Picasso 1980s was a period rich in political artwork.

Picasso
famously was quoted saying “painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is
an instrument of war.” Political artwork is a critical voice that can be
immensely powerful in its force. This essay discusses the factors needed to
create powerful political artwork. By unpicking the work of Barbra Kruger’s
work Untitled (Your body is a
battleground), I will begin to
analyse the importance of context in artwork, which can potentially shift
interpretations. Through gaining knowledge on the concequences of the
audience’s response and investigating in how hand laboured work can carry a
different significance to work that has been digitally manufactured will reveal
what it means to produce political work, successfully.

The
1980s was a period rich in political artwork. Barbra Kruger’s silk screen
print, Untitled (Your body is a battleground) was a produced specifically for a
political protest in 1989 concerning abortion rights and the fight for
reproductive freedom. The artwork involves a symmetrical female face, which is
cast upon the standard of beauty of the time. Kruger’s famous red lettering is
confrontational, which is enhanced with the models intense stare through the
print, “eyeing the viewer.”  The
lettering, “Your body is a battleground is a battleground” is a statement that
could be address a variety of issues facing women. Firstly, the reproductive
health debate, reflected in the split image of the models face, negative and
positive. The two different sides to the woman are shown here, the side of
vulnerability and war, and the accepted side that women use for daily survival.
The case of abortion should be seen differently to other political debate,
Kruger reveals, as it takes place in our own bodies, creating our very own
“battleground.” The use of advertorial aesthetics engages and then shocks the
viewer; you can appreciate an uncertainty, which is common in Kruger’s work.
The unknown woman is representative of popular opinion of beauty, Kruger
mentions that in her work she works with a “domain of figures without bodies.”
When this woman represented in her work eventually loses her womanhood, and
becomes a faceless product. As politically charged art the meaning of course is
heavily reliant on the images conversation with the audience. What women
receive from the art work is what is significant.

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Kruger’s
earlier work manifests itself as politically charged protest art, but has grown
to become seen in a more commercial way, gallery setting we can begin to
consider how important context is the creation of successful political artwork.
Her early work holds obvious significance, discussing topics of huge relevance
at the time in a direct unforgiving way. The post-modernist movement had
allowed artists from the mid to late 20th century to tackle uncertainties
regarding politics. Historically, the 1980s was a period when artists began to
reject popular philosophies and Kruger fearlessly tackled issues that are still
relevant.  

Other
artists at this time period were also attempting to create artworks as
catalysts for social change. The movement in response to the AIDS epidemic took
hold of communities. Graffiti signified the beginning of the movement and the
Silence=Death project was formed in 1987 to challenge the government and people
in their response to the Aids crisis. The group formed a poster, to be pasted
around New York city, in a way of political protest. Using this practice,
ensures no one is disregarded in viewing the work. Arguably, it changes the
fundamental meaning of the artwork. By confronting every passer-by the artists
suggest that this illness can effect any one of us. In a gallery space the work
seems monetized, less confrontational. We see this work more as a memorial to
those who have passed because of the tragedy of AIDS. This change of meaning
can be reflected in Kruger’s work Untitled,
(Your body is a battleground). Outside of the gallery, in protest the work is
arguably much more politically charged, it is much easier to see how one of the
main themes of the work is the women’s right to choose. However, in a gallery
setting it is a personal conversation, and different themes such as the
pressure of the standards of female beauty, perfectionism and the way that
women are portrayed in the media can be taken from the artwork.

Kruger’s
early work was largely screen prints and mixed media collages. The process of
printmaking adds a physicality her work that cannot be replicated in mass
produced works. It is important to reflect on how the creation of the image can
be critical to its meaning. The practice itself is anti-establishment; taking
the time to create a collage or stencil to print with can be the single
objective of political change, concurrently adding a sensuality to the work. Using
prints that have been created purposefully for a protest can add significant
value to artwork in a political sense. This technique is highlighted by Grayson
Perry in his work Death of a Working
Hero, comments on the deeply evocative theme of the end of the working man,
he cites,

Death
of a Working Hero was inspired by the ceremony of the blessing of the banners
in Durham Cathedral. This moving ritual is part of the annual Durham Miners’
Gala where trade-union banners are paraded through the streets accompanied by
brass bands. The blessing in the glorious setting of the cathedral accompanied
by mournful music seemed to me to be a funeral for a certain sort of man.1

It
is clear how intrinsic the story of the artwork is to its political power, and
how its direct use in a politically charged space, contributes to its richness.
Through Kruger marching her handmade prints in protest, she does not limit the
class, race, or gender of people receiving her work. Kruger understands the
value of context with her artwork, she treats the space as an equal to her
work, which leads to much conversation between the image and the recipient.
Good political artwork must engage in some way, arguably the placement of the
art is the catalyst to its meaning.

It
could be argued, that Kruger forfeiting her work to a gallery could be detrimental
to its value. Her work, with its strong themes of feminism- pro choice and
anti-consumerism arguably stand for everything that realistically is inherent
in gallery culture. Perhaps it is important for Kruger to have her works placed
in such a context. When walking into a gallery, you expect to be confronted,
but not on such a personal level. Kruger’s simple but cutting lettering
confronts the audience that ultimately needs confronting the most. Her
‘sardonic dialogue emitted from the text is kicked up like a choking dust cloud
that immediately leaves the viewer on the defensive.’2 However,
‘she remains committed to an art practice that Michel de Certeau calls “special
practice” the skilful use of established spaces in a way that activates,
transforms, and troubles them by opening them to their outside.’3Although
Kruger does hold regular shows in gallery environments, she understands the
importance of art for the people.  Last
year she created 50,000 metro cards for the subway across New York City. As
Kruger herself states “it was a chance to get my art into the hands of everyone
who uses the subway – to use the city as a site to show and tell.”4

Picasso,
similar to Kruger, created politically charged artwork. However, his work was a
response to the tragedy that destroyed the town of Guernica on the 26th
April 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. That year Picasso formed the tapestry
of Guernica. The process of the painting was recorded by Dora Maar, whose
photographs reveal the time Picasso spent changing elements, and reviewing huge
sections of the painting. Although poles apart in culture, gender and beliefs,
Picasso and Kruger’s is work is to some extent comparable. Both Picasso and
Kruger created politically charged artworks confronting desperate situations,
that work to create discussion and arguably to bring communities together. Both
Guernica and Untitled, (Your body is
a battleground), use symbols in their artwork to make a statement about not the
artists themselves but the ‘condition of the world.’5Both
works have been replicated over and over, so much so that they are have become
peace symbols that have adopted different causes. ‘The French writer Michel
Leiris was moved to say of it: “On a black and white canvas that depicts
ancient tragedy… Picasso also writes our letter of doom: all that we love is
going to be lost.”‘6

As
Guernica began its life in political enviroments, Reproductions of Guernica
used in political protest mean that the paintings intrinsic meaning changes, it
becomes less a depiction of a scene of horror, but a symbol of peace and a reflection
on how critical it is for communities to come together in times of tragedy.

I
find Kruger’s minimalist style more arresting than Picasso’s. However, the
meaning of Guernica is changing constantly, just like the in the creation of
the painting it feels like the animals and characters are evolving to take on
new roles. Though to some the painting may feel less accessible, it has
recently been re-established by Spanish politics.

How Guernicas meaning changed when
its placement changed. The context of the gallery setting and Guernica,
critiques of Guernica in the gallery. How, like early Kruger, Guernica was a
product of physicality and the meaning that goes with this. How like Kruger it
is the interpretation of the painting that is critical to how politically
charged it is. Context.  Direct
comparison to reproductions

1

2 “Barbara
Kruger at Modern Art Oxford.” Aesthetica Magazine,
www.aestheticamagazine.com/barbara-kruger-at-modern-art-oxford/.

3 Kruger,
Barbara. Thinking of You. MIT Press, 1999.

4
Kruger, Barbara

5 Rudolf
Arnheim (Author). “The Genesis of a Painting: Picasso’s Guernica
(9780520250079): Rudolf Arnheim: Books.” Amazon.com: The Genesis of a Painting:
Picasso’s Guernica (9780520250079): Rudolf Arnheim: Books,
www.amazon.com/Genesis-Painting-Picassos-Guernica/dp/0520250079.

6 Macdonald,
Fiona. “Culture – The Story of a Painting That Fought Fascism.” BBC, BBC, 6
Feb. 2017, www.bbc.com/culture/story/20170206-the-artists-who-fought-fascism.

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