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Thinking of YouReview - Thinking of You
by Barbara Kruger
MIT Press, 1999
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Mar 27th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 13)

Thinking of You is the catalogue of a major retrospective of Barbara Kruger’s work organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.  It contains most of her work and also seven essays and interviews.  It is hard to think of another non-commercial artist alive today whose work has greater iconographic power than Kruger’s: she stands with Andy Warhol and Keith Haring with her ability to integrate her work with popular culture, and she has arguably been more successful in her questioning of the values that normally come with capitalism and popular entertainment.  While her messages are direct and her approach might seem shrill or dogmatic on their own, she has managed to introduce some ideas from sophisticated critical theory into popular discourse.

            Kruger’s words will be familiar to many:

  • YOUR FICTIONS BECOME HISTORY
  • YOUR BODY IS A BATTLEGROUND
  • I SHOP THEREFORE I AM
  • GOD SENDS THE MEAT AND THE DEVIL COOKS
  • WE HAVE RECEIVED ORDERS NOT TO MOVE
  • WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?
  • WHY ARE YOU HERE?
  • WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT?
  • HOW MUCH MONEY DO YOU MAKE?
  • YOU ARE GETTING WHAT YOU PAID FOR
  • WE DON’T NEED ANOTHER HERO
  • YOUR GAZE HITS THE SIDE OF MY FACE
  • DON’T BE A JERK

When these are printed in the familiar Kruger font, often in white against a red banner, with a commercial black and white photograph from the 1950s, the resulting image makes us stop in our tracks.  Using the power and simplicity of the crudest advertising, Kruger questions the mainstream.  Her viewpoint is radical, concerned to raise doubt about the legitimacy of the powers-that-be.  She has defended women’s right to abortion, and some of her work makes points as simple as “we need health care and housing.”  Her work is aimed at ordinary people, both in its message and its medium: it appears not just in art galleries, but on billboards, on buses, in subway stations, on T-shirts, postcards, posters, and on magazine covers. 

            Kruger’s art works at a variety of levels.  Along with direct political messages, she leads people to question how they look at the world and especially how they evaluate the information the mainstream media gives them.  Her approach is direct but also sly; although there’s a didactic side to her messages, there’s also a knowing wink to her audience, and there’s a great pleasure to be taken in viewing her work.  Although one would imagine that people would resist being preached at by an artist, she manages to create a bond with those reading her messages, conveying a sense that she is on their side. 

            It is the job of critics and theorists to examine how Kruger achieves her effects.  Surely part of her success comes from her readiness to embrace the pleasure of a good slogan and kitsch of old images.  Even though there’s certainly anger in her work, right on the surface, maybe it is the fact that she is not condemning her viewer that stops her pictures from simply being works of alienation.  However she achieves it, Kruger’s work provides an instant antidote to the insidious messages coming from advertising and popular media.  She leads us to see the way the word is constructed, and her work is nearly always a welcome interruption of the constant barrage of commercial seductions that normally occupy our every waking moment. 

            This book is nicely produced: the articles are approachable and helpful, and the retrospective makes it clear how successful Kruger has been.  Strongly recommended to anyone with countercultural sympathies.

 

© 2002 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the general public.


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