The idea of the ‘Other’ results from the realisation that it is separate from the mother. This creates anxiety and loss – the baby shifts from having needs to having demands which cannot be satisfied with objects. The baby has the mistaken sense of itself as a whole person when recognising their image in a mirror. This creates the ego and sense of self – the mirror stage is also the realm of the Imaginary. Our sense of Self is built by misidentifying with the mirror image – a perfect self with no insufficiency or ego ideal. Following the mirror stage when the baby has formulated a sense of otherness, they enter the Symbolic which is the realm of culture and language. As humans become speaking subjects they designate themselves by the ‘I’ that was discovered in the Imaginary. They must obey the laws and rules of language which Lacan terms the ‘law-of-the-father.’ A notion which links to Freud’s theories of Oedipus, Electra and castration complexes. (D’Alleva, 2012: 96-7)

The mirror-phase was also based on studies carried out by Henri Wallon in the 1930s which compared the reaction of young children on seeing their reflection with that of chimpanzees. The humans were fascinated while the chimpanzees were uninterested which led Wallon to conclude that the babies had recognized the image in the mirror as their actual selves. (Buchanan, 2010: 322)

Lacan proposed that between the ages of 6-18 months, by looking at their own mirror image, babies began to build their ego and become self aware. However, the infant mistakenly sees itself as independent and apart from others in the world despite lacking motor coordination and skills: they see both the ideal ‘I’ and ideal ego, they recognise their image as both ‘me’ and not ‘me’, both themselves and different – a split in recognition that forms both the basis of alienation and at the same time pushes them to grow. The mirror-phase offers both self-recognition coupled with misrecognition and self fragmentation – it is not about the mirror as a reflection of the self but about the mirror as the constitutional element in the construction of the self. (Sturken and Cartwright (2009: 101, 212, 449)

For Chandler the mirror-phase is the defining moment of the Imaginary – the private, psychic realm where the construction of the self is initiated by visual images reflected back by an other with whom we identify. We see our mirror image and this induces a strong, defined illusion of a coherent and self governing personal identity. This also marks the child’s emergence from a matriarchal state of nature to a patriarchal order of culture. (Chandler, 2008: 93)

Eagleton states that we both recognise and identify with our mirror reflection (it is part of ourselves) and also find it alien (not ourselves.) Therefore, the image the child sees in the mirror is an alienated one – a misrecognition that is a pleasing unity not experienced in their own body. Lacan sees the Imaginary as a realm of images where we make identifications but also misconceive and misrecognise ourselves through this very act. As a child grows they continue to make such imaginary identifications continuing to build their ego which Lacan sees as the narcissistic process whereby we bolster a fictive sense of selfhood by finding something in he world with which we can identify. (Eagleton, 1996: 142-3)

Lacan was associated with the Surrealist movement. Find two examples of Surrealist work that might have echoes of the mirror phase and annotate them to show how.

My selections here are from painters associated with surrealism who have both produced work that literally features a mirror and appear to draw inspiration from the notion of the mirror-phase.

mirror-1939

Paul Delvaux: ‘The Mirror’ (1939)

 

A woman sits in a room facing a mirror, however, her apparent reflection does not represent the scene in front of the mirror – it shows a naked with an outdoor scene behind her. The woman in the foreground with her back to us seems to be of wealthy means – she is wearing an expensive looking gown, her seat is ornate and padded which echoes the ornate gilt frame of the mirror she is facing. Strangely, the wall paper in the room in which she is seated is peeling and the ceiling seems in a state of disrepair, the floor is also bare floorboards. We assume the figure in the mirror is a reflection of the seated woman because her pose is the same, however, her nakedness indicates this is an imagined view we are witnessing. A small section of the room, the bare floorboards and peeling wall paper can be seen in the mirror and behind this is an outdoor scene showing a row of trees, one tree standing alone and to the side, and buildings in the background. This again appears to be imagined because the scene covers what appears to be the back wall of the room.

One reading of this scene could be that the reflected image is the woman’s idealised or unconscious view of herself. If we do not take the poor condition of the room’s interior as literal this could represent her inner feelings towards the apparent trappings of her status in society – the dress she wears could also be a symbol of this so being naked could be either the freedom she longs for or the uninhibited way she views herself outside of the trappings of her life. Conversely, the decay of the room could represent the woman’s real life or mental state with the idealised reflection being her own incorrect perceptions. The lone tree in the background seems to be significant and could back up the notion of freedom or difference as it appears to be the same as the others in the row and yet stands apart. This could represent the woman – on the surface the same as anyone else, and yet underneath different and separate. The lack of clothing could merely be a metaphor for the masks of conformity that we use to comply with societal convention.

 

magritte-dangerous-liaisons

René Magritte: ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ (1936)

A woman is shown holding a large mirror over her torso – she appears to be naked. She is standing straight on, the mirror covers from the top of her legs to her head which is tilted down and to the side, her eyes are closed. The reflection in the mirror appears to be of the same woman because the style and colour of her hair and skin tone matches. Clearly this cannot be the case however, a fact that is driven home by the body in the reflection standing at a different angle and being a different perspective. The figure in the mirror is standing to the side with buttocks facing the viewer, one breast is visible with the arms held underneath across the chest.

One reading of this image is that the woman is using the mirror to protect her modesty, which could be backed up by the coy cocking of her head to one side. What we see in the reflection is our projection of what we imagine beneath, a fantasy extended by the more provocative posing. The closed eyes could also suggest that we are witnessing the imagined self perception of the woman represented as a dream state. This could either be a projection of her inner feelings of sensuality, an idealised image of herself,  regret at feeling repressed (backed up by covering herself with the mirror) or, her response to objectification. Potentially however, the reflection is not a manifestation of the woman holding the mirror’s subconscious at all, but, the reflected imaginings of the (male?) viewer. The reflection could be the fulfilment of the viewers wish that the woman holding the mirror would be less repressed and more sexually confident or the projection of masculine fantasies of female sexualisation – the reflection of the woman is provocative (brazenly so?) despite evidence that the woman holding the mirror (reality?) is not like this.

It is interesting that both artists here have chosen to represent female nudity in their paintings – as men do they have the right to explore notions of the female sexual subconscious? It is true that the female nude is an established artistic convention but to extend this objectification to female inner thoughts seems to be somewhat presumptuous.

Find two examples of the way the contemporary  media  make  use  of  Lacan’s ideas and show how.

Willamson (1995) makes some interesting observations about Lacan’s notion if the mirror-phase and how this relates to advertising. She states that advertisements alienate our identity in constituting us as one of the objects in an exchange that we ourselves must make, thereby appropriating form us an image which gives us back our own ‘value’. Advertisements dangle before us an image of an Other; but invite us to be the Same. This capitalizes on our regressive tendency toward the Ego-ideal.

I have chosen two advertisements which deal with body image in very different ways:

beach-body-ad

This advertisement for Protein World weight loss powder caused controversy because of its depiction of what critics saw as an unrealistic and potentially damaging projection of unrealistic body image. The advert invites the viewer to identify recognise the representation of the ideal physique, slim and toned,  as something attainable through the use of the advertised weight loss product. The further connotation is that this type of physique is the only body type that is acceptable for wearing beach wear, anything else being inferior. What we recognise is a reflection of our imperfections rather than the ideal which is represented – the aim being that we use the advertised product as a way of achieving this. Although complaints to the UK advertising watchdog deemed that the advert did not violate advertising guidelines it was met with much criticism in both the press and more directly by members of the public with billboards being vandalised on the London underground and in New York.

anorexia-ad

This still from an advert to promote awareness of eating disorders (available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJuAGbsPu4w) is a powerful take on how the self can be distorted in a negative way. The ad depicts a teenage girl in her underwear looking at herself in the mirror. She is of typical body shape and by no means overweight yet focusses on what she her believes to be imperfections, at one point pulling at her side which is more like skin than fat. At the end of the advert, the camera pulls back and shows a painfully thin girl from the back. We are confronted with the fact that the images we have been viewing are the girl’s perception of herself rather than reality – the final shot shown here of the thin and normal girl together powerfully demonstrates how our view of self can be perverted into a negative and destructive one rather than ideal.

Thoughts…

I have made a conscious effort here to gain the information I need for the project rather than getting obsessed with too much detail. For example, looking at the mirror-phase could easily open up into something much broader…self, other, ego, id, superego, the gaze etc. etc. Some of this I note are topics to be studied in further exercises.

I started doing quite a bit of reading about surrealism before also stopping myself and trying the approach of looking at works and making selections based on what seemed to fit the topic of the mirror-phase. This proved more difficult than I thought as the general art history books I own did not really have what I wanted and a google image search resulted in a great deal of results – many of which where not relevant. I always look at present and past student blogs when working on a project, and on this occasion found the images I eventually chose via former UVC student Keith Greenough: https://keithguvc.wordpress.com/2012/09/27/project-the-mirror-phase/ I did have a number of other images that I considered including but kept coming back to these as they seemed to encapsulate what I understood by the mirror-phase. I have asked for some support from art history students via the OCA student forum with recommendations of websites and books they use for general art history research. The advise gained here will hopefully help with subsequent projects.

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

Eagleton, T. (1996) Literary theory: An introduction. (2nd ed.) Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers

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

Foster, H. et al. (2012) Art since 1900: Modernism * Antimodernism * Postmodernism. (2nd ed.) London: Thames & Hudson.

Lacan, J. ‘The mirror-phase as formative of the function of the I’ pps. 620-624 Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (eds.) (2002) Art in Theory 1900–2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Oxford: Blackwell.

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

Minsky, R. (1995) Psychoanalysis and gender: An introductory reader. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Murray, C. (ed.) (2002) Key writers on art: The twentieth century. New York: Taylor & Francis

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

De Botton, A. (2016) PSYCHOTHERAPY – Jacques Lacan.  Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5OnhOXq7m4w&list=PLwxNMb28XmpcpxBm1RoGRx4mVKNRIrKkG&index=7 [Accessed on 6 September 2016]

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

Sweney, M. (2016) ‘Protein world’s “beach body ready” ads do not objectify women, says watchdog’ In: The Guardian Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/jul/01/protein-world-beach-body-ready-ads-asa [Accessed on 10 September 2016]

Williamson, J. (1995) Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising. London: Marion Boyars.

Zizek, S. (2006) How to Read Lacan. London: Granta.

 

Project 4-1: Freud, Oedipus and Castration

Read, and make notes on, the essay by Freud The Dissolution of the Oedipal Complex.

Buchanan (2010) argues that the Oedipus complex is the central organizing myth of psychoanalysis. In ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ (1913), Freud, discussed how his clinical experience led to the conclusion that experience as a child had a major determination on the adult lives of his more neurotic patients.

Freud’s idea of the Oedipus complex originated from his self analysis of his own dreams – his jealousy of his father and affection for his mother reminded him of the Sophocles play ‘Oedipus Rex’. In the play, Oedipus, not knowing the identity of either, kills his father and marries his mother. On finding out the truth he blinds himself. Freud concluded that the themes of ‘Oedipus Rex’ continued to resonate after 2500 years because of their universality and that it also encapsulated childhood development:

“Psychoanalysis holds that all children develop a love attachment to the parent of the opposite sex, thus, the little boy loves his mother and wants to usurp his father.” (Buchanan, 2010: 351)

Macey (2000) agrees that the Oedipus complex is a cornerstone of psychoanalysis and a way of describing the child’s sexual attraction to the parent of the opposite sex and jealousy of the parent of the same sex. It assumes a primal state where only maleness exists – a girl does not have a penis due to castration, which is symbolised by the blinding of Oedipus, a girl may believe she has been castrated by a jealous mother who resents her sexual feelings toward her father. Conversely, a boy fears castration by a jealous father. For a boy, the dissolution of the Oedipus complex occurs when this truth is accepted and he begins to identify with his father. For a girl, the Oedipus complex begins to dissolve when her desire to regain the penis she has lost is replaced by the desire to have a baby.

Pooke and Newall (2008) state that a child enters the Oedipal phase at around 5/6 years old when the child’s relationship with their parents becomes the focus of their sexual development. Boys recognise their sexual anatomy matches their fathers, but their mother does not have a penis. This results in anxiety that desire for the mother will result in castration by the father as well as triggering the urge to kill the father who they now see as a rival and a threat. On noticing genital difference, girls perceive they have already been castrated which leads to the acceptance of passive sexual role.

Freud recognises that the two natures of masculine and feminine are present within each individual, proposing that everyone is inherently bisexual. Failure to fulfil the early stages of sexual development lead to the emergence of neuroses: this can be inhibited behaviour patterns or regression to an earlier stage of sexual development with aspects of sexual identity incompletely developed, for example, fetishism or narcissism.

Minsky (1995) adds that castration anxiety is compounded by parental threats to remove the penis in relation to the young child’s masturbation.

Freud defended reactions against his ideas of the Oedipus complex as being proof of their validity: he believed the myth would not provoke such outbursts if it did not reveal an inner truth. (Buchanan, 2010: 351)

Look at Edvard Munch’s Ashes (1894) and make notes as to how Freud’s ideas help you to understand this image.

ashes

Edvard Munch: Ashes (1894)

In ‘Ashes’ (1894) Munch depicts two characters in a woodland setting. An apparently male figure is shown in the bottom left, his body hunched over, hand on top of his head. He is clearly in some form of distress or perhaps regret, his clothes and hair are almost entirely black which echoes his mood. Behind him, a female figure is standing upright, both hands on her head, her expression is difficult to read but it appears to suggest some sort of drama. Her appearance is dishevelled – her red hair is wild and flowing, her dress is unbuttoned revealing a red undergarment – a flash of colour in the otherwise sombre palette of the rest of the painting.

If we read the painting on a literal level, it would seem to depict a sexual encounter between the two characters. The drama and seeming regretful melancholy of the scene would suggest this has not been a happy occurrence – the liaison may have been illicit (a reference to Oedipus?) and what we are seeing is the aftermath of regret, or, the advances of the female character have been spurned by the man. The dynamic pose of the woman and use of red to signify passion seems to contrast starkly with the repressed pose of the man.

The atmosphere of the painting suggests either heightened reality or a dream state , perhaps the male character’s inner thoughts, dreams or memories. His placement in the bottom left seems significant as it separates him from the background which would align with this view. If we assume that the picture represents the symbolic rather than literal a number of conclusions can be reached: this is the memory of an illicit liaison, regret for being unable to consummate a sexual encounter, recognition of the male characters sexual repression which could also be read as confusion over sexuality. All of these readings would fit with Freudian concepts of unresolved sexual development in childhood leading to neuroses in the adult.

Once you know about Munch’s unremittingly bleak biography it is hard to separate this from his work. Yet, the title of the painting ‘Ashes’ would suggest the subject of the painting is death. “Illness, madness and death were the dark angels who watched over my cradle and accompanied me throughout my life” he wrote. (Hudson, 2012) Both his mother and elder sister died from tuberculosis, he said the image of his father praying for days on end after the death of his mother, kneeling in anguish, left him terrified at five years old. His younger sister was diagnosed with mental illness so it could be her hysteria that is being depicted here.

Munch’s failed relationship with Tulla Larsen, a beautiful, independently wealthy but also powerful and controlling woman, could also be an influence – the male character being Munch himself and the woman Tulla. Unable to commit to Tulla (Munch believed he was unfit to father children and that solitude fuelled his art) their on-off relationship eventually came to an end when she married one of Munch’s younger colleagues. Ironically, Munch felt betrayed by this and is said to have brooded for years about it. With this knowledge ‘Ashes’ can be read as a portrait of both Munch’s regret about not being able to fulfil Tulla’s passionate needs, his own sexual repression (as opposed to Tulla’s passion) and his fear of a strong female partner.

Castration anxiety  may  help  to  explain  the  images  featuring  a  dominatrix or simply a large woman and a small man. Seaside postcards of the so-called humorous variety often feature this sort of image. Find two or three images of this or some other genre that might be explained in part at least by Freud and by annotation show how.

Richard Billingham: Ray’s a Laugh

ray-and-liz

Freud would have had a lot to say about Richard Billingham, his childhood and his family situation. He would have had even more to say about his ‘Ray’s a Laugh’ photographic series: snapshot images of his disfunctional family intended to be the basis for paintings for Billingham’s degree course. The pictures were never intended for publication but eventually became both a critical and commercial success. They show his highly unconventional home life: his father Ray, a chronic alcoholic, fuelled by the home brew a neighbour supplied, drinking then sleeping – unable to tell if it is day or night. His mother Liz: a large woman with arms covered in tattoos, obsessed with animals – her flat full of pets and assorted brightly coloured kitsch items, her own ‘psychological space’ that was ‘carnivalesque’ and decorative. (BBC)

In Billingham’s own words:

“I was living in this tower block; there was just me and him. He was an alcoholic, he would lie in the bed, drink, get to sleep, wake up, get to sleep, didn’t know if it was day or night. But it was difficult to get him to stay still for more than say 20 minutes at a time so I thought that if I could take photographs of him that would act as source material for these paintings and then I could make more detailed paintings later on. So that’s how I first started taking photographs.” (BBC)

And from the back of the book jacket of ‘Ray’s a Laugh’:

“This book is about my family. My father Raymond is a chronic alcoholic. He doesn’t like going outside and mostly drinks homebrew.

My mother Elizabeth hardly drinks but she does smoke a lot. She likes pets and things that are decorative. They married in 1970 and I was born soon after.

My younger brother Jason was taken into care when he was 11 but is now back with Ray and Liz again. Recently he became a father. Ray says Jason is unruly. Jason says Ray’s a laugh but doesn’t want to be like him.”

In the chosen picture, Liz is shown side on to the right of the frame, side on and facing Ray who is seated. Her fist is clenched and she is clearly unhappy at Ray, so much so that it appears the scene could burst into a physical attack. Stylistically, Liz is out of focus and overexposed due to the use of flash and being closer to the camera. This emphasises her angered state and the heightened nature of the scene. Ray is sitting low in the frame emphasising how small and weak he is in comparison to Liz. He is looking away apparently impassive, who knows what transgression has prompted the confrontation? Ray’s lack of response is pitiful and sums up his relationship to both Liz and life in general.

Charlotte Cotton, in her essay RAL, sees as ‘Ray’s a Laugh’ as a way Billingham has used creativity to reconcile himself with his chaotic and dysfunctional childhood. It seems to me that propositions such as this are presented by critics and commentators who cannot comprehend a family life that was merely a reality for Billingham. Despite the conflict presented in the picture here, there is also a theme of love and acceptance that runs throughout the series – my hunch is that this is how Billingham truly felt about his family.

Anders Petersen: Café Lehmitz (1967-1970)

petersen-cafe-lehmitz

This image by Anders Petersen is from a series of photographs of the regulars at a bar in Hamburg, Café Lehmitz, he frequented in the late 1960s. A man, shirt off and eyes closed, is held in an embrace by an older woman. His eyes are closed as his head rests on her neck, her mouth is wide open, laughing which strongly contrasts with his seeming serenity. We know nothing of the relationship between these two, although the woman appears older than the man. The pose suggests a mother/son rather than sexual relationship – it is possible that the woman is comforting the man somehow? Her wide open mouth gives the image a sinister edge however – this is not something the man would see having succumbed to her embrace. It is almost as if the look by the woman is some sort of celebration of finally getting the man into her clutches – where he sees a warm, motherly act of tenderness she has different motives and has used this as a way of drawing him in.

Thoughts…

My first encounter with Freud was with the second project in the course and I distinctly remember feeling shock at the language and subject matter of the essay. I also failed to see how a paper over a hundred years old was anything other than of historical interest – I certainly did not see how this was relevant to the study of visual culture. Approaching this project however, I felt  much more comfortable tackling Freud and engaging with the notion of the Oedipus complex (despite the much more shocking connotations this has as opposed to fetishism.) Maybe all of this reading is starting to sink in?

Bibliography:

BBC (N.D.) Photography – genius of photography – gallery – Richard Billingham available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/photography/genius/gallery/billingham.shtml [Accessed on 6 September 2016]

Badger, G. (2001) The genius of photography: How photography has changed our lives. London: Quadrille Publishing.

Billingham, R. (2014) Ray’s a laugh. New York: Errata Editions.

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

Butler, J. (2006) Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Cotton, C. (2014) RAL. in Richard, B. (2014) Ray’s a laugh. New York: Errata Editions.

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

Foster, H. et al. (2012) Art since 1900: Modernism * Antimodernism * Postmodernism. (2nd ed.) London: Thames & Hudson.

Freud S. (1924) ‘The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex’ pps. 313-322 Freud, S. (1991) On Sexuality: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and Other Works. London: Penguin.

Hudson, M. (2012) Edvard munch: Images from the depths of the soul In: The Telegraph (28th June 2012) available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-features/9320749/Edvard-Munch-Images-from-the-depths-of-the-soul.html [Accessed 29 August 2016]

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

Minsky, R. (1995) Psychoanalysis and gender: An introductory reader. New York: Taylor & Francis.

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

Assignment 3: Response to tutor feedback

Completion of my third assignment was motivated by the need to complete in order to gain an extension for the course. This resulted in me submitting an essay with which I was not entirely happy which cut through my usual worries about my submission – I replaced this with a pragmatism that I could rewrite the assignment if necessary. My feedback from Pauline is better than I expected although this has not resulted in a more favourable self-appraisal of my work. A number of points are raised that I was probably aware of at the time I pressed the send button but the general response that I have provided a well-argued piece is pleasing.

I began my response to feedback with going back and redrafting the essay, but have stopped myself. The reality of my situation is that I have an extra 6 months to complete UVC and it has already taken 2 years to reach this point in the course. Rewriting the assignment will take time that I can ill afford and may not succeed in articulating everything on my mind. With this in mind I have decided to write here about what I would do differently and what I need to focus on for the final two sections of the course.

The main feedback from Pauline is about the end of the essay – my question of whether there is anything inherently wrong with the advert, that is it is just a piece of harmless information was meant to be provocative and lead to thoughts about whether this is true. The act of asking the question in itself was intended to be rhetorical in the sense it could be read in multiple ways, I realise now however that for the purposes of the assignment I should have provided a clear viewpoint. Pauline is strong in her use of terminology, describing advertising as “propaganda designed entirely to encourage us to spend money.” Although also accepted as a part of capitalist society. This is the view I share but felt was one that was too strong to express in these terms. Ironically, my motivation for choosing this advert was my opposition to the way the viewer is subtly interpellated into the ideology that John Lewis wants to represent – the way to happy family relations is through spending money. If the child protagonist in the advert was one of my children I would have preferred more agreeable behaviour in the lead up to Christmas than them only being able to show their love for me through consumerist behaviour.

Assignment 3: Decoding Advertisements

Choose a current advertisement or advertising campaign, and, drawing on the work of Barthes and others analyse it to show how it derives and conveys its meaning to its intended audience.

In his essay, ‘The Rhetoric of the Image’, Barthes chooses an advertisement for pasta sauce to analyse because, “in advertising the signification of the image is undoubtedly intentional; the signifieds of the advertising message are formed a priori by certain attributes of the product and these signifieds have to be transmitted as clearly as possible.” (Evans and Hall: 33) Although twenty-first century advertising is on the surface more sophisticated and diverse than Barthes would have recognised, I believe this remains as true now as it was in the 1960s. The simple truth remains: adverts exist solely to sell things. To illustrate this, I have chosen to study the Christmas advertising campaigns of the department store chain John Lewis which have somehow become as much of an indicator of the Christmas season as selection boxes being on sale in the supermarket.

Until 2007, John Lewis did not advertise at all on television, and although the Christmas advert that they put out that year displayed some of the signatures that subsequent campaigns would become known for, it is a pretty conventional piece. The following Christmas however, they began developing tropes that would become their signature style: high production values, a narrative arc strong in seasonal sentimentality, a quirky, stripped down cover version of a familiar song. With the 2011 campaign, ‘The Long Wait’, the adverts had become embedded in the national consciousness and became to be seen as an annual event. (Stone, 2013) With this in mind this is the advert I have chosen to study in depth as it also represents the year that John Lewis stopped directly promoting specific products, or even their own stores and as a tangible shopping experience and instead began tapping into our cultural knowledge and aspirations and linking this with the brand. Despite this seemingly bold move, subsequent Christmas ads have continued in this vein and are credited as making a significant impact to John Lewis sales over the critical seasonal period which is so key to retailers.

The synopsis of ‘The Long Wait’ is as follows: a young boy is impatiently waiting for Christmas to arrive. The passage of time is shown through the use of quick cuts of similar scenes unified by our protagonists frustrated facial expression. We know it is the lead up to Christmas because we see the boy eating chocolate from his advent calendar, looking out of a window with a Christmas tree behind him, and, at one point he is dressed in a Shepherds’ costume apparently having starred in a school nativity play. The imminent arrival of the big day is signified by a family meal during which the boy hurriedly eats before jumping from the table and rushing to his room and climbing into bed, pulling the covers tight up to his neck and squeezing his eyes shut. We see the child waking the next morning, his eyes open and he realises it is the day he has been waiting for – Christmas. He jumps out of bed, but instead of rushing to the stocking that is at the bottom he goes to his cupboard and brings out a present. The wrapping is poor in comparison to the presents at the bottom of his bed – the suggestion being he has wrapped this himself. The camera cuts to the parents’ bedroom, seemingly alerted to the boy’s presence the adults wake bleary eyed – from their point of view we see the boy holding a present in his hands with a broad smile on his face and the caption: “For gifts you can’t wait to give. John Lewis. Instore, online, mobile.”

This reading of the scene is possible through our ability to decode a number of signs in quick succession and relies greatly on our cultural knowledge as well as our understanding of cinematic conventions such as rapid editing and showing the passage of time through subtle changes such as changes in clothing and weather conditions. There is no dialogue with the only soundtrack being a cover version of The Smiths “Please, please, please, let me get what I want”, a song with a melancholy air and a sentiment that leads us to the false belief that the child is driven purely by impatient selfishness about the gifts he will receive. The success of the ad is that our reading turns out to be incorrect – the boy is not selfish at all; in fact, his impatience is based on wanting to give his parents a gift – the gifts he receives himself are secondary to this. This confounding of our expectations not only make the advert memorable but is shamelessly designed to appeal to the viewer – specifically the parents of young children. More importantly however, multiple audiences would be able to identify with the narrative because of the sense of realism that is portrayed and that despite the specifics of the people featured in the advert it is sufficiently general to allow us to recognise the family depicted have a lifestyle that is desirable and values we share.

In ‘Rhetoric of the Image’, Barthes described three messages contained within a text: linguistic, coded iconic and non-coded iconic. The linguistic message is easy to decipher from the text, as it is here in the John Lewis advert, the timing and choice of words are interesting in this instance however. By placing the caption at the end of the advertisement we are more likely to remember that this is an ad for John Lewis, if we have enjoyed the narrative we have been shown then it could be argued we share the ideology being presented and are interpellated by the assertion that giving gifts at Christmas is a way to show our love to those close to us. The non-coded and coded iconic messages are difficult to separate. The non-coded iconic message works on the level of denotation and is partly shown in the synopsis I have given above while the coded iconic message works on the level of connotation and is essential to our ability to understand what is happening. For example, we can learn a great deal about the people being depicted in the advert, and can therefore deduce who the target audience are, by analysing the denoted and connoted signs that are presented. Everything in the advert is carefully chosen to be ‘average’ and ‘normal’ so the viewer can identify with what they are watching: a suburban semi-detached house with a small garden; a nuclear family consisting of a man, woman and two children, all of white race; parents who seem neither too young or old – all indicators of an nice, average, middle class, conventional family. While many adverts appeal through the presentation of aspirational lifestyles, glamorous people, celebrities and exotic locations, the success of ‘The Long Wait’ relies on our ability to identify with what we are seeing as a representation of our own lives.

If we consider ‘The Long Wait’ to be a successful advert then we must also recognise this is because it succeeds on an ideological level, our understanding relying on what Barthes referred to as what “goes without saying” in his essay ‘Myth Today’ (Evans and Hall, 1999: 58) The normalcy of the family unit and the way they celebrate Christmas through the exchange of gifts works on the level of myth: if something goes without saying suggests bourgeois assumptions and the product of history rather than nature. (Howells and Negreiros, 2011: 125) The characters in the advert, particularly the boy, are empty vessels, robbed of their individuality and history: “A signifier is an empty vessel until it is filled with meaning in order to signify. The less specific we are about the signifier therefore, the greater its potential to signify exactly as we wish.” (Howells and Negreiros, 2011: 129) With this in mind what is the message contained within ‘The Long Wait’? I would argue there are multiple readings: John Lewis can be trusted to provide the gifts that your family will love at Christmas and lead to domestic bliss; John Lewis will help transform your selfish brats to loving children who will show their love through the giving of gifts; the way to happiness is through gaining commodities; John Lewis shares your family values and is not interested in the sole, crass pursuit of profit. Another reading of course would be that the advert is nothing more than a ‘spectacle’ as described by Debord, a metaphor for society through which we no longer live life directly and where living has become representation: “The spectacle presents itself as something enormously positive, indisputable and inaccessible. It says nothing more than ‘that which appears is good, that which is good appears.'” (Evans and Hall, 1999: 96) Read through the prism of Debord, ‘The Long Wait’ represents a reified vision of the world with capitalism subsuming us through the fetishisation of commodities. I suspect Barthes too would have much to say against the glorification of capitalism that the advertisement represents, but once a Marxist reading is undertaken this can cloud judgement as strongly as the ideology it purports to be against – maybe it is nothing more than an advert to promote a department store which happens to do this in an entertaining and way while making the viewer remember what is good about Christmas. What is so wrong with that?

Bibliography:

Althusser, L. (2001) Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Barthes, R. (1977) Image, Music, Text, London: Fontana Press.

Barthes, R. (2009) Mythologies. London: Vintage.

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

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

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.

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.

Saussure, F. de. (2009) Course in General Linguistics. Memphis: Books LLC.

Sherwin, A. (2014) John Lewis Christmas advert 2014: It’s sickly and sweet but surprisingly potent. The Independent, 6 November 2014 Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/features/john-lewis-christmas-advert-2014-its-sweet-sickly-and-surprisingly-potent-9842404.html [Accessed May 2016]

Stone, J. (2014) John Lewis Christmas ads: How they evolved from 2007 to 2013. The Guardian 6 November 2014 . Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/media/2013/nov/12/john-lewis-christmas-ads-2007-2013 [Accessed on May 2016]

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

Wallop, H. (2014a) It’s funny how John Lewis Christmas advert is now part of our Christmas countdown. The Telegraph, 6 November 2014 Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/retailandconsumer/11212935/Its-funny-how-John-Lewis-Christmas-Advert-is-now-part-of-our-Christmas-countdown.html [Accessed on May 2016]

Wallop, H. (2014b) John Lewis adverts from Christmas past. Available at: https://uk.finance.yahoo.com/news/john-lewis-adverts-christmas-past-173056309.html [Accessed on May 2016]

Williamson, J. (1995) Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising. London: Marion Boyars.

 

 

Project 3-4: Author? What Author?

Read Michel Foucault’s essay ‘What is an author?’ in ‘Art in Theory 1900-2000’ and Roland Barthes ‘The death of the author’ in ‘Image, Music, Text’ and make notes before answering the following questions.

Notes on ‘Death of the author’ by Roland Barthes

In ‘Death of the author’, Bathes is concerned with questions of authority and power between author and reader – there is no ultimate authorial meaning for readers to uncover in a text. Advocated critical and analytical reading of texts taking into account historical contexts and positions as a means of showing how the authority of the author as primary producer of a literary text is a myth. Texts are produced in the act of reading, drawing on the cultural and political perspectives of the reader – never fully according to the intentions of the author. (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009: 52-53)

The creator of a text should not have the monopoly on its interpretation as other readings are equally tenable. (Pooke and Newall, 2008: 169)

The death of the author leads to the birth of the reader – a texts unity lies not in it’s origin but it’s destination. Context for the reader is key as this constitutes a frame through which they interpret a text. (Chandler, 2008: 200)

The author is traditionally evoked as the origin and explanation of a text, however, the idea of the author is tyrannical as it encloses a text within a single meaning. The death of the author signals the liberation of the reader as they no longer have to accept a single meaning enshrined on the biography of the author. (Macey, 2000: 83-84)

Barthes argument has three strands:

  1. When an author creates a character and gives it a voice, they cease to be the one speaking.
  2. All writing is simply words on a page, therefore, it is the language itself that speaks not the author. (A fundamental premise of structuralism.)
  3. All writing is quotation. (Buchanan, 2010: 110-111)

“The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centred in the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions.” (Barthes, 1977: 143)

“The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it…the voice of a single person, the author, ‘confiding’ in us” (Barthes, 1977: 143)

“The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture” (Barthes, 1977: 146)

“Once the author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile.” (Barthes, 1977: 147)

“a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.” (Barthes, 1977: 148)

“to give writing it’s future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the Author.” (Barthes, 1977: 148)

Notes on ‘What is and author?’ by Michel Foucault

Explores the notion of a historically variable author-function defined by a variety of discourses and institutions. The emergence of the author-function is a relatively recent occurrence, for example, ancient epics do not have authors in the modern sense of the word. (Macey, 2000: 84)

The concept of the author did not always exist, and although it will probably pass out of relevance it is not exactly dead. The term ‘author-function’ is used rather than author – this is linked to the idea that an author/producer must stand behind any given image/text. (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009: 53)

“The coming into being of the notion of ‘author’ constitutes the privileged moment of individualization in the history of ideas, knowledge, literature, philosophy and the sciences.” (Harrison and Wood, 2002: 949)

“The author-function is…characteristic of the mode of existence, circulation, and functioning of certain discourses within a society.” (Harrison and Wood, 2002: 950)

“We are used to thinking that the author is so different from all other men, and so transcendent with regard to all languages that, as soon as he speaks, meaning begins to proliferate, to proliferate indefinitely.” (Harrison and Wood, 2002: 952)

“if we are accustomed to presenting the author as a genius, as a perpetual surging of invention, it is because, in reality, we make him function in exactly the opposite fashion.” (Harrison and Wood, 2002: 953)

“The author is…the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning.” (Harrison and Wood, 2002: 953)

“as our society changes…the author-function will disappear, and in such a manner that fiction and its polysemic texts will once again function according to another mode, but with a system of constraint – one which will no longer be the author, but which will have to be determined or, perhaps, experienced.” (Harrison and Wood, 2002: 953)

Look at the work of Sherrie Levine and Cindy Sherman or another artist whose work seems either to be derived from a reading of the two articles you’ve read or whose work is better explained in the light of them.

Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman became famous in the early 1980s for ‘Untitled Film Stills’; a series of 69 black and white photographs in which the artist appears herself in “a frequently banal yet charged moment that might be a still form a film.” (Badger, 2001: 165)  The work references Hollywood and European cinema of the 1950/60s, a significant time for Sherman as this was when she was growing up and becoming aware of movies and television. The series evokes genres such as film noir and the French new wave; directors like Hitchcock and Antonioni; stars like Brigitte Bardot, Simone Signoret and Sophia Loren. However, the series is non specific and requires prior knowledge of the genre conventions Sherman is appropriating in order to be successful – as Badger (2001: 165) observes, this is a vital part of the series post modern credentials: we are not only required to recognize that we are viewing a scene from a film but also to appreciate and decode Sherman’s work through our shared knowledge of the still and moving images that enter our lives.

For Cotton, (2004: 192) the series is a prime exemplar of post modern art photography: in the series Sherman is both artist and model – both observer and observed. Yet, these images are neither self portraits or about a particular film star or character, rather, ironic and deliberate imitations or simulations of a type. Sherman’s work examines image and identity through the route of visual pleasure: for the viewer satisfaction is derived from developing narratives for the ambiguous scenes depicted.

Sturken and Cartwright (2009: 322) argue that this is an example of a post modern artist working reflexively – that is the work is based on self awareness and immersion in everyday, popular culture. Sherman is also responding to contemporary feminist discourse that challenged representations, the male gaze and structures of identification:

“Sherman’s compositions reflexively pose questions for viewers about spectatorship, identification, the female body image and the appropriation of the gaze by the woman photographer as her own subject.”

Another important distinction that makes ‘Untitled Film Stills’ post modern is that Sherman offers this feminist critique through visual practice rather than the written word as offered by feminist film critics of the same period. Although the series can be read as a critique it also ironically shows Sherman’s pleasurable engagement in the nostalgic fantasy images she creates in the series.

In ‘Art Since 1900’ (2012: 47-8), Foster et al make the connection between the Sherman’s work and the ideas of Barthes and Foucault. More accurately they assert how critics versed in post-structuralist theory reflected in the mirrors of Sherman’s photographs, creating an endlessly retreating horizon of quotation from which the ‘real’ author disappears. This is all well and good, but in her introduction to ‘Cindy Sherman: The Complete Untitled Film Stills’ (2003: 12) she states:

“I didn’t think of what I was doing as political: to me it was a way to make the best out of what I liked to do privately, which was dress up.”

And

“It wasn’t about dressing up to look like mom, or Doris Day, it was just fun to look different. It had nothing to do with dissatisfaction, or fantasizing about being another person; it was instinctive.”

If you take these comments at face value, and it is unlikely having recently graduated from art school that Sherman was unaware of the cultural discourse of the time, these comments only go to further validate the notion of the death of the author – whether Sherman intended her work to have any of the connotations that were bestowed upon it is irrelevant, after all: “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.” (Barthes, 1977: 148)

Sherrie Levine

Sherrie Levine is part of what was termed the ‘pictures generation’ of artists and participated in the ‘Pictures’ exhibition of 1977 curated by Douglas Crimp. These artists can be described as characteristically postmodern and share a resistance to modernist ideas of purity and individuality. Common concerns are the ideological role of photographic representation, issues of gender, ethnicity and sexuality, and, the changing dynamic of cultural politics. (Pooke and Newall, 2008: 183)

Levine’s work relies heavily on appropriation – predominately photographing other artists work and presenting this in a gallery setting without manipulation. With ‘After Walker Evans’ Levine presented a series of copies of photographs Walker Evans made during his participation in the FSA documentary project during the American depression. Levine raises questions about the ethics concerning copies and originals, issues of authenticity and image ownership, the value of photography through display in a contemporary fine art gallery and how historical records are viewed by different era’s. (These historical images of abject poverty were originally presented in the era of Reganomics.) (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009: 208-9)

Levine’s work is best explained as questioning and critique. Themes explored are: the idea of the original, (which is the real work of art? The Copy or original?) the male artist as master, the value of images (the aura placed on art by museums, galleries and the art market) and questions of reproduction, the artist as sole creator of a unique work.

In ‘Art since 1900’, Levine’s practice is described as an “act of piracy” (Foster et al, 2012: 48) which questions the authorial status of the image makers. The argument is made that the ‘original’ images that Levine appropriates are themselves “involved in an unconscious but inevitable borrowing from the great library of images…that have already educated our eyes.” (Foster et al, 2012: 48) The examples given are Edward Weston’s photograph of the nude torso of his son Neil which bears a debt to Greek classical sculpture. By fusing her own status as author with that of Weston’s, Levine goes beyond challenging copyright to addressing Weston’s very claim on originality. The male nude is one of the most culturally disseminated in western culture: originating in Greek classicism, the model for endless roman copies and seen through the prism of the post-Renaissance world as decapitated, armless fragments and cut off torso that has come to symbolise the body’s rhythmic wholeness. The ‘author’ of this image is therefore “dazzlingly multiple”: nameless antique sculptors, archaeologists, museum curators and even modern advertisers:

“It is this perspective that Levine’s violation of Weston’s “authorship” opens his work, setting up a long line of claimants to this privilege and making a mockery of the very idea of Weston himself as the image’s origin.” (Foster et al, 2012: 625)

Levine is arguing that appropriation has always been endemic in the fine arts, the implication being that photography merely makes this appropriation easier.

If the birth of the reader is at the expense of the author is there still any of Benjamin’s ‘aura’ left?

I suspect that Barthes and Foucault are in agreement with Benjamin about the aura, in some ways the essays are an extension of his argument about the removal of privilege from works of art. However, for me these essays share the similar issue that they are written from a particular ideological perspective about what the authors aspire the world to look like. The realities of capitalist society however mean that the aura of a work of art as well as the assertion of authorship is a reality driven primarily by the economic workings of the market. The theories exist as interesting discourse and help us gain sense of the world around us and arts relationship within it.

In ‘Art since 1900’ the argument is made that appropriation artists such as Sherrie Levine belong to a generation where the ideas of Benjamin are second nature. The ‘Pictures’ artists attempted to demystify the idea of the aesthetic original and the idea of the authentic photographic print at a time when the fine art photography market was growing. A truth that is counter to Benjamin’s claim that the aesthetic magic an artwork possesses would be invalidated by the very nature of photography.

“Earlier much futile thought had been devoted to the idea of whether photography is an art. The primary question of whether the very invention of photography had not transformed the entire nature of art – was not raised.” (Foster et al, 2012: 625)

Does any of this explain or validate the unregulated nature of the internet?

I can see a connection between the utopic aspirations of Foucault, Barthes and Benjamin and the ‘so -called’ unregulated internet. The ideal for the internet age is that everyone not only has access to boundless information, but also has the ability to create their own content and engage in multiple discourse. The reality however is that the internet is a potentially bewildering area to navigate. It is true there is unlimited information but reliability and relevance are real concerns. The way most of us use the internet is very much guided by huge corporations like Google and Facebook, the rules these outlets operate by, and which we become complicit in, may not be overt – but are certainly not free or unregulated. The recent scandals of internet surveillance brought to light by Edward Snowdon and others proves that anyone believing the web is a place of absolute freedom of expression is simply wrong.

It is not governments that particularly regulate internet content however – it is the general public. Examples of this are demonstrated by Jon Ronson in his book ‘So you’ve been publicly shamed’ which explores how the lives of normal people can be destroyed by reaction to an ill-judged social media confession or clumsy tweet: a kind of “vicious mob rule.” For example, Justine Sacco who had her life ruined after tweeting a poor taste joke about the racial politics of AIDS in Africa. After posting her ‘joke’ to her 170 twitter followers she boarded a plane and found after her 11 hour flight the tweet was the number one trending topic around the world and reaction was rabidly negative. She lost her job, was subjected to rape and death threats and spent the next year unemployed, depressed and virtually house bound. Ronson likens this treatment to the Stasi: “we have created a surveillance society where we are always looking for clues to our neighbours’ inner evil…” (Adams, 2015) The suggestion here is that the intention of the author is unimportant – only the reaction of the reader matters. A view that chimes with Barthes and Foucault’s assertions, if not the spirit, of the death of the author.

Ironically, by showing empathy for Sacco via Twitter, Ronson himself became a target for online abuse and was branded a racist. And yet, as testified by the Arab spring, WikiLeaks and the recent documenting and sharing on social media of police brutality against black people in the US, it is clear that the internet can give a voice to the voiceless. This use, which is important and powerful contrasts sharply with the witch hunts, with an air of quiet resignation Ronson observes: “We are now turning into a surveillance society where the smartest way to survive is to go back to being voiceless.” (Ronson, 2016)

Does this invalidate the interest in the artist’s or creators intent at the time of making?

This is an interesting question that both feeds into the notion of the death of the author and the idea of the Emperor’s new clothes. Barthes and Foucault argue that it is the reading taken from a text that is important – the intention of the creator is irrelevant. This is an appealing idea, but, taken to it’s logical conclusion runs the risk of finding meaning where there is none. On the other hand – does this matter? The introduction to ‘The Complete Untitled Film Stills’ Cindy Sherman talks of her motivation being dressing up and nostalgia for the films of the 1950/60s that she grew up with. As a recent graduate of art school I find it difficult to believe that she was not familiar with the work of Barthes and Foucault, it is possible however that these were not in her mind consciously as she worked on ‘Untitled film stills.’

It is also entirely possible for an artist to produce work that is filled with intended meaning that is missed by the audience. Sherrie Levine could be an example of this, I would imagine an enormous amount of people being unengaged and even angered at her work. While notions of copyright can be picked upon, it is unlikely that the casual observer would pickup on the critique of the myth of authorial originality. So, while it may be legitimate to say that with the death of the author every reader is entitled to an opinion about a text, this does not mean all readers conclusions are equally valid. The elitism and reliance on a high degree of cultural awareness that is connected with this sort of post modern art seems to me to alienate many, a kind of in joke for academics not intended to be accessible to the general population.

My preferred answer to this question relies on the truth that as individuals we all have a greatly differing perspective on life and our experience can have a dramatic effect on our responses. My personal way of approaching a text is with an open mind and the realisation that there is rarely a definitive reading, there are many possible conclusions available, and it is possible for many of these to be valid at the same time.

Bibliography:

Adams, T. (2015) ‘Jon Ronson: ‘Time and again on Twitter we act like the thing we purport to hate’’ The Guardian, 14th December 2015 [accessed online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2015/dec/13/jon-ronson-shame-bullying-twitter-social-media [Accessed June 2016]

Barthes R. The death of the author pps. 142-148 Barthes, R. (1977) Image, Music, Text, London: Fontana Press.

Badger, G. (2001) The genius of photography: How photography has changed our lives. London: Quadrille Publishing.

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

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

Cotton, C. (2004) The photograph as contemporary art. London: Thames & Hudson.

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

Foster, H. et al. (2012) Art since 1900: Modernism * Antimodernism * Postmodernism. (2nd ed.) London: Thames & Hudson.

Foucault M. What is an Author pps. 949-953 Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (eds.) (2002) Art in Theory 1900–2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Oxford: Blackwell.

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

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

Ronson, J. (2015) So you’ve been publicly shamed. United Kingdom: Pan MacMillan.

Ronson, J. (2016) Jon Ronson: How the online hate mob set its sights on me.The Guardian, 28th January 2016 Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/dec/20/social-media-twitter-online-shame [Accessed June 2016]

Sherman, C. et al. (2003) Cindy Sherman: The complete untitled film stills. New York, NY: The Museum of Modern Art.

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

 

Project 3-3: Myth is a Type of Speech

Read ‘Myth Today’ by Roland Barthes on pps. 51-58 of the course reader and make notes before considering the following questions:

Look up who Minou Drouet was. Why does Barthes cite her?

Minou Drouet was a child prodigy/poet famous in France at the same time as Barthes was writing ‘Myth Today’. Her collection of poems ‘Abre, mon ami’ (Tree, my friend) sold 45 000 copies on publication and attracted controversy with Drouet’s mother being accused of being the true author. This was overcome with the eight year old Drouet writing poems before witnesses – the month after the publication of ‘Abre, mon ami’ Drouet agreed to write a poem on the subject of “Paris Sky” and gained admission to France’s society of authors, composers and music publishers.

In ‘Myth Today’ Barthes states:

“A tree is a tree. Yes of course. But a tree as expressed by Minou Drouet is no longer quite a tree, it is a tree that is decorated, adapted to a certain type of consumption, laden with literary self-indulgence, revolt, images, in short with a type of social usage which is added to pure matter.”

On one level, Barthes is describing how the signified of a tree is transformed by the poetic language – which is how it “is no longer quite a tree”. Barthes is clearly not enamoured by the poetic language used by Drouet, and with terms like “consumption”, “self-indulgence” and “social usage” it appears his objections are on an ideological rather than artistic level. The argument here is his entire thesis about myths in microcosm – the natural form of the tree is transformed into something other by the application of myth: “a type of social usage which is added to pure matter.”

The choice of Minou Drouet by Barthes to illustrate this point is an interesting one – although her story and the controversy around it was certainly prominent at the time of writing, surely there are other examples that would more strongly emphasise Barthes point? Perhaps the age of Drouet is significant and Barthes is hinting at another myth – that of the artist as genius, that greatness is something inherent in a very few, select individuals. From Barthes seeming disdain for Drouet’s artistry he is definitely at odds with the those that have designated her poems as being great which shows another myth of how the quality of a piece of art is evident in the piece itself when this is clearly decided by a select group of elite taste makers.

Think about his reference to a bunch of roses and a black pebble. Can you think of a couple of examples of elements within images that you know that signify passions, emotions or even other objects or events?

Barthes argues that a bunch of roses can signify passion, however, combined together this signifier and signified result in the sign of passionified roses. The roses cannot be disassociated with the message they carry, the rose as signifier cannot be confused with the rose as sign “the signifier is empty, the sign is full, it is meaning.” The term ’empty signifier’ refers to a signifier where meaning is vague or unspecified. They can be interpreted in different ways, and can even mean what their interpreters want them to mean. (Chandler: 250)

The importance of context in enabling meaning to be read is emphasised with the example of a black pebble which can have multiple meanings: it can be “a mere signifier” or it can be weighed with a definite signified, for example, a death sentence in an anonymous vote makes it become a sign.

The question posed here is more difficult than it first seems and I struggled to arrive at concrete examples as there are so many possiblities. Also, as Barthes points out in his analysis, while there can be a preferred way of reading an image, meaning is also multiple.

The colour of the two examples given by Barthes are significant in our reading of their meaning: red – passion, black – death. This led me to start thinking about how colour can signify meaning and then how this can be read in multiple ways depending on context. Possible meanings for red and black are:

Red:

passion – as demonstrated in Barthes example of roses

Danger – for example warning signage

Stop – on traffic lights

Socialism – the red flag

Anger – ‘seeing red’

Black:

Elegance – little black dress

Death – traditional clothing for funerals

Depression – ‘dark mood’

Illegality – black market

Night – darkness

Barthes myth changes the real into an ideological statement. For example Soviet Socialist Realist painting (see Portrait of Stakhanov by Leonard Kotliarov, 1938.) Find other examples.

Portrait of Stakhanov (1938) by Leonard Kotliarov (here) is a painting in the Soviet Socialist Realist style which depicts miner Aleksei Stakhanov underground and working at the coal face. Socialist Realism was borne out of the idea that art should advance the ideological cause of the Soviet Union and was characterised by the heroic depiction of labour and glorification of the communist party. The style of the art needed to be realistic as it focused on familiar aspects of daily life and needed to be relevant and comprehensible to the proletariat. Stakhanov became famous in 1935 when he hewed 102 tonnes of coal during his six hour shift – 14 times his quota which was declared a world record by Pravda. Stakhanov was used as a symbol of Soviet propaganda to stimulate workers to produce and encourage both competition between workers and promote a particular way of both working and living.

An interesting counterpoint to Socialist Realism is the Farm Security Administration documentary photography project during the depression in the USA. Clearly, the Kotliarov painting has ideological intent and is a calculated form of Soviet myth making, but I would argue the FSA project has the same intent. Because the images are photographs rather than paintings we (falsely) imbue them with a greater sense of reality, but these images are just as constructed with the aim of giving a very specific narrative about the great depression, the poor people caught up in it and their attempts to look for a better future. Take for example ‘Migrant Mother’ (here) by Dorothea Lange, an image celebrated as a classic example of documentary photography. Rather than being a portrait about a specific person (in fact, the identity and name of the woman in the picture was not known) the photograph is a representation of motherhood and poverty in general with the intent of showing dignity in the face of adversity while being aimed at people completely removed from the reality that the woman depicted and her family face.

 

Think carefully about the passage on meaning and form. “The meaning is always there to present the form; the form is always there to outdistance the meaning.” Annotate an artwork of your choice to illustrate your thoughts on this passage.

Barthes presents a thesis for two semiological systems, language and myth. The linguistic system consists of signifier, signified and sign while the mythical system is a meta-language, staggered in relation to this so the signifier on the plane of myth is the sign in the system of language. Barthes gives the following visual representation to illustrate his ideas:

Myth schema

The following definitions are used to distinguish terms in each system:

Meaning – the signifier on the 1st system/plane of language – works on the level of denotation.

Form – signifier on the plane of myth (also sign on the plane of language.) Works on the level of connotation.

Concept – the correlation of these two terms, the signified on the plane of myth with which no ambiguity is possible.

For the mythical signifier form is empty but present; meaning is absent but full. Barthes demonstrates this seeming contradiction with the example of viewing the landscape through the glass pane of a car window. Our view alternates between awareness of the glass window and the scenery beyond meaning that the glass is both present and empty and the landscape both unreal and full.

The function of myth is to empty reality, to state facts without explanation, it is natural and is ‘what goes without saying.’ By passing from history to nature the need for complexity is removed , myth appears to organise the contradictions of the world without depth, there is a blissful clarity which enables things to appear to mean something by themselves.

I have chosen a photograph by Chris Killip, Youth on wall, Jarrow, Tyneside (here) to illustrate the Barthes statement.

 

Analysis on the level of meaning – that is the first semiological plane of language: a black and white photograph of a young man, possibly in his late teens sat on a brick wall. The youth is viewed from the side, his knees brought tightly up against his chest met by his forearms and tightly clenched fist. His hand rests on his forehead, his eyes are  tightly shut. His hair is shaved very short, his clothes look old, possibly second hand, a jacket, the stripe of a jumper can be just made out, baggy trousers, thick work socks and boots which seem large in comparison to him. A number of clues exist in the picture which help us read what is happening: together the clothing suggests a working class background for the youth, the condition of the clothes could indicate poverty, the brick of the wall and in the background could indicate an industrial area, the body language of the youth indicates he is in some distress or angry.

On the level of myth we are encouraged to build a narrative for the youth, his life and prospects. The image as a whole can be read as a critique of the decline of industry in the north of England and the lack of hope and poverty that is a consequence. Vallely (2012) states that this image has been wrongly used to illustrate the destructive impact of Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies – wrongly because the picture was taken in 1976, 3 years before Thatcher became Prime Minister.

Thoughts…

I find the concept of myth fascinating, ‘Myth Today’ is a slippery piece to get to grips with however. Writing up this project I feel like I know what I want to say yet cannot articulate it – the examples in the essay help make sense of the piece as a whole but I seem to tie myself up in knots the more I go back to it. I also find it interesting that Barthes rails against the way myth perpetuates bourgeois ideology when he himself sees only what he wants to. The examples I have chosen I think illustrate how the left can distort the truth through myth as easily as the right.

Bibliography:

Barthes, R. (2009) Mythologies. London: Vintage.

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

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

Crow, D. (2010) Visible signs: An introduction to semiotics in the visual arts (2nd edition) Lausanne: AVA Publishing SA.

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

Gottlieb, R (2006) A lost Child. The New Yorker, November 2006. Available at http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/11/06/a-lost-child [accessed May 2016]

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

Mavor, C (2010) Tragic Candy. Cabinet magazine, issue 40. Available at http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/40/mavor.php [accessed May 2016]

Siegelbaum, L. (2015) Year of the Stakhanovite. Available at: http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1936-2/year-of-the-stakhanovite/ [Accessed May 2016]

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

Vallely, P. (2012) Still lives: Chris Killips’s images of Northern working life chronicle and define a bygone era. The Independent, 17th March 2012. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/still-lives-chris-killips-images-of-northern-working-life-chronicle-and-define-a-bygone-era-7566796.html [accessed May 2016]