Stephen Willats

Recycling Cultural Icons, 1986

Artists have attempted to give their work a wider social connection in a number of ways, the most important recent strategy being by synthesising images and objects from the street and then presenting them as art objects. Another strategy, and one that was doomed to fail immediately, was the taking of art works normally bounded to the inside of art institutions and then to reposition them outside on the street. When this was tried the result simply could not be read by the audience even as a work of art and, more often than not, was destroyed.

Unfortunately another recent preoccupation by some artists with the images of advertising also fails to achieve a cultural meaning beyond art institutions, but for completely different reasons. The thinking was that the artist by recycling the imagery of advertising and, in the process, transforming it within, and into an artwork they could build up a ‘semiotic’ language that would have the same availability to a wide audience as advertising strategies. Artists mimicked the visual composition and coding used in advertising, but only its stylistic visual format, and then of single frame presentations. Artists tried to represent images that were originated and deterministically employed by the dominant culture, in a new role as highly refined elements within art objects.

These attempts to widen an artwork’s meaning by re-using the already idealised icons of the dominant culture, I say have been doomed by that very fact. For the dominant culture’s idealised images are object-based, in which any representation of people and social relationships are reduced to objects, or object-like recreations based on the self-perception of property; so the imitation by the artist of these same images renders the content of the artwork object-based as well, and they simply become little more that domestic stylistic representations of advertising.


Printed in Society Through Art, Stephen Willats, Haags Centrum voor Aktuele Kunst, Den Haag, 1990