Barbara Kruger, the Pictures Generation and the issues of spectatorship
Barbara Kruger (b. 1945) is a prominent artist belonging to the so-called Pictures Generation. Her iconic works appropriate stock images from adverts and magazines, turning them into unique pieces by adding bold and ambiguous inscriptions. In the Postmodern era, Kruger’s creations question the role of the viewer and prompt doubts about the power of visuals to convey meaning. In this post, I will consider a specific artwork, We Don’t Need Another Hero (1987). This case is a functional sample of Kruger’s oeuvre and provides a good case study to understand her communicative techniques.
We Don’t Need Another Hero] – Barbara Kruger – 1986
In the field of Postconceptual photography, Kruger’s artworks do not strike for their original compositions or unusual POVs. Rather, she selects stock imagery which one could easily encounter elsewhere in a daily-life context. Magazines, commercial adverts and such are all valuable sources from which she extracts the raw material for her creations. The photographs, rigorously black and white, are superimposed with a variety of controversial slogans. The font and colour are chosen to strike the viewer’s attention. Bold kinds of type, such as Helvetica, are favoured. In the example, Kruger set the white inscription over a red field, enhancing the visual contrast to attract the gaze. The artist herself points out that her early career as a graphic designer has been fundamental in developing her personal style (“Pictures and Words: Interview with Jeanne Siegel”).
We Don’t Need Another Hero is a clear reference to a famous wartime poster, We Can Do It! by J. Howard Miller. The propaganda piece was meant to encourage the production of military goods in American factories during WWII when women replaced the many spots left available by men. The reference is made clear by the pose of the kid on the right which mimics Rosie the Riveter, Miller’s character. However, the interpretation remains ambiguous as we are not told how to relate the new piece to the past model. Is this a commentary about women’s status during the war? Is this some form of criticism about gender segregation in Kruger’s own time? The artist does not answer. As she declares in her interview with W.J.T. Mitchell, she wants to keep her creations open to the viewer’s interpretation. She says, “all my work comes out of the ideal of a social relation”. In a similar way, meaning for her appears to be something to be defined a posteriori by the viewer rather than the artist.
Prices Are Insane] – Barbara Kruger – 1987
Speaking of the work of art, Kruger reveals that the title was selected after the notorious song by Tina Turner. The piece was displayed along a public street in California in the form of a billboard. The format makes evident Kruger’s desire to engage actively with a large audience, the same crowd of passer-bys who would casually encounter the images she would later turn into works of art. In this way, the aesthetic reception becomes as broad as the experiences of the people looking at the work of art. In this specific case, Kruger found out later that the billboard the picture was mounted on also displayed the following text: “A Foster and Kleiser Public Service Message”. This accidental addition was not a threat to the message of her work, rather it enriched the image with a variety of new potential readings.
In conclusion, Barbara Kruger’s We Don’t Need Another Hero is a valuable sample of her communicative techniques and style. The issues of gender and power relations within society are confronted through the ambiguous match of image and text. Therefore, it is up to the viewer to come up with possible messages for the work of art. The creations of Kruger operate in this space of intellectual re-elaboration, stimulating the mind of the spectator through loud slogans and bold visual contrasts. In the Postmodern era, her works invite us to question the power of images as clusters of meaning and foster active engagement with otherwise banal and forgettable stock imagery.