English 430: Literature & the Visual Arts

October 29, 2009

Who Are You?

Filed under: Online Reports — vegajaneth @ 6:06 pm
Are the product of Capitalism? Are we defined by what we have?

Are the product of Capitalism? Are we defined by what we have?

You Are Not Yourself“I am interested in pictures and words because they have specific powers to define who we are and who we aren’t. And those pictures and words can function in as many places as possible.”  – Barbara Kruger

As we look at our world today, it is not hard to recognize the changes that have taken place in the span of less than a century. Technology has changed the way we view the world and, in so doing, has also changed the way we view ourselves as a society and as individuals living in this society. Who are we? Are we mere manufatured persons freshly out of a cultural factory or are we a

mixture of our a culture and our essential individuality? Are we whole and complete individuals untainted by everything that surrounds us? Is it possible not to be tainted? And if it is not possible to be ourselves without being contaminated by the modes and customs of our society, who has the power to taint us? Who has the power to define us and set us apart? Those are the questions Barbara Kruger adresses with her work. You, her, him, I, we, society are confronted with these questions when we look at the faces and text in Kruger’s work that seem to stare at us right in the face.

Short Biography
Barbara Kruger was born in a lower middle-class Jewish family in 1945 in Newark, New Jersey. We don’t know a lot about her life but, we do know she attended Parsons School of Design where was influenced by famous artists such Diane Arbus and Marvin Israel who encouraged her to pursue a career as a graphic designer. She later dropped out of Parsons and began working for Conde Nast Publications, designing ads for Mademoiselle Magazine. Her work was of such high quality that, in almost a year, she was put in charge of designing the whole magazine. Besides designing Mademoiselle Magazine, she also did free-lance work designing book covers often of political nature. She delved into poetry, publishing some of her work and reading it. In 1976, Kruger became a professor at UC Berkely. Interestingly enough, her initiation into the world of art did not start with images and text. Her first work consisted of fabric wall-hangings that adressed issues of feminity and the work that women were allowed to do. After experimenting with this work, Kruger decided she needed to find herself as an artist. She spent some years in California before she was finally able to find the methods she needed to question/comment/critique the politics, culture, and society of our times.
Her Work
Your Body is a BattlegroundKruger’s work was definately influenced by her career as a graphic designer. Her experience working for Mademoiselle Magazine taught her the power of the interplay of word and image have on the spectator and, in the world of consumerism where short-attention spans dictate what is included in culture and what is excluded, her work uses methods that work to hold the specators to capture the spectator’s view. Consquently, in order to understand Kruger’s work, we need only take a glimpse at our world and how it functions to communicate with us nowadays. Our world is also fast paced which means that the way we communicate has changed. In order to communicate effectively, the methods we use to interact have to change. As a result, our age is using new ways to reach out to us and so are artists. Kruger is an example of how our times have influenced the art world and, although Kruger doesn’t like categorizing herself or anyone else as belonging to any particular set or ‘world’, it is evident that the culture of our day has had a visible impact in her work. However, like she once said: “I dont think anyone exists outside the gravitational pull of power and exchange.” We are all affected and the power that our culture has on us helps mold at least part of our identity. Kruger’s job is to search for that identity – to sift through everything that has tainted us in some way to discover who we truly are. If that is not possible, than question of power and identity should be confronted.

Barbara Kruger’s first attempt to mix text with pictures is seen in the book she published in 1977 called Pictures/Readings. The book consists of a series of photographs taken from different houses. Each house is juxtaposed by a paragraph that tries to depict the kind of people that would live there. Somehow we are made to feel that the house is some sort of reflection of who we are. The spaces we inhabit carry something of us or, like Kruger said: “artchitecture is one of the predominant orderings of social space. It can construct and contain our experiences. It defines our days and nights. It literally puts us in our place.”  The book combines images with narrative. Consequently, the reader is not only involved with the words on the page but is also engaed by the image he sees because it relate directly to the words that juxtapose it.Not Ugly EnoughNot Cruel Enough Not Stupid Enough

Her work began to progress towards what we see now. The bold images with bold text. Her art reflects what we have become but it asks us if this is truly who we are. Kruger uses images that already exist in the vast pool of pictures and photographs that circulate in throughout the world everyday. She changes a few details, maybe a color or the size of the face, or she might use a collage of ensemble of photographs to make her point. The images stare right at the viewer – it’s a face to face confrontation.  Yet, the images are only part of her work. The work would be incomplete if we ignore the text that accompanies it because it is the text that gives the image a makeover. The picture looses it’s original meaning when it is labeled by Kruger’s phrases and slogans. The image becomes limited by that specific text. Yet, interestingly enough, it manages to keep its abstraction,giving interpretation some space to roam around.

When looking at the text, we see a similar case. Kruger usually makes use of bold letterring, either white or black, highlighted by a red background or black background.  She makes a lot of use of Futura Bold Oblique. The phrases, just ast the images, seem to stare right at the viewer. They make an accusation about YOU as part of the society and culture we live in. They also reflect our culture in its promptness and sharpness. They are short and economical yet, the power they have on the viewer is impressive. The viewer is absorbed by three or four words. They attack. They make you think. They inspire. They confuse. They question. They critique. However, there is no way the viewer can detach himself/herself from the work. There is no way the viewer doesn’t feel that the words are adressed directly to him/her. Similarly, we can’t see the text without the image. Although the text has something to say (somthing bold), the text doesn’t possess the same power without the image. The image transforms the text by giving it more power. Consequently, both image and text depend on each other. They are both incomplete if either one is taken out. They both work harmoniously together to try to capture the viewer’s attention and it does an impressive job of doing so.  Let’s not forget that this is a similar tactic used by the media to try to trap the viewer.                                                                                                                                     Your Gaze Hits the Side of my Face

Seeing Through You

Kruger’s work is also very involved with the issues of our time. Feminism is one of those issues she is very passionate about. The notion of women as the receicers of the male gaze is turned over its head when she creates her famous work Your Gaze Hits the Side of my Face. Women in her work are often given a voice throught the silence of image and the boldness of the text. They portray the way women  have been stereotyped and positioned in our society. Capitalism and politics also feature among her works. The issue of money and its overwhelming importance in society is often questioned in work. Does money have such a hold on us that it has come to define us? Are we becoming just a credit card, waiting to be used by our society? The politics of abortion and war are also issues that appear in her work

Besides her work as an artist, Kruger is also a writer. She has written for newspapers, has published her book entitled Remote Control which comments on the same issues that her art work does.Culture She has designed covers for such magazines as Newsweek and House Garden. Her lack of belief in the ‘art world’ has enabled her work to be placed on billboards, buses, toe bags, t-shirts, and mugs. This is her way of reaching out to the public. The whole world is a forum for art. Her museum gallories demonstrate how encompassing her work really is. It completely involves and absorbs the viewer. Bold texts are placed on walls, floors, and ceilings. Images are also used similarly. Her eight solo shows at Mary Boone art gallery, show the scope and enticement of her work. Most recently,  in September of 2009m her work entitled Between Being Born and Dying was installed at the Lever House in New York City. As is apparent, Kruger is still at work, engagin us and confronting us with questions we are probably to afraid to ask. However, she is better apt to describe what she wants to do when she says: “I think that it’s important for me to somehow, through a collection of workds and images, to somehow try to picture –  or objectify, or visualize, how it might feel sometimes to be alive today.”Barbara Kruger











Goldstein, Ann., ed. Thinking of You. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1999.

Kruger, Barbara. Remote Control. The MIT Press, 1993.

Witzling, Mara R., ed. Voicing Today’s Visions: Writings by Contemporary Women Artists. Universe Publishing, 1994.

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