Photography Essays – Art and Media

Using examples, discuss the relationship between art and the mass media.

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Introduction: The relationship between art and media has always been heavily symbiotic, a fact acknowledged only relatively recently, with the ironic wink of “pop” art in the fifties, but nevertheless the connection has always been present and empowering to both “high” culture and society’s consumers. Consumer culture and art have invaded each other’s territories to the point where it has become impossible, at times, to tell them apart. The HBO television series, Sex and the City, for example, might be art reflecting life, or art informing life, or both, or neither – so many of the signifiers we use to recognise art, so many of the cause and effect relationships we took for granted, have become indistinguishable.

On a theoretical level, the media has amplified artistic causes, for good or for bad, and sometimes where bad is anticipated, the media has been second-guessed or hijacked. On a practical level, forms of media broadcast have much in common with art forms, allowing for overlaps and ironic jokes, since modern technologies enable neatly replicable sign systems- the mass media is a hegemony, and iconography reproduces itself everywhere we look.

One reaction to the standardization of imagery and the new lexicon of iconography came in the form of Pop art. Ironically, of course, Warhol’s replicable paintings have an iconographic currency all their own. By the 1970s pockets of subversion were appearing everywhere. Media activists called it “culture jamming”, the Situationist International called it “detournement” (“an insurrectional style by which a past form is used to show its own inherent untruth”) the Pistols called it Punk. But it was essentially the same. Culture jamming can be used to describe a broad range of subversive activity, from the work of graffiti artists to the radical ‘refacement’ of billboards by the Billboard Liberation Front, to pirate radio broadcasts. It is, essentially, an attempt to challenge the authority of the mass media through creative, and generally public, acts of resistance.

Adbusters magazine employs culture jamming as its manifesto, transforming it into a social movement with the revolutionary aim of “toppl[ing] existing power structures and forg[ing] a major rethinking of the way we live in the 21st century.” Their forceful sloganism, together with slickness of its design, raises suspicions and criticism. This is the rhetoric of a salesman, and there would indeed appear to be a contradiction between its anti-advertising objectives and its image-based editorial strategies. Nevertheless this is the first time that magazines have really subjectified the image, and a magazine which is not only about design but also a beautiful piece of craft itself, seems to sidestep the theoretical problem of hypocrisy, somehow.

“The problem of design today is that it is more fascinated by the visual, as a realistic imitation or decoration, and not by the image as a subjective narrative and interpretive element. As a result of its internal dialogue, however, the image is more than a perception. It is a necessary construction on the brink of fiction, that reveals the dialectic of representation and presentation.”

Rick argues that the once homogeneous field of graphic design has “begun to separate into two distinct strands”. On one side there is professional practice in all its forms; on the other a field which he terms “design-culture graphics”. This territory is inhabited by designers doing their own, often self-initiated thing: publishing books and magazines, starting websites, and designing and selling T-shirts, posters, DVDs, etc. He refers to Adrian Shaughnessy’s observations in April 2003’s Creative Review magazine: “Stylistically it is usually radical, adventurous and sometimes even downright purposeless.”

The curious aspect of this claim is the suggestion that the divide has only just happened. Looking back to Morris and Ruskin, again, we see an extraordinary sort of proto-punk for the middle classes, even at the turn of the century. More recently, the division became a true social cleave, rather than an ideological romantic whimsy, with the new wave that followed punk in the late 1970s. Designers such as Brody, Saville, Malcolm Garrett, Rocking Russian and 23 Envelope were so notable because, not only did they shun the mainstream in which designers would once have expected to find work as a matter of course, but they also produced the most inventive and durable British graphic design of the period. Their audience was other young people.

In Britain today, a vast number of young designers emerge from design schools and art colleges today with no intention of joining design’s mainstream. People today want to express their individualism in their work and the thought of a small, informal collective started by a group of friends is obviously attractive as it’s a sort of extension of student life.

Graphic design played an important role as a tool of empowerment for those whose fringe status was less of a choice, too – it gave voice to women and articulating their concerns. The suffragette’s contribution to the history of graphic design has been intriguing. Unlike the emancipatory and utopic vision of the modernist movement, the images of the women’s movement never prescribed to a unifying aesthetic dogma. When seen in conjunction with other social and counter-cultural movements that became symbolic of a certain stylistic representation, what is notable about the women’s movement is its lack of stylistic unity. While this wasn’t intentional strategy, it practically increased resistance to commodification.

Much of today’s art is conceptually sophisticated enough to reflect both art and life, often anticipating its own responses. The characters in Sex and the City, the ultimate show about and because of commodification, consistently acknowledge social expectation, even if it has become their raison d’etre to buck those expectations. When the character Charlotte expresses regrets about not working it shows that she has internalized the message that she should work. When she accuses Miranda of judging her she exclaims,

“You think I’m one of those women . . . One of those women we hate who just works until she gets married!” Here, Charlotte reveals her own view that women should be independent, demonstrating that she herself is conflicted. Her statement has feminist undertones, since it implies that women who change their lives, or who are primarily oriented to attracting a husband, sacrifice themselves and compromise their identities- appropriately, as this is exactly the fate the scriptwriters have in store for her.

Charlotte’s emphasis on the “choice” defense as a feminist case is an oversimplification and a misinterpretation of liberal feminist goals, although it still promotes the critical sentiment that women are diverse, and that one woman’s decision of what to do with her body or her life should be in her hands, in spite of what her friends, family, or society dictates.Yet, at the same time it highlights some of the problems associated with liberal feminism as a perspective and its frequent misappropriation by women- and perhaps, in this case, the Sex and the City scriptwriters.

Liberal feminism is based on the idea that differences between women and men cannot be explained by biology and thus differential treatment is unjust. The idea is that people should be regarded as individuals, rather than identified first as men or women, and should thus be able to make decisions based on what is best for the individual. As Montemurro has written,

“In this episode of Sex and the City, when Charlotte refers to the women’s movement, she seems to be referring to the idea that women have been “liberated” or freed from the constraints of patriarchy and are able to work and attain success at levels similar to those attained by men. Thus, she has the right to decide for herself what will make her happy and satisfied as an individual. If she chooses not to work, then she is not succumbing to traditional feminine expectations; rather, she is doing what she sees as right for her and thus she should not be judged for this.”

She goes on to point out that few women have the ability to make this choice. But the whole debate about choice can be located in the context of oppression; in Montemurro’s terms, “Charlotte’s choice is predicated on other women’s lack of choices”. In addition, Charlotte even states that “Trey suggested” she stay at home, hinting that the idea to stop working has not come directly from her. The criticism of feminism’s reactive quality applies here: her choice may be “her perogative” but it is not solely hers, and the specific choice she has(n’t) made stands for the “choice” (either to stay at home or not) that all women make, with its attendant vulnerability to accusations of reactiveness and passivity. As Montemurro suggests, Charlotte’s powerful, wealthy husband has delivered the option to her “as a gift of sorts, as if to say, “I give you permission to stay home,” and Charlotte fails to acknowledge that her choice is made possible only by her subsequent economic dependence on her husband.”

Charlotte’s statement that “the woman’s movement is about choice” is played as distastefully comical, distasteful not least because the scriptwriters are conveying one of two equally dangerous messages. Either they are communicating they notion that it is sufficient lipservice to feminism to give these issues crass and simplistic treatment, or they are expressing Charlotte’s charming naivety through the incidental note of a “feminist” token. It is as though she believes that any choice- motherhood, career, or taking a cooking class, is of equal value, because the decision is coming from herself. It is a claim made cynically by the media and advertisers, specifically designed to manipulate women who believe themselves to be independent into buying products that appeal to their vanity- products sold on graphic representations of self-indulgence, selling the irresistible idea that women are wallowing in low self-worth and deserve to “treat themselves.”

Women’s liberation has become suspect precisely because of this bastardization: the idea that “free choice” includes “bad choices”, that female freedom is the equivalent of justified narcissism.

Increasingly products, weight loss and fashion have been artificially presented as aids to a deserving woman’s betterment, taking “feminist” ideas of “improvement” as their selling point- yet feminists concur that all such strategies only help women to participate in their construction as subservient, imperfect, and generally oppressed. Her infertility is treated with same astonishing crassness, as Tara Flockhart points out,

“The infertility of Charlotte…excruciatingly painful affliction, is at first mocked by suggesting that she sublimates her emotional pain in affection for her dog (the animal, not the man, in her life)”

Of course it is not merely female “issues” which are levied by the media. According to feminist artist and writer Laura Mulvey, the female form is still a battleground for viewing conventions, and it is a battle where, for the most part, media images and visual art are on the same side. For Mulvey, the problem is the equivalence of the female form with desire – so long as the male body is not seen as desirable, men remain in control of desire and the activity of looking. It seems to be a commonly held assumption that things are improving, but I would suggest, the male body is more prominently “objectified” by the media nowadays not as a symptom of female control over the gaze but as a direct result of the integration of the gay male gaze into the mainstream. This is rapidly overtaking the rise of women, and these sites of homosexual desire are not replacing images of women but are appearing alongside them. It is no improvement at all. Most images of attractive male bodies in the media today aren’t the result of feminist struggle for equality, but simply more men, gay men, expressing their own desires in public.

Virtually everywhere in Hollywood (not to mention the internet, TV, magazines, the High Street) we find Freud’s notion of “scopophilia” – the pleasure involved in looking at other people’s bodies as erotic objects. Mulvey has written extensively on viewing conventions as she perceives them to be facilitated by the cinema auditorium itself. The darkness of the picture-house provides a unique public environment where we may look without being seen either by those on screen by other members of the audience. Mulvey details how certain cinema viewing conditions facilitate for the viewer both the voyeuristic process of objectification of female characters and also the narcissistic process of identification with an ‘ideal ego’ seen on the screen.

There would be no post-modernist art responses to the media, of course, without the massively influential modernist movement that rocked the world at the turn of the century. Long before the Sex and the City girls, modernism aimed to expose “traditional society” as exposed as something fraudulent. The exponents of the modern aimed to show that nostalgia was fallacious: the unity of a golden age had never existed. The modernists only ever wanted to present reality as it was. Since social, political, religious, artistic ideas had been incorporated into this false order, they had to be incorporated into any true reworking of it. It was modernism that impressed upon us the idea that narrative direction- that a story should have a beginning, middle and end was nothing more than an opiate, artifice grafted onto random existence to create illusions of consistency.


The relationship between media and forms of art is of course not entirely co operative. The mass media has been understood as the servant of capitalist society, and art, as the archetypal “free thought” its natural enemy. Historically, art’s efforts to bring down capitalist structures from within have been very ill-fated, with artists finding themselves ignored, scorned, crushed or – perhaps worse- accessories to political agendas. Artists and writers must work harder than ever to devise means of opposing or exposing capitalism’s deceptions, but many commentators appear to have reached the conclusion that the battle is barely worth fighting. Jean Baudrillard argues that criticism of the status quo is no longer possible through art or literature and that the only efficient way of dissenting from capitalist society is to commit suicide,

“Modern art wishes to be negative, critical, innovative and a perpetual surpassing, as well as immediately (or almost) assimilated, accepted, integrated, consumed. One must surrender to the evidence: art no longer contests anything. If it ever did. Revolt is isolated, the malediction consumed.”

Thus the avant-garde movements in Europe put the artist under pressure to exhibit a certain individuality, while also – rather contradictorily- being a producer, and as prolific, political and reactionary a producer as possible,

“There is a lot of talk, not about reform or forcing the Enlightenment project to live up to its own ideals, but about wholesale negation, revolution, another new sensibility, now self- affirming or self-creating, rather than a universalist or rational self-legitimation. This in turn suggests a tremendously heightened role for the artist, the figure whose imagination supposedly creates or shapes the sensibilities of civilization”.

In a sense, the avant-garde has been socially commissioned to forecast the future, to scouting out new intellectual terrain,

“Aesthetic modernity is characterized by attitudes which find a common focus in a changed consciousness of time… The avant-garde understands itself as invading unknown territory, exposing itself to the dangers of sudden, shocking encounters, conquering an as yet unoccupied future. The avant-garde must find a direction in a landscape into which no one seems to have yet ventured”

Modernity saw its role as declaring its fragmentary reality, its construction, or the construction of the world or idea it aimed to represent. As one writer says,

“A typical modernist story will seem to begin arbitrarily, advance inexplicably, and end without resolution. Symbols and images are used instead of statements. The tone is ironic and understated-mocking of any of its characters or elements that still seem to appeal to the idea of coherent reality. On the other hand, many modernist works are structured as quests for the very coherence they seem to lack. Because the quest is a very mythological concept, a lot of modernist writers return to and rewrite myths of the world into their works. Often the faith based on myths (such as Christianity) is apparently revealed as a farce and a fraud-that is, as myth rather than objective reality.”

Without Modernism’s take on the media, its distaste with media stereotypes, there would be no ironic art forms, and without Surrealism’s great achievement, its ability to assimilate its patterns so completely into our unconscious that its images have become a part of us, without this we would have no impressive, delicious, advertising and no self-perpetuating consumer society. It knows our dreams, but it also knows our nightmares. Surrealism may be the triumphant rebellious child of modern art, but it is the heir of capitalist society. As one writer puts it,

“Historically, surrealism was an art movement of ideas that developed between World Wars I and II and was very prolific. However, today the viewer automatically accepts surrealist imagery. It’s everywhere we look. One can find surrealism in children’s books, on television, in advertisements, music videos, movies and any other form of mass media. Today a person can see examples of surrealism everywhere without consciously noting that one is looking at a surreal image”


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