Pictures of You: A Reflection on Art, Ads, and the Western Vantage Point

Everyday, those of us blessed with a working set of eyeballs use them (or in some instances merely allow them) to see a cornucopia of images. We view logos, fashion, architecture, still and moving pictures that tell stories or beg us to validate them and ourselves through purchase, and even, on occasion, works of art. In each case, we undertake an evaluation of the image, whether consciously or unconsciously, to better comprehend its place, superficial meaning, and higher allusional meaning. In doing so, we attempt to find out how the images surrounding us relate to our sense of self; or our identity if you will. Unfortunately, to a large degree, we tend to overlook this process and the rules we, as a society and individual, set in place when viewing different types of imagery. It can be seen, when reflecting more deeply upon this issue, that while it may be beneficial and, as I would argue, proper to view all imagery in a specific manner, this is simply not the norm in Western culture. When viewing artwork or images intended to convey deeper message through artistic license, viewers tend to evaluate those images based upon three, but not only, major points: Is this aesthetically pleasing to me or someone else? Does this effectively convey its point or purpose? Do I consider this to be art or artistic? All of these questions probe deeply into both the physical and metaphysical qualities of the given image. On the other hand, evaluations of imagery outside of the defined spectrum or context of “art” tend to lack this depth. Commonly, Westerners remove the prior stated questions and replace them with the reversed notion of “how do I relate to this image” when questioning the social spectrum of image. As stated by Sturken and Cartwright in their Practice of Looking text, “…our relationship to consumer products can be deep and highly personal, and we construct our identities in part in relationships to brand” (Sturken, Cartwright 274). This much is true. It must be considered that we, as a culture in the Americas, tend to view art as something removed from ourselves, but something that we feel must hold its integrity in the way it states anything about us. Art is expected to reflect what we believe ourselves or the world to be even in the case of fictional works. But when the images are put into public, we tend to make the distinction solely about not how an image relates to us and instead focus on how we can relate or conform to it. To better understand this phenomena, one must dig deeper into the root of our social viewpoint.

Art has long been seen as something removed from mainstream society in the western world. We have a long and storied history of holding our works of art as separate and distinguished and works of “appropriated” (stolen from other cultures. I’m looking your way British Museums) art as exotic and other. For quite some time, the European ideal of art has dominated the way an individual and even a society views artistic images. Even though these conventions have been challenged by artists like Andy Warhol, Sheperd Fairey, or Ron English, images from mainstream pop culture have always been seen, or some may argue overlooked, as not part of the realm of art. With this mind frame, the visually stimulating bombardment of our mass marketed capitalist culture is routinely studied, at least on an individual citizen/consumer level, as not having deeper meaning. To many, the ads they see each day are merely go betweens and reminders for them. If an ad did nothing to affirm your decisions to buy a certain product or feel a certain way, you may very well feel slighted, while this concept may never enter the mind of an audience member at a performance art piece.

The point being, in the matter of examination and image, is that image is equally as powerful regardless of context. Ads and service announcements flood our eyes each day and cause lasting ripples in the social sphere. A work of art could make you cry as you realize a great truth about yourself and the world, but I have seen many members of my family cry by viewing the sentimentality of a greeting card. Is this to say that both images are intended to achieve the same ends? No. Not at all in fact. What is being said, is that they both have the same potentiality on the three levels mentioned earlier. They convey place, superficial, and allusional meaning. It is merely our entrainment, that would lead us to believe that somehow, the cases of each medium are deserving of different observation. While particular details and contextual analysis are always going to be different, and necessarily so, the deeper pondering of the image must be uniform in order for true valuation and comprehension within the human experience and process of self identification. We must simultaneously ask of every image, how does this relate to me and how do I relate to it? One must also question, what role do both the environment and medium play in the conveyance of this image? And finally, as W.J.T. Mitchell would ask, what does this image want? When using this mode of critical analysis, we, as individuals and as a society, can better understand that while images do a great deal for us,we in turn, do a great deal for them.

Our relationship to images has become so intertwined with our relationships to each other that we have lost sight of the very real truth about them. Images derive their meaning and “realness” from us. We give them life. People provide sanction for the echoes, imitations, and simulacra of the world to have such power. Robert Smith of the rock group The Cure penned the lyric “ I’ve been looking so long at these pictures of you, that I almost believe that they’re real. I’ve been living so long with these pictures of you, that I almost believe that the pictures are all I can feel”. How true a statement. Images must always been seen in light of this revelation. Our beliefs are fashioned directly by our identity. If an individual or society forms its identity based upon a world of images which can only derive their meaning from the life we afford them, then the identity will be false and degraded as a mere copy of a copy. Everyone lives with these pictures of you, but know that they are not all you can feel.

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