I have been reading Cultural Sniping by Jo Spence which is a fascinating book. In Chapter 5. The Sign As A Site Of Class Struggle. Reflections on the work of John Heartfield (p51-58) Spence looks at the use of sign.
Heartfield took key phrases from speeches of Nazi leaders and reposition them as one or more elements within his work so that in relation to the visual signs, they would set up a new field of meaning which could cause rifts in the previously naturalized structures of meaning which has underpinned the words ad images in their original use. Heartfield could eventually cause the viewer to contemplate the reality which lay outside the text, in the light of their own class knowledge.
Spence believed an important and overlooked aspect of Heartfield’s work was how he considered women in a class society. She said that ” ‘woman’ and ‘class’ are not seemingly or easily compatible within signifying systems, for while indices of ‘gender’ work on a system of visible differences which are flexible but have certain parameters, the visual indices which indicate ‘class’ are much more idiosyncratic and not necessarily in any relationship at all to an actual class position.” (Spence p53)
Spence said Heartfield had to allow working women to identify with the ‘working’ women in his photomontage whilst at the same time encouraging them to be critical of the concept of the ‘bourgeois’ woman, isolated and alienated at home, whose well-being, family life and possessions were assured via the income of her husband, but who was nonetheless repressed, though not exploited in the ways in which her working-class sisters were. Heartfield used different levels of signification from the iconic to the symbolic within the same representation. (Photos of real individuals were used as types who represented particular social groups).
“A female viewer can identify with an iconic representation of a woman because they are the same sex, but, on the other hand, a tension may well arise in a working woman who realizes that in class terms she does not match up to the depicted female.” (Spence:54)
[Spence, Jo. 1995 Cultural Sniping. London:Routledge]
Man in a drab suit with an ‘intelligent’ face and glasses, holding a sign “I’ll take any WORK” he looks resigned but defiant. He stands on an expensive dress worn by a beautiful bride who is elevated on a plinth, her gaze introverted and unsmiling. They are bound together in the same system. Both commodities for sales, that those with capital can buy (Dress, Labour & The Bride).
The dress has a relationship to the labour force that make it.
Opposites: dark/light male/female working/middle class, deprivation/luxury.
The text presented beneath the photo states the gown costs $10,000 and 20 million are out of work.
Here the bourgeois woman may identify with the bride but a working-class woman with the man.
Heartfield presents elements that are crucially interconnected and yet are usually avoided within representations. Bringing the labour and the production of the gown into the same frame, with the labour foregrounded in the image.
Stephen Heath views Heartfield as calling ‘commonsense’ beliefs into question by restructuring signs in such a way that he ‘punctuates “representation” with “formulation”, a process Brecht refers to as “Literarization”‘. This then is not ‘a “form” but a mode of analysis, the very mode of understanding of dialectical materialism…. where the spectator is placed in a critical position.’ (Spence:56)
Brechtian Distanciation? The distancing effect is a technique used in theatre and cinema that prevents the audience from losing itself completely in the narrative, instead, making it a conscious critical observer.
Literarize the theatre: make us “read” it
reject single, linear approach
reject overwhelming identification with hero
make us read titles, summaries of scenes
an attitude of “smoking and watching” like at a boxing match — passionate involvement over details
“Heartfield’s way of forcing us back and forth, shifting us across the signs, across the intertextuality of his work, causes a process of demythologization to take place which, eventually, leads to a confrontation with historical reality” (Spence:57)