By: Alejandro Hincapie
Visual media spans the realms of both pop culture and fine art. Certain pedagogy equips viewers with ways of looking that can help identify the complex hegemony that define social, political, and economic power structures and dictate modes of representation used in visual media. These modes of representation are often rooted in ideologies such as sexism and are employed to appeal to consumers in the contemporary economy.
There’s long been a popular distinction made between “high” and “low” cultural output. At its clearest, this distinction is institutionalized and defined by specific medium and genre. It is often reduced to the difference between “fine art” and “popular culture”. In her book Remote Control, conceptual artist Barbara Kruger grapples with this distinction, beginning by outlying the pervasive line of thinking on the subject. She writes, “Art is obviously art, right? And sometimes theater is art, but sometimes it’s just a lot of escapist hullabaloo, right? Dance is art. TV and movies are leisure, I guess. But what about ‘the cinema,’ that high-toned and serious activity? Pop has got to be leisure. Recordings can be art in their inception and leisure in their reception. Music is a little bit of both, depending on the music” (Kruger 2). Here, Kruger equates “leisure” to products of pop culture, namely mass consumed media such as popular music, television, film, and so on. She continues by presenting a thoughtful, if not somewhat restricting definition for art, stating that “it can defined as the ability, through the visual, verbal, gestural, and musical means, to objectify one’s experiences of the word; to show and tell, through a kind of eloquent shorthand, how it feels to be alive” (Kruger 5). These interpretations that Kruger entertains rest on a work’s intent in relation to the viewer – pop culture is for casual leisure while art aims to condense experience in a sophisticated manner. But for Kruger, this distinction is ultimately defective because while the aims of pop cultural products may not be those of fine art, pop culture can still be effective at playing art’s game. She writes, “But doesn’t so-called popular culture have the ability to do some of the same things [as art]: to encapsulate in a gesture, a laugh, a terrific melodic hook, a powerful narrative, the same tenuously evocative moments, the same fugitive visions?” (Kruger 5). To Kruger, all forms of massively popular cultural output from comedic performances to the lyrical acrobatics of female rappers are as effective and sophisticated in capturing experience as art is. With this in mind and for the purposes of this assignment, it is important to only distinguish between products of pop culture and fine art on a superficial level—to define them for what they are but to not deem a product of one more effective at representing experience than the product of another. Certain pedagogy—the practice of teaching and instructing—can equip viewers with the ability to dissect cultural output and examine the many things that inform the cultural products they consume.
Jeff Koons. Michael Jackson and Bubbles. Porcelain. 1988 & Triple Elvis. Oil on canvas. 2009. In the legacy of Andy Warhol and others, the work of contemporary artist Jeff Koons blurs the line between fine art and pop culture.
Jeff Koons. ARTPOP. Digital and Physical Album Cover. 2013. Koons recently designed the album cover for popstar Lady Gaga’s “ARTPOP” album. By brining classical works of art into a commercial product in the cover design, Koons reversed the basis of Pop Art, where pop culture was brought to the realm of fine art.
When examining visual media in particular, the practice of looking becomes paramount in dissecting the various dynamics at play that inform the said piece of media. In Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture, authors Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright establish what looking at a piece of visual media entails. They write, “To look is to actively make meaning of that world… Through looking we negotiate social relationships and meanings… Looking involves learning to interpret and like other practices, looking involves relations of power” (Sturken and Cartwright ,10). They argue that because visual media brings with it a variety of “purposes and intended effects”, as well as “spans the realms of popular culture, advertising, news and information exchange, commerce, criminal justice, and art,” viewers must bring with them a great breadth of awareness, knowledge, and understanding of the many dynamics at play that inform a particular piece of visual media in order to correctly discern the work’s ultimate meaning and intention (Sturken and Cartwright 10, 11). The practice of looking is thus a form of decoding meaning; a means of analyzing visual media through the knowledge of the many elements that have both directly and indirectly influenced and shaped the creation of the work. Sturken and Cartwright often refer to these elements as “clues” and argue that they can be “formal elements such as color, shades of black and white, tone, contrast, consumption, depth, perspective, and style of address to the viewer” and that images can also be interpreted “according to their socio-historical contexts” (Sturken and Cartwright, 26). Sturken and Cartwright’s establishing that by looking at images, viewers can discern social relationships and historical contexts is of importance because it leads one to consider the important dynamics of power and hegemony at large in society and throughout history.
In a later chapter of their book, Sturken and Cartwright define power amongst different groups of people in economic, social, political, and ideological arenas and institutions as being a relationship rather than a dominating force. Hegemony is the term used to emphasize that power—socially sanctioned privileges, institutionalized, legal control and influence, and accompanying benefits—is negotiated amongst all classes of people. To be specific, Sturken and Cartwright define the term as “a state or condition of a culture arrived through a negotiation or struggle over meanings, laws, and social relationships” (Struken and Cartwright, 54). The crux of this concept is that said conditions are always changing because there is an ongoing negotiation between people and the power they may or may not hold. This is particularly important in the practice of examining images because it allows the viewer or producer to influence or define for themselves the meanings of the images they are presented with or present, effectively negotiating the effect of the image with the powers responsible for it. Barbara Kruger’s work is exemplary of the way images’ meanings can be changed and distorted. She takes “found” photographic images and contextualizes them with added text that leads the viewer to question their preconceived notions of the image. Her image of an atomic bomb explosion, brining with it connotations of both tremendous destructive force and humanity’s technological achievement, becomes imbued with social commentary when she places the text, “Your manias become science.” The viewer negotiates their instinctual reactions to the image with the accusatory statement of the text and is lead into a subversive line of thinking towards the power of Western science that made the bomb possible. Viewed this way, as Sturken and Cartwright argue, Kruger’s work contends agaisnt the prevailing hegemony of the Western scientific establishment.
Being aware of the hegemony behind visual media and cultural output allows viewers to make better sense of the different forms of representation they are presented within and are directly dictated by said hegemony and accompanying structures of power. For Sturken and Cartwright, representation is less the placement of a clear meaning behind any single piece of visual media and more a “process through which we construct the world around us… and make meaning from it” (Sturkent and Cartwright 14). Different modes of representation in imagery pertain to different constructs the producers of the work hold about the world and the many social, economic, and political relationships within it. Some of these world constructs that dictate modes of representations are white supremacy and sexism. These terms refer to systems or ideologies of power in which one group of people exert power and influence on other groups to maintain that ideology as the dominant one. Sexism in particular, can be equated with patriarchy or the construct that allows men to hold power over and dominate women. Sexism dictates many forms of representation in cultural output. In visual media, it causes the assumed viewer to be male and creates an image of woman that upholds the interests of the patriarchy. This dynamic of power between the representation of woman and the assumed male spectator can be distilled into the idea of the gaze, specifically the male gaze. The history of Western art making through contemporary forms of media such as advertising is filled with representations of woman looking straight at the assumed male viewer, with all other aspects of her existence as an image made to conform to the dominating male views of women: that of a docile entity of domesticity or as passive and willing sexual object. Thus, the gaze in general refers to the intricate power dynamics brought to the connection made between subject and assumed viewer in any form of visual media.
In contemporary media, these different forms of representation are employed to appeal to the desires of consumers, those individuals who are the intended viewers of visual media. In Ways of Seeing, John Burger examines how the publicity image—advertising—is rooted in appealing to consumer’s desires. He writes, “publicity is usually explained and justified as a competitive medium which ultimately benefits the public (the consumer) and the most efficient manufactures—and thus the national economy” (Burger, 130-131). For Burger, advertising is a way in which imagery has a direct affect the on the capitalist system of economy. Viewed this way, the various modes of representation employed in advertising uphold the prevailing hegemony by appealing to consumer’s desires of upward mobility. He writes, “publicity is always about the future buyer. It offers him an image of himself made glamorous by the product or opportunity it is trying to sell” (Burger 132). Advertising imagery often accomplishes this by relying on established modes of representation rooted in systems such as patriarchy. Imagery meant to attract male consumers to a particular product often include attractive women as positive consequence of buying and using said product. The notion of spectacle or attracting attention to something by a thoughtful and deliberate means is also employed to generate interest and control the associations people create between products and ideologies.
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. New York: Viking, 1973: 46
Krueger, Barbara. “Arts and Leisure.” Remote Control. N.p.: n.p., 1993. 1989
Sturken, Marita, and Lisa Cartwright. 2009. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. New York: Oxford University Press: 10