by Peter Zimmerman

Art does not exist and is not created in a vacuum; rather, it is constantly in negotiation with ideological shifts, cultural re-mappings, and historical motions. Rosalind Krauss, in her essay (humorously) titled “Cindy Sherman: Untitled” describes the two purported Universal Truths of the artist, as proposed by Emile Zola: that X is an artist and artists imitate reality, and Artists imitate through their own sensibilities, and thus add something of themselves to it. (Bachelors, 106). While this statement may at first appear both prudent and truthful, the fact is that any universal truth about art and those who make it is bound to be wrought with some level of conceptual predicament. However, I propose that we forgo Zola’s argument, and instead try and analyze art by dually investigating and rejecting the ostensible intentions of the artist. While this approach may seem equally vague and problematic, I feel that taking a vested interest in the dichotomous tactic will enable and open a space for the logic of contingency, instead of merely residing within the realm of artistic intent. Therefore, in able to take this approach, we must understand, or at least attempt to understand, the context in which the art is produced. The reasoning for this is twofold: first, artists comment on their environment, and second, artists, at times, reject their environment. Thus, Zola’s universal truths are obsolete and unusable.

Barbara Kruger is an excellent figure to analyze in order to bring us closer to the semblance of knowledge of the last forty years in female art. Kruger began working for fashion magazines in the late 1960s, after going to Parsons School of Design in New York City. Her grasp on the visual culture of the 1960s informed her earliest works, and her intuitive rearrangements of image, text, and the visual field brought her much acclaim as a designer for advertisements, book covers, and other assorted media commissions. However, it was not until 1981 that she began the image/text juxtapositions in black, white and red for which she has become famous.

“Untitled [I Shop Therefore I Am]” (1987)These trademark works mix found images with provocative statements– statements that arrest the viewer and force some sort of intellectual struggle. The messages are aggressive and bellicose. They cannot be easily reduced; rather, they seem to explode upon the moment of their reading. They are dually astonishing and destabilizing, leaving the viewer grasping for some justification in either defense, or they reaffirm sentiments held by the receiver. These works can be seen as cultural declarations as much as art, in that they prey upon the social vulnerability of institutions, beliefs, and mores. Their motion is wholly subversive, and in many ways it becomes virtually impossible to revel in Kruger’s work without feeling some sort of guilt. Perhaps this guilt is for actions perpetrated prior that are not in concert with Kruger’s statements. Or maybe it comes from the sudden remembrance that the ideological (read: patriarchal) grips of the hegemonic reigning force are strong and willful, and one has actively attempted to assuage the discord between their personal beliefs and those of the dominating power by acquiescing to the deception.

Gender plays an incredibly significant role in Barbara Kruger’s work. An excellent example of the usage of gender as both sites of social commentary and cultural warfare is the “Untitled [We Don’t Need Another Hero]” (1987)“Untitled [We Don’t Need Another Hero]” (1987). This work superimposes a bold strip of red background and white text stating “We Don’t Need Another Hero” on top of an image of a young girl and boy. The girl is leaning over the boy’s shoulder, pointing to his budding musculature. While her pose may have initially be read as predatory and powerful, in fact the girl is wholly submitting to the masculinity of the boy. One could argue that masculinity in this picture is not only on display but that it is at the same time being performed, in that it conforms to the socially esteemed patterns of masculine behavior. This performance of gender provides the male agency, and inscribes submission into the female. Her awe of his male abilities carries a deeper and more raw eroticization of the phallus as the locus of social power.

The image chosen for this picture is fairly problematic in its temporal relevance. It is clear that it does not come from the late 20th Century, or else the boy and girl would be dressed much differently. Instead, it functions within the knowledge of a past form of visual representation, and it appears to come from World War II era America. The texture, design, and representation of the characters recalls the ubiquitous image from World War II of the woman rolling up her sleeves and declaring “We CAN Do It!” While that picture asserts the equal capability of women as worker, human, and social agent, the one chosen for Kruger’s work is a complete reversal of that ideological statement, all the while retaining an identical visual mapping. Why, then, is this image so problematic? One of the main reasons “Untitled” leaves the viewer with so much turmoil is that the found image appears to be unproblematic at first. It depicts two children engaging in a, supposedly, harmless activity; however, it is this conviction that denotes one’s full compliance with the ideological restrictions placed on women that adopt of the guise of childlike innocence. Therefore, when Kruger inserts the text “We Don’t Need Another Hero” she both fully announces this acquiescence and vigorously attacks it.

The word “we” at the beginning of the phrase immediately thrusts the argument into a dichotomous relationship structure, in which “we” becomes “not-you,” because the tone of the full image (text and found image combined) is coded in aggression. Kruger’s sex as female is irrelevant to understanding the feminist message of this work, because the “we” matched with the logic of the image forces the statement into the realm of the female. The presumptuous and belligerent motions of “Untitled” does claim a shared yet single belief/voice of women as a collective, as a gender, and as a site of cultural warfare, and perhaps there is room for a backlash even from women claiming that Kruger is incorrect in her assumption and appropriate of female sentiment. However, Kruger’s work is neither apologetic nor safe; rather, her images actively function to wholly expose and dismantle the polarity of gender as it relates to levels of power, and thus restore credence and respect for women as equally human and cultural agent. Therefore, we cannot expect Barbara Kruger to play by the rules, much less those imposed, even silently, by a dominating male figure. Instead she plans on exploding those notions, and in doing so redefine what female art means and how it functions within and beyond the art world.


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