Monday, April 4, 2011

This essay is an exploration into postmodern resistance - Daniel Durant. Level 5, BA Illustration. 2011

In this essay I will analyse contemporary art and culture by applying key theoretical concepts and discourses from well known theorists such as Dick Hebdige; Hal Foster, Guy Debord and Dominic Strinati, to relevant critical theories of modernism and Post-modernism. I hope to give a historical insight into the theory of ‘resistance’ and its impact on society, providing analyses of contemporary resistant art and relating it to my own practice. I want to explore the various approaches a resistant movement can have, focusing on graffiti as a contemporary example. Graffiti has various forms (tagging, political, commercial) allowing it to be analysed from many theoretical viewpoints i.e. tagging can be seen as a general youth rebellion, commercialization of graffiti can be seen to dissolve resistant social boundaries (therefore conforming to the capitalist society) and political graffiti,

Banksy (2008). Graffiti depicting graffiti removal: London. available from:

which wishes to show a critique of the contemporary capitalist society through subversion and appropriation.

I will begin by looking at some of modernisms key resistant movements such as Dadaism, expressionism and surrealism. I hope to show how different historical movements have revolted against their current social and ideological climate; how the emergence of these movements and ideologies has influenced contemporary art and culture. What people’s values and beliefs of culture and society were? What practical techniques did they use to show this?

Modernism was seen as an exploration of knowledge and skills, with interests in different cultural forms and processes. It was described as a number of “avant-garde movements” which understood themselves “as invading unknown territory, exposing itself to the dangers of sudden, shocking encounters, conquering an as yet unoccupied future”; (Hal Foster, 3) therefore resisting traditional forms and status quo in the ever changing social climate. The avant-garde modernists showed commitment to finding new ways to explore how we see the world rather than what we see in it. An example of this appreciation for nature and emotion can be seen within the romanticist movement. It appeared as one of the many resistant art forms of the late 1800’s, it wanted to escape from industrialisation by exploring creativity and mood; Focusing on individual experience, and the supremacy of nature.

The strive for knowledge continued through the 1900’s; Expressionists like Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky focused on the emotional effect of the painting, paying more attention to mood and expression of “being alive” (Victorino Tejera, 85); abstract and cubism art from Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque took a new look at perspective and structure of images; repelling the bourgeoisie state. After the WW1 these beliefs came to define the 1920’s, with the introduction of movements such as, dada and surrealism. Dada was the first resistant movement that sort to reject realism and embraced disruption. It saw art as revolutionary in the portrayal of true reality, as cited in the (online science encyclopaedia, 1), their aesthetic strategies exploit the calculated misuse of convention; employing the techniques of subversion, distortion, and disruption.” They sought to create ‘antilogical’ (Online encyclopaedia, 1) art as they felt traditional culture had been confined by logic and reason. According to George Grosz (cited in Subculture: Dick Hebdige) “nothing was holy to us. Our movement was neither mystical, communistic nor anarchistic. All of these movements had some sort of programme, but ours was completely nihilistic. We spat on everything, including ourselves. Our symbol was nothingness, a vacuum, a void”. The “new art form” (Walter Benjamin, 239) embraced spontaneity and controversy; However critics like Fredric Jameson disregarded dada quoting ‘the trivial irreverence of dada (F, Jameson, 38)’, Although this just reinforced the confrontational characteristics of the movement, showing that freedom and independence of thought was possible and absolutely essential to an ever changing culture.

Surrealism, which was heavily influenced by dada’s resistant mentality sort to approach the subject in an unique and eccentric manner; They thrived on the potential of imagination, looking into dream analysis and how the unconscious mind effected what they could do. Their deviation in behaviour was seen as nonconformist and strange to traditionalists. However, they rejected madness, embracing the capabilities of the mind and juxtaposition. Juxtaposition as stated by Thomas Pynchon (p.20), “could combine inside the same frame, elements not normally found together to produce illogical and startling effects”. Being an experimental and embracing movement, surrealism took juxtaposition to the extreme, trying to distance realities of objects and meanings. The seemingly random combination of objects showed surrealisms own juxtaposition with social reality, reinforcing their resistant tendencies. These continued throughout surrealism lifetime, showing prominence in riots during 60’s and 70’s and obviously having links to modern day anarchism.

Abstract expressionism originated in the late1920’s, becoming better known and adopted in the 40’s and 50’s, was a critical movement, as described by (Shapiro/David/Cecile, 189, 190), “it has an image of being rebellious, anarchic, highly idiosyncratic and, some feel, nihilistic”. It felt that through its random, subconscious application of paint, it could portray an ardent use of emotion. The process of painting was just as spiritually significant as the final outcome. The movement was enlightening to many, and through revolutionary art by well known artists like Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline; spontaneity, process and creative potential became significantly important and influential.

Abstract expressionism, surrealism and Dada were seen as radical and anarchic. Although Pessimistic critics such as Fredric Jameson dismiss Dadaism, I think they are significant within modernism and Postmodernism theory as they help exemplify a critique of society and traditional forms. They also provide us with historical context in which to relate it to current resistance in contemporary society. In relation to graffiti the movements show similar interests. For example; The spontaneous process of painting employed by the abstract expressionists, lends itself to the graffiti tag, in that the ‘spontaneous’ tag utilises the quick and easy application of the spray can, focusing on the process of spray painting, through various methods of application and technique, improved creative potential can be achieved. The surrealist’s views of ‘social revolution’ through imagination are also evident in graffiti; the social revolution is implied through the illegality of the tag and the appropriation/ Détournement of well known objects/ imagery. As dick Hebdige explains, these objects “can be...’stolen’ by subordinate groups and made to carry a secret meanings which express, in code, a form of resistance to the order which guarantees their continued subordination”( Dick Hebdige 18) Dada also utilises subversion, but importantly disruption. Dada sought disruption of the current bougieuse society as graffiti does to the current capitalist society. By illegally tagging, painting and placing subversive images graffiti artists are attempting to portray the real ‘reality’ which the current capitalist institutions are said to control and manipulate. (This will be discussed later, looking at ‘the spectacle’ and Détournement) Their diverse styles, use of materials, processes and rebellious ideologies show how these subordinated subcultures are strongly bound to social/ cultural change through art. According to Dick Hebdige (18), “Style in subculture is... pregnant with significance. Its transformations go ‘against nature’, interrupting the process of ‘normalization’. As such, they are gestures, movements towards a speech which offends the silent ‘majority’, which challenges the principle of unity and cohesion, which contradicts the myth of consensus.

Tim woods (‘beginning postmodernism’, 127) Saw Postmodernisms emergence as:

“a reaction to modern art’s obsession with a clinical purity of form and autonomous abstraction. Bored with the incessant drive for ever-increasing minimalism and abstraction, postmodernism was part of a reintroduction of ornament, morals, allegories and decoration into art...the description ‘postmodernist’ applies to art that exemplifies in form and content the postmodern condition of post-history and stylistic pluralism. Whereas in 1967 art magazines were full of sleek cubic forms, by 1969 these had been replaced by natural substances, ongoing processes, photographic images, language and art ‘happening’ in real life. This disillusionment with the art object, with consumer culture and with the scientific pretence of objectivity, together with a distrust of the artificial world, produced art which retrospectively made modernism look austere and reductive, its purity look puritanical and its preoccupation with perfect structure seem formalistic”.

Postmodernism is thus a movement that is media saturated, pluralistic, and obsessed with popular culture. It “celebrates style, consumerism and hedonism” (Tim Woods, 217) and because of this, the demand for decorative art increases; for advertising, graphic design, illustration, animation, it’s all about pleasing a mass audience. Dick Hebdige states (preface), “It is easy to see that we are living in a time of rapid and radical social change. It is much less easy to grasp the fact that such change will inevitably affect the nature of those disciplines, that both reflect our society and help to shape it” This ‘radical social change’ comes in the form of
resistant movements, wanting to evolve, explore and go beyond what is classed as ‘normal’, resist the capitalist ideals of postmodernism and represent their own views. The hippies and Punks were part of the first postmodern resistance movements. They looked at society the way dada and the expressionists did, with an eye for change, revolution and non-conformity. Punk ideologies can be related to contemporary political graffiti, through artists such as Banksy and David Choe.

ride the bus

David Choe (2010) - ride the bus: available from:

Daniel Durant (2011)

Graffiti has been around for centuries, starting with simple lines/ images on walls of caves and has evolved with experimentation, creativity, technology and architecture (the walls from which to paint on). It began to become globally recognized in the 1970’s (although still illegal), where painters would ‘bomb’ trains, spray painting their names and characters all over the New York subways. Unlike traditional fine art it used spray cans to make quick, bold and vibrant images; ignoring the rules and laws of society, letting them express themselves in a way that held no boundaries, people could react to anything they wanted, how they wanted. Terrance Lindall has said, (as cited in ‘writing on the wall’ by Carmela Ciuraru) "Graffiti is revolutionary...and any revolution might be considered a crime. People who are oppressed or suppressed need an outlet, so they write on walls—it’s free”. As expressed by (convicted graffiti artist) Simon Sunderland who ‘demanded a right to freedom of expression’; “In a society based on image, greed, selfishness - we are the few who have broken the chains by exposing our art by any means necessary” (John, A. Walker, 206). This brings about the questions; Is society denying the artists of their freedom? In what context is graffiti a crime? Do the mass media create the definition of what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’? And are they preventing this form of self expression in order to maintain order and power? If so has this resistance affected the actions of the graffiti artist?

I’ll begin outlining the graffiti artists intentions and ideologies and the ways in which they put their point across. The graffiti artist seeks to resist the “enlarged role of the mass media that allows them to exercise a powerful ideological influence over their audience” (Strinati, 221) through either strong contextual pieces (Banksy, David Choe and tights on head man) or a simple tag on a wall. Both show different sides to the resistance, For example, the image on the left shows a simple ‘tag’.

Shirk (2010). Graffiti writing tutorial: Available from:

Many graffiti artists thrive on the illegality of tagging, taking advantage of the spray cans speed and the abundance of ‘free’ surfaces on which to paint. Their goal; to get there name up, get noticed, be somebody in the underground world. They want to show their defiance of the law and authority and have fun. Through my own practice I have seen how essential the ‘tag’ is to graffiti as a whole. Below is an image of a sketch i produced. I based the 3d letters on a tag i had previously produced, by manipulating and exaggerating parts of each letter, i have created a bold and 3d 'throw up'.

Daniel Durant (2011)

Although its mainly seen as the rodent of the art world, annoying and making walls ‘ugly’; The tag is essential in helping you find your own unique hand style, figure out how letters work together and expanding your skills beyond the tag (throwups, murals etc). To make it bolder and more complex. It’s the starting point of graffiti and is employed by youths at the beginning of their graffiti careers. It represents their freedom. However as you grow up the consequences of your actions can lead to severe punishments and do not ‘help pay the bills’. This has lead to commercialisation and integration of graffiti into the mass media.

Daniel Durant (2011)

Moving on from the tag, artists develop their own style, doing ‘throw ups’ and going ‘bombing’. The locations and context are usually still the same however the tag has evolved into a colourful, larger version that begins to incorporate the hand styles and improving skills of the artist. (above is a 'piece' i created legally for a community project, It incorporates the style of the letters from my original tag but also uses bright vibrant colours to give the letters depth and help them stand out) Again they usually do not show a contextual critique of society however they lead onto and help develop the skills necessary to create murals, commissions and commercial potential. All three of which are essential if you want to make a living out of graffiti.

In contrast, other forms of graffiti exist that critique society through contextual artistic methods e.g. Street installations;

Banksy (2006). Boadicea: [video] London: avaiable from:

stencils and murals. Artistic graffiti is a modern day offspring of traditional graffiti that has elevated itself from just scrawling words or phrases on a wall, to a complex artistic form of personal expression” ( Bernard Smith, Terry Smith and Christopher Heathcote, chapter 17)

George W Bush Football Bomber Graffiti

Maya (2005). bush bomber: available from:

For example, the image above shows a political context, appropriating an image of George bush in an American football kit, with a bomb in his hand. The three images on their own have simple denotations but the connection of all three has created new connotations. (This is the process of Détournement) it can be said that, The bomb and the kit could represent George bush’s war ‘games’. Showing the ease at which he went into conflict (simply throwing the football). His dopey, confused expression could also represent his lack of knowledge and the frivolity of his actions as president and going to war in Afghanistan. The Stencil art clearly has a strong contextual influence and shows resistance to current social ideologies. It also shows how graffiti opens up the boundaries of reality, speaking out for the resistant population in a way that expresses their views to a wide audience but remains anonymous and problematic to society. And this leads back to capitalist mentality. They exert their power through courts, newspapers, TV, police and seek to prosecute, denounce and condemn the individuals, simply for speaking out, but in a practical and creative manner as opposed to demonstrations, riots and letters of complaint.

The process of Detournement can be described in two ways, as Guy Debord notes: “

- Minor Détournement is the Détournement of an element which has no importance in itself and which thus draws all its meaning from the new context in which it has been placed. For example, a press clipping, a neutral phrase, a commonplace photograph.

- Deceptive Détournement is in contrast the Détournement of an intrinsically significant element, which derives a different scope from the new context. A slogan of Saint-Just, for example, or a film sequence from Eisenstein.”

Détournements’ ability to create new meaning from previously significant images shows its “intrinsic propaganda powers”, “clashing head-on with all social and legal conventions.” (GUY DEBORD, GIL J WOLMAN, 1) This point makes Détournement a perfect political technique for graffiti artists to express their views in a coherent and relevant context.

Detournement can also be linked to Baudrillard theory of hyper reality and Guy Debords theory of ‘the spectacle’. Detournement suggests that manipulation and subversion of images can create new meaning in its current social climate. However Jean Baudrillard feels that through Détournement we are entering a new reality, the hyper real; Whereby reality is simulated by simulacra. As Baudrillard puts it, it “is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.” (Jean Baudrillard, 1) “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real” (Jean Baudrillard, 2). Hyper reality from Baudrillards’ pessimistic viewpoint therefore represents a “crisis of signification’ by which representation becomes detached from external references and confronts us instead with the spectacle of the image. “ (Anna Middleton, lecture notes, 2010)Guy Debord takes this degradation of representation further in his theory of ‘the spectacle’. He states “It is not a supplement to the real world, an additional decoration. It is the heart of the unrealism of the real society.... the spectacle is the present model of socially dominant life.” (Debord, Thesis 6) He believes that "The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images." (Debord, Thesis 4) We have been “drugged by spectacular images," (according to Simon ford) and these have come to control and define our contemporary reality. However Debords aim "through radical action in the form of the construction of situations," is to “bring a revolutionary reordering of life, politics, and art" that is spear-headed by "a sense of self-consciousness of existence within a particular environment or ambience".(Simon Ford)This revolution can be seen within graffiti, as the artists show a personal connection to particular environments through the use of subversive techniques like Détournement and appropriation. the previous video of Banksy ‘Boadicea’, reifies the point of self conscious thoughts evoked within street arts in its battle against the ‘spectacular’.

Daniel Durant (2009)

I have tried to express my own critique of society in a recent project. The image above shows a man with a balaclava and the word identity in front of him. The image is meant to represent the anonymity of the graffiti artist; the green letters are bold and clear to show the juxtaposition of the graffiti artists hidden identity and our democratic society; where we should have the right to freedom of speech and identity. Well informed and highly skilled artists must still keep their identity concealed as society is yet to open its arms to the resistant art form. However, we can clearly see that graffiti is slowly being integrated into society, through commercial commodities and the actions of artists to inform the public of graffiti’s creative potential.

This Commercialization has “made it difficult for anit-graffiti forces to argue that all graffiti is vandalistic in nature” (Gregory J. Snyder, 7). The mass media has recognised graffiti’s creative and capitalist potential as audiences are growing to accept the art form. This commercialisation “moves writers out of the boundaries of the subculture", because artists "no longer paint for their peers and themselves, they have a new audience"(Nancy Macdonald, 90 – 91) This process is termed, recuperation, whereby radical artwork rebels against contemporary social and political ideologies, yet it becomes socially acceptable through its commoditisation. Within graffiti this can range from t-shirt design, magazines, CD covers, spray paint, commissions, games, illustration or graphic design. I myself have made this recuperative move, in which I paint legal murals with a local community group. (I painted all 3 characters in the picture below)

Daniel Durant (2010)

Daniel Durant collaboration with Jake (2010). Silly Science

The youth group negotiates with councils to allow graffiti murals in certain area, by creating murals we can show the artistic side to graffiti and help improve people’s attitudes towards graffiti. I have also begun producing and selling graffiti works on canvases’, wood etc. (below are three examples of my work)

Daniel Durant (2011). Mothers day flower (spray paint)
Daniel Durant (2011). space landscape (spray paint and markers)

Daniel Durant (2011) girl: Spray paint and stencils

I feel that with my improved skills and creativity I can create graffiti that is commercially viable and contrasting to the ‘tag’, in which most people stereotype graffiti.

A great example of graffiti’s acceptance into society has been Mark Echo. A former graffiti artist, he integrated his graffiti into graphic design and the mass culture through commissions, galleries and his own clothing company.

Teck 1 (2007). Mark echo t shirt design: available from:

He also moved onto creating a graffiti game, in which you run around ‘bombing’ the streets.

File:Getting Up.jpg

Mark Echo (2006). Getting up: available from:

It just shows the dramatic transition of graffiti’s relevance and acceptance within society since the 70’s. Now the capitalist institutions are accepting the subculture and in doing so are helping it integrate into mass society. But will this lead to the end of a revolution and the saturation of meaning?

Looking back at what I’ve discussed in this essay we can clearly see a link between modern and postmodern movements of resistance. Modernisms’ avant-garde movements clearly show a revolt to society and traditional ideologies through techniques and context of art. This is also evident in our contemporary society, “in which the mass media and popular culture are the most powerful institutions”. The use of “popular cultural signs and media images increasingly dominate our sense of reality and the way we define ourselves and the world around us” (Strinati, 205). So in order to keep their identity and resist ‘the spectacle’ of current capitalist ideologies, subcultures like graffiti, Subvert and disrupt images, walls, and objects; showing criticism of the current portrayal of reality in a way that contemporary audiences can relate to and see. However with this social acceptance comes the introduction of the commodity, and commercialisation, which in turn begins to blur the social and confrontational boundaries.


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