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.


[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


  • Ezine Articles, 2009, 'His Most Famous Painting "Man at the Crossroads" by Diego Rivera' by Annette Labedzki [webpage] available at 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 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 accessed 29/03/2018
  • MoMA, 2018, 'Diego Rivera. Man at the Crossroads. 1932 | MoMA', available at 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 [audio], available at accessed 11/04/2018
  • The Virtual Diego Rivera Web Museum, 2018, 'Man at the Crossroads: the Rockefeller Controversy' [webpage] available at accessed 06/04/2018

The Ersatz Image [1]

As someone deeply invested in the disciplines of art history and visual culture studies, the recent shitstorm over a comment Jeremy Corbyn made in 2012 regarding a mural by Mear One (Kalen Ockerman) keeps flying into my radar range. Because it's Easter and I'm supposed to give myself a break, I'll stick working towards my research pro forma on hold for a day or two and wade into this furore.

Firstly, let's talk about this mural. Yes, it is antisemitic. No, this cannot be watered down into 'features antisemitic elements'. When you are used to perusing images, you come to regard them in terms of not just what they represent (if anything), but in terms of what they do, and what they want with us. Art (of this kind at least) does not occur naturally, it is fabricated by human intelligence. Furthermore it is publicly displayed, which means it has a claim on us; it is staked upon, motivated by and addressed to our attention. Visuality is a primary modality, perhaps the primary modality (it's tempting to rank it equal to musicality), in which ideology is propagated and reproduced in contemporary life. Since at least the early 20th Century this was recognised among newspaper editors, who coined the idiom that 'a picture is worth a thousand words': if you had something to say, say it with a bold image, then append the argument textually. Since that time, among the weaponry of journalists their cameras have taken pride of place and it is often (though not always) the case that it is the securing of an image that will make or break the rationale for a story. No one can doubt the extraordinary impact of images today. However, the powerful 'speech' of images, their ability to hail or interpellate a public, precisely by virtue of standing in for or condensing the argumentative impact of 'a thousand words', also elides the discursiveness and rational argumentation that those thousand words would have had to present in order to achieve a similar intensity of effect. In other words, the impact of images takes place largely in an affective register; they appeal to the emotionality of their public and not, primarily, to their discursive or critical thinking, which they tend to short-cut. It is this emotive character of images that lends to them a rhetorical, persuasive character. All of this is absolutely obvious of course, but it is necessary to step through it in order to approach the specific image.

Before we begin interrogating the mural, there are some important caveats that would need to be included in any visual analysis. Firstly, whenever I discuss the image in terms of what it 'does' or what it 'wants', this is in no sense to be taken as an categorical attribution of agency to the image. Taking note of the debate between Mitchell1, Freedberg2, and Wolff3, it is entirely possible to speak of an image being motivated or having motivations without this slipping into philosophical animism. This is possible because we are dealing with the production of an artist or author, and can therefore approach the mural in terms of the process known to Greimasian semiotics as débrayage.4 Rather than having the artist who calls himself Mear One standing before us presenting us verbally with some kind of argument or narration, Ockerman instead delegates his enunciatory power to the expressiveness of the mural and its iconography. It is in this sense of débrayage or disengagement, and in this sense only, that we can speak of the actantial aspect of the image.5 However, this has important ramifications, since it means that the entire background network of cultural assumptions on which Ockerman's delegated enunciation would have depended are as implicated by the imagery of the mural as they would have been were he himself present.

Furthermore, just as the artist's function as enunciator is virtualised within the medium by disengagement and delegation to the expressiveness of the medium, so too is the function of any hypothetical enunciatee presupposed and virtualised by the production of his artistic labour. The fictional 'voice' of the image (that which is colloquially regarded as 'saying something', and whose impact on an audience would be 'worth a thousand words') is a virtualised 'I' which addresses a no-less simulative 'You', just as narrator and narratee are constructed and organised by a text. Both this 'I' and the 'You' it addresses are actant-delegates,6 in this case not virtualised through strictly textual strategies but via the visual and compositional organisation of the mural itself. Recall that the mural is a public-facing surface composed of symbols which are presupposed as intelligible or bearing semantic freight. The 'I' and 'You' formed by this visual distribution further presupposes a relationship whose modality is fiduciary. Without an assumption of trust on the part of a public no artificial image would be able to mean anything at all; we are supposed to believe that something intelligible is there to be conveyed to us — not necessarily propositional, but at the very least signifying. More prosaically, the mural can be said to construct or elect an audience, which may or may not conform with its actual publics. An actual public, in regarding the mural, can thus be said to be offered a subject position (which it may or may not be at ease with). For in-depth visual and formal analyses of works of art it is imperative to identify such a subject position, in short to ask: who are 'we' supposed to be when this image is addressing itself to 'us'?.

The second caveat is the following: it is important to clarify the distinction between image and the physical existence of the mural. The physical mural was available purely in terms of its sensual existence — its visual medium (painted mural), its form (delineation, texture, recession, multiplicity, clarity, etc.), its support (the wall of a building), and in its environmental context (its location, not only geographically but socially and historically). Although the original mural has since gone, it has been reproduced many times over in digital form online, through photography. It makes sense therefore to say that the material support of the image still exists, but that its environmental context and its support have altered considerably. As an image, however, the mural is also immaterial, reproducible and reiterated through memory and imagination. As an image it persists in the 'mind's eye', as an artefact not of some specific visual encounter (embedded in physical context) but of visuality as such, as one within countless images we tend to call 'mental images'. While some mental images can fade and be forgotten, the physical existence of a picture, painting or material artefact in a public arena is not easily overcome without concerted, collective action. This is important because, for a public who encountered the original material and experienced its problematic or offensive nature, the re-encounter with its myriad digital versions in circulation can serve to verify, or perhaps even amplify their experience. It is for this reason I have chosen not to further circulate or recycle the image by posting a photo with this blog post. This is in line with an ethic of not providing a material support for an offensive image. Should anything I write here require confirmation, a search for '"Freedom for Humanity"' and "Mear One" will bring up plenty of versions.

It is also clear from such an understanding of artificially created images that they can never be regarded as neutral with respect to intentionality; there is no way to reduce the image to its material support, as in the disingenuous arguments of those who would defend it as 'just some paint on a wall'. To speak of an image is to be already engaged in interpretation; an image cannot exist in an uninterpreted state. The composition, medium, practical history and forms of its material support must already be understood as presenting an image before we were able to designate it as such. The habit of regarding purposive markings on a surface as an image is encoded and presupposed by the action of the artist painting the mural. Its manufacturedness is clearly evident; it didn't arise by itself but is the product of purposive human action. Therefore it is entirely unreasonable to regard it as anything other than an intentional statement bearing specific human and social weights.

One of the most striking things about this image is its deliberate stylistic crudity, intending it to be situated within a whole series of cartoon-like images, many of which are modern or contemporary, but which are overlapped in part by a tradition of political caricature in print since the late seventeenth century. That tradition is deliberately contemptuous of the human form in particular, and has frequently been used in racist typifications. The figural elements in the mural itself follow this pattern.

The upper part of the mural is dominated by the eye of providence, which has ever since the libertarian-right cyberculture's embrace of psychedelic fiction such as Robert Anton Wilson's trilogy Illuminatus! in the early 1990s, been used in online meme culture as a symbol of occult puppet-masters pulling political strings. This symbol needs especial care, as it signifies on several levels and has been especially hegemonised by both counter-culture and mainstream cinema. Historically speaking, the eye of providence as recognisable today comes from the emblematic tradition in engraved works, sometimes alchemical, sometimes purely exoteric and moral. Many guilds and fraternities, such as the order of foresters and the order of operative masons (precursors of Freemasonry) have made use of the symbol, but it is by no means exclusive to any of them. There is no record of its use in Freemasonry before the late 18th century. Much has been made by conspiracy theorists (again, prompted by psychedelic fiction and 'occult' literature) of its use in the great seal of America, held to suggest that the founding fathers were, in the main, Freemasons. While a role for secret societies in both the French and American revolutions is acknowledged by historical record, there did not exist at the time anything like the well-organised, regularised systems of Freemasonry such as those which exist today. In addition, Catholic anti-revolutionary propaganda has inflated many accounts. The narrative of a shadowy Bavarian Illuminati masterminding the 1789 revolution, recycled and popularised in early 1990s fiction, has little to no historical basis in fact. However, the lure of the narrative of a clandestine continuity to history has an appeal outside of film and literature. Many enlightenment-by-mail-order 'mystical' fraternities still exist, for example. Such bodies concoct their own histories, sometimes claiming the Providence emblem as a symbol for 'ascended masters' in some dubious precursor spiritualist society, borrowing much of their mystique from Helena Petrovna Blavasky's Theosophy and the reactionary theurgic writings of Martinez de Pasqually and Louis-Claude de Saint Martin. The continuing appeal of belonging to such 'special' or exclusive communities naturally fuels the paranoia of those who see in them a political influence on global events. In a further manoeuvre, such profit-making 'mystical' corporate bodies often attempted to link their initiatic pedigree to whichever floating signifiers still remained enigmatic from antiquity, such as the pyramids, the sphinx, and the Wedjat (eye of Horus). This hermetic quackery and charlatanry has many precedents, perhaps one of the most infamous being 'polymath' Athanasius Kircher. Kircher, on whose work some elements of the Western Mystery Tradition is partially based, claimed to have translated Egyptian Hieroglyphs before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. What he produced was a tract of pure gibberish according to modern linguists, but the work was held as deeply meaningful among esotericists, particularly in the occult revival of the Victorian fin de siècle. Although egregious from an academic point of view, lacking anything like scholarly or intellectual persuasiveness, such currents are on the whole politically harmless. What is not harmless, however, is the image of them that conspiracy theorists generate, linking them to contemporary political events and with the idea of a Jewish plot that has persisted in the right wing mind ever since, at the latest, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion forgery.

As always when dealing with conspiracy theorists, 'secret histories' and 'forbidden knowledge' of this kind we have to tackle the displacement and reduplication of the Big Other. For a conspiracy theorist it's never simply that everyday language oppresses, but that there is another, secret language behind it. It's never that everyday social structures and relations effectively stratify society, but that there is another, secret structure behind society ordering it. To the paranoid mind, the psychoanalytic concept of the Big Other (language, society, history) is not enough of an account to explain the way things are; there must be another Other, behind the scenes. It is trivial to demonstrate that the iconography of the eye of providence has changed historically in order to accommodate this particularly postmodern paranoia. While its real origins as an emblem can be found in Christian and Talmudic exegesis, as when God promises to Moses to be ever watchful from the heavens (this explanation was still current within masonic literature of 1877, under which rubric the symbol is known as 'the all-seeing eye')7, its present associations with conspiratorial plots and secret histories eclipse this.

Providence is a theological concept that the Church Fathers knew also as dispositio or oikonomia, meaning the 'economy' or 'household rule' which distributed, within the totality of God, his being or essence on the one hand and his executive powers on the other. For the Catholic church this doctrine was essential to the narrative of a tripartite, yet still unified, godhood: the holy trinity. Thus in time the clouds, from which early renditions of the eye of providence gazed, came to be replaced with the triangle. Within the iconographical traditions of Europe from that time onwards, the eye of Providence symbolised the omnibenevolent omniscience of a three-in-one Holy Family (in which, as feminists have often pointed out, the role of mother became mystified and buried) that help form the 'nuclear' patriarchal model of western 'civilisation'.

Those iconological origins, however, were not intended by the mural as painted by Ockerman / Mear One. Rather, the artist has capitalised on the later meaning given to the symbol by libertarian literature in the late twentieth century, in a reuptake of occult sources such as Aleister Crowley, MacGregor Mathers, and Israel Regardie's pseudo-Kabbalistic expositions on the symbology of the Golden Dawn and the OTO, all of which circulated freely in internet newsgroups during the 1990s and in the 'New Age' literature of the time. In short, we are supposed to see the eye in the pyramid as representing not theological Providence but a shadowy cabal, an unseen — and for the uninitiated, unseeable — influence on world governments. As representations go, the appropriation of the (essentially Catholic) symbol by a libertarian right wing extremely wary of big government and surveillance is easy to understand. An all-seeing-eye would, to the kind of person who supported, say, the Tea Party in America, or who counted David Icke as a source of information, appear every bit as menacing as the lidless eye of Sauron would appear to a hobbit of Tolkien's Middle-Earth. As a symbol the eye connotes a destruction of privacy; no interiority; no subjectivity allowed. In the mind of a libertarian right-winger drunk on the ideal of abstract or formal freedom, all thoughts are laid bare by such an eye, leaving it open to the scrutiny and policing of us bureaucratic leftists who would, it is supposed, like to curtail their freedom. This is not by any means a left wing piece of art.

It is likely that at some point someone will compare the mural, particularly the pyramidal form of its main figures, with the classic anti-capitalist illustration, Pyramid of Capitalist System, disseminated by the International Workers of the World (a legitimate left wing group informally known as the 'Wobblies') in 1911.8 There are indeed some minor similarities, but a closer look reveals how superficial those similarities are, and how profound the differences.


The first thing to note is that Nedeljkovich, Brashich, and Kuharich's poster of 1911, while employing generic or stereotypical figures to represent various social layers (in terms of function: labour, bourgeoisie, military, clerical, executive), none do so in what can be regarded as a malevolent, conspiratorial or pernicious way. There are no gleeful hand-rubbing anti-semitic Shylock figures to be seen. In contrast to the ruling classes that comprise the executive, political-ideological wing and the military, the most malignant thing the social stratum representing the bourgeoisie engages in, in fact, is to eat and celebrate. They are characterised not as insidious evil doers; their 'sin', if the image is to be moralised, is largely one of blithe ignorance. The hierarchy is, of course, entirely supported by human labour, but rather than being structured from above by a mystifying emblem ramifying hidden ('occulted') political agendas, the whole exists to support the bag of money which, for Marxists, represents not any human group but a social relation: capital. In short, capitalism emerges and is the apex of a system in which abstract labour power and the production process is devalued and the surplus value thus created is placed on a pedestal as the teleological goal of the entire system of relations. There are no 'elites' in this picture, just a simplified illustration of the social stratifications on which the reproduction of the system is staked: the class relation which devalues labour. As a pedagogical tool or teaching aid, the illustration is, in some respects, Brechtian: generic roles are presented against the background of their historical contingency, and, perhaps by design, do not appear naturalistic, let alone reducible to any kind of biopolitically racist body morphology.

If we now return to the Mear One mural, and contrast its personalised, mystifying and anti-semitic character with the clarity of the Marxism in the IWW poster, things become much easier to point to. The figures seated around the table are intended to be identifiable individuals, namely (from left to right): Mayer Amschel Rothschild, John D Rockefeller, J P Morgan, Aleister Crowley, Andrew Carnegie, and Paul Warburg. The leftmost and rightmost are actually Jewish people, depicted in full-blown anti-semitic stereotypy — Rothschild, robed and full bearded, is actually counting out money. Indeed, it's as if the monopoly game is there simply as an alibi for this depiction. Crowley, meanwhile, was an antisemite but was steeped in the Western Mystery Tradition, which in the woolly associationism of a conspiracy theorist like Ockerman (who has actually turned to no less a fantasist than David Icke for defence of his mural) is equivalent to a 'New World Order' plot. The foregrounded monopoly game and its players occur against a background of turning gears, linking them to a paranoid vision of predestination, a worldview in which nothing happens that has not been orchestrated by 'the cabal'. It is not insignificant that this Laplacian, deterministic, world-view, which leaves no room for agency (or indeed complexity), is exemplified by the cogs and wheels of industry, since this condenses on the one hand a legitimate plea against the automatisation of life with a tainted, racist view of commercial industries as being in the hands of Jews and exotic cabals to the extent that the figure of the Jew and the machination of history become indistinguishable. Again, this is a mystification and a displacement.

In part 2, the context of the mural's reception, and especially the context of the media story generated on the back of Corbyn's apparent support (or at least, lack of criticism) for the mural in 2012 will be given some thought.


[1] Mitchell 1995; Mitchell 2005
[2] Freedberg 1989
[3] Wolff 2012:3-19
[4] Martin & Ringham 2000:47, 58
[5] Martin & Ringham 2000:18, 58
[6] Martin & Ringham 2000:58
[7] MacKenzie 1987:31
[8] Labour Arts 2018


  • Freedberg, David, 1989, The Power of Images, University of Chicago Press
  • Labor Arts, 2018 (1911), 'Item no. 28201: Pyramid of Capitalist System', issued by Nedeljkovich, Brashick and Kuharich, Cleveland: The International Publishing Co., 1911, available at Accessed 31/03/2017
  • MacKenzie, Kenneth R. H., 1987 (1877), The Royal Masonic Cyclopædia, Aquarian Press
  • Martin, Bronwen & Ringham, Felizitas, 2000, Dictionary of Semiotics, Cassell
  • Mitchell, William J. T., 1995, Picture Theory, University of Chicago Press
  • Mitchell, William J. T., 2005, What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images, University of Chicago Press
  • Wolff, Janet, 2012, ‘After cultural theory: the power of images, the lure of immediacy’, Journal of Visual Culture, vol 11, no 1, pp 3–19, Available at Accessed 9/03/2015

The Politics of Form

(This is an edited version of some work I did at undergraduate level some years ago)

The Politics of Form in Giacomo Balla's Abstract Speed: The Car has Passed (1913) and Hans Haacke's A Breed Apart (1978)

Figure 1: Abstract Speed: The Car has Passed by Giacomo Balla, 1913

Figure 2. A Breed Apart, 2nd Image, by Hans Haacke 1978 From Perry, G. and Wood, P. (eds.) 2004, Themes in Contemporary Art, Yale University Press: New Haven and London in association with The Open University: Milton Keynes, plate 1.1, p.22

Figure 3. A Breed Apart (all seven images as conventionally exhibited) by Hans Haacke 1978

Figure 4. Abstract Speed Triptych (speculative reconstruction), by Giacomo Balla 1913


This essay proposes that certain formal attributes of a work of art can project a political dimension upon the screen of its reception, offering a politicised position to the viewer. More precisely, the two very different works of art Abstract Speed: The Car Has Passed (by Giacomo Balla, 1913, see fig.1) and A Breed Apart (by Hans Haacke, 1978, see fig. 2) will be compared in terms of how they put to use formal techniques for quite different political purposes. The degree to which political themes are present in these works will be assessed. The political context of both artists will be considered as well as a brief commentary on the development of their artistic techniques. A formal and visual analysis of each work will attempt to draw out the ways in which their artwork amplifies or contests the politics of their age, and situates the viewer.

The critic and media theorist Franco Berardi characterises the twentieth century in Europe as the “century that trusted in the future”, in its early years presided over by a utopian Futurist vision (Berardi 2011 p.17). By 1977 this faith had imploded into the dystopian nihilism of Punk, proclaiming 'No Future' (Berardi 2011 p.17). Berardi's periodisation dates are highly significant with respect to the two artworks examined here. Balla's Abstract Speed series of paintings from 1913 mark the artist's 'fully-fledged' entrance into the Futurist circle (Humphreys 1999 p.36), while Haacke's A Breed Apart, produced in 1978, marks a definitive moment in anti-establishment institutional critique.

Balla in Context

As Robert Hughes notes, the speed with which culture reinvented itself in the last quarter of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th seemed 'almost praeternatural' (Hughes 1980, p.15). More than one writer has noted that the inauguration of Futurism coincided with the arrival of the first moving assembly lines (Meikle in Schnapps 2009, p.62; Berardi 2011, p.19). However, Fordist production processes and Taylorist 'scientific management' of labour time had not yet reached Italy. During this period, the cultural memory of the Risorgimento was still recent, and the economy was still largely agricultural (Berardi 2011, p.21). The infamous racing car of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti's Futurist manifesto, with its 'explosive breath' and seeming to run 'on machine gun fire' (Marinetti 1909 in Harrison & Wood, p.147), would not have been produced with the 'beauty of speed' but hand-assembled 'using traditional craft techniques' (Meikle in Schnapps 2009, p.62). Italian Futurism looked, initially at least, beyond national borders and saw urban life in the industrialised nations changing radically and rapidly.

For the poet Marinetti, the inventor of Futurism and later a Fascist demagogue, the velocity of machines represented freedom from history, the power to redraw the map of Europe, and to replace 'the old sickly cooing sensitivity of the earth' with 'iron bridges', piercing 'surgical trains' and enormous turbines – the 'new muscles of the earth'. For Marinetti war was 'hygiene', and speed was 'beauty' (Hughes, 1980, p.43). Marinetti's lyrical bombast may seem extreme but it can be considered to have both expressed and contributed towards a particular 'structure of feeling' in which its artistic statements were 'all the time lived' (Williams 1977, p.128-29) in everyday early twentieth century Italian life. Futurist painting was an attempt to translate or embody this structure of feeling in a visual medium (Hughes 1980, p.43).

It is important to note while Balla had signed Marinetti's Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting of 1910, there was political distance between them which only widened in later years. Balla is described as subscribing to a form of 'humanitarian socialism' (Humphreys 1999, p.22). Nonetheless, his 1913 Abstract Speed paintings can be said to express something of the cultural 'structure of feeling' of 1913 Italian society, and of Futurism's love affair with acceleration, economic accumulation, state expansion, nationalism, novelty, violence, and machismo.

By the time that Abstract Speed: The Car has Passed was created, Giacomo Balla—with experience of composing music and of his father's professional photography—had already spent considerable time producing work which responded to the advent of cinema and to the innovative chronophotography of Marey and Muybridge (Humphreys 1999, p.34; Martin & Grosenick 2006, p.15 & p.42). Balla extended the points of paint (of the divisionist technique) into lines, and multiplied the representations of a subject. His 1912 works, for example, Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash and Rhythm of the Violinist are 'mechanically analytical' attempts to capture and represent motion in a painted medium (Humphreys 1999, p.36).

In the English language the word 'form' adumbrates a number of ideas which, for example, in ancient Greek, were different (e.g. morphé, eidos, schema, rythmos). Thus, morphé and schema denote form as something fixed and unchanging, whereas rythmos specifically refers to a form 'acquired through motion' (Benveniste 1966, pp.327-335). According to philosopher Giorgio Agamben, Marey and Muybridge had attempted to capture rythmos in their photographic innovations; likewise this thesis can be extended to Balla's analytic works, such as the Girl Crossing a Balcony (1912-13) and Speed of a Motorcycle (1913). However it is important to keep in mind an important distinction between the nineteenth century chronophotographers and Balla's painted motion, which is the specifically Futurist context of the latter. Balla put his techniques in service to the commodification and politicisation of speed and motion.

Balla's spiritual interests in Symbolism and Theosophy may also have guided his experiments with inter-penetrating complementary colours and with a kind of visual synaesthesia of musical and sonic effects. The latter, concerned as it is with the dynamic propagation of sonic waves through time and space, was in likelihood strongly related to the use of 'force-lines' proposed by the Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting (Humphreys 1999, p.36). The combination of the influences detailed above prompted Balla to give visual artistic form to such concepts as machinery, motion, force and speed, dramatising in paint a sense of the accelerating rhythm and tempo of urban European life.

Haacke in Context

Pierre Bourdieu, a theorist that has collaborated with Hans Haacke (Bourdieu & Haacke 1994), characterised the latter's work as similar in effect to Karl Krauss' incitements, which 'provoked his adversaries to make mistakes, or show themselves up' and which 'turned the forces of his adversaries against them'. (Speller 2011 p.144). More specifically, in A Breed Apart, Haacke uses 'discursive montage' (Speller 2011 p.144), a way of combining different registers of language with visual elements, as institutional critique.

The combination of photographic visual elements and text, according to Linda Hutcheon (1989, p.126) creates a multi-registered semiotic system in which the meanings produced by the Piercean indexicality and iconicity of the photograph form an 'interference fringe' with the meanings produced by the symbolic nature of the accompanying text. This 'interference' challenges the reader/observer on several levels; firstly it demands that text and photograph not be considered as independent sign systems, and secondly it demands some kind of synthesis in a new overall meaning. The emergence of this new meaning in the reader/observer can be said to constitute the 'conceptual art' of the work.

Haacke's technique in A Breed Apart can be identified as taking one of two forms: in parts two, four and six (see fig. 3) he presents a familiar photograph (such as might be used in advertising) and unsettles their conventional meanings through the content conveyed by accompanying text, whereas in parts one, three, five and seven (see fig. 3) he accompanies an disquieting photograph of armed policing or political arrest with a paragraph of text designed to read like a cheerful press release. Thus within the work as a whole a duality of both forms of mediation emerge: text critiquing commercial photography, and photographs critiquing commercial literature. What is constant in both of these technical movements is that the familiar and the unfamiliar collide, re-framing a hitherto innocuous-seeming commercialism in terms of its connection with the political tensions of Apartheid.

A Breed Apart both says and shows what is in everyday advertising necessarily omitted. It effectively suggests that the commodification of a vehicle is above all a process of eliding the process of its production and the associated social and political structures which enabled this process. Advertisement then appears disingenuous, presenting products as if they had magically appeared via the goodwill of the brand alone, alienating consumers from the real material processes. Pierre Bourdieu cites Brecht's estrangement effect as an influence on his ideas of 'une politique de la forme' (Bourdieu & Haacke 1994 p.84) and on Haacke's critique of 'symbolic capital' (p.89). Brechtian verfremdungseffekt was itself partly inspired by the literary criticism of the Russian Formalist school, particularly Shklovsky's identification of priem ostranenie—the 'estranging device/technique' in Art as Technique (Shklovsky 1917 in Lemon & Reis 2012, pp.). It is not immediately obvious that devices sometimes called 'alienation effects' can be used by a viewer to disalienate himself or herself 'in and through the consciousness of alienation', but this is indeed an effect of defamiliarisation (Lefebvre 2014, p.45; Shepherd & Wallis 2004, p.185; Gordon 2006, p.389 n25)

As can be witnessed from the above, the context in which Haacke produced his work is one heavily influenced by literary factors, theory and theorists—particularly Bourdieu—and so his use of the creative interface between text and images is hardly surprising. What makes A Breed Apart stand out from more 'playful' works of conceptual art is its explicit political targeting. Haacke challenges the formalist, aestheticist idea (such as that expressed by Clement Greenberg in his 1965 article Modernist Painting) that specific political messages and historical references 'contaminate' art. Instead, the formal qualities of Haacke's artwork are a political message, while political message would be impossible without form (Bourdieu & Haacke 1994 p.90).

Haacke's use of the tagline 'A Breed Apart' reveals how his raw materials (here, the stuff of advertising, its phrases and imagery) is always already 'contaminated' politically. In some regions of its transnational enterprise Jaguar used this phrase to generate distinction for itself as a brand, since as part of a vocabulary of separating birthrights or pedigrees in bred sporting animals it carried the suggestion of virility and heightened potency. However, the same language when applied to human beings immediately deflates any symbolic capital, as it can easily indicate racist segregation, which is precisely what Haacke wanted to bring into focus in this work. When the phrase is conjoined with photographs of Apartheid politics, its 'official' meaning slides uncontrollably towards a condemnation of advertising's complicity in and proximity to institutionalised racism.

As alluded to in the introduction, the fact that A Breed Apart was produced in the year 1978 is important. If 1977 saw the rise of the Punk movement and the appropriation of Lettrist and Situationist techniques of détournement (Debord 1981 in Harrison & Wood 1992, pp.701-710) then Haacke's art of the following year also follows this wider social pattern of anti-establishment critique. However, since 1978 techniques of re-appropriating establishment material have themselves been re-appropriated and today there exist 'cool-hunting expeditions'—marketing practices whereby advertisers scour ghettoes for 'edgy' new style ideas for commercial product placement. This highlights the historical specificity of Haacke's A Breed Apart.

In terms of situating the viewer, Haacke combats what Bourdieu calls the 'symbolic domination' of both corporate and state patrons and sponsors whose strategic goal has been to seduce and manipulate artists into neutralising criticism of their policies and products (Bourdieu & Haacke 1994, p.16-20). While this may seem like a return to a modernist argument, concerning the autonomy (versus heteronomy) of the artist, it deeply concerns what the viewer is able to view since it bears on the economic and social conditions of possibility for the production and exhibition of artwork.

Visual Analysis of the Seen Artwork

As currently exhibited at the Tate Liverpool gallery, The Car Has Passed hangs in a corner of the DLA Piper series 'Constellations', in which artworks are arranged not chronologically but according to how they were 'triggered' by other works. According to this arrangement, the 'constellation' Balla's work belongs to is dominated by Henri Matisse, through a series of 'correspondences' including Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Jean Metzinger (Tate 2014a). In terms of physical location, Balla's painting hangs between Natalya Goncharova's Gardening and an exterior window, appearing almost peripheral to the exhibition.

While Balla's delineation appears sharp and fresh in photographs of the work, this is misleading, as closer inspection of the work (which is smaller than might be imagined, at 502mm by 654mm [Tate 2014b]) reveals a roughness to the lines and particularly to the shading that follows them. This is particularly noticeable in the case of the pink of the bottom left force-line, where the shading appears granular and smudged in the areas where it is crossed transversally by other force-lines.

The back and top of the pictorial space is marked out somewhat conventionally by a deep blue sky, backgrounding a row of three intersecting geometrical hills, functioning both as a distant landscape and, through shallow modelling following arched and ogival shapes, abstractly foliate forms. A stylised off-white road dominates the lower half of the painting, appearing to issue from a traditionally perspectival and foreshortened vanishing point, albeit a vanishing point plainly inconsistent with the other elements of the painting. The illusionistic depth of the picture is complicated by the unusual, non-realist placement of the road, the abstractness of the landscape, and by the force-lines which criss-cross the surface. The perspective and sweep of the road suggests depth but remains un-modelled. The effect of these complications and dualities is to both invite and to bar the viewer from entry into illusionistic space. The force-lines, which abstractly represent the sonic aftermath and exhaust trail of the titular passed car, oscillate between two modes. Firstly, they appear as an inviting veil or curtain superimposed on a scene with depth; secondly, as a radical partitioning of that scene into more 'painterly' and flattened sections. A hint of 'analytic' Cubism's influence is discernible here.

If understood as the third image in a triptych (see fig. 4) the background in Balla's Abstract Speed series develops narratively from being darkened and obscured by the noise, speed and lines of force of the 'car' in the leftmost and central paintings, yet survives intact and bright in the final image (in which 'the car has passed'). This demonstrates political differences between Balla and Marinetti's regarding Nature; whereas Marinetti has written bitterly of 'the old cooing sensitivity of the earth' and of destroying the Earth for the sake of the machine (Hughes 1980, p.43), Balla's painted landscape still remains intact despite the energetic advent of the motor car.

In contrast to the heavier, darker and angrier lines of the two other paintings that purportedly make up the Abstract Speed triptych (Tate 2014c; Guggenheim 2014), particularly the second (Abstract Speed: Speed and Sound, see fig. 4) with its smaller, scatter-gun force-lines, The Car Has Passed is dominated by the generous and open curvature of its force-lines, which seem almost serene in comparison. Seen as the denouement of a three-painting narrative, 'the car' has indeed 'passed', and what remains in its wake is only the cursive flourish or signature of its speed, as gently descending fumes and waves of air pressure that look set only to disperse further. The palette of blues, greens and pinks is cooler and more harmonious than that of the other paintings, but it is important to note that tensions are still present.

The conventionally-ordered, simplistic and even naïve composition of The Car Has Passed in terms of colour (a receding blue sky, a row of dark green hills, an illuminated foreground) appears very much to be a deliberate concession to classical bucolic or picturesque ideals of rurality and Nature's beauty. It is important not to overstate this, because when presented abstractly, these ideals are indeed analytically flattened, revealing the stasis and schematism of the ideals of pastoral hills and idyllic blue skies. Balla no doubt painted with a full awareness of this contradiction: on the one hand 'musically' appreciative of harmony and cyclic returns to cadence, but on the other hand recognising that forces of excitation and disturbance are required to prevent stagnation and inaction.

The overall effect on the viewer, bearing in mind the social context, is to galvanise a belief in the necessity of progress, without undue sacrifice of certain ideals regarding national territory. The emotional atmosphere—or, using Williams' term, 'structure of feeling'—generated and conveyed by the painting is complex and contradictory if considered logically, but in terms of emotion it is powerfully motivated. At the centre of the issue, although absent from the painting, is the driver and his driven nature—as Marinetti's masculinist chauvinism made clear, Italian Futurism required men do the driving—so that any winged Victory for the motorcar and the machine age only masks a paean to the will and might of man over nature. It is hard to filter out Marinetti's populist rallying cry to unite in mastery of the aggressive energies unleashed by new technologies elsewhere in Europe, to contend for a superior place there. Yet the message suggested by Balla's abstractions stands slightly apart from that Futurism, in that Balla's vehicle seems in the end just a vehicle, to be dispensed with: a technical means of interrupting and rousing people from inactivity, while the true object of national desire was a kind of spiritual evanescence that only the vehicle's speed could facilitate.


Today we can speak easily of a fetishism of speed, in which the actual production and technical mechanics of a vehicle and its engine have been obscured and mystified by the commercial imagery of open roads, responsive controls and breathtaking experiences which pique modern desire. In retrospect, Balla's Abstract Speed appears as a proto-advertisement, linking a luxury item—too fast to see—with the anticipation of collectively fulfilling these kinds of desires as a nation. Balla's work prefigures those modern advertisements from which the product is often absent but nonetheless virtualised through its traces and effects: that is, in its 'lines of force'. Through the imagery and ideologies used in advertising the collective desires of an audience are commodified and sold back to the audience in the form of a product or brand. As such, the painting not only proved prescient but situated the contemporary viewer as part of a much larger collective desirous of a certain future, which is to say, as being on an emotional level politically complicit with international competition, an increasingly corporatist state and its means of economic accumulation.

An interesting visual parallel emerges when comparing the second of the seven images in A Breed Apart (fig. 2) to A Car Has Passed. Ignoring the text, the photograph of the car interior establishes the seating as high-quality, fashioned and modern, capturing its curved lines as 'symbolic capital', indicating ownership of such a vehicle denotes 'distinction', 'taste', and a modern 'life in the fast lane'. The same curves mark Balla's painting, appearing there as lingering traces of exhaust traces and force-lines. These curves (which in the masculinist and sexist mindset can no doubt evoke a yielding femininity supportive of, but absent from, the fast lane) echo in Balla's work the abstract voluptuousness of his landscape; there too they are part of the attempt to generate value or symbolic capital. However, in Haacke's work, the pointedness of the accompanying text destroys whatever imagined comforts the curved caresses of the interior upholstery might have conjured; the point is to deflate the generation of symbolic capital.

Both artworks examined attempt to engage the viewer / reader actively in the production of meaning, conveying a political dynamic or tension in which the viewer / reader will take up a position. There is in both works an implicit appeal to the popular, that is, to the people. In Balla's work the overall movement is towards mythologisation, commodification, and the generation of symbolic capital or value, which involves the exercise of the imagination in projecting a sense of the future. This future is not explicitly nationalised, as in a later work (Long Live Italy, 1915—a highly patriotic, literally 'flag-waving' painting utilising the Italian colours), although the abstract rolling green hills hint at some nationalistic attachment to the soil. In Hans Haacke's work the overall movement is towards de-mythologisation, which undoes the imagery and glamour of the advertised vehicles to reveal the political implications of advertising and the selectivity of what is shown by it.

Balla and Haacke certainly share a destructive urge, although clearly there are clear differences in its expression. A Breed Apart sets out to destroy the mythologising, fetishising use of images by advertisers and to wound the tradition of advertising by turning it on itself. Balla's Abstract Speed: The Car Has Passed stages the destruction of history through the phenomena of escape and passage towards the future (although preserving nationhood, and perhaps to some extent, an idealised countryside).

With Futurism, it is as if the machine merely by its novelty will accomplish marvels—there is in Marxian terms a 'commodity fetishism' at work; Haacke shows on the contrary that sordid human political machinations and their deliberate obscuration hold together the media edifice which broadcasts the marvels and modernity of machines to its consumers.

Although working in different directions and very different contexts, both Haacke and Balla make use of formal devices as means of politicising their artwork. This is not to say that such devices are politically neutral, like technical instruments that remain innocent and uncontaminated by whatever specific uses they are put to. On the contrary, they are in Bourdieu and Haacke's view always indissociable from the political context of their use, but their political meaning changes according to that context.


Benveniste, E., 1966: Problèmes de linguistique générale, Gallimard: Paris.
Berardi, F., 2011: After the Future, AK Press: Edinburgh
Bourdieu & Haacke 1994: Free Exchange, Polity Press: Cambridge
Debord, G., Knabb, K. [ed., trans.] 1981: 'Writings from the Situationist International' from Situationist International Anthology in Harrison & Wood (1992) Art in Theory, Blackwell, London, pp.701-710
Gordon, R., 2006: The Purpose of Playing: Modern Acting Theories in Perspective, The University of Michigan Press: London
Guggenheim 2014: [webpage] Giacomo Balla,
Harrison, C. & Wood, P. [eds.] 2003: Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, New Edition, Blackwell: London.
Hughes, R. 1980: The Shock of the New: Art and the Century of Change, Updated and Enlarged Edition, Thames & Hudson by arrangement with BBC publications, a division of BBC Enterprises Ltd: London, 1991
Humphreys, R., 1999: Futurism (Movements in Modern Art), Tate Gallery Publishing: London
Hutcheon, L., 1989: The Politics of Postmodernism, Routledge:Abingdon, 2nd ed. (2002)
Lemon & Reis [eds.] (2012) Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, University of Nebraska Press
Knab, K. [ed., trans.] 1981: Situationist International Anthology, Revised and expanded ed. 2007, Bureau of Public Secrets (no copyright): Berkeley
Marinetti, F. T., 1909: 'The Futurist Manifesto' in Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (1992) Art and Theory, Blackwell, London, pp.146-149
Martin, S. & Grosenick, U. (ed.) 2006: Futurism, Taschen: London
Meikle, J. L., 2009: 'Materials' in Schnapp (2009) Speed Limits, The Wolfsonian-Florida International University, The Canadian Centre for Architecture and Skira: London, pp.58-73
Perry, G. and Wood, P. (eds.) 2004, Themes in Contemporary Art, Yale University Press: New Haven and London in association with The Open University: Milton Keynes, plate 1.1, p.22
Schnapp, J. T., 2009: Speed Limits, The Wolfsonian-Florida International University, The Canadian Centre for Architecture and Skira: London
Speller, J.R.W., 2011: Bourdieu and Literature, OpenBook Publishers: Cambridge
Shklovsky, V., 1917: 'Art as Technique' in Lemon & Reis [eds.] (2012) Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, University of Nebraska Press
Tate 2014a: [webpage] Constellations, retreived etc
Tate 2014b: [webpage] Abstract Speed: The Car has Passed,
Tate 2014c: [webpage] Catalogue entry,