review by Eli Budd
Before going any further, a brief explanation of Roland Barthes’ theory of myths is required. In Popular Culture: A User’s Guide, Susie O’Brien and Imre Szeman describe Ferdinand de Saussure’s definitions for ‘signifier’ and ‘signified’ in the following way: “A fundamental principle of Saussure’s theory was the premise that the relationship between the two ‘parts’ of a sign – a word (or signifier) and the concept it refers to (the signified) is not natural but arbitrary, determined by convention” (73). For example, the letters c-a-t and their ordering have no direct relation to the small pointy-eared furry animal they refer to. C-a-t is the signifier, and our understanding of what cats are is the signified. The sign is the unified whole made up by the combination of the signifier and the signified (in other words, a cat).
In his book Mythologies, Barthes take’s Saussure’s theory a step further by introducing the concept of ‘myth’. A myth, according to Barthes, “…is a form of representation that works to express and, more or less invisibly, to justify the dominant values of a culture in a particular historical moment” (O’Brien and Szeman 74). In Barthes diagram (see fig. 1), he outlines how the sign becomes a signifier. This new signifier combines with a signified, and thus creates a new sign. Myth is created through this second combination of sign/signifier and signified.
During the myth phase, the concept of ‘cat’ (signifier) and the idea of a cat as a domesticated animal (signified) combine to create the concept of ‘pet’ (sign). The sign of ‘pet’ implies ownership of an animal by a human. Since ownership is a key component to the relationship most humans have with cats, the sign of the ‘pet cat’ creates the myth that humans are in some way superior to cats.
In The Communism of Forms, both the presentation of the pieces and the pieces themselves alter the various signifiers that usually accompany music videos and art galleries.
Music videos are most typically viewed via a television broadcast or an Internet stream. Here however, the videos are presented on screens in a gallery. Only those in attendance of the gallery may view the videos. The small-scale distribution of the videos is further emphasized through the galleries inclusion of headphones or directed audio. Only a few people may hear the video’s music at a particular time.
By omitting the signifier of mass distribution that usually accompanies music videos, their sign ceases to be that of commercial promotion of music. This calls into question the motive behind the videos creation and display. If music and visuals are not created for the purpose of large financial gain, the implication is that they created for expression, reflection, education, or pure enjoyment. All of these motives may fall under the heading of ‘art’. The gallery’s artists, curators, and viewers have taken a genre of television that was created for marketing purposes, and reclaimed it as a non-commercial art form.
Additionally, if an art gallery presents something that is not traditionally considered art, the viewer’s understanding of ‘art’ and ‘gallery’ may be altered. I attended The Communism of Forms with a class I am taking at York University titled Questioning Culture (AK/CLTR 2100). Roughly half of my peers expressed discomfort, frustration, and even hatred towards the exhibit’s pieces. Myths usually associated with music videos are passive entertainment, capitalism, and pop-culture. Art galleries are often associated with so-called ‘high culture’, elitism, and exclusivity. By replacing traditional or classical artistic styles with pieces that employ a pop-culture and commercial language, some viewers must redefine their understanding of ‘art’ and ‘gallery’. This redefinition results in the creation of new myths for art galleries (signifier), artistic merit (signified), and art (sign).
This call for a redefinition of myth is where tensions may arise in some viewers. Through their modification, the myths traditionally associated with the signifiers of music videos and art galleries are made visible. However, myths are supposed to operate invisibly unless they are analyzed. O’Brien and Szeman state that, “Myth works, Barthes’s analysis suggests, to the extent that we read it ‘straight,’ accepting unquestioningly its naturalness” (74). Analysis typically requires a conscious effort to be made by the myth reader. The Communism of Forms forces the viewer to experience the myths surrounding the exhibit’s setting and content critically. By demanding that the myth be experienced in a way that runs contrary to its function, the expectations of myths associated with music videos and art galleries are not fully delivered. When expectations are not fulfilled, surprise and possibly discomfort in the viewer are created.
Barthes, Roland. “Myth Today,” Trans. Annette Lavers. Mythologies. (New York: The Noonday, 1957). 107-59. Print.
The Communism of Forms. 2009. Art Gallery of York University, York University, Toronto. Cur. Emelie Chhangur, Earl Miller, Fernando Oliva, and Marcelo Rezende.
O’Brien, Susie and Imre Szeman. “Representation and the Construction of Social Reality.” Popular Culture: A User’s Guide. 2nd ed. (Toronto: Nelson Education, 2010). 67-107. Print.
Paakspuu, Kalli. “Questioning Culture.” AK/CLTR 2100 6.0 A. York University, Toronto. 10 June 2009.