ARTH 1220 STUDY NOTES - EXAM 1
PRACTICES OF LOOKING
CHAPTER 2: VIEWERS MAKE MEANING
I. Content Summary
The meaning of an image is produced in three ways: through codes and conventions, by the viewers and
their interpretations, and from the contexts in which the image is viewed. Instead of considering audiences, (groups
conceptualized by the media industry), this text examines viewers (individuals who look). Viewers are interpellated
by images; that is to say, an image requires viewers to know that the image is meant for them to understand, even
if they feel that their understanding is unique or goes against the grain of a meaning that seems to have been
Viewers and Producers
An image has a viewer and a producer. A producer can be an individual or a whole team (such as an art
collective group or an advertising agency). In terms of an image’s meaning, however, theorists hold different
viewpoints on who holds power and authority to determine an image’s (or a text’s) meaning. Roland Barthes
claimed that the text allows for an undetermined space in which the reader or viewer can interpret and decipher
the work. The viewer is always interpreting and critiquing every text; there is no author to hold authority or power
over the viewer. Michel Foucault disagreed and argued that the “author function” (adapted by the authors to
become “the producer function”) is a set of beliefs that leads us to have certain expectations about a work with
regard to the status of its producer. As the authors state, “. . . a producer may make an image or media text, but he
or she is not in full control of the meanings that are subsequently made through their work.” Add the global
cultural flow to the interpretation of images, and the result is that the producer can only produce a text or an image
but cannot control the meaning it evokes for others.
Aesthetics and Taste
Pierre Bourdieu states that good taste and bad taste are socially constructed—what is held to be good taste
is usually a result of middle-class education and notions of aesthetics associated with “high culture.” What is
understood to be bad taste can be the result of an ignorance of these standards, or it can be a deliberate rejection of
the notion of good taste. In the case of avant-garde and kitsch (where avant-garde is art and kitsch is inauthentic
and mass produced), kitsch became more widely appreciated in postmodernity and has even served as a reaction
to the elitist taste revered by modernity.
Collecting, Display, and Institutional Critique
The value of art is mainly influenced by the collecting of private owners and museums. Collecting provides
a means to measure appreciation and creates a market for art. The act of viewing collections itself evokes meaning.
Encoding and Decoding
Stuart Hall posits one theory about how viewers decode images that are encoded with meaning by the
creators. A viewer can decode in one of three ways: (a) dominant hegemonic reading—accepting the dominant
meaning of an artifact in an unquestioning manner; (b) negotiated reading—negotiating an interpretation of the
image and its dominant meaning; and (c) oppositional meaning—completely disagreeing with the meaning or
ignoring it completely.
Reception and the Audience
Hall’s theory has been critiqued because most viewers fall somewhere on the continuum between
dominant hegemonic reading and oppositional reading; however, it is still helpful to us especially when
understanding oppositional readings of works. Negotiated readings are another matter; Michel de Certeau offers
one negotiated reading through “textual poaching”: taking a text and “inhabiting” it with new or altered meanings
as a form of cultural bricolage. De Certeau argues that in this case negotiating is a struggle for possession of the
text. The term bricolage comes from the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and means adapting commodities (or cultural texts) to different uses outside of their usual context. In this case, bricolage means creatively making use of
cultural texts for oppositional or negotiated meanings.
Appropriation and Cultural Production
Cultural appropriation is the process of “borrowing” and changing the meaning of cultural products,
slogans, images, or elements of fashion. Examples of appropriation include the many recreations of Grant Wood’s
American Gothic, political art, and fan subculture.
Reappropriation and Counter-Bricolage
Reappropriation and counter-bricolage are not always part of oppositional readings of texts. These terms
also refer to the process by which the counter-hegemonic bricolage strategies of marginal cultures are
reappropriated by mainstream designers and marketers and then parlayed into mainstream designs that signal
“coolness.” ]This is counter to the intent of the bricolage strategy.
II. Key Figures and Terms
Artist/Creator/Producers Theorist/Scholars Key Terms
Group Material John Ellis Viewer
RTMark Roland Barthes Audience
James Cameron Michel Foucault Interpellation
Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid Nicholas Mirzoeff Bricolage
Jean-Michel Basquiat Pierre Bourdieu Intervisuality
Shepard Fairey Clement Greenberg Producer
David Teniers James Clifford Kitsch
Gabai Baaré A. J. Greimas Avant-garde
Thomas Struth Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Taylor Aesthetics
Marcel Duchamp Karl Marx Taste
Hans Haacke Louis Althusser High culture
Fred Wilson Antonio Gramsci Low culture
Barbara Kruger Stuart Hall
Quentin Tarantino David Morley
Makiko Kudo, Yuko Marada, Janice Radway
Tabaimo, and Chiho Aoshima
Gordon Parks Ien Ang
Grant Wood Michel de Certeau
Gran Fury Claude Lévi-Strauss
Copper Greene Dick Hebdige
Robert Goldman and Stephen
Group Material: Art Collective
They display their public art throughout the streets and subways of NY in the 1980’s. The “producer” widely noted
for generating this category or ‘brand” of work was the collective itself, and not the individual artists who designed
each work. RTMark: Art Collective
They play up the anonymity of the individual artist in the manufacture of goods in postindustrial capitalism by
presenting itself as an anonymous artist collective structured like a corporation and using corporate language and
investment strategies to make a parodic critique of the mass visual culture of commodity production and branding
James Cameron: Director of the movie Titanic.
In reference with the fact that a producer may make an image or media text, but he or she is not in full control of
the meanings that are subsequently made through the work. E.g. China had an unexpected and overwhelmingly
positive response to the movie in its entry on “cultural globalization”. The meanings that invested in China were
different than the meanings produced in the film by its western viewers, and the movie’s producers did not
- Viewers may make meanings that are not intended or anticipated by its producers, and that viewers are active
agents in the production of meaning.
Vitaly Komar And Alex Melamid: Artists originally from the former Soviet Union, who have worked in the U.S. since
Created “The Most Wanted Paintings on the Web”, which is an excellent project through which to examine
questions about taste in an international context. The artists, who have worked in the medium of painting to
parody and critique forms such as Soviet realism, commissioned a professional market survey in which people in
the United States and Russia were asked about their recreational preferences, their politics and lifestyles, their
knowledge of famous artists and historical figures, and their preferences for or reactions against paintings with
angles, curves, brushstrokes, colours, sizes, themes and styles. They then tallied and computed the results of the
survey, using their findings to arrive at a formula for the creation of paintings showing each country’s most and
least wanted image. Each painting represents a composite of the dominant answers from each group. These
paintings were exhibited under the rubric of “The People’s Choice”.
The point of the project is to make joke about the degree to which the art market is not immune to consumer
values and taste uniformed by the avant-garde aesthetics represented in some museums and galleries of modern
art. The project also points critique to the ways in which opinion polls and statistics about collective opinions carry
so much weight in contemporary society and in the media, even as it uses those statistics to render its works. The
project posed the question about what art would look like if it were produced by audience ratings and opinion
polls. Yet at the same time it is also a visual manifestation of just how shallow opinion polls can be providing an
image of the tastes of viewers, here made into a mockery of the conglomerate concept of “the people.”
Jean-Michel Basquiat: Graffiti producer
Graffiti was brought from the streets to the galleries in NY in the 1980’s
Reference to the idea that categories of taste and distinction trickle down from the upper, educated to the lower,
less educated classes does not account for the dynamics of taste and judgment in the evaluation of those valued
cultural forms that began as the expression of a marginalized culture or class, such as jazz in the 1920’s and hip-
hop in the 1980’s. In the case of forms such as these, taste and distinction can trickle up to more affluent, culturally
Shepard Fairey: World renowned street artist, founder of Swindle magazine, designer of the loading screen for
Guitar Hero II
He stenciled and postered his Andre the Giant logo in urban public spaces in the 1980’s.
Gets people to think about the messages of images on the street by using Obey stickers and stencils. Their
meanings are often ambiguous, what Fairey calls an “experiment in phenomenology”.
Not only is that countercultural values and tastes may trickle up or may develop differently among members of a
politically and culturally minoritized diaspora but also that cultural values and tastes are increasingly subject to
movement in a variety of directions, as markets diversify in kind laterally, as well as to globalization.
David Teniers: Painter in 17 century
“Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his Picture Gallery in Brussels”
First visual cataloging’s of an art collection. The Duke was imagined standing among his many paintings as a means
to both illustrate the collection and affirm the importance of the archduke’s role as collector. The painting functions both as an actual catalogue of the archduke’s collection (as an affirmation of his taste and role as a
connoisseur) and as evidence of the value of his large collection. Ownership is a key factor in establishing value I
Gabai Baare: West African merchant who trades in woodcarvings produced by members of his village and
It was revealed that artists like Baare who produce the reproductions of religious artifacts that he peddles to art
galleries in NY’s Soho and to tourist emporia alike are neither naïve nor beholden to the Western value system.
They actively engage in the irony of a process in which they recognize that their mythification by Western
consumers can bring profit. Their products have, since the era of colonialism, included iconic “Colon” figures, hand-
carved parodies of the colonial authorities and the very connoisseurs who covet their “authentic” reproductions of
religious iconography produced exclusively for the tourist and art trade market.
Thomas Struth: Photographer
Took a series of photographs of people viewing art in museums in order to capture the complexity of these kinds of
art-viewing practices. They give a sense of the varied responses that ordinary people have to art (the photographs
are normally displayed within a museum or gallery). Struth took these photographs in some of the most famous
museums around the world, capturing images of people gazing at, scrutinizing, and walking past famous works of
art. The museum photographs give us a sense of the range of responses and expressions of taste that can be found
in museums. They also convey, in part through their large size, the sense of presence of the large works of art on
exhibition in these spaces. Struth has remarked on how art is fetishized by being exhibited in museums as great
masterworks. He suggests that in this process, they become dead objects, but that through viewer’s interactions
with these works they can regain some of their vitality. At the same time, Struth’s images also point to the central
role that museums play in designating which images and objects are of value in any given society by determining
what it is that gets displayed and by creating the conditions (majestic, pristine, grandiose, or gritty) under which
works of art are displayed.
Our taste is influenced not only by what we are taught to seek out and appreciate but also by how those artworks
and objects are publicly exhibited.
Marcel Duchamp: French artist who challenged taste and aesthetics. Dadaist interventions
Dada- a movement that reflexively poked fun at the conventions in art that aimed to critique the art market and its
valuing of art for collecting, including political art, guerrilla art, performance art and happenings, and other
ephemeral kinds of art that could not be commodified in the form of valued objects
Known for the contribution of a urinal, titled “Fountain”.
Hans Haacke: German artist
Made a number of works that famously revived the strategy of leading the viewer to question the museum’s role in
shaping taste. His works included an expose of the business connections of the trustees of the Guggenheim
Artists engaged in institutional critique interrupted viewing practices through strategies that included taking on
the role of the curator and reordering or disrupting the logic of display as a means of making obvious, and thereby
disrupting, the formerly invisible politics and policies of the institution.
Fred Wilson: American artist
Used juxtaposition between older pieces in storage and more conventional pieces to make a point about the
politics of display, concealment, and assignation of meaning and value in which a museum had engaged. E.g. slave
shackles were resurrected from storage and placed alongside a silver tea service that had previously been on
display. By shifting his role from the traditional one of artist as producer to that of artist as curator and docent,
Wilson was able to make an intervention in the hidden politics of a museum that had remained entrenched in
traditions, “neutral” exhibition practices that included the showing of works of material value (the silver tea
service) and the hiding of works that made visible the shameful and ugly aspects of Southern culture and politics.
Barbara Kruger: American artist
“Found” photographic images are taken and adds text to give the images iconic meanings. E.g. “Untitled (Your
manias become science)” Meanings of images are created in a complex relationship among producer, viewer, image or text, and social
context, and the negotiation of meaning is a key factor in that relationship. Because meanings are produced out of
this relationship, there are limits to the interpretive agency of any one member of this group.
Quentin Tarantino: Director of “Jackie Brown”. Homage to the Blaxploitation genre
The genre has been appropriated, its meanings strategically transformed to create an alternative view of
representation of blackness in film. “B movie” film genre is widely noted for its negative representations of black
culture during the 1970s with such stereotypes as the black male stud, gangster, and pimp. Yet, more recently, this
genre has been revived to emphasize the evidence these films provide of valuable aspects of black culture and
talent during the 1970s.
Yuko Marada, Chiho Aoshima: “The Rebirth of a Snake Woman”
- Depicts the passage of a woman through the digestive tract of a python from which she reemerges anew.
Her work is shown in Giant Robot boutique and magazine, that focuses on the identification of an alternative global
and transcultural youth market that seeks out independent labels and products as a matter of person aesthetics
and a politics of consumption that favours small business and independent expression.
Gordon Parks: Photographer, “Ella Watson”, 1942 Grant Wood: Painter of “American Gothic”
Appropriation of the well-known 1930 painting “American Gothic” by Grant Wood, of an American farming couple,
standing holding a pitchfork before a classic wooden farmhouse. Parks image, taken before the emergence of the
civil rights movement, is a bitter commentary on the discrepancy between the codes of a black woman office
cleaner, holding her broom and mop before an American flag, and the puritan codes of Americana in the American
Gothic icon. Parks points out to the fact that not all Americans were included in its mythic image.
It is the strategy of appropriation that allows Park’s image to make this larger statement about social exclusion and
Gran Fury: Art collective formed in 1987
Strategies of appropriation have often been a key to political art. The art collective produced posters,
performances, installations, and videos alerting people to facts about AIDS and HIV hat public health officials
refused to publicize. “Read My Lips”, 1988 was a poster that refers to the poster’s image of two women about to
kiss (appropriated from a much-discussed slogan in the presidential campaign of President George H.W. Bush
“read my lips, no new taxes”). The appropriation gives the poster a biting political