OCA Level 3: Body of Work/Contextual Studies

Category: CS Part One: Visual Culture in Practice

Roland Barthes: Rhetoric of the Image

See: UVC Project 3-1


The course notes ask that we examine one of our own images featuring signs that could be interpreted differently be viewers. As I reread Barthes Rhetoric of the Image, his thoughts on the relationship between image and text and the concepts of anchorage and relay that particularly resonated with me, and it is these that I will consider here.

Notes on anchorage and relay:

  • From Rhetoric of the Image In: Evans and Hall (1999):
    • “the image is felt to be weak in respect of meaning…signification cannot exhaust the images ineffable richness.” (p. 33)
    • “all images are polysemous; they imply, underlying their signifiers, a ‘floating chain’ of signifieds, the reader able to choose some and ignore others.” (p. 37)
    • The linguistic message is one way that floating signifiers can be fixed to “counter the terror of uncertain signs…At the level of the literal message, the text replies – in a more or less direct, more or less partial manner – to the question: what is it?” (p. 37)
    • “anchorage may be ideological and indeed this is its principal function; the text directs the reader through the signifieds of the image, causing him to avoid some and receive others; by means of an often subtle dispatching, it remote controls him towards a meaning chosen in advance.” (p. 37-8)
    • “The text is indeed the creator’s (and hence society’s) right of inspection over the image; anchorage is control, bearing a responsibility – in the face of the protective power of pictures – for the use of the message.” (p. 38)
    • “Anchorage is the most frequent function of the linguistic message and is commonly found in press photographs and advertisements. The function of relay is less common…Here text (most often a snatch of dialogue) and image stand in a complementary relationship; the words in the same way as the images, are fragments if a more general syntagm and the unity of the message is realized at a higher level, that of the story, the anecdote, the diegesis.” (p. 38) 
    • “When the text has the diegetic value of relay, the information is more costly requiring as it does the learning of a digital code (the system of language); when it has a substitute value (anchorage, control), it is the image which detains the informational charge and, the image being analogical, the information then ‘lazier’.” (p. 38)
  • From Art, Common Sense and Photography by Victor Burgin In: Evans and Hall (1999):
    • The polysemy of the image is controlled through juxtaposition with a verbal text:
      • “Roland Barthes has identified how different functions which the verbal message can adopt in relation to the image; these he calls anchorage and relay. The text adopts a function of anchorage when, from a multiplicity of connotations offered by the image, it selects some and thereby implicitly rejects others…In relay, the image and the linguistic text are in a relationship of complementarity: the linguistic message explains, develops, expands the significance of the image.” (p. 47-8)
  • From Semiotics: the Basics by David Chandler:
    • Anchorage – linguistic elements in a text, such as a caption, can serve to ‘anchor’ (or constrain) the preferred readings of the image. (p. 244)
    • “Roland Barthes introduced the concept of anchorage…Linguistic elements can serve to ‘anchor’ (or constrain) the preferred readings of an image: ‘to fix the floating chain of signifiers'”
      • The concept primarily referred to advertisements but also applies to other captioned photographs. (p. 204)
    • Barthes argued that the principal function of anchorage was ideological – perhaps most obviously used in contexts such as newspapers.
      • The captions/labels present themselves as neutral while expressing how an image ought to be read. (p. 204)
    • Relay – the term Barthes used to describe text-image relationships which were complementary.
      • E.g. Cartoons, comic strips and narrative film. (p. 204)
  • From Visible Signs by David Crow (p.74):
    • Barthes asserts that text on an image constitutes a parasitic message designed to quicken the reading of additional signifieds.
      • Text is a powerful method of altering or fixing the meaning of an image.
    • Anchorage – directs the beholder through a number of possible readings of an image (floating chain of signifiers) which causes the reader to ignore some signifiers and read others.
      • “The text answers the question ‘What is it?’ (p. 74)
      • Text on the connoted image (coded iconic message) helps the reader interpret the signifiers they are presented with.
      • Text on a denoted image (non-coded iconic message) describes how a reader is ‘remote controlled’ to a meaning that has been chosen in advance.
        • Often this has an ideological purpose – anchorage text can have a repressive value when applied to an image.
    • Relay – much less common than anchorage. 
      • Text works in a complementary way to the image.
        • (e.g. Snippet of dialogue, comic strips – particularly important in film.)
      • Relay text advances the reading of the images by supplying meanings not found in the images themselves. 
        • (e.g. Film dialogue.)
    • From Visual Methodologies by Gillian Rose:
      • Anchorage text allows the reader to choose between a potentially confusing number of denotative meanings.
        • E.g. text in advertising.
      • Relay-function refers to text that has a complementary relation to the image.
        • E.g. film subtitles.

This image is part of a series I made in response to a scandal in January 2021 about the provision of food parcels to children eligible for free school meals. (See here.) I appropriated images posted to Twitter by parents who had received the parcels and overlayed text by food writer and campaigner Jack Monroe onto them. One of the interesting aspects of the debate that emerged following this was how some commentators tried to attack the legitimacy of the campaign by stating that they were not representative of the offer being given or that the recipients should be glad to receive anything at all. I found the response by Monroe eloquent, moving and borne out of personal experience – my intention was that the combination of text and image would make the testimony that both represented more difficult to refute by fixing meaning and directing the reader into how the images should be read. By converting the images to black and white, I also wanted to play on the relationship between monochrome and the tradition of documentary realism. Barthes assertion that anchorage is ideological is borne out by my use of image and text in this instance – there is certainly a conscious intention to ‘remote control’ the reader toward the meaning I intend to be derived.

Initially I considered the images to be an example of anchorage – the text fixes meaning towards a preferred reading. However, there is also a relay-function at play, as arguably, the text is complementary to the image in a way that “develops [and] expands the significance of the image.” (Burgin, in: Evans and Hall, 2009: 48) The text is not a caption, but a quote written in a way that is closer to dialogue than labelling. I wonder if my analysis that these are an example of both anchorage and relay, or if this means I have missed the point both in my understanding of the terms and my analysis of the image? Barthes notion of a ‘third meaning’ created by the interplay between text and image is something that I find seductive and perhaps why I am struggling to identify whether it is anchorage or relay here. The idea that the addition of text can add to the ambiguity and polysemous nature of meaning in an image, while also directing the reader in a particular direction is something that has potential for further exploration. 

Bibliography:

Barthes, R. (1977) ‘The Photographic Message’ In: Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana Press. pp. 15-31

Barthes, R. (1977) ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ In: Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana Press. pp. 32-51

Barthes, R. (1999) ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ In: Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage. pp. 33-40

Burgin, V. (1999) ‘Art, Common Sense and Photography’ In: Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage. pp. 41-50.

Chandler, D. (2008) The Basics: Semiotics. Oxford: Routledge.

Crow, D. (2010) Visible Signs: An Introduction to Semiotics in the Visual Arts (2nd edition)Lausanne: AVA Publishing SA.

Evans, J. (1999) ‘Cultures of the Visual’ In: Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage. pp. 41-50. pp. 11-20

Rose, G. (2016) Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to Researching with Visual Materials (4th Edition) London: Sage. 

Shawcross, N. M. (2013) ‘Roland Barthes’ In: Durden, M. Fifty Key Writers on Photography. Abingdon: Routledge.

CS A1 – Response to Tutor Feedback

It was good to catch up with Andrew for this tutorial, and my mind is put at ease that it is the process of getting the work for CS underway by completing this assignment that has been the most important outcome. Despite this, I still feel frustrated that I have spent so much time on an essay that will not inform my dissertation, although I need to rationalise this train of thought and move on. The most surprising aspect of starting work on level 3 is how I have found having a blank canvas of opportunity to pursue has been quite paralysing – Andrew’s advice of ‘widen the research, narrow the focus’ is a key mantra to remember here. I am starting to feel more confident about where my research could be heading and themes to pursue are beginning to become apparent which is encouraging progress.

Thinking towards the literature review for A2 my approach needs to be – read, think, re-read and refine – by doing this I am sure that the themes I wish to explore in my extended project will come into focus. It is also important to note that the literature review is only a stepping stone towards the final piece and that I can still change direction afterwards and add further sources as I identify them.

The formative feedback from the tutorial (above) gives a good summary of both where I am and what actions I need to take going forward, so I will leave thoughts about this first assignment here and focus on the positive aspects that have come out of it rather than bemoan what could have been done differently.

Walter Benjamin: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

See: 

UVC Project 2-1: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction


I studied Walter Benjamin’s highly influential 1936 essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ for one of my previous courses Understanding Visual Culture. (I hope that my studies for that course will support me with CS.) I find the notion that the aura of a work of art is destroyed through the process of mechanical reproduction a compelling one – even if the commodification of visual culture and photography continues at a seemingly increasing rate. (I have made some notes about the phenomenon of NFTs below which is interesting to compare with Benjamin’s essay.) Perhaps Benjamin’s ideas, such as the democratisation and accessibility of art will be achieved through digital technology? Certainly the means to make images and publish these are now open to anyone with access to a smartphone and the internet – although the potential is there it seems that we are still some way from this being truly accessible with traditional powerful institutions trying there best to protect their status.

Benjamin’s work and ideas outside of this essay are also extremely influential in other parts of photography and visual culture theory, and I suspect that this is work that will repay further study and be important for my dissertation.

Research quotes:

Below are some quotes that resonated with me as part of my research:

Walter Benjamin: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. (Evans and Hall, 1999: 72-79) 

“In principle a work of art has always been reproducible…Mechanical reproduction of a work of art, however, represents something new.” (p. 72)

“For the first time in the process of pictorial reproduction, photography freed the hand of the most important artistic functions which henceforth devolved only upon the eye looking into a lens.” (p. 73)

“Around 1900 technical reproduction had reached a standard that not only permitted it to reproduce all transmitted works of art and thus to cause the most profound change in their impact upon the public; it also had captured a place of its own among the artistic processes. For the study of this standard nothing is more revealing than the nature of repercussions that these two different manifestations – the reproduction of works of art of the film – have had on art in its traditional form.” (p. 73)

“Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” (p. 73)

“The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity.” (p. 73)

“The situations into which the product of mechanical reproduction can be brought may not touch the actual work of art, yet the quality of its presence is always depreciated.” (p. 74)

“The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.” (p. 74)

“One might subsume the eliminated element in the term ‘aura’ and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition.” (p. 74)

“if changes in the medium of contemporary perception can be comprehended as decay of the aura, it is possible to show its social causes.” (p. 75)

“Every day the urge grows stronger to get old of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, it reproduction. Unmistakably, reproduction as offered by picture magazines and newsreels differs from the image seen be the unarmed eye. Uniqueness and permanence are as closely linked in the latter as are transitoriness and reproducibility in the former. To pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose ‘sense of the universal equality of things’ has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction. Thus is manifested in the field of perception what in the theoretical sphere is noticeable in the increasing importance of statistics. The adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is a process if unlimited scope as much for thinking as for perception.” (p. 75)

“The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from it being imbedded in the fabric of tradition.” (p. 75) 

“Originally the contextual integration of in tradition found its expression in the cult. We know that the earliest art works originated in the service of a ritual – first the magical, then the religious kind. It is significant that the existence of the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function.” (p. 76) 

“An analysis of art in the age of mechanical reproduction must do justice to these relationships, for they lead us to an all-important insight: for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense. But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics.” (p. 76)

“Works of art are received and valued on different planes. Two polar types stand out: with one, the accent is on the cult value; with the other, on the exhibition value of the work. Artistic production begins with ceremonial objects destined to serve in a cult…With the emancipation of the various art practices from ritual go increasing opportunities for the exhibition of their products.” (p. 76)

“With the different methods of technical reproduction of a work of art, its fitness for exhibition increased to such an extent that the quantitative shift between its poles turned into a qualitative transformation of its nature.” (p. 77)

Non-Fungible Tokens:

Arguably, it is only with the prevalence of digital media that works of art truly achieve the democratic status that Benjamin envisaged. The current trend/hype surrounding non-fungible tokens (NFTs) has led me to consider how this relates to Benjamin’s paper and the seemingly endless pursuit of capitalist commodification. Hern (2021) states that NFTs can be thought of as ‘bitcoin for art’, that is, a way to make a seemingly infinitely reproducible digital artwork collectible. (Hern’s article here gives a thorough explanation about how this works.) On the surface this could be seem as a positive in that it should in theory allow for digital artists to prevent copyright theft. In reality, NFTs are often worse than simply stealing an artists work online as NFTs often end up controlled (and profited) by people who have nothing to do with their creation (and there is nothing to stop this being the case.) 

Haigney (2021) sees the “NFT craze” as a new form of “the strange practice of” collecting. In the art world the collector is both fetishised and feted as “at once a connoisseur and…entrepreneur” and a driver of the art world through capital and investment. Collectors accumulate for many reasons: “love of art, love of the game of collecting, love of money.” But, the most crucial aspect of collecting is possession – something that NFTs allow of digital assets that previously were difficult to monetise.

Bibliography:

Associated Press (2021) Christie’s auctions ‘first digital-only artwork’ for $70m. The Guardian, 12th March 2021. At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2021/mar/11/christies-first-digital-only-artwork-70m-nft-beeple (accessed 12th April 2021)

Badger, G. (2001) The Genius of Photography: How Photography Has Changed Our Lives.London: Quadrille Publishing.

Bate, D. (2016) Photography: The Key Concepts. (2nd Ed.) London: Bloomsbury.

Benjamin, W. (1999) Illuminations. London: Pimlico

Benjamin, W. (1999) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ In: Evans, J. and Hall, S. (ed.) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage. pp. 72-79 

Foster, H. et al. (2012) Art since 1900: Modernism * Antimodernism * Postmodernism. (2nd ed.)London: Thames & Hudson.

Haigney, S. (2021) A jpeg for $70m: welcome to the strange world of cryptocurrency art. The Guardian, 17th March 2021. At: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/mar/17/cryptocurrency–at-digital-only-artwork-nfts-collecting (accessed 12th April 2021)

Hern, A. (2021) Non-fungible tokens are revolutionising the art world – and art theft. The Guardian, 12th March 2021. At: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2021/mar/12/non-fungible-tokens-revolutionising-art-world-theft?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other (accessed 12th April 2021)

Kracauer, S. (2002) ‘The Mass Ornament’ In: Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (ed.) Art in Theory 1900–2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 477-80

Linfield, S. (2010) The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory. London: Penguin books.

Murray, C. (ed.) (2002) Key writers on art: The twentieth century. New York: Taylor & Francis

Pipkin, E. (2021) Here is the article you can send to people when they say “but the environmental issues with cryptoart will be solved soon, right?” Medium. At: https://everestpipkin.medium.com/but-the-environmental-issues-with-cryptoart-1128ef72e6a3(accessed 12th April 2021)

Pooke, G. and Newall, D. (2008) The Basics: Art History. Oxford: Routledge. 

Schmitz, H. (2007) ‘Walter Benjamin’ In: Costello, D. and Vickery, J. (eds.) Art: Key Contemporary Thinkers. Oxford: Berg. pp. 160-163

Silverman, J. (2021) Trophy homes and $2.5million tweets: how the idle rich spent their pandemic year. The New Republic, 10th March 2021. At: https://newrepublic.com/article/161655/trophy-homes-25-million-tweets-idle-rich-spent-pandemic-year (accessed 12th April 2021)

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture.Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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