Author Archives: Deborah Reichmann

Spirituality and Style

By Deborah Reichmann

Historical circumstances of Diaspora and legal landlessness in Europe resulted in many European Jews taking on the jobs of peddlers, bankers or tailors. Professions that could be uprooted at a moment’s notice and transplanted without too much trouble were the hallmark of a wandering people. To a great extent, these livelihoods carved out from oppression became traditional within Jewish culture and their influence can be seen in modern American life.

That said, having Jews in the clothing and apparel industry does not per se create a religious nexus within that industry. Nonetheless, the intersection of Judaism and fashion does bear examination.  The very forces that had created niche professions for Jews in Europe brought them to American shores at a time where those particular proficiencies were highly marketable.[1] The early 20th century resulted in a clothing industry highly influenced by Jewish immigrants; this influence is not merely seen in the preponderance of Jewish workers, but in their inherent world view made from generations of immigrants. A world view that stressed adaptation, innovation and persistence.[2]

Within two generations, the clothing and apparel industry became less Jewish as sons and daughters sought out different careers and opportunities than their parents, but clothing and fashion remain a window into understanding contemporary Jewish life.  Pierre Bourdieu mapped out a method for understanding the process and impact of cultural production a scheme that works well in parsing out the component parts of fashion in general, and in particular the subset that constitutes Jewish religious fashion. Once, the scheme and its ‘moving parts’ are identified, Roland Barthes’ “Fashion System” semiotics provide insights into the deeper meanings of Jewish fashion and the stories that it tells.

Judaism and Clothing

Judaism regulates dress, but in a far different and less explicit way than it does, say, food or other social behavior. Biblically, there are few explicit regulations on clothing. The verse that relates the most closely is Deuteronomy 22:5 “A woman must not put on man’s apparel, nor shall a man wear woman’s clothing; for whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord your God” (JPS translation), and the second one often referred to is in Numbers 5:18 that refers to the high priest removing a woman’s head covering (aka veil), ergo implying that a woman should have her head covered. The Deuteronomy passage has been interpreted by most rabbis to mean that women and men should not attempt to gain entrance into the other’s society via subterfuge, and not as an all out restriction on clothing. Today, only the most observant Jewish women will not wear pants so as to ensure that this stricture does not get inadvertently broken. 

These two biblical passages and a host of rabbinic lore and interpretation throughout the last two thousand years have resulted in a code of dress based on Tzniut, modesty. That code is itself predicated on three kinds of directives:

  • the law of Moses – those edicts mentioned in the bible,
  • the law of the Jews – those directives based on Jewish tradition, and
  • the custom of the place – those guidelines influenced by the local (aka secular) community.

The practical upshot of these rules is that men and women dress in clothing that is not sexually suggestive, they wear garments that cover their torsos to the clavicle, arms to the elbow and legs to the knee. Some more religious sects take the strictures even further, and extend the lengths, avoid bright colors and any body conforming clothing. At first glance, these fashions seem to bear little or no resemblance to mainstream fashion, but in essence they are no different.

 Image from Polyvore at

Image from

Bourdieu – Cultural Production 

At the outset, it is clear that Bourdieu does not base his theory of cultural production on aesthetic values, instead his concern is with the underlying causation of cultural products. That is to say, cultural artifacts are measured by symbolic, attributed values, values assigned their place in a competitive social hierarchy.[3] Cultural products relate directly to social stratification, and each cultural production field has its own set of rules to differentiate itself and propagate its interests.[4] Further, Bourdieu links cultural production to economic stratification with an inverse relation to an artifact’s functionality, inasmuch as the higher the aesthetic value, the lower the functional value of the object.[5]

The relation of an object’s symbolic value, then, translates into social capital and therefore, “art and cultural consumption are predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfil a social function of legitimating social differences.”[6] Bourdieu also introduces a factor of ‘disinterestedness, ’ as a mark of artistic autonomy and the mark of a cultural artifact’s ‘purity.’[7] The higher the autonomous value of an object, the higher it’s luxury value and therefore it’s social capital.

Cultural production and consumption, under Bourdieu’s scheme create, “patterns of perception in order to generate successful patterns of legitimation . . . In order to consume, we need to be able to classify.”[8] The process of legitimation can not exist outside of a given field since it is competition within the field that generates the hierarchical differences among cultural products. The judges for this competition are, themselves, competitors who have aggregated enough ‘capital’ to award esteem upon others. For our purposes, the essence of Bourdieu’s analysis is that identifiable culture is not based on abstract principles, but that it is valued by the ‘dominant players’ to promote their respective agendas. 

There is an inherent inconsistency with the model because it counters commonly held principles of economic decision making. A successful artist is one who does not create in order to sell (disiniterest), however, once recognized by the dominant players in the field, that artist’s work will demand a high price. Bourdieu tackles this inconsistency by structuring the field of cultural production along a spectrum of two opposite sets of values: autonomous and heteronomous.[9] The autonomous side of the field is fueled by ‘classic’ artistic ideals such as imagination, truth-telling, and creative expression, and the target audience are the dominant players, those who share in the field’s specialized knowledge and confer their regard upon that basis. The heteronomous section is produced for mass consumption, based on the rules and codes established by the dominant players, but whose symbolic capital is diluted by mass recognition.

Fashion follows the same rules as Art in Bourdieu’s analysis of cultural production, even though clothing is functional, it is generated by similar mechanisms and similar actors.[10] For example, at the autonomous extreme, designers of haute couture actually do make “one off” pieces that bear little to no resemblance to common street wear, but whose monetary and status value are very high.

Judaism and Fashion in Bourdieu’s model 

As Bourdieu notes in the introduction to Distinction:

There is no way out of the game of culture, and one’s only chance of objectifying the true nature of the game is to objectify as fully as possible the very operations which one is obliged to use in order to achieve that objectification.[11]

Adding Jewish cultural norms to the more generalized norms of American culture does not change the game, but adds a dimension of complexity. The players, those that recognize that fashion connotes status and generates social capital are faced with adapting the norms as set forth by the fashion industry/interpretive community alongside the norms set forth by their religious communities.


When a player within both of these systems has enough individual capital to be among the dominant players, then the hybrid fashion becomes an exercise in creativity.

(See, Tobi Rubenstein Schneier

New York Post Article

As we can see from this real life example, social capital and cultural production are not easily teased out to exist in only one field. Tobi Rubenstein Schneier, was already a member of the fashion interpretive community when she gained social capital by marrying a locally well-known individual. She combined her capital to where now she is in a position to elevate particulars of the fashion production field. Because her personal bent is also toward the religious, there too she wields influence.

For everyone else, the adaptation of maximizing fashion based social capital within a religious overlay comes from understanding how, where and when cultural production influences their social structure. To illuminate this arena, we turn to Roland Barthes.

Roland Barthes

According to Bourdieu, Fashion is a field for and of cultural production, with no value outside that which it assigns itself and is recognized by the society in which it sits. For Roland Barthes, fashion is also an abstract notion, but instead of conceiving it as field per se, it is a system of signs and signifiers that interrelate, but do not necessarily correlate to a specific thing, rather to the idea of a thing (how to look/be/act fashionably). 

Barthes examines fashion by looking at how it is conveyed and received. That is, by its language. A garment in and of itself carries, at best, its functional value, but “it is not the object but the name that creates desire; it is not the dream but the meaning that sells.”[12] Fashion language (differentiated from speaking about fashion) creates a system whereby by indicating what is acceptable, all else is implicitly not acceptable.[13] (See

In this write up of Fall fashion we are told it is a season of duality, of opposites attracting etc. etc. The text goes on and names various garments, but in truth they could each be swapped out for others, the decision to award social capital to certain stylistic elements was made by the interpretive society of fashion (the dominant players), and each signifier only indicates what is intended to be signified, at this time.

Fashion can be defined only by itself, for Fashion is merely a garment and the Fashion garment is never anything but what Fashion decides it is; thus, from signifiers to signified, a purely reflexive process is established, in the course of which the signified is emptied, as it were, of all content, without, however, losing anything of its power to designate: this process constitutes the garment as a signifier of something which is yet nothing other than this very constitution. [14] 

And yet, we are left wondering about a garment’s own determining factors. Instinctively, we may say that the language of fashion does refer to specific things (i.e., garments), and even if, “An article of clothing may seem to be ‘meaningless’ in itself; so we must then, more than ever, get at its social and global function, and above all its history; and because the manner in which vestimentary values are presented (forms, colours [sic], tailoring, etc.) can very well depend on an internal history of the system.”[15] Finally, Barthes acknowledges that garments have signifiers outside the Fashion System. 

A garment’s determinants include not only its supported and prescribed function as told by the cultural production side, but its status and provenance as interpreted by society. All garments “speak,” but what they say is entirely subjective to the “listener.” A person may see history in a garment, a particular fabric or pattern can have additional meanings (e.g., national colors, flag motifs). But, the decision as to whether or not a specific object is fashionable, that is has social capital, is made by the ‘dominant players’. In this scheme, then is it realistically possible for religion and fashion to blend? If the Fashion dominant players insist that hemlines must be above the knee, how can an observant Jewish woman engage in the Fashion game?

Jewish Fashion

The supposition that Fashion is uniform is flawed. Even among the dominant players, or rather especially among the dominant players, dissent can be found. How else can they promote one designer over another? While certain trends can be identified, the closer one gets to the autonomous end of the fashion spectrum the greater the variation from the mean, the heteronomous mass market. This is both definitional and logical. Equally important is the concept that social status varies among different social strata and communities. Thus, there is a separate hierarchy that only applies to observant Jewish communities, a fashion code that the members of that community are conversant in, and whose signifiers connote other than that of mainstream Fashion.

Key to Fashion/Religion Venn DIagram


  • Identity – emerges out of fashion choice along the autonomous/heteronomous spectrum
  • Status – social capital is measured by adherence to a specified fashion code


  • Identity – emerges out of family and social constraints in combination with adherence to religious code
  • Status – indicated by observance of specified social norms

Religious Fashion

  • Identity and Status combine across cultural systems. Depending on the variables unique to each, an individual’s social capital can either rise or fall, and it is not necessary that the social capital be  the same across both spheres.

In fact, Jewish fashion understands the language of fashion and uses Barthesian logic to highlight the aspects of current fashion that are allowed, and to play down the aspects that do not jibe with their world view. Jewish fashion stores and writers are allowing, “the source of meaning to be attached quite precisely to a small, finite element (represented by a single word), whose action is diffused through a complex structure.”[16]The Jewish Chronicle Online opened a 2011 article with these words: 

They may not often grace the pages of Vogue, but strictly Orthodox women regularly reinterpret celebrity and catwalk fashion – with a modest twist, according to research by the London College of Fashion.[17] 

Jewish fashion magazines exist, and sell their story. It isn’t the mainstream story

It isn’t the mainstream story, but it nonetheless conveys meaning and social status. The worlds of cultural production and religious cultural production ultimately follow the same rules and use the same semiotic symbols—in combination, we can find a hybrid sub-culture where, just as in the mainstream, “Fashion is stripped of content, but not of meaning.”[18]


[1]  Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2008). 144

[2]  Jonathan D. Sarna, “The Cult of Synthesis in American Jewish Culture,” Jewish Social Studies (Indiana University Press) 5, no. 1/2 (1999): 52-79. 72.

[3]  David Swartz, Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997). 6

[4]  Simon Susen, “Bourdieu and Adorno on the Transformation of Culture in Modern Society: Towards a Critical Theory of Cultural Production,” in The Legacy of Pierre Bourdieu: Critical Essays, 438 (London: Anthem Press, 2011). 176

[5]  Jen Webb, Understanding Bourdieu (London: SAGE Publications, 2002). 148

[6] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984). 7.

[7] Bourdieu Distinction. 254.

[8]  Susen, 183.

[9] Webb, 159-160.

[10] “While objects may have another function or another identity as commodities, when they move into the world of Culture their economic value is applied differently from objects in the mainstream commodity world. They circulate under a different order of logic and exchange from that of ‘everyday’ goods, because they are no use principally as signs of distinction, social division and privilege.” Webb, 163.

[11] Bourdieu, 12.

[12]  Roland Barthes, The Fashion System (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990). xii.

[13] “In Fashion, we are dealing with classes of exclusions, whereas language always tends to propose classes of inclusions.” Barthes, The Fashion System 101.

[14] Id. 287

[15]  Roland Barthes, The Language of Fashion (Oxford: Berg, 2006). 14

[16] Barthes The Fashion System. 119.

[17]  Jessica Elgot, Vogue does strictly Orthodox fashion, June 23, 2011, (accessed May 2, 2013).

[18] Barthes, The Fashion System. 288.

The Golem

By Deborah Reichmann

Jewish folklore tells the tale of “the Golem.”

Milan Jaros for The New York Times

In 16th century Prague, the Jews of the city subject to anti-semitic attacks asked their rabbi for help. The rabbi created a human shaped being out of the mud of the river and animated it by writing a holy word on its forehead. The Golem then came to life and protected its people until the rabbi deactivated it by erasing one of the letters. Some versions of the story have the Golem as a kind protector, others have it going on rampage, some stories have the Golem’s final deactivation to be a permanent death, and others say that he is waiting to be needed again. The Golem is an illustration of an automaton. It had no independent thought, and little to no intelligence, therefore its strength and dedication to a task could easily be a blessing or a curse. It was non-human less because of its physical abilities, but more because it couldn’t think like a human, or as Hans Moravec says, “human identity is essentially an informational pattern rather than an embodied enaction.”[1]

But, what if it had a mind with which to reason? A heart with which to love? These variations and others have been examined through the centuries in various stories where the Golem, a human-looking non-human could act out ethical and moral conundrums without fear of what really might happen if humanity lost its soul. In many senses, the best use of the concept of the Golem was to examine humanity in a form both lacking an essential element and having extra abilities. The Golem, the robot, the cyborg  and other human/machine hybrids serve as a medium to play out human fantasies of super and sub human-ness, whether in strength, sexuality, intelligence or some other attribute. 

Today, automatons are actually possible, and if Kurzweil is to be believed, artificial intelligence will in our lifetimes bootstrap itself into self-awareness. Given humanity’s centuries old exploration of such a hybrid, specifically a human made intelligence that is no longer subject to human control, it is not surprising that the concept arouses fear and suspicion as well as hope and reverence.[2] Ultimately, neither fear nor reverence will be particularly useful. The ‘singularity’ will come into existence, and humanity will react. As it comes into being it will cease being unheimliche (uncanny), because it will have a tangible, concrete character. At that point it will cease being an unconscious bogey-man and may generate ‘real’ fear or ‘real’ reverence, just as the awesome power of the atom bomb did. And, just like the atom bomb, humans will learn to adapt to a reality that includes the singularity, scary or not, wonderful or not.

[1] N. Katherine Hayles, “How We Became Posthuman,” (Intro). Univ. of Chicago Press, 1999.

[2] We don’t have to look past today to see the intertwined promise and peril of technological advancement. Imagine describing the dangers (atomic and hydrogen bombs, for one thing) that exist today to people who lived a couple of hundred years ago. They would think it mad to take such risks. But how many people in 2006 would really want to go back to the short, brutish, disease-filled, poverty-stricken, disaster-prone lives that 99% of the human race struggled through two centuries ago? Ray Kurzweil Reinventing Humanity: The Future of Machine-Human Intelligence The Futurist, 2006 pp. 39-46 (45)


Movements in the Musical

By Deborah Reichmann

The Broadway Musical has generally followed the trope of “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back,” and the music has traditionally followed the story line with few surprises. In the early 1990s Jonathan Larson shook things up with “Rent.” Borrowing heavily from Puccini’s “La Boheme” he not only added musical and dramatic elements from this classic opera, but through rock music and modern-themed lyrics painted a picture of New York that was accurate, poignant and highly nuanced.

Larson’s musical essay on young artists struggling with poverty, political expression, AIDS, sexual identity and (not to put a fine point on it) adolescence earned him a pulitzer. “Rent” accomplishes its goal with a multi-layered dialectic. The baseline of “La Boheme” conveys to the audience that this, like Puccini’s opera is about a marginalized group of artists whose very existence puts them at risk for poverty, disease and death but whose ‘joie de vivre’ masks and even lessens their predicament. Then Larson takes the traditional lines and moves them around: the tragedy shifts rom the supposed main characters and is visited upon the most beloved character in the cast. He seamlessly intertwines rock and classical opera to create a sound both new and familiar, and thus challenges the audience to find the classic themes and where they step off the beaten path. By using foundational concepts in a novel way, Larson with “Rent” created a post-modern masterpiece. Even though Danto was speaking of visual arts, his dictum to, “turn from sense experience to thought . . . to turn to philosophy”[1] is indeed the level at which this show can be understood.

More recently we have seen musicals like “Rock of Ages,” which stays entirely within the trope plot of the traditional musical, but combines snippets of popular rock songs to tell the story.  In almost every way, “Rock of Ages” is a pastiche, along Jameson’s[2] lines. The soundtrack looks like a 1980’s mix tape, and the characters are all archetypes. “Rock of Ages” evokes camp, not only in “its . . . artifice and exaggeration,” but even to the extent that for those who recall the era evoked, it has established, “a private code, a badge of identity. . .”[3]

Rock of Ages, is as close to a pop art reproduction in music and drama as anything could be. Like Warhol using soup cans or brillo boxes, the use of the ‘uber’ familiar music and mannerisms of the 1980’s creates a space for dialogue where the audience both delights in reminiscing, but also feels the edge of art transforming the familiar into something else.

[1] Arthur Danto, Modern, Postmodern, and Contemporary,” From After the End of Art (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1997): Chap. 1, pp. 3-19

[2] Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society.” From E. Ann Kaplan, ed. Postmodernism and its Discontents (London and New York: Verso, 1988): 16

[3] Susan Sontag, Notes on Camp (1964; reprinted in essay collection, Against Interpretation, 1966).

Music: A Vast Interdependent Semiotic System (or many)

By Deborah Reichmann

As we have become aware, there is virtually no form of human expression that does not beg, borrow or steal from someone or somewhere else. Music epitomizes the melding of sources, and modern technology and communication has only sped up and expanded the process of creating hybrid forms.

As fast and furious as today’s sounds are mixing and remixing, this week’s readings brought to mind the music of the Police, and specifically of Sting. This wildly popular group of the 1980s had a distinctive sound, but one that borrowed audibly from reggae, jazz and even classical music sources. Their music sounds almost as fresh today as when it debuted, in part from staying away from the synthesized keyboard popular at the time, but in greater part because of its hybrid nature.

The link with reggae can be heard in the Police’s use of reggae rhythms–drum and bass lines that can be found across their songs[1].  Sting’s later, solo work included jazz Dream of the Blue Turtles, and classical music Russians (using Prokofiev) just to highlight two.

Looking at the musicians that Sting employed is another way to track some of the musical influences in this one album. He collaborated with Branford Marsalis, a jazz and classical musician, as well as Eddy Grant a cross-over reggae/pop star.[2] Sting embraced the concept of music as a dynamic language – acknowledging that the message changes via the mechanism, the instruments and the audience. His use of universal themes and hybrid forms allows for a fresh listen 25 years later. I would imagine he agrees with DJ Spooky that fragmentation reflects pan-humanism, and that the object of music is to highlight the fragments and their malleability. The semiotics of music allows for even greater expression than any given modern language, and thus the expression in musical code can be given and received across the globe in a way that many other forms of expression may not necessarily be able to.[3]

[1] John Bush, “Dub Revolution: The Story of Dub Reggae and its Legacy.” Remix Theory. ”This practice helped establish the Jamaican tradition of reusing rhythms many times. In doing this, the rhythms themselves become independent of the songs that they are a part of, and take on individual characters of their own. Many frequently used rhythms – mostly characterized by a drum beat and bass line”


[3] “An Interview with Paul D. Miller a. k. a. DJ Spooky–That Subliminal Kid,” Carol Becker; Romi Crawford; Paul D. Miller. Art Journal, Vol. 61, No. 1. (Spring, 2002), pp. 82-91. (86)


Keith Haring: Accessible and Impenetrable

By Deborah Reichmann

I was in Manhattan during the summer of 1997 and chanced upon the Keith Haring Retrospective at the Whitney. I recognized his iconic cartoons, and knowing little to nothing else fancied it would be a pleasant experience. What I wasn’t prepared for was the “in your face” aspect of Haring’s sexuality and death from AIDS.

Looking back almost 20 years later it takes time and energy to recapture the shock value of an out gay man, and even more so his embrace of the illness that decimated the art and music world of the 80’s. At that time, AIDS was not a disease you lived with, it was a disease that killed you, that made you a social pariah, that was the result of a cursed lifestyle.  At that time, much more so than today, his work was shocking and evocative without being off-putting – a truly remarkable feat.

I remember the emotional impact of the Haring exhibition, seeing his subway drawings and their “joie de vivre” segueing into his cartoon depictions of a pending apocalypse. Peter von Ziegesar described Haring’s art as “obsessed with mankind’s imminent apocalyptic end, which he saw as taking five possible courses: a) nuclear oblivion, b) alien invasion, c) viral holocaust, d) machine takeover of our minds and bodies, e) catastrophic breakdown of public morality, and e) any combination of the above”[1] The themes were current, relevant and familiar to anyone who had been at least a teen in the 1980’s. They were presented in a way that seemed lighthearted, but only until a second glance demonstrated their utter seriousness.

The blend of 1980’s bright visual style, with its “we might die any day now” ethos alone could have signified that Haring was a post-modern artist, but when New York City was added to the mix, that significance was cemented. Haring’s personality and art both reflected the city’s myth of cultural diversity and nonchalance and put the lie to it by revealing the frenetic, self-aware underbelly of its many inhabitants. Haring’s work could only be a New York City statement, a snapshot of the dialogue he made with its temporary empty spaces.[2] He needed to be an ‘accessible’ artist, he needed the casual glance of the subway commuter, and the knowledge that these city folk would ‘get’ his point. Haring needed that unsophisticated sheen to be an effective counterpoint to his very complex argument. The give and take between the cartoons and their meanings, and the subsequent dialogue with the viewer are what made him a star then, and a still relevant artist today.

[2] Irvine  “The Work on the Street: Street Art and Visual Culture” (pdf). Chapter in The Handbook of Visual Culture, ed. Barry Sandywell and Ian Heywood. London/New York: Berg, 2012: 235-278.  “Street art also assumes a foundational dialogism in which each new act of making a work and inserting it into a street context is a response, a reply, an engagement with prior works and the ongoing debate about the public visual surface of a city” (7)


16 Jackies

By Deborah Reichmann

Courtesy Walker Art Center
Copyright The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts/ARS New York

The 16 Jackies (above) created in 1964, was Andy Warhol’s reaction to the assassination of President Kennedy the year before.[1] It is part of a larger series of Jackie paintings, but encapsulates the gist of them all. Warhol highlights both the iconic status of the former First Lady, and the depth of her shock and grief. Both of these elements are inherently Warholian–in as much as his work centers on popular and popularized images, people, and events and also his preoccupation with death and dying. They also embody the philosophical ideals of a post-modern dialectic, specifically, the identification with exaggeration,[2] with narrative ambiguity[3] and with “collage[4]” (aka hybridity).

Warhol’s use of an image repeated multiple times reduces the meaning of the image per se, but reinforces the meaning of the work of art. This strange interplay allows the viewer and the community of interpreters to craft a narrative for the work that draws from its popular roots and popular sentiment. The images are of Jackie Kennedy both as a “First Lady” and as a grieving widow, yet the merging of these photos and their repetition allows for the situation (the assassination of the President) to overlay the entire piece. It is a portrait of a person, but moreso a commentary on a point in time. The connotation of the work is relevant today, but its emotional impact is diminished. At the time, Jackie Kennedy was the nation’s visible reminder of grief, of civility, of tragedy, and this subtext remains with the work, however the immediacy of the emotion has weakened over time.

Warhol’s use of a single color (blue) over a background of black, white and gray evokes a somber atmosphere.  This atmosphere is in stark contrast with Warhol’s Monroe or Elvis portraits.  In 16 Jackies there is no garish repainting or excessive motion, she is not tragic figure by dint of her own elevation and fall, but by tragedy itself.  This difference highlights the contrast between icons of popular culture by popular culture (movie star and rock star) and the icon thrust into the spotlight by circumstance. Warhol by use of independent colors over photographs creates a commentary on the subject, and establishes a known lexicon with the viewers of his art.

Even though the subject of the painting is recognizable, 16 Jackies embodies Danto’s argument that, “in non-imitational painting what is shown lacks an original, and so stands in no causal connection with an original. . . Once we relax the causal side of representation, we are left only with vehicle, denotation, and whatever is shown; and it is then up to the artist what sort of thing he wishes to show.”[5] This is a work of art about grief and pain, Mrs. Kennedy is but the vehicle that Warhol uses to convey the message.


[1] Trevor Fairbrother, Copyright © 1986-2013 Artfact, LLC “There is no obvious narrative, only sixteen moments that flicker competitively before the viewer’s eyes. The effect feels random, and might recall the jarring experience of switching between news broadcasts during a crisis, or perhaps a dream that keeps flipping between good and bad. This work is indeed a most sophisticated visual response to the assassination and the buzzing Information Age that was its backdrop.”

[2] Susan Sontag, Notes on Camp (1964; reprinted in essay collection, Against Interpretation, 1966). “Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration. And Camp is esoteric — something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques.”

[3] Arthur Danto, “Transfiguration of the Commonplace (1974)”  “That they stand at a distance from reality, and that they accordingly locate those who understand them in their own terms at a distance from reality, begins to be an explanation of the philosophical pertinence of artworks.” 142

[4] Arthur Danto, “Modern, Postmodern, and Contemporary,” From After the End of Art (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1997): Chap. 1, pp. 3-19 (New York Times excerpt) “The paradigm of the contemporary is that of the collage as defined by Max Ernst, with one difference. Ernst said that collage is “the meeting of two distant realities on a plane foreign to them both.”

[5] Danto, Transfiguration, 148.

Unpacking Lichtenstein

By Deborah Reichmann

Pop art is characterized not by one significant element but by many, and of these elements accessibility to the masses (either in theme or in presentation), a heightened level of ambivalence,[1]and new/different combination of known elements are most often in dialogue with one another—ergo a post-modern dialectic. The art works because the elements within it are ‘popular,’ as Alloway puts it, “An important factor in communication in the mass arts is high redundancy.”[2]It is the mixture of the recognizable outside of its original context that engenders the creative tension. 

Let’s take a quick look at two of Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings.  His adoption of the cartoon style is the first dialogic element.  Both paintings reflect this style and in the second particular, cause the viewer to examine their reaction to ‘cartoon’ as art, and comprehend that he has painted in this style to highlight that it is NOT a printed page.  “Blonde Waiting” 1964 and the second is, “Brushstrokes”  1965



In “Blonde Waiting” we see a cartoon of a woman gazing at an alarm clock from her bed. It is a scene that harkens to a daytime soap opera, it is easy to imagine a back story of melodrama and a director off scene screaming directions at the actress. The image is staged, and in no way represents a ‘real’ situation. Lichtenstein relies on the audience knowing that she is ‘playing a part.’ In this fashion Lichtenstein has used a number of modern mass communication media that exist in the public’s collective understanding to create a work that is both intelligible, but not necessary universally understood.

In “Brushstroke” he takes the metaphor of painting as ‘real’ to an extreme. As art historians and critics minutely examine the breadth and depth of an artist’s brushwork, he paints – in his cartoon style – an oversized brush stroke (inevitably made up of many brushstrokes). It is a meta statement about the nature of art and painting, yet the statement he makes can be interpreted in myriad ways. The painting evokes an unstructured and unplanned sentiment, but in execution was the product of painstaking, careful planning.

Crimp, in his work, points out that museums can hardly, “represent anything coherent at all.”[3]Every collection and exhibit can only portray one way of characterizing art, and it is per se flawed. The curator, the stylist, the philosophy of the gallery itself all combine to add and subtract layers of meaning to the works exhibited. Assigning meaning to art can be done on a personal level, but as soon as it is presented outside the individual the narrative is subject to interpretation and modification, “Founded on the disciplines of archeology and natural history, both inherited from the classical age, the museum was a discredited institution from its very inception.”[4]


[1] Ambivalence is that multiplicity of meaning which enables art to overcome its ties with its own period. Klaus Honnef, Pop Art. Taschen Books, 2004. 8.

[2] Lawrence Alloway, “The Arts and the Mass Media,” Architectural Design & Construction, February 1958. 

[3] Douglas Crimp, “On the Museum’s Ruins.” (1980/1993). 50.

[4] Crimp 50

Trial by Photo

Deborah Reichmann

[Oscar Pistorius in court during the pretrial hearing. Photograph: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters]

Oscar Pistorius was an olympic hero not even six months ago. Here we see him in court being arraigned on murder charges. Compare the photo above to this one of OJ Simpson’s murder trial in 1995.

Borrowing from Barthe[1], the photos can be analyzed in three ways: 

First – what are they saying, what is their linguistic message, what do they connote? The immediate cultural meaning from what is seen in the pictures, is that there are world class athletes on trial for murder. 

Second – the coded iconic messages, i.e., the stories: Pistorius is standing alone, at the center of attention, somber and nervous.  In the second one, Simpson is seated with his defense team, looking in a different direction from his attorneys, looking bored.

Third – the uncoded iconic message, i.e., what the images are literally: Men in a courtroom.

The OJ trial captured the attention of the U.S. for over a year: A televised trial that bore no resemblance to a process of justice. Did he do it? Was the trial a travesty? What is the role of evidence to be in future trials? Was race a factor in the decision, in the popular handling of the case, in the minds of the public? On the other hand, Pistorius’ case is just beginning. Much of the public’s opinion is still in formative stages. The “story” or the questions that frame the story have yet to fully emerge.

Bourdieu holds that, “photography captures an aspect of reality which is only ever the result of arbitrary selection, and, consequently, of a transcription; among all the qualities of the object, the only ones retained are the visual qualities which appear for a moment and from one sole viewpoint . . .”[2] My reading of these photos, colored by my own knowledge of the situations surrounding them lend the picture of Pistorius a sad, almost pathetic cast. A photograph to be contrasted with the bright and shining ones taken during the summer Olympics. In the case of the Simpson photo, I see a man waiting for his “Dream Team” to get him off, a man smug and self-absorbed.

Do either of these pictures tell me these stories? Do they tell the same stories to others? In a post-modern analysis each photo represents a world of narratives bound solely by the significance that the viewer can impose upon them.  As Krauss says about Bourdieu: “It is the thesis of Pierre Bourdieu that photographic discourse can never be properly aesthetic, that is, can have no aesthetic criteria proper to itself, and that, in fact, the most common photographic judgment is not about value but about identity. . . “[3] In relation to these photos, we know what they are, where they were taken and when—but what they represent is a dialectic between the object (the photo) and the viewer.

[1]Roland Barthes, “The Rhetoric of the Image,” from Image, Music, Text, 1964. Göran Sonesson (Lund University), Discussion and critique of Barthes’ “Rhetoric of the Image.” “If our reading is satisfactory, the photograph analysed offers us three messages: a linguistic message, a coded iconic message, and a non-coded iconic message. “(36)

[2] Pierre Bourdieu, Photography: A Middle-Brow Art Extracts from Bourdieu, Photography. See especially Part 1, sec. 2. pp. 73-75 on “The Social Definition of Photography” (73)

[3] Rosalind Krauss, “A Note on Photography and the Simulacral,” October 31 (1984), especially pp. 55-62 (56)


The “Google Doodle” as Art?

Deborah Reichmann

What is an image? The answer to this question alone has spawned a body of academic work of enormous proportions. So, for this short essay, I proposed to briefly analyze the “Google Doodle” according to Baudrillard. First, is it fair to call a logo an image? The authors we read for today were focused on artistic (and historically ritualistic) images for their suppositions.[1] However, given that so many of today’s artists use their creative force for commercial graphic design, it is arguable that a logo is an artistic image. Second, let’s examine the Google Doodles.  They are, “the fun, surprising, and sometimes spontaneous changes that are made to the Google logo to celebrate holidays, anniversaries, and the lives of famous artists, pioneers, and scientists.”[2] and today’s doodle:

The doodles follow a prescribed pattern, but within that framework have great leeway for creative expression. Baudriallard’s framework posits four phases to the image:

  1. It is the reflection of a basic reality.
  2. It masks and perverts a basic reality.
  3.  It masks the absence of a basic reality.
  4.  It bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum.[3]

The primary purpose of the logo is to promote the product. In this case the product is not a tangible thing, but a conglomerate of computer algorithms that generate accurate and quick search results for other things. So, for number one above, the Google doodle begins as the reflection of the thing – the functional entry to the search engine. Then, for number two, it hides the thing – some doodles have games, sounds, and other “fun” things embedded within making the Google portal page a destination in and of itself. Google turns a decidedly weird corner in using its doodles to promote itself, if it accomplishes number three above (masking the absence of a basic reality) it does so in at least two ways. One, the company runs art competitions to create new doodles, and second, the doodles at times overwork and overcome the logo itself to engender the “thing” being searched—masking the reality that Google is a service product to help the public with their own searches.  Lastly, the doodles rise to a level that bear no relation to reality. If they are ‘art’ and not ‘logo’, then their purpose is stripped from their function and they exist merely to entertain. As soon as this conclusion, that the Google doodle has extended beyond it’s function as logo and into the realm of art, is reached, it is becomes a concrete example of Malraux’s prediction, that “art works will acquire a kind of ubiquity. . . . They will no longer exist only in themselves, but all of them will exist wherever there is someone. . . One must expect that such innovations will transform the whole technique of the arts, will consequently have an effect on creation itself, will go as far, perhaps, as to modify the very notion of art.”[4]  Images in today’s hybrid world are as functional as images created historically for ritual, yet as adaptation and absorption are inherently a part of this digital age, Baudrillard provides an excellent conclusion:

What society seeks through production, and overproduction, is the restoration of the real which escapes it. That is why contemporary “material” production is itself hyperreal. It retains all the features, the whole discourse of traditional production, but it is nothing more than its scaled-down refraction (thus the hyperrealists fasten in a striking resemblance a real from which has fled all meaning and charm, all the profundity and energy of representation). Thus the hyperrealism of simulation is expressed everywhere by the real’s striking resemblance to itself.[5]


[1] Walter Benjamin,”The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”(1936; English trans. Harry Zohn, 1968, excerpted from Walter Benjanmin, Illuminations (New York, Schoken Books, 1969). “We know that the earliest art works originated in the service of a ritual–first the magical, then the religious kind. It is significant that the existence of the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function.”


[3] Jean Baudrillard, “Simulacra and Simulations” From Simulacra and Simulation, 1981; English trans., 1988.

[4] André Malraux, “The Musée Imaginaire” (English translation unfortunately as “The Museum Without Walls). Further implications of art and culture mediated through photography, and the assumption of a global “art encyclopedia” informing the modern concept of art and art history. Overview and excerpts (Irvine).

[5] Baudrillard.

The emerging cracks in the copyright dyke

Deborah Reichmann

On occasion, it is easy to spot an intellectual property misappropriation. The 1990, number one hit “Ice Ice Baby” by Vanilla Ice blatantly used the baseline from Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” without following legal procedure.  This case was settled out of court, and subsequent releases of the hip-hop song gave credit (and payment) where due. Case open, case closed.

Generally, though, it is hard to prove that an appropriation is illegal, and even after a court decision all involved parties are often unsatisfied with the results. For example, the Google settlement on digital books that resolved various, “suits filed in 2005 by the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers against Google over its plan to digitize millions of books from libraries without approval from copyright holders”[1] was arguably disliked by different government officials, parties to the case and the public. And, at the end of the day, the voice of the public was silenced – the government’s voices were concerned about competition, rights holders and licensing, and the non-governmental voices (i.e. Google, publishers, and retailers) were concerned with profit.

By framing the issue in the Google case the way it was, copyright law, instead of protecting a creator of an original work in a reasonable manner, is now used as a tool to limit access to the highest bidder. Technology that inherently has the potential for making a more open and creative world instead is being cast in the role of entrapper.  Lessig makes this argument: 

It is critical to recognize, however, that this control is radically greater than the control the law of copyright owner in the analog world. And this change in the scope of control came not from Congress deciding that the copyright owner needed more control. The change came instead because of a change in the platform through which we gain access to our culture. Technological changes dramatically increased, and the scope of control that the law gave copyright owners over the use of creative work increased dramatically.[2]

To some extent, those seeking to enforce copyright law to its full extent are trying to put their fingers in the hole in the dyke, metaphorically speaking.  The millions of uploads and downloads of copyrighted material that occur daily are too much for censors to monitor, and while they may catch a few, more and more ‘borrowings’ and appropriations will continue. The future is hybrid and the sooner that the regulatory system recognizes this and adapts to put in rational controls, rather than try to enforce irrational ones, the sooner culture can truly harness today’s creativity.

[1] NYTimes (9/10/09)

[2] Lawrence Lessig, Remix Culture 2008, 99.



Comedy Collage

by Deborah Reichmann

Picture this:  The opening credits to a television show made up of a series of images some photographs, some ‘classic’ art and some innovative re-inventions, all strung along in animated form across a background as unintelligible from the art as possible, with the cadences of John Phillip Sousa establishing a rousing accompaniment, except that it ends abruptly with a raspberry noise. No need to imagine, really: 

What was Terry Gilliam, the animator and least seen member of the comedy troupe “Monty Python” thinking? Not only may we not know, it is probably irrelevant in the context of the greater piece.[1] A more apt question may be: what are we supposed to think when we see his animations? Alberro classifies the conceptual in art as “an expanded critique of the cohesiveness and materiality of the art object, a growing wariness towards definitions of artistic practice as purely visual, a fusion of the work with its site and context of display, and an increased emphasis on the possibilities of publicness and distribution.”[2] The Python opening sequence exemplifies this beautifully.

Clearly, Gilliam (and the Pythonesque comedy) is derived from a gleeful adoption of intermediality. Gilliam’s animations are overt collages, and the comedy of the troupe sometimes overt, and often less obviously so, is also a collage of previous comedic forms, textual and historical references and parody—aka pastiche.  This group epitomizes post-modern art at least according to Lethem, who wrote, “collage, the common denominator in that list, might be called the art form of the twentieth century, never mind the twenty-first.”[3]

The ultimate aesthetic of Gilliam’s work is that it can be appreciated on many levels, and on many viewings, each time contextually different because the ‘perciever’ is not the same – having changed by having experienced more and different life lessons. The dynamic of an art form that consciously appropriates other references and self-consciously critiques said forms while presenting them, engenders an ever-shifting understanding and appreciation.


[1] The question of priority is much less important, however, than that of the motives which first induced either artist to paste or glue a piece of extraneous material to the surface of a picture. Clement Greenberg, “Collage” (1959).

[2] “Reconsidering Conceptual Art, 1966-1977,” Alexander Alberro, Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, MIT Press 1999. Found in Appropriation-Remix-Hybridity Dossier Some Major Historical Texts Edited by Martin Irvine 

[3] Jonathan Lethem, “The Ecstasy of Influence,” Harpers Magazine, Feb. 2007.

The Starbucks around every corner (of the globe)

By Deborah Reichmann

The coffeehouse concept inherently evokes a hybrid character. Its nature borrows from a friendly neighborhood pub and a French café, its patrons come for a five minute rest stop or a five hour stay. Entertainment may be live music, poetry reading or an eclectic mix of music. Among coffeehouses, Starbucks™ exemplifies a globalized model, as well as the speed with which modern industry moves.[1] In 1971, the company was founded with only one storefront to its name, and by 2012 it had more than 17,500 locations worldwide.[2] The company’s very reach echoes Castells’ comment on modern business, “This new economy (informational, global, networked) is certainly capitalist,”[3] and borrowing from Pieterse, any capitalist based system is per se hybrid.[4]

Starbucks™ however, also demonstrates the cross-cultural aspects of globalization. The store offers coffee from sources around the globe, foodstuffs that evoke cultural influences (croissants, bagels and paninis may be American now, but their names and styles are originally ‘immigrant,’) but also reassure its clientele that its business practices are ethical.[5] This point may be getting further attention as the world becomes a networked society, and so various publics are becoming aware of the influence and responsibilities inherent in globalized systems.[6] Starbucks™ uses its mission statement to reinforce its global position and ethical commitment.[7] This emphasis on ethical business in a global setting ultimately reinforces Kraidy’s point that, “the pervasiveness of hybridity in some ways reflects the growing synchronization of world markets.”[8]

[1] Jan Nederveen Pieterse, Globalization and Culture: Global Mélange (2nd ed. Rowman & Littlefield, 2009). 28. “Contemporary globalization, then, may be termed accelerated globalization.”
[3] Manuel Castells, “Materials for an exploratory theory of the network society,” British Journal of Sociology, 51/1 (January/March 2000), 11.
[4] Most studies of capitalism and culture find diverse and hybrid outcomes. This suggests that capitalism itself hosts more diversity than is usually assumed – so the appropriate analytic would rather be capitalisms; and its cultural intersections are more diverse than is generally assumed. (Pieterse 54)
[6] “Global inequality poses a profound moral challenge.” (Pieterse 33)
[8] Marwan Kraidy, Hybridity, or the Cultural Logic of Globalization. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005). 9.

The Fairy Tale Re-Told

By Deborah Reichmann

In the realm of TV magic, there has been a resurgence of the classic fairy tale. The prime-time show “Once Upon a Time” on ABC undertakes to re-tell the timeless standards for today’s TV audiences.  The show is set in 21st century Maine, and the characters from various fairy tale stories find themselves outside of their story, outside of their world and outside their “happily ever after.” At first glance, the premise of the show is post-modern—the traditional narratives are upended and reinterpreted along different lines, but upon closer inspection, the show is more straightforwardly defined as post-postmodern.

First, the postmodern elements: Each character in the show represents two people, the traditional fairy tale character and a second  superimposed 21st century personality that may or may not seamlessly incorporate aspects of the original individual. In this fashion, the show embodies the “ambiguity, discontinuity, heterodoxy, pluralism, randomness, revolt, perversion, deformation” aka the “indeterminacies” delineated by Ihab Hassan as a postmodern tendency.[1]The show, too, reflects Hassan’s second post-modern tendency of “immanence” by utilizing modern and traditional symbols in apparent (although not real) disarray and thus, creating a new milieu for them.[2] The combination of classic fairy tale and modern setting in a drama that hinges on complex 21st century situations to create dramatic irony undeniably evokes the ‘pastiche’ as elaborated by Jameson.[3] 

Where the show turns away from the postmodern into the post-postmodern is where it delves deeper into the traditional stories and those well-known characters are given motives and mannerisms that were never envisioned by audiences of the past, not to mention the original authors. The complexity of the narrative web created by the show-runners is part of the story, and part of the expected response of the audience—much like Mark Taylor describes, “[c]omplexity is both a marginal and an emergent phenomenon. Never fixed or secure, the mobile site of complexity is always momentary and the marginal moment of emergence is inevitably complex.”[4]At this level of complexity the show is ‘merely’ postmodern, but when the characters in the stories and the audience on their couches lose their grip on the ‘classic’ foundations, then there are no fixed reference points anymore, and the narrative is not an adaptation of an old story, but a completely new one. For example, in a recently aired episode, Prince Charming and Snow White begin to wonder if they share a common value system, not a big deal as far as dramatic elements go in prime-time television, unless the close connection between those characters is (or at least was) the lynchpin of their story. In this re-telling of the fairy tale, the audience might begin to wonder if “happily ever after” means that this iconic couple splits apart. Who knows? It could happen.


[1] Ihab Hassan, “Postmodernism to Postmodernity?” and “Toward a Concept of Postmodernism” (excerpt from his book, The Postmodern Turn [1987]) 7.

[2] Hassan, 7.

[3] Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society.” From E. Ann Kaplan, ed. Postmodernism and its Discontents(London and New York: Verso, 1988): 13-29. His first statement of the argument that appears in hisPostmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique style, the wearing of a stylistic mask, speech in a dead language: but it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, Without`parody’s ulterior motive, Without the satirical impulse, without laughter, without that still latent feeling that there exists something normal compared to which what is being imitated is rather comic. (16)

[4] Mark Taylor, Moment of Complexity, excerpt from Chapter 1.