Strategies of Post-Modern Visual Production – Kruger and Levine

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“Appropriation” means either borrowing or stealing, ordinarily, depending on the context.  In art, appropriation has come to mean take a pre-existing image from some source, such as art history itself, or from what is out in the world, such as mass communications or media in general, and manipulating it or combining it in some unique or new way, such as Barbara Kruger’s work, or presenting the new copy of the old work as the artist’s own, such as Sherrie Levine’s work. This lays the argument that it's a controversial work of art

In the 1980s, Sherrie Levine photographed Walker Evans’ early Twentieth Century photograph entitled “Allie Mae Burroughs; Hale County Alabama, 1936”, and named it “After Walker Evans #4”, with no obvious changes, aside from the name. Weintraub quoted Levine as saying, “The world is filled with suffocating. Man has placed his token on every stone. Every word, every image is leased and mortgaged…” In other words, according to Levine, there is nothing left to originate, because it has all been done before, or perhaps she means that men have taken credit for having done it all before. The slap in the face from this feminine point of view then is to take that material created by a man and present it in a new light that raises questions of stereotyping and originality.

For Levine, according to Weintraub, she provokes questions by using sheer appropriation of the art of males, simply by using “after” and the original artists’ names. In the instance of After Walker Evan #4, the original provocative photo of Allie Mae Burroughs could be seen as objectifying a particular feminine type and social class. Levine’s appropriation questions the very concept of originality and raises the issue of whether there is anything to originality in the first place or individualism or “masterpiece” for that matter. This might be referred to as “concept art”, which is more about the idea behind the art, than the image itself. It is what the images evoke, and Levine is considered genius by some for appropriating a male’s art and inserting her own female point of view on it simply by the appropriation itself. We have to ask ourselves why is she using this particular piece, and what does Levine mean by it as a feminist? Perhaps she is saying that just as Evans appropriated Allie Mae’s awkward social predicament, Levine is appropriating Evan’s theft of Allie Mae’s predicament, challenging his ownership of her legacy as a woman, as she is the original, not his photo of her. She also raised this issue with some of her appropriation of Edward Weston’s work, questioning his own portrayal of men’s figures, copied as they were from classic ancient statues. 

“Deconstruction”, as used in art, means a critical use and interpretation of existing images. One of the foremost deconstructionists is Barbara Kruger, who, like Levine, also incorporates existing images into her work. However, a significant difference is that Kruger uses techniques of propaganda and mass media to turn the image into a totally new, and often completely opposite, message, usually juxtaposing typical stereotyping of men and women with a slogan that turns the image into a stark example of traditional paternal perceptions. 

Kruger, trained initially as a graphic artist, and spending time at Conde Nast Publications, became intimately familiar with mass media, and the power of short succinct messages. In her post-modernist technique, Kruger uses some appropriation, but as opposed to simply using unaltered images that were art in and of themselves (like Levine), she often uses images from photography books, magazines, handbooks, advertisements, and alters them with some slogan, almost like propaganda messages from wartime. 

In Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face, the message is juxtaposed with the image, something akin to showing a woman turning her head to refuse to acknowledge a man’s aggressive stare. It could be a representation of a woman’s feeling of being watched, of an unwanted gaze from a man, sizing her up, an uninvited intrusion. Kruger often turns the media’s view of traditional passive and control relationships between men and women portrayed in media upside down with her slogans on those typical images. 

For instance, “We don’t need another hero,” where a boy is portrayed as a strong man, a critique of society’s glorification of the training of men to be strong and heroic instead of sensitive and understanding. Kruger also challenges traditional concepts, such as marriage, like in her “You are a captive audience”, an image of a man putting a wedding ring on a woman’s finger. It is a simple picture, but the words (genius really) transform the message into a very powerful comment on the point of view of many in our culture on the traditional role of men and women in marriage, not partners so much as the control and submissive roles portrayed in almost every medium from music to movies to television to the pulpit in church, where the ceremony happens in the first place. 

Whether her words are ironic, or satiric, or just plain a punch in the face, Kruger uses her genius at juxtaposition to create a powerful device forcing us to reconsider everything we ever thought was culturally “natural” or “traditional”, forcing us, both men and women alike, to revisit our own notions of gender and equality.