|Richard Prince, Untitled (Living Rooms), detail, c. 1977|
While reading Retromania some months ago, I was surprised to see that Simon included a brief discussion of the work of visual artist Sherrie Levine and other artists of the "Pictures Generation" in relation to the acts of sampling and pop-culture quotation in music. Curiously enough, the subject of the early '80s "appropriation art" has a huge bearing on some of the concerns raised by Simon (in relation to music) throughout the course of his book.
The short explanation of the much of the appropriation art that emerged out of the NYC artworld of the late 1970s and early 1980s was that it all had to do with some post-structuralist commentary on Roland Barthes's theory of the "death of the author" in connection with certain postmodernist misgivings about the idea of creative originality. But the practice of appropriation was employed to different ends by different artists. Levine's rephotographing of works by (male) master photographers like Walker Evans, Edward Weston and Alexander Rodchenko was supposed to be a critique of the patriarchal exclusivity of the modern artistic canon; the work of Richard Prince and Barbara Kruger involved deconstructions of the visual rhetoric of advertising and consumer culture; while Cindy Sherman's brilliantly staged and photographed "film stills" and portraits addressed issues of gender roles as represented and reinforced by popular media.*
In 1982, Barbara Kruger published a short text titled "'Taking' Pictures" to accompany the reproduction of some of her work in the Oxford-based journal Screen. In retrospect, Kruger's text -- to what limited degree it's been republished and discussed over the years -- proved prescient. Writing a few years in advance of any concrete critical terminology having settled around postmodernist or appropriation art, Kruger addressed the practice of taking (or quoting) images "informed by fashion and journalistic photography, advertising, film, television, and even other artworks..., their quotations suggest a consideration of the work's 'original' use and exchange values, thus straining the effects of naturalism." That naturalism to which Kruger refers being the standardized visual language of consumer culture, the act of quoting being a means of -- by way of irony and deconstruction -- disrupting the syntax of that visual language by isolating and estranging its various "signifiers," thereby critiquing the ideological underpinnings of the dominant culture by folding its own coded rhetoric back upon itself. Or so the theory had it, at least.
But in the third and final paragraph of "'Taking' Pictures," Kruger expresses some nagging doubts about the practice of appropriation:
"On a parodic level, this work can pose a deviation from the repetition of stereotype, contradicting the surety of our initial readings. However, the implicit critique within the work might easily be subsumed by the power granted its 'original,' thus serving to further elevate cliché. This might prove interesting in the use of repetition as a deconstructive device, but this elevation of cliché might merely shift the ornamental to the religious. And as an adoration the work can be read as either another buzz in the image repertoire of popular culture or as simply a kitschy divinity. However, the negativity of the work, located in its humour, can merely serve to congratulate its viewers on their contemporary acuity."
In other words, quite early in the game Kruger foresaw two possible -- and problematic -- fates lurking in the wings. The first being that a series of enfeebled (re-)representations ends up ceding all authority to its referents – becoming mere degenerative repetitions of its models, thereby buttressing the very discourse it aimed to undermine ("the power granted its 'origins'"). The second outcome is that it lapses into petty and toothless nihilism -- an in-group exercise of smugly insular and effette irony.
* And I suppose it goes without saying that there was also a strong feminist purport to Kruger's work as well, with her previous experience as the lead graphics editor and designer for Mademoiselle magazine (and other Condé Nast publications) proving doubly useful for dissecting the language of advertising.