Crisis of Representation

Digging through all of my archived materials continues to be a good distraction from being productive. I stumbled upon this diatribe… but can’t figure out if I wrote this for a class or for my own geekful bliss…

Issues surrounding representation have played a key role in the development of postmodern art. Prior to the theoretical challenges to representation launched by Jean Baudrillard, representation could be thought of as means of depicting or portraying of a subject, which relied upon the connection between the rendition and the original. Baudrillard asserted that there is little evidence to suggest that reality, the domain of the original object of depiction, ever existed. This brought about a crisis of representation because traditional modes of understanding the relationship of object and depiction could no longer be considered valid. As a response to this, the means of producing an image became integral to the understanding of the image – the medium became the message in contrast to the traditional notion of the object of depiction embodying the meaning. The paintings of Gerhard Richter are emblematic of the new mode of representation and artists employing photography in art demonstrate the resituating of representation.

The crisis of representation that now seems so apparent after the writing of Baudrillard was also the result of a convergence of historical conditions both inside and outside of art. As a result, art’s capacity to depict the world was effected. This period of crisis, and or the 1970’s and 1980s in particular, was marked by the widespread acceptance of mass-communication and mass-images by the majority of western industrialized society, especially television and the products of an expanding consumer culture. Baudrillard brought attention to the mass mediated image and claimed that it had greater importance beyond the act of depiction or illustration. As mentioned above, the accepted model of representation now began to show symptoms of crisis, which included the idea that the means of producing the image could take a place of significance next to the subject or object once represented in reality. In essence, how the image was encountered became as important as the subject matter. Because representation was now severed from the object it signified, it became possible to locate, research, and critique the social and political agendas of art, images, and art makers.

I Shop Therefore I Am, Barbara Krueger

FIG 1: I Shop Therefore I Am, Barbara Krueger

This new agenda of images emerged out of historical conditions during the 1970s and 1980s, which led to a greater focus on the political aspects of art, and thus further contributed to the issues surrounding representation. For example, representation in art was first challenged by the emergence of artists and theorists drawing from the questions asked by feminism. Their critique acted in two ways: it asked, “who deserved to be represented by or have a voice in art?” and also, “what political agenda does representation in art serve?” Barbara Kruger, through her series of images utilizing the forms of advertising (Fig 1), demonstrated that art could serve a new, directed social and political agenda. Her work made problematic the act of representation because she depicted through established, persuasive imagery a new schema of depiction – something not possible without the breakdown of representation. In essence, she utilized an understood method of representation to critique its aims and consequences.
The significant fissures that appeared in the model of representation allowed Hal Foster to argue in his essay, “Subversive Signs” that the most provocative art was beyond media specificity and that artists engaged in such practices were all using public space and social representation as both a target and a weapon. (Foster 1037) Kruger further enhanced this idea by using multiple media (photo + text) and then re-locating her work beyond the gallery to public kiosks, billboards, and mass transit—evidence that an agenda-injected art’s ability to depict reality could be blurred with mass-mediated advertising—and therefore, turn attention to the relationship of the audience to the subject matter.

FIG 2: Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, Hans Haake

FIG 2: Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, Hans Haake

In a similar manner, artists turned to photography as a means of documentation outside of the content of abstract, purely conceptual art and instead focused attention on the political and social climates connected to the image. Work that shifted away from the purely conceptual aspects of art, such as time and space began to directly engage historical and political dimensions. Hans Haacke tested the viewer’s ability to see his images as works of aesthetic or abstract conceptual art and further challenged the methods of depiction, which could be grasped by the art model. This is illustrated in his piece, “Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real Time System as of May 1, 1971.” (Fig 2) In this piece, representation’s function was challenged by the connection of the artwork to the political situation underpinning Haacke’s conceptual investigation of the power structures of those who were wealthy and powerful in the world of art. He pushed to indicate the lack of congruency between the art world and the base from which it draws its wealth and privilege. This was also an indicator that with the expansion of what is suitable subject matter for representation came the expansion of both the self critical and socially critical aspects of art.

The result of works such as Kruger and Haacke’s, according to Foster was a change in the roles of the artist and viewer. Because the static definition of representation had given way to a post-Baudrillard idea of free-floating signs, an artist could be described as simply a manipulator of signs—or as intervening in the construction of meaning. As a result, the viewer was forced out of the passive position of allowing material to flow over them and was required to actively read the content of the work. The implementation of this expanded model of representation was not fully illustrated, ironically, until artists such as Gerhard Richter returned to the historically established means of art production (painting).

FIG 3: Stag, Gerhard Richter

FIG 3: Stag, Gerhard Richter

The paintings of Gerhard Richter are emblematic of the crisis of representation in terms of both the practice of creating the images as well their situation in the context of art history. Symptoms of a crisis in representation are directly present in the paintings Richter created from photographs. Taken from both personal sources, such as family photographs and snapshots, as well as from the mass-mediated reality of printed images from newspapers, Richter demonstrated with these paintings a new sense of distance in terms of representation–this “distance” manifested through the idea that the paintings are derived from photographs and therefore are representations of representations. Donald Kuspit wrote about the way that Richter’s images questioned the absolute nature of both abstract (conceptual) and natural (symbolic) representation. (Kuspit 139)

In contrast to paintings, which represent the natural, emotive, and lasting qualities of human experiences, photographs act as an indicator and document of a specific historical event or condition. Part of Richter’s return to paintings indicates that art images have lost their inherent ability to function as representations and he argues that perfection of execution has led to diminished representational power—paintings can no longer function in a manner they once could. (Buchloh 1149) The apparatus of photography has diffused the power of representation once held by the medium of painting in works such as Stag. (Fig 3) This image is impossible without the confluence of the qualities of the photographic apparatus (depth of field—blurring) and the values of painting (simplification, tonal values, physical format).

Uncle Rudi, Gerhard Richter

FIG 4: Uncle Rudi, Gerhard Richter

With Uncle Rudi, (Fig 4) Richter employs the look and feel of a black and white photograph while incorporating the obvious marks and blurs available only to painting. Photography, in general changed the viewer’s relationship to images and this painting of the artist’s uncle in the uniform of the Nazi state serves as evidence of this observation. Uncle Rudi indicates another issue – Richter does not make a distinction between the personal, historical, and social representational functions of the photographic image. As a result, viewers are not able to locate the source of the representation without entering into a network of associations that link the social, personal, and historical data in a broadened context of cause and effect.

The Baader-Meinhoff paintings, for example, also contain and exploit these qualities. (Figs 5,6) On one hand, they ask the question of what content is being depicted? Is it the conscious illustration of Richter’s return to painting events of historical significance and therefore referencing history painting as a genre? Or is this the depiction of the conceptual aspects of collective social consciousness?

In an interview, Benjamin Buchloh described Richter’s paintings as having “an anti-artistic quality that denies the autobiographical, the creative and the original.” (Buchloh 1147) These qualities identify Richter’s paintings, such as those from the Baader-Meinhoff series, with the cold reproductive practices of postmodern photographers and not with the historical veneration of painting. These paintings demonstrate a core paradoxical quality of the crisis of representation—the exploration of the personal representation of a greater historical content, and the review of the historical qualities and consequences of painting as a medium. Donald Kuspit observed that with the return to an emphasis on painting indicates the depth of the crisis of representation. For example, by employing photography, these paintings show that the subject matter of the painting has disappeared into an abstract concept and can only be recovered as a fiction derived from the abstraction of the subject. (Kuspit Page 143) This fully opens up the critique of the medium of painting’s representative functions because we have seen the evolution and deconstruction of painting to its ends and returning to painting can only carry with it critical insight into the consequences of its expression.

FIG 5: Funeral, Gerhard Richter

FIG 5: Funeral, Gerhard Richter

FIG 6: Confrontation 3, Gerhard Richter

FIG 6: Confrontation 3, Gerhard Richter

These issues surrounding Richter’s work especially indicate that the stable model of representation that functioned at the core of art prior to postmodernism fell into a state of crisis. The theoretical challenges of Baudrillard presented a first blow to the static explanation of representation and allowed for the re-evaluation of the relationship of the sign to the signifier. Because of the suggestion that reality no longer existed, other aspects of representation came to the forefront of understanding how and what art depicts. This included such ideas as the medium becoming the message, which, in turn allowed for the close examination of the agenda of images and image-makers. The works of art mentioned above, by Kruger, Haacke, and Richter embody the multiple facets in which the crisis of representation has become apparent.

Works Cited
Buchloh, Benjamin. “Gerhard Richter from ‘Interview with Benjamin Buchloh.” Art in Theory 1900-200. An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Eds. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood. Malden: Blackwell, 2003. 1147.

Foster, Hal. “Subversive Signs.” Art in Theory 1900-200. An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Eds. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood. Malden: Blackwell, 2003. 1037.

Kuspit, Donald. “Flak from the Radicals: The American Case Against German Painting.” Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation. Ed. Brian Wallis.
New York: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984. 139, 143

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