The Ersatz Image [2]

Roman Jakobson’s communication model1, while developed on the back of studies of verbal communication and the speech event, has proved invaluable for the semiotic analysis of culture beyond the scope of structuralist linguistics. One of the primary benefits of Jakobson’s functionalist understanding of language is that it avoids the transmission model’s reduction of communication to the imparting of information. In Jakobson’s view, this is only one of the possible functions language has. In addition, Jakobson made important distinctions between the parts of communication, such as those between code and context. Such distinctions only became more important, especially for Althusser, for whom for example message and code are irreducibly different; the ideological elements of a message can be much easier to resist than the ideological aspect of the code it uses. This of course depends on the dominance of the code in use.

Can something such as a mural be analysed in terms of a model like this? To do so, there has to exist a correlation between the constituents and functions of language (in the narrow sense of speech) and the constituents and functions of an artistically produced image. It is not so difficult to show that pictorial analogues of these constituents and functions exist. The addresser and addressee are the artist(s) and the artwork’s public (both of whom are virtualised within the work itself through débrayage, as discussed in part one). If the art is inclined towards the addresser, focusing on their internal world, then the expressive function comes to the fore. If the art is inclined towards the addressee, marshalling its impact upon them, then the conative function gains in intensity. If the artwork serves to visualise a world (or what phenomenological hermeneutics would call a ‘referential context’, be it real or imaginary), then the referential function dominates — the image is then what art historians usually call ‘figurative’ (I prefer the term figural). When a work of art encourages focus on its own material constitution (as is the case in abstract or nonfigural works) then the poetic / aesthetic function is highlighted. When a work of art encourages only that the gaze of a public is maintained — when it predominantly invites the look and is interested primarily in keeping that channel open — then it is functioning in a phatic mode. And when a work of art orients attention towards the codes and conventions it makes use of, it can be said to be functioning in a metalingual mode. Thus, term for term, Jakobson’s functionalism can be appropriated for the semiotic analysis of visual culture and art, providing a methodology that opens up an object’s various dimensions for discussion.

In treading this path, we have to be cautious that the linguistic constituent called code is given its fullest, social-historical weight. We are not only dealing with the broad conventions of a particular medium, but with the narrower conventions of particular representations within certain social groups. Thus, for Ockerman, the choice between generic (or even abstract) representation and identifiable, personalised figures that always faces the painter of political murals gives way to the pre-existing or historical codes of satire, lampooning and caricature. Falling back to an already-established, but deeply anti-semitic, series of stereotypes which depict the political influence of financial institutions and their mechanisms of power broking through cartoon-like representations of a certain physiognomy, postural and gestural isotopy, the artist cannot help but orient public attention towards this narrow, exclusion-creating, code. We have to ask from where this code originates, who uses it, and how it attempts to situate us as viewers. This is easily done through thought experiment, and the asking of a handful of critical questions. Which traditions are those which have used similar depictions? How would we react if this mural had been sponsored or patronised by a right-wing politician such as Donald Trump, a member of his administration, or a prominent member of the UK’s Conservative party? What are my feelings as a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Wiccan or Atheist in regarding this image? How am I included into or excluded by the referential context generated by this image?

What comes to the surface is the way the conative function of the image, its attempt to persuade its public of something, is deeply dependent on the assumptions of its coding. Understood as a mural depicting caricatured individuals after a certain tradition, the image openly displays its code conventions through the metalingual function. So in this case, the metalingual and the conative functions of the image work together to create an already emotive or attitude-laden context for the referential function to act upon. There is nothing neutral about this context. When a member of the public has an identity that is at odds with the sharing of this code and its referential context, the image threatens persecution, and remains deeply offensive at best. The origins of this code have been addressed in part one, drawing from early twentieth century anti-semitic caricature in print, then from right-leaning libertarianism of the kind that was highly popular and vocal amongst 1990s newsgroup and bulletin board culture. This analysis was recently echoed by author Richard Seymour.2 Seymour also elaborates on the unsavoury alliances forged in the 1990s era between fringes of the left and certain libertarian and conspiracists whose views were circulating on the internet. One of the social causes of such alliances was the deep isolation suffered by leftists during this period, in which visible representation on the political stage was at a dire level, owing to Bill Clinton and Tony Blair’s policies of triangulation, the continuing attack on all forms of social security, a deepening assault on democracy, and the virulent spread of neoliberal economics among the managers of public services. Throughout the 1990s on the fringes of the left a seemingly apolitical anti-authoritarianism — a vacuous and generalised opposition to surveillance and government but with little in the way of genuine social principle — grew in line with a fervid millenarian eschatology. It was Chris Carter’s Fortean-styled paranoid TV shows, a newfound availability of esoteric texts, beat generation lit., early peer-to-peer file sharing, acid-trip-riddled newsgroup browsing and a vague sense of cyberfreedom that gave birth to this strange tendency (I myself observed it, but was never ‘of’ it). Twenty years later the ‘false-flag’, ‘black helicopters’ and ‘chemtrail’ conspiracy industry is going strong it seems, perhaps today shorn of its hippy, Reichian sex-machine and Laingian anti-psychiatry trappings, but is also a good deal more politically invested (in the libertarian right).

As Pierce put it, ‘[a] sign… addresses somebody’.3 The structuralist notion of an address is that it always positions and corresponds to a subject, but here ‘subject’ should be understood to mean not an actual person but a series of roles. Gender, ethnicity, social class and age are some of the ways in which a subject-position can be ideologically weighted in terms of value. Clearly, in the case of Ockerman’s mural the subject or addressee supposed by the image has multiple effects on actual communities of individuals. On the one hand, those who would identify with the actant-narrator (or simply ‘narrative’ of the image) are of a certain political disposition, age, ethnicity and so on. The libertarian right is a largely white, young to middle-aged, Anglo-American public. On the other hand, those who find themselves implicated, blamed or persecuted by the image is a somewhat more fuzzy group. Is it enough, for example, to be a member of the Jewish faith, or does one have to also be involved in finance, or western mysticism? Are the categories of people which Ockerman’s conspiratorial figures stand for supposed to be read synoptically or serially? The very slipperiness caused by the ensemble of identifiable figures around the monopoly board (which, while uniting them in gaming the capitalist system also divides them as competitors), their collocation and simultaneous being-together, multiplies their persecutory power. The uncertainty as to whether or not one is being blamed directly, indirectly, by association, and so on, for all the widely acknowledged ills of capitalism is, indeed, one of the principal ways in which shaming and blaming practices capture their victims, intensifying their power to interpellate. For a Jewish public the figures condense an emotive message that feels much like hatred, especially when taken against the historical background of anti-semitic caricature in right-wing politics. The mural constructs a murkily-defined fantasy object, a multifaceted (literally many-faced) scapegoat ensemble, and by intention suggests to Jews, ‘whatever this is (and I can’t really be bothered to think it through), you are this’. Those protesting that the image is anti-banker rather than anti-semitic have failed to understand the very indifference towards the boundaries of communal identity inscribed in Kalen Ockerman’s mural itself, the way that it takes the principle of equivalence (on which, according to semiotics, all representation is based) and intentionally loosens its boundaries, intensifying its power to draw into itself, associate and signify.

Why then, would Jeremy Corbyn, in October 2012, make the following comment on Mear One’s facebook profile?

‘You are in good company. Rockerfeller [sic] destroyed Diego Viera’s [sic] mural because it includes a picture of Lenin.’

Factually, the last part of this reply is absolutely correct. In 1934 Diego Rivera’s unfinished mural Man at the Crossroads was indeed removed from the wall of the Rockefeller Center, which had previously sponsored it, when political conservatives objected to the inclusion of a figure of Lenin.4 The destruction of the work sparked a protest, one of several actions by the Artists’ and Writers’ Union in support of alternative public painting.

It is worth considering more fully the mural which Corbyn mentioned in order to get some context to his reply to Mear One.

“Man at the Crossroads” proved out to be one of the most groundbreaking works of Diego Rivera. The center of the painting portrayed a commanding industrial worker with his hands on the controls of heavy machinery. The crossroads were formed by two long narrow slides intersecting at the centre, right below the worker. One slide displayed a microscopic view of body cells, reflecting sexually transmitted diseases (STD) and another presented a telescopic view of the universe. The painting was roughly divided into two sections. The left panel showed elite people, especially women, enjoying, drinking, and partying. A contrast was reflected on the same side with a group of people protesting and being clubbed by the police.

The right side of “Man at the Crossroads” showed a May Day parade with workers and people living in harmony. At the center of the left side, there was an image of Vladimir Lenin (Russian communist leader), as if joining hands in power with a black farmer, a white worker, and a soldier. The presence of Lenin in the painting hinted at an ‘Anti-Capitalist’ flavor. To avoid any kind of political controversy, Nelson Rockefeller requested Rivera to replace the face of Lenin with any ordinary face. Diego was an ardent fan of the Soviet leader and so he refused to replace Lenin in the painting. He instead offered to add American leader Abraham Lincoln’s face to another part of the mural. Their differences were never resolved.

Rivera wished to get a few pictures taken of his “Man at the Crossroads,” but photographers were banned from the center. Lucienne Bloch, one of Rivera’s assistants, snuck in a camera into the building and took some pictures to record the mural. These pictures are the only original records of the mural. On May 22, 1933, Rivera was paid in full and was barred from the premises, without letting him complete his work. The painting was then draped and was hidden away from the public eye. On the midnight of February 9, 1934, a few workers marched into the center with axes and hammers and destroyed the mural.

Diego Rivera was determined to finish his painting “Man at the Crossroads,” so he reproduced his work under the name “Man, Controller of The Universe.” This painting also depicted Lenin and Rivera added a portrait of Leon Trotsky (another communist leader). This painting can be seen in the Palace of Fine arts in Mexico. At Rockefeller’s Center, the mural replacing that of Diego’s has Abraham Lincoln as its key subject.5

(Man at the Crossroads, 1932, by Diego Rivera, pencil on paper, MoMA, Drawings and Prints Department, object number 138.19356)

As fascinating as this history is is to an art historian, especially one working towards a more inclusive art history such as myself, it hardly needs stating that Corbyn’s (surprisingly badly misspelled) reference to it was more of a (surprisingly badly misspelled) name-drop, perhaps to bolster his own ‘knowledgeable leftist’ credentials than a genuine endorsement of Kalen Ockerman’s mural. After all, any old graffiti artist tagging the same wall keeps the same ‘good company’ (Rivera) when the administration removes their work; it does not mean they are birds of a feather. Nonetheless, it was a serious oversight on Jeremy’s part (and I say this as a strong backer of Corbyn and McDonnell’s political vision) to have missed the deeply anti-semitic and injurious nature of Ockerman’s mural. Also, the statement that ‘Rockerfeller [sic] destroyed [the mural]’ is playing into the hands of the conspiracists. It was not a case of one man, cloistered and enthroned in his own private sphere of power, unilaterally and autocratically deciding to wreck the work, but rather a decision owing to a general registration on the part of the Rockefeller Center of a malaise among ‘political conservatives’ over the mural’s content. It was an institutional decision, not the fiat of a puppeteer. Corbyn could have been a lot more sensitive to the reception that his post was likely to get from this particular audience, and it is absolutely right for him to have issued a full apology recently for having given the impression of lending support to an anti-semitic artist.

In the wider context of what appears to be a sustained programme of smear attempts on Jeremy Corbyn by the media, including the BBC7, we have to be careful not to dismiss actual carelessness and mistakes made on the left. While anti-semitism is far more prevalent on the right wing of politics8, it is a problem across the political spectrum and has had certain pockets and fringes of accommodation on the left as has been mentioned above. In other words, it is a real problem to be stamped out.

(Corbyn figured against backdrop in a pastiche of Soviet Constructivism, featured on the BBC’s Newsnight programme)

Sooner or later, this argument always appears: if you don’t support art you disagree with politically, and shrug as it is whitewashed away, then sooner or later art which you do agree with will go the same way, and you will be left with no argument. This is the so-called ‘freedom of expression’ angle, a favourite argument, unsurprisingly, of libertarians. The argument fails on several counts. First of all, free expression is a political concept rooted in a constitutionalism intended only to limit the power of governments from impeding free speech. When it comes to private property, even public-facing private property such as the wall of an institution, we are not dealing with a public sphere as such but some strange (and as history shows frequently contestable) zone on the fringes of the legalistic applicability of ‘free expression’ politics. Several competing claims as to the ownership of the space in which a mural is painted can exist, and this particularly the case where public-private partnerships exist. More important, however, is to really understand what freedom of expression can mean. Does it really extend to the freedom to offend, to injure or persecute? The classical liberal definition of freedom used to be that it ended where the use of freedom diminished the freedom of another party. Clearly, even by classical liberal standards then, Ockerman’s mural is suspect. Any representation that creates or seeks to create public animosity towards Jews is culpable as a use of ‘freedom’ that oversteps its limits. And as a critic of the liberal concept of freedom in the first place, I would suggest that it is not even consistent to regard this as a ‘use of freedom’ or that ‘freedom’ as a formal or abstract concept in this sense is of much use as a fundamental category of human relations. But this discussion would take us outside of art history as such and into a series of complex social theory arguments I am not prepared to make here today.

References

[1] Sebeok 1960:350-77; Jakobson 1990:69-77
[2] SoundCloud 2018
[3] Peirce 1932:228
[4] Lee 1999:149; San Francisco News 1934
[5] The Virtual Diego Rivera Web Museum 2018; Ezine Articles 2009
[6] MoMA 2018
[7] Maugham 2018
[8] Institute for Jewish Policy Research 2017

Bibliography

  • Ezine Articles, 2009, ‘His Most Famous Painting “Man at the Crossroads” by Diego Rivera’ by Annette Labedzki [webpage] available at http://ezinearticles.com/?His-Most-Famous-Painting-Man-at-the-Crossroads-by-Diego-Rivera&id=2315023 accessed 06/04/2018
  • Jakobson, Roman, 1990, On Language, (eds. Linda R. Waugh & Monique Monville-Burston) Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA
  • Institute for Jewish Policy Research, 2017, ‘Antisemitism in contemporary Great Britain: A study of attitudes towards Jews and Israel’, conducted by L. Daniel Staetsky, September 2017, available at https://cst.org.uk/public/data/file/7/4/JPR.2017.Antisemitism in contemporary Great Britain.pdf accessed 29/03/2017
  • Lee, Anthony W., 1999, Painting on the Left: Diego Rivera, Radical Politics and San Francisco’s Public Murals, University of California Press, London
  • Maugham, Jo, 2018, ‘Just remembered I have a written message from a senior BBC bod explaining (unambiguously) that the BBC does code negative messages about Corbyn into its imagery’ [Tweet], available at https://twitter.com/JolyonMaugham/status/975335522150297600 accessed 29/03/2018
  • MoMA, 2018, ‘Diego Rivera. Man at the Crossroads. 1932 | MoMA’, available at https://www.moma.org/collection/works/34635 accessed 06/04/2018
  • Pierce, Charles S., 1932, Collected Papers vol. II: Elements of Logic, eds. Hartshorne, C. & Weiss, P., Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA
  • San Francisco News, 1934, ‘Destruction of Rivera Mural in N.Y. Termed “Murder” and “Capitalism Couldn’t Take It” Declares Steffens’, February 14, 1934
  • Sebeok, Thomas A. (ed.), 1960, Style in Language, MIT Press, Cambridge MA
  • SoundCloud, 2018, ‘Richard Seymour on Labour, Anti-Semitism and the Left’ by Politics Theory Other,  available at https://soundcloud.com/poltheoryother/seymour-interview-new accessed 11/04/2018
  • The Virtual Diego Rivera Web Museum, 2018, ‘Man at the Crossroads: the Rockefeller Controversy’ [webpage] available at http://www.diegorivera.com/?p=60 accessed 06/04/2018

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