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CULTURAL IDENTITY IS CONSTRUCTED AND CHALLENGED BY STEREOTYPES

Raymond ROCA

Australia

 Impresii si pareri personale in FORUM

 

Cultural identity can be defined as the identification of a given group or culture, and the individuals within that culture, with a series of shared values and norms. Traditionally, stereotypes have often been used to bring about a stronger and more unified sense of cultural identity, since their oversimplified and generalised nature is a key element in strengthening individual identification with shared values and norms. The postmodern period, however, saw an increasing amount of openness and pluralism regarding cultural identity, influenced in part by the globalisation of culture and the worldwide civil rights movement. This led to a subversion of traditional identities and the stereotypes that supported them.

 

Artists have played a significant role in this process, by creating works that often recontextualise stereotypes, placing them in non-traditional and contradictory contexts with the aim of challenging existing cultural identities and, in the process, creating new sets of values – that is, constructing new cultural identities. These new identities were influenced by a number of issues relevant in the postmodern period, such as feminism, consumerism, globalisation, minority and indigenous rights, and sexual and gender identity. Such issues are reflected in the works of two key artists of this period: Barbara Kruger and Yasumasa Morimura, as well as the works of Margaret Preston, which predate the postmodern period but also explore the notion of cultural identity.

 

Barbara Kruger is one of the most well-known artists that uses stereotypes to challenge cultural identity. In her works, Kruger juxtaposes archetypal images of traditional identity with provocative and often satirical text. The text, as well as the context in which the works are placed in, seek to subvert the values and norms that the stereotypical images allude to, and in the process create a new, postmodern cultural identity. Kruger’s visual techniques, inspired significantly by advertising, also provoke the audience into questioning the extent to which their cultural identity is constructed by mass-media stereotypes. As Italian critic Federica Vannucchi writes in her appraisal of Kruger, the function of her work “is to make us think about social and political questions, about the stereotypes and clichés created by our society.”

 

One of the best examples of Kruger’s work is We don’t need another hero (Plate 1), a billboard poster created in 1987. During this time, both the United States and the United Kingdom saw a rise in the popularity of right-wing politics, with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan using nationalism and militarism as key strategies for re-election, and the US invasions of El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua taking place. The second-wave feminist movement, which had come about at the same time as the postmodern period, from the 1960s onwards, felt that these conservative undercurrents in politics could bring about a resurgence in traditional values and hence undermine the progress in women’s rights achieved throughout the 1970s and early 1980s.

 

 

Plate 1: We don’t need another hero by Barbara Kruger
Photographic silkscreen on vinyl 277 x 533 cm
 

In We don’t need another hero, the central image is reminiscent of war propaganda posters, making a comment on the political context of growing militarism in the late 1980s, while also alluding to the traditional gender roles that construct males as powerful and dominating. In the image, the young boy is portrayed as the archetypal male hero, exhibiting his strength to the girl, who glances at him in awe and submission. Through this, Kruger shows the power and influence of such stereotypes in constructing traditional cultural identity from an early age, particularly through their use in the mass media and advertising. The image is augmented by the caption “We don’t need another hero”, which is presented in bold typography on a red background, once again alluding to propaganda advertising. This statement, which seems to come from a male perspective, further highlights the traditional, patriarchal notion that only men should be seen as heroes, and that another hero, in the form of a woman, is not needed.

 

By recontextualising propaganda advertising techniques in a postmodern context, and presenting the associated stereotypes to the audience in a confronting and direct way, Kruger seeks to subvert the very culture that the image and the caption exemplify. She also seeks to criticise the advertising industry’s stereotypical portrayals of women, making audiences realise the prejudice associated with such traditional views of gender roles. In this process, Kruger consequently constructs, or at least attempts to propose, a new cultural identity, based around the notion that strength and heroism belong to women as well as men.

 

Another work that seeks to challenge traditional notions of women and their gender role is Your body is a battleground (Plate 2), a photographic silkscreen created by Kruger in 1989. This work was launched to support the organisation of a large pro-abortion march in Washington, DC, on April 9, 1989, which in turn came about in response to growing calls from conservative politicians that abortion should be restricted. In her work, Kruger suggests that stereotypes, such as the image of the female model, which seems to be taken from an advertisement, have played a key role in the traditional perception of women as objects. This is depicted visually by the division of the picture in two halves, which not only represents the binary controversy over abortion, but also shows the way in which the media has promoted the feminine archetype as an image of symmetrical, commodified beauty, without further social significance. This objectification, Kruger argues, has led to a culture in which women’s rights, including abortion, are not valued and cannot be taken for granted. As she explains, “we, as women, are spoken of but never addressed. We are never a subject, we are always an object.”

 

Plate 2: Your body is a battleground by Barbara Kruger, Photographic silkscreen
285 x 285 cm Completed in 1989
 

Through her use of media stereotypes outside of an advertising context, Kruger accordingly seeks to challenge the values of patriarchal society regarding abortion, making the audience question their validity in a postmodern context. In order to construct this new set of values, Kruger herself uses a slogan reminiscent of advertising: “Your body is a battleground”, which addresses the work’s female audience directly and contrasts with the clichéd, balanced image of the female model.

 

Despite her widespread feminist activism, Kruger’s art does not deal solely with the theme of women’s rights and gender roles. In many of her works, she seeks to challenge the consumerist culture of an increasingly mass-market society, as can be seen in I shop therefore I am (Plate 3), created in 1987. Through the use of the caption “I shop therefore I am”, which is the most prominent element of the work, Kruger suggests that consumer culture and society’s increasing value for material goods are influenced significantly by advertising stereotypes. Kruger’s use of this cliché provokes audiences into questioning their own values in regard to consumer culture, and into considering the extent to which they are influenced by media stereotypes glorifying consumerism, such as the work’s caption. I shop therefore I am can also be read from a feminist perspective, where it comments on the fixed idea, often portrayed in advertising, that women have a weakness for shopping and define themselves in terms of this activity. Under this interpretation, the work challenges the artificial, stereotypical notion of universal female identification consumerism, and encourages audiences, particularly males, to form a more complex and realistic view of female cultural identity.

 

The subversion of existing cultural identities is also a major theme in the practice of Yasumasa Morimura, a contemporary Japanese artist currently living in New York. Morimura’s works deal predominantly with intercultural exchanges, particularly those between the East and the West, in the context of increasing cultural and economic globalisation and communication. Morimura is best known for his appropriation of elements of popular culture, including stereotypes, which are often placed in contradictory, unnatural contexts, and hence seek to challenge and question traditional cultural identity, while simultaneously exploring an international, postmodern identity.

 

One of Morimura’s most famous works is After Brigitte Bardot 2 (Plate 4), a photographic composition which was completed in 1996, and is part of the Self-portrait (actress) series. The main subject of the photograph is the figure of Brigitte Bardot, wearing shiny hot pants and boots, and sitting astride a Harley Davidson, all of which are stereotypical images of Western – more specifically, American – popular culture. The image, however, is taken out of its natural context, as Bardot is placed in a typical streetscape of downtown Osaka, and her face is replaced by that of the artist himself (hence the name of the series, Self-portrait – actress).

 

 

Plate 3: I shop therefore I am by Barbara Kruger
Photographic silkscreen285 x 287 cm Completed in 1987
 

By juxtaposing these two stereotypical images of widely-differing cultures, Morimura seeks to show their interaction in a postmodern world of increasing globalisation and multiculturalism. The resulting visual dissonance, which is almost comical, implies the superficiality of national stereotypes in a highly-complex globalised context, and challenges the idea that cultural identity is defined by a set of a national icons, such as the narrow neon-lined streets of Japan or the Hollywood stars and Harley Davidsons of the USA. Instead, it can be argued that Morimura seeks to construct a new international identity, defined by a strong tendency for intercultural exchange. By placing himself, a non-European male, in the place of Brigitte Bardot, a European female, Morimura further subverts traditional perceptions of American cultural identity, particularly the role of ethnicity and/or race is constructing this identity. Morimura’s Bardot is Asian, while maintaining her stereotypical American characteristics, and is hence a product of a new cultural identity that transcends national barriers.

Morimura’s After Brigitte Bardot 2 is also significant from a post-colonial perspective. By placing an American icon as prominent as Brigitte Bardot in a Japanese context, Morimura seeks to challenge the notion of Western hegemony and its global economic colonisation and imperialism. The use of a Hollywood media stereotype – Bardot on her motorcycle – also makes an allusion to the fact that such icons were used, and continue to be used, as key elements of the Western (pop)-cultural domination that Morimura seeks to challenge. His work can hence be seen almost as a reverse colonial conquest of the East over the West, alluding to a new global cultural identity where the Eastern World, and particularly Japan, has increasing influence, in the context of that region’s economic growth and cultural appeal.

 

Plate 4: After Brigitte Bardot 2 by Yasumasa Morimura
Gelatin silver print Completed in 1996
 

Another of Morimura’s works that explores Western perceptions of Eastern culture is Portrait (Futago), created in 1988 (see Plate 5). In this work, Morimura appropriates Édouard Manet’s Olympia (Plate 6), one of the key symbols of Western cultural tradition, and places himself as both the nude Olympia and the black maid. The art critic Norman Bryson argues, in his essay “Three Morimura Readings”, that Morimura’s cross-dressing and contextualisation as a woman challenges the Western colonial construction of “Asia as female”, and Asian males as effeminate. By overtly displaying this stereotypical perception in his work, and appropriating it in a traditional Western context, the artist makes Western audiences question and re-evaluate their perceptions of Asian cultural identity.

 

 

 

Plate 5: Portrait (Futago) by Yasumasa Morimura
Gelatin silver print Completed in 1989

 

Portrait (Futago) also seeks to challenge traditional perceptions of sexual minority cultures. As a gay artist, Morimura uses cross-dressing in his placement as Olympia, in order to highlight the stereotype of gay people as effeminate. By conforming to this stereotype in his work, Morimura explores the way in which his own cultural identity is constructed by generalised social conventions and labels. At the same time, it is obvious that Morimura’s Olympia is a male figure, hence highlighting the artificiality of such stereotypes and challenging their validity. Additionally, the placement of Morimura as a woman destabilises the notion of fixed, binary gender roles of male and female that is prevalent in existing culture, and instead constructs a new, more elastic gender identity, where stereotypes of male and female are subverted.

 

 

 

Plate 6: Olympia by Édouard Manet
Oil on canvas 130.5 x 190 cm Completed in 1863

 

The use of stereotypes, icons and symbols in order to challenge the predominant cultural identity and construct a new one has been a defining characteristic of the postmodern period, but it must be understood that this technique has also been used, if less daringly, in previous art periods. One such example is the work of Australian artist Margaret Preston, whose late works of the 1940s have a number of postmodern undertones, particularly due to her intention of incorporating symbols of Aboriginal identity into her art, and hence aiming to integrate Aboriginal histories and narratives into a broader Australian culture.

 

Plate 7: Flying over the Shoalhaven River by Margaret Preston
Oil on canvas 51.6 x 51.6 cm Completed in 1942
 

Preston’s attitudes towards Australian cultural identity can be seen most prominently in her paintings of the early 1940s. In Flying over the Shoalhaven River (Plate 7), she paints a fairly typical Australian landscape, yet uses colours and marks reminiscent of Aboriginal art, such as the browns and maroons of the hills, and the broken lines representing the trees in the distance. In this work, Preston explores and questions one of the most well-known stereotypes of Australian culture in the 1940s – that of the rugged Australian bush, embodying Australian identity and providing a sanctuary from the complexity and stress of urban society. Through her incorporation of Aboriginal elements in such a potent symbol of Australian culture, it can be argued, particularly from a postmodern view, that Preston seeks to subvert the bush’s “European Australianness”, accentuating the importance of Aboriginal culture in the creation of an Australian national identity and challenging the idea that Australian culture belongs solely to those of European origin. Her intentions of constructing a new cultural identity for Australia, one that challenged traditional values and norms, is best described by her own statement from 1941, when she wrote, “I am humbly trying to follow them [Aboriginal people] in an attempt to know the truth and paint it, and so help to make a national art for Australia.”

 

Other key paintings of Preston’s Aboriginal period are Aboriginal Still Life (Plate 8), The Brown Pot and Aboriginal Landscape, all of which create an intercultural relationship through their combination of European forms and stereotypes of national identity, on one hand, and Aboriginal colours and patterns, on the other. In Aboriginal Still Life, for example, Preston places a still-life composition of flowers and plants as her main subject – a decidedly European-influenced technique – but juxtaposes this with emblematic Aboriginal cultural artefacts in the background. A similar composition can be seen in The Brown Pot, which is also a still-life painting that uses Aboriginal-inspired ochres and browns as its main colour scheme. These subtle cross-cultural portrayals further show the complexity of Australian national identity, a complexity that was acknowledged by few in an era still dominated by colonialist perspectives of archetypal Australian culture. As Julie Hewington, the head of the Australian Art division at the Queensland Art Gallery stated in 2005, “This ambitious experiment was ahead of its time and its audiences… [it] is an early emblem for the artistic ‘meeting’ that Margaret Preston pioneered between the two [European and Aboriginal] cultures.”

 

Plate 8: Aboriginal Still Lifeby Margaret Preston
Oil on canvas 43.6 x 48 cm Completed in 1940
 

Despite her intentions of creating a new, more inclusive culture, Preston’s works are viewed by some as condescending to Aboriginal culture, particularly as she didn’t incorporate any Aboriginal people in her works, only stereotypical objects and artistic techniques. Numerous critics, such as Elizabeth Butel and Djon Mundine, have questioned whether, through her trite, European view of Aboriginal culture, Preston is not, in fact, constructing a misleading identity that portrays indigenous people as inferior, and as artefacts that are part of Australian culture, but not active participants. The art historian and curator Djon Mundine asked whether Preston’s works symbolise “the passing of Aborigines, perhaps”, while the postmodern artist Narelle Jubelin appropriated her work in a series about the art of Australian cultural colonisation. It is important, however, to read Preston’s work in the context of the times she created it, when Aborigines were still seen as “prehistoric” and “uncivilised” by most of Australian society. In any case, Preston did succeed, ahead of her time, in attempting to bring Aboriginal culture to the attention of non-indigenous society, hence aiding its inclusion into the concept of Australian national identity.

 

By examining the practices of various artists that worked throughout the postmodern period, or that demonstrated postmodern techniques, it can be seen that this period of great change in the artworld led to a comprehensive challenge of the traditional values and norms of society, values and norms that were often constructed through stereotypes. Through the recontextualisation and appropriation of these traditional stereotypes, artists such as Barbara Kruger, Yasumasa Morimura and Margaret Preston have been active participants in subverting existing cultural identity and making audiences question the validity and value of such an identity in an increasingly pluralistic and heterogeneous world. In this process, such artists have also incorporated the histories and narratives of various groups that had previously been marginalised by these existing systems of values and norms, be they women, LGBT people, indigenous people or non-Western ethnicities. Thus, they have attempted to create a cultural identity that is arguably more complete, inclusive and diverse, in the context of a globalised and culturally-interconnected postmodern world.

 

Raymond ROCA

March 2006

 

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