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FINE
2081 Assignment 2

Barbara
Kruger

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Figure
1. Your Body is a Battle
Ground by Barbara Kruger, 1989

 

 

 

I Feminism

 

Barbara Kruger explores
feminist theory through mixed media and graphic art. Her signature style features
a black and white imagery as background and bold text laid over red color
blocks. Her works often inaugurate ongoing social, political and especially
feminist provocations. This particular piece voices many feminist ideals as it
disuses issues such as power, patriarchy and stereotypes.

 

Kruger’s work contemplates
issues which reside in the core of the social power relations. The slogan
imprinted across the image “Your Body is a Battleground” refers to the struggle
of power between the sexes – women fighting for a say in society and men
resisting in order to maintain patriarchy dominance. This battle is further
explained in feminist writer Natalie Angier’s essay “Biologically Correct”, stating that there is a constant tug of war
between men and women “over the
same valuable piece of real estate—the female body”1. The
separation of the photograph into two halves with inversing colours can be interpreted
as the two sides of the battle.

 

The conception artist challenges
cultural assumptions by revealing
and critiquing patriarchal ideology taken for granted in art and in society.

The woman shown has perfectly symmetrical and delicate facial feature – an icon
of feminine beauty. This allusion to the fabrication of femininity. This
Untiled (Your Body is a Battle field) is published in the book Love for Sale,
in which Kruger explained that she based her work on stereotyping a “domain as that of ‘figures without
bodies.” This is to say, in such a stereotypical projection of women, the woman
is no longer an individual but rather a production of the society. The text
added also functions to criticize the circumstances under which this piece was
produced. Kate Linker, the author of Love
for Sale, states “Kruger’s mission is to erode the impassivity engendered
by the imposition of social norms”2. By
dissecting the historical construction of female identity, the stereotype is
broken. Kruger wants to make viewers aware of the intensity of the struggle,
and the fact that women must always be on guard.

 

The male gaze and objectification of women is another topic discussed.

In Ways of Seeing John Berger states “Men look at women. Women watch
themselves being looked at”3 In
other words, as women are objectified by the male gaze they are no longer in
control of themselves, instead their thoughts and behaviours all stem from the
judgement of men. Therefore, the battle mentioned also refers to how women must
fight to be recognized as people, not objects. Kruger rejects the male gaze by
presenting the female figure making confrontational eye contact with the
audience. The image is cropped to centralize her gaze. The text adds to this
effect as “your” directly addressing the audience.

 

Overall, Kruger’s work
expresses ideas directly related with the feminist theories at the time, and is
known to be an active supporter of women’s rights movements. Such believes are
efficiently translated through her work.

 

 

 

 

II Semiotics

 

As an insider of popular culture, Kruger very familiar with articulation
between mass media and advertising. The
replicated black and white photography from the 50s combined with graphics and
text that Kruger is known for relates to her background in graphic design. Although
seemingly blurring the boundary between commercial and art, Kruger actually
makes use of the accessibility of media to generate meaning.

 

She achieves this by making
use of semiotic, in other words, messages not apparent but coded using signs. 4
As Peirce had said, the sign’s role is to connect the mind of the viewer with
the world.5
Both text and image are coded in her work and it is only when we combine them
together that we can arrive at the meaning. Therefore, when we look at Kruger’s
work it is important to decipher the connotation behind the denotation. Such an
indexical force embedded in the work encourages us to search the pictorial space
rather than simply adopting a straightforward understanding.

 

How then is message coded
in Image one? First of all, Kruger breaks up the monotonous images and language
people are bombarded with every day by addressing the viewer directly – such as
the use of “your” in figure 1. Then, she alludes to the associations to
advertisement by using techniques such as font choice and the logo like red
panels. The typography chosen is Futura Bold, used extensively in
advertisements, logos, film and TV, making a direct connection with mass media.

Kruger’s concept is to merge commercial and art by making her artistic style into
a brand image. The short piece of text added on top of the image – “your body
is a battlefield” is very much like a slogan. Kruger also uses media and
political tactics such as tabloid, authoritative and direct language to investigate social relations through the power of
the words. Moreover, the eye catching red
color also points to the merge of art and commercial, as it is a color often
used in logos or commercial use to grab attention. Not to mention, this feature
is made into a symbolic sign by continues repetition throughout all her works. On
the other hand, photography is another important sign. It is a replicated black
and white photo, cropped to strip it out of its original meaning and context. The
woman can also be considered as an ionic sign. It is embedded with an semic code, one that draws into cultural
stereotypes and the background information a viewer has.

 

Dualism is the basis of Semiotics and many of Kruger’s work depicts this
dichotomy – denotation versus connotation. The apparent meaning and deeper
meaning coincides with each other as image is translated into words, and text
becomes image. By using text assisting image – a common tactic used in advertisement,
Kruger forms an anchorage of meaning, forcing
the audience to interpret the media in a more in depth and precise way.

 

 

 

III Social Art History

 

Untitled “Your Body is a
Battleground”, like many of Kruger’s work, can relate to an array of political
and social debates. It is a great example of how Kruger was not only actively
involved in on going heated political issues, but also sent strong messages
about them.

 

According to Kruger’s book Love for Sale, figure 1. was made in
response to the 1989 Women’s March in Washington in support of women’s rights,
especially concerning abortion (the right to choose) and birth control rights. These
demonstrations marked a new wave of anti-abortion laws. The march, as well as Kruger’s
Untitled work in figure 1. are statements to the political leadership of
America – President Bush, the Congress of the United States and the Supreme
Court.

 

The work gains new meanings
in this historical context – a piece simultaneously art and protest. This
montage depicts a woman’s face split symmetrically into two along a vertical
axis. The play of color inversion emphasizes the idea of the “positive versus negative, white versus black, good
versus bad”6. This is
to criticize how the issue has highly simplified inner
struggle – good against evil. Another
interpretation is that Kruger divided the abortion debate into two distinctly
different viewpoints – those who support women’s right to choose and those who
are against it. The clean line separating the inversing sides emphasizes the
twofold nature of the issue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 2. Your Body is a Battleground,
Barbara Kruger, 1989

 

In another version of
the poster is even more overtly political, shown in figure 2. the text added
clearly indicates the cause and stance of the artist. Even before producing her signature montages, Kruger had
leftist inclinations when she was freelancing in book cover design for several
publications. The books she took on as projects dealt with politics, such as Russia, and China; and Capitalism in Argentine
Culture7.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 3. Your Body is a Battleground (billboard project
for Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, OH), Barbara
Kruger, 1990

 

Kruger is not only an
artist, but also an activist. Therefore, Figure 1 is not only a poster to mobilize
the audience but also a summary of what protestors felt towards the issue.

Through art, Kruger challenges the unbalanced power relation between women in
the country and the conservative and right-wing agenda. As Kate Linker states, “To Kruger, power is not localized in specific
institutions but is dispersed through a multiplicity of sites. . . power cannot
be centralized. . .it is anonymous.”8 The artist also designed other posters
and a billboard for pro-life organizations, as we can see in Figure 3. Kruger’s
various efforts in support of the issue is an effective demonstration of her stance
and efforts in this battle. Together with her action, the message is stronger
than ever. Like feminist art critic Lucy Lippard says, “Artists alone can’t
change the world. Neither can anyone else, alone. But we can
choose to be part of the world that is changing.”9

 

 

 

 

 

1
Angier, N. (2003). “Biologically Correct.” Sisterhood is Forever: The Women’s Anthology
for a New Millennium. Robin Morgan. New York: Washington Square Press p.10

2
Kruger, B. Linker, Kate, (1990). Love for Sale. New York: Harry N.

Abrams, Inc. p.28

3
Berger, J. (2003). “Ways of Seeing.” The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader.

Ed. Amelia Jones. New York: Routledge. p.38

4
Krauss, Rosalind. “In the Name of Picasso.” October 16 (1981): p.

5-22

5
Hatt, Michael., and Charlotte. Klonk. Art History : A Critical Introduction to Its
Methods. Manchester; New York : New York: Manchester University Press ;
Distributed Exclusively in the USA by Palgrave, 2006. p.210

 

6
Kruger, B., Linker, Kate, (1990). Love for Sale. New York: Harry N.

Abrams, Inc. p.87

7
Kruger, B., Linker, Kate, (1990). Love for Sale.

New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. p.14

8
Kruger, B., Linker, Kate, (1990). Love for Sale. New York: Harry N.

Abrams, Inc. p.30

9
Lucy Lippard, “Trojan Horses: Activist Power and
Power” in Brian Wallis, Art After
Modernism: Rethinking Representation (New York: The New Museum of
Contemporary Art, 1984), 344-45.

 

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