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Panzani and Marlboro

by François Aubart

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Roland Barthes was one of the first to consider our everyday life attentively. With his Mythologies in particular, he revealed the way in which consumer objects and social practices shared en masse produce a discourse that speaks volumes about the twitches and desires of a society1. In the same vein, he produced the now famous analysis of an advertisement for Panzani pasta2. The reasons for this interest stem from the fact that “in advertising, the signification of the image is undoubtedly intentional; the signifieds of the advertising message are formed a priori by certain attributes of the product and these signifieds have to be transmitted as clearly as possible. If the image contains signs, we can be sure that in advertising these signs are full, formed with a view to the optimum reading: the advertising image is frank, or at least emphatic.”3

For Barthes, in this text in any case, there are therefore two types of photographs. The first functions as pure imitation, as a copy of reality; it is an imprint. It does not lie, it represents. The other, on the contrary, bears the stigmata of an obvious falsehood: it is not transparent, it has a goal, that of communicating a message to us. In addition, this kind of photograph hides its intentions by using the characteristics of a medium whose “natural” character is well accepted. Therefore, photography, even in advertising, retains its abilities to describe. It is the needs of advertising that corrupts this power by using it to convey a message with a deliberate meaning. Here, Barthes draws an impassable line between photography, a noble and honest medium, and advertising, which exploits this honesty to disseminate constructed symbols.

While Barthes’ objective with this text was to analyse how advertising operates, he nonetheless produces a strict distinction that still seems to hold true today. The separation presents itself as an ideal theoretical tool for giving critical credit to the artists practising image manipulation, at a time when this was becoming widespread and when it became necessary to formulate distinctions. Since, while in 1977 Douglas Crimp curated the exhibition Pictures, now famous for having brought to light an artistic practice consisting of borrowing from advertising or film imagery, already in 1982, this practice could be found in all cultural fields. Both advertising and the cinema, then, were no longer using pastiche and parody as critical tools, but as a new language for communication and spectacle. This was Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s observation in “Playing in the Field of Images”4. Consequently, we must distinguish between the artists that exploit these techniques for critical ends and those merely repeating a language that has become commonplace and thus fallen into the mire of entertainment. To do so, we must call to mind the fundaments of this critical practice: “What provided the framework remained, however, consistent and constant; to break down, to decode, to bracket, to deconstruct. The field of the image, particularly in its mass media incarnations, is thus to be winnowed, the deceptive guise of nature and transparency pared away to expose the strictures and structures of ideology and desire.”5

Therefore, when its critical scope threatens to be diluted through widespread usage, the manipulation of images is called to order. It must reveal the insidious discourse that advances, masked in the codeless message that photography encapsulates. It must recall that symbols infiltrate images. It must, in short, pursue the work of Roland Barthes when he described an ad for Panzani.

But we might ask to what degree the act of reproducing images and using them is really a way of deconstructing the ideology that they convey. After all, doesn’t the simple fact of showing an advertisement, even by changing its context of display and reception, even by repeating or dissecting it, produce a demystification of the desires or stereotypes that it conveys?

The response can only be affirmative insofar as we share the idea that we are dealing here with “masked” messages conveyed by the material in question. In other words, so long as the message is identifiable, its demystification will be as well, and vice-versa. Also, so long as we agree about the message to be emphasised, we understand one another. As soon as we leave the shores of a clearly identifiable ideology, the revelation process becomes more complex. As soon as an image is no longer clearly able to be associated with some genre or other, the distinction clouds over.

However, it is blatantly obvious that, for instance, a Cowboy used by Richard Prince and the Panzani ad studied by Roland Barthes are diametrically opposed. The latter is only of interest in that it is accompanied by the theorist’s analysis. Without this brilliant exposé, the ad presents nothing other than itself. The artworks that only show existing images cannot claim to make this statement, even if the artist so desires, which is far from clear in the case of Richard Prince. In any case, considering artworks in this way equates to reducing images to a discourse that hypothetically surrounds them and denies them any expression as representations and artistic acts. Therefore, very often, we consider that showing an image equates to making a critique, or even sometimes highlighting the stereotypes of the genre to which it belongs, whether in advertising, cinema or many other forms.

However, if we agree on the idea that a semiologist does not do the same work as an artist, it would appear that the most interesting positions are the most ambiguous ones. Prince does not do Barthes’ job; quite the opposite is true. Stripped of their slogans,
the advertising imagery that the artist uses becomes all the more dubious in what it is presenting and why. While these images cast doubt on the exchange between neutral and symbolic images, they also expose a methodological distinction: working with images cannot correspond to a discourse about them, at the risk of reducing the artist’s role to simply illustrating statements.

Yet sometimes the artists exploiting pre-existing imagery seem to be pushing towards this role of illustration, simply because their work consists of using this material. The list is long and as varied as there are authors to propose this interpretation with their subjects.
A few arbitrary examples might include positions as diverse as those of John Heartfield or Kurt Schwitters, whose use of banal images from their daily life produced on the one hand a body of work verging on propaganda, and on the other, a poetic form. The same can be said for the use of advertisements by Vikky Alexander, who seems to only highlight what we already know, in an approach radically divergent from that of Sarah Charlesworth who, with the same material and in the same period, produced a personal and symbolic vocabulary. Today, everything still seems to oppose Camille Henrot, who often seems to be simply taking stock of a mode of circulation – the internet – from Mark Leckey, for whom it is the starting point for a vision of the world. In these cases, and many others, the idea that the use of a material or medium inherently implies a critique thereof, seems to bypass the challenges and specificities of the work. The risk of contenting oneself with this uniform position, besides subjecting the work to rational statements, is above all that of bypassing the polysemic wealth of images, irrespective of their origins and original intentions. In other words, the difference between the reappearances of advertisements proposed by Roland Barthes and Richard Prince are based on their respective positions. The former writes from his position of critical reception, while the other invents a personal syntax that is constructed within and through images.

Translated from the French by Anna Knight


Sarah Charlesworth Richard Prince Roland Barthes François Aubart

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