November 9, 2006
Signs Within Signs
I have written elsewhere about the more controversial issues of appropriation, i.e., authenticity and authorship, so it may prove helpful to approach our topic from the viewpoint of semiotics, to grasp the appropriative technique as a play of images. The use of images dominates advertising and the first wave of photo-appropriationists (Kruger, Burgin, et al) re-formed the quoted sign (coupled with text) as new referents to foster markedly different readings about ideological structures of wealth, power, sex and politics.(1)
Art history is rife with manipulations of borrowed imagery (from Braque and Duchamp, to Prince and Hirst) and I would like to differentiate earlier appropriative practices before proceeding. Modernist painters like Braque, Picasso and Schwitters used a formal ordering of borrowed imagery within their compositions. Indubitably, later theorists would proffer Marxist and/or socio-cultural views of these works, yet these painters treated newspaper clippings, cigarette wrappers and other bits of capitalist detritus as formal devices, particularly in Cubism.
But it is those artists who invest their borrowed imagery with different signifieds that I wish to discuss. By using borrowed signs to refer to new meanings, often directly contradicting their original signification, these artists truly engage visual art’s role as a vehicle for cultural meaning.
First, let us consider, in brief, the system of representation that is language, and let it stand in for another representing system - art. Using the structuralist views of Saussure, we can see that each sign (word) in a language gets its meaning because of its difference from every other sign, i.e., meaning arises from functional differences between the elements within the system of representation.(2) (Red means red because it’s not blue.) Thus, if we substitute this structuralist view for painting, we could also agree that certain configurations of color or brushwork will have meanings based on their recognized differences from other color themes, etc.
In this way, structuralism set in motion a process of inquiry that eventually undermined empiricism (what’s real is experienced) by questioning the acceptance of any structure based wholly on convention (not observation). Meaning, in essence, is not conveyed by the intention of the speaker (painter) but is determined by the language system.
A bit later, the poststructuralist position emerges, wherein the means are revealed as insufficient proof of the ends, i.e., meaning is never fully present in any signified (concept) but is infinitely deferred. And more importantly, the poststructuralists saw meaning as contextual, affected by related words.
Roland Barthes had written:
"We shall therefore take language, discourse, speech, etc., to mean any significant unit or synthesis, whether verbal or visual: a photograph will be a kind of speech for us in the same way as a newspaper article; even objects will become speech, if they mean something."(3)
This is what the best appropriationists will contend with, a way in which to subvert representation as an equivocal, rote system of images, and cast it in new subliminal, deconstructive ways. To intervene within the spectacle and invest it with a near unconscious misrecognition of meaning. As Hal Foster notes:
"[Barbara] Kruger has suggested that image appropriation, rather than question ‘the original use and exchange value’ of representations, contradict ‘the surety of our initial readings’ and strain ‘the appearance of naturalism,’ may in fact confirm them. Her later work evades this closure, for in its oscillation ‘from implicit to explicit, from inference to declaration’ neither photograph nor text, neither connotation nor denotation is privileged as a stable site or mode of truth; in fact the usual coordination of the two (as employed in the media to fix unstable meanings) is undone."(4)
Readings for 15 November: Chapter 8: Hermann Nitsch’s The O.M. Theatre; Laura Mulvey’s "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" in Art After Modernism (on reserve) or here.
1. John Welchman, Art After Appropriation: Essays on Art in the 1990s, Amsterdam, 2001.
2. Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, London, 1959, 15-17, 65-70.
3. Roland Barthes, Mythologies, New York, 1972, 113.
4. Hal Foster, Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics, Seattle, 1985, 221.