– Spring/Summer 2002

Freedom versus Function

Isabelle Graw

Tags: Barbara Kruger

In 1975 Barbara Kruger stopped making art for a year. Instead she read a lot, particularly writers such as Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes. Her book, Pictures/Reading, was published independently in 1979, juxtaposing short, narrative texts with architectural photographs clearly showing where her analysis of Marxist aesthetics and semiotics had led her.1

The title alone suggests a 'reading' of the work and, indeed, it echoes the widely held opinion of New York art theorists that artworks do not have to be perceived aesthetically but should READ like texts, a position owing much to the way semiotic theories were imported into America. It meant that the extraordinary status of art, specifically its autonomy, was under attack and the idea that an aesthetic experience differed from other experiences was rejected for its inherent elitism. Indeed, it has only been since the late nineties that it has again been possible to take up the specifics of such a perceived autonomy. In particular, Walter Benjamin's Marxist aesthetic, as demonstrated in his 1934 essay 'The Author as Producer', has to be regarded as one of the most popular sources for the art-theory jargon that developed in the 1980s and which enthusiastically took up his idea of the producing, intervening or process-based artist. At some point it seems necessary to write the history of the decline of this kind of art vocabulary, especially as 'artistic production' regularly appears in press releases as an empty formula stripped of its initial, materialist claim.

Kruger appears to have not only thoroughly read Benjamin's essay but to have drawn long-term artistic conclusions from it. His approval of montage as a technique, which in itself can

  1. See also 'Who Laughs Last, The photographs of Barbara Kruger by Carol Squiers', in Barbara Kruger, Thinking of You, Cambridge : MIT Press, 1999

  2. Kruger interviewed by Lynne Tillman, Ibid.

  3. Ibid.

  4. Interview with Judith Butler, Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie, September 2001