FINE 2081 Assignment 2
Figure 1. Your Body is a Battle Ground by Barbara Kruger, 1989
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.
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