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The Intel Ad That Was Recently Pulled: From an Art Historian’s Perspective

Posted by gninja on August 11, 2007

In the words of art historian Albert Boime: art “helps shape ideas, define social attitudes, and fix stereotypes”; “images…serve as instruments of persuasion and control.”

It’s with these words in mind that I approach the Intel advertisement that was recently pulled:


The superficial idea the ad-men were attempting to communicate through this image is that the khaki-clad man is the employee or manager, and the sprinting men (actually, a single man replicated) represents the speed of the new intel core 2 duo processor. Smug, knowing employee, proud of his new computer. And a “processor” crouched and ready to zip away at the speed of lightning.

The ad was promptly pulled “after racial backlash“.

(As an aside, what the hell is a “racial backlash” anyway? Very strange choice of words.)

Trawling through some online chatter about the removal, I was disappointed to find the same kind of response over and over and over again.


The first response above was the most common kind I saw– accusing people of oversensitivity and rampant political correctness (a phrase which makes me want to gouge out my own eyes– since the 1990s, it’s been a key rhetorical tool of the Conservative Right, who fling the term at someone in order to halt any kind of reasonable debate. It sucker-punches a conversation about one issue into an immature squabble over semantics.)

The second response, though, was alo quite common in the forums. Contrary to what “VolleyJeff” intended with this remark, though, it brilliantly proves how accustomed Americans now are to image of superior whites and the subordinate Other. It has become utterly naturalized. And when I use the term “naturalized” I’m pointedly referring to its meaning in semiotics, or, as Daniel Chandler paraphrases from Roland Barthe’s essays in Image Music Text:

From such a perspective denotation can be seen as no more of a ‘natural’ meaning than is connotation but rather as a process of naturalization. Such a process leads to the powerful illusion that denotation is a purely literal and universal meaning which is not at all ideological, and indeed that those connotations which seem most obvious to individual interpreters are just as ‘natural’.

Getting back to VolleyJeff’s response, then. Yes, absolutely, seeing such an image with the races of its characters reversed would raise questions and perhaps eyebrows. But not because the image as it is represents the natural order of things, but rather because we have become increasingly conditioned over the years to seeing whites in a position of superiority and blacks in a position of subordination. Images have played an important role in reinforcing this notion of racial disparity.


( Thomas Nast, “Slaves Being Emancipated”, 1863).

Note the white man in the center and the former slaves surrounding him. The white man in the foreground is the hero of the image, with the former slaves bowing their thanks to him.


Eyre Crowe, Slaves Waiting for Sale, 1861.


A Confederate $10 note, 1861.

(I could go on with the images, but I think these suffice.)

No, the Intel ad is not inherently racist. But it absolutely becomes racist after centuries of images insisting upon the black man’s rightful place at the feet of the white man until it’s become so naturalized that we think those images represent a natural condition.

Posted in advertising, art, barthes, semiotics | 2 Comments »

Detourism: Exhibition at Orchard47

Posted by gninja on July 8, 2007

This isn’t a photo from the exhibition. This was etched in the sidewalk concrete in front of the gallery space. It was far more interesting than the exhibition:


Husband and I went to the oh-so-cleverly-titled Detourism exhibition at Orchard47 today. I was very eager to see the exhibition, lured by the description, promising works that would subvert the constraints and restraints of traditional tourism and the guided (by whom?) ways in which we engage with space:

Spectators and agents, tourists routinely vacate their habitual surroundings to occupy alternative subject positions, if not a geographical location. Yet, with pressure to ensure each vacation is well spent, the voluntary activity of tourism supports a guide industry. Barthes considered the guidebook an “objectified form of ‘immaterial labor’ […] essentially serving as a ‘labor saving device,’” —objective fact relegating efficient, guided, disorientation.

If tourism seeks a reliably mapped alterity, the exhibit detourism can only offer an itinerary of shifting curatorial endpoints. detourism takes topology as an impetus to highlight the interstices in the urban field constitutive of subject relations. The spatial practices exhibited underscore the line of demarcation between the subject and its dematerialization within the built environment.

Unfortunately I was provided with none of the “propose[d] psychogeographical engagements and deviant tourisms to offer alternate routes of circulation.

Frankly I don’t know what I got. The 12 works on the walls and in cases were an assortment of photographs and typed pages having possible something to do with space, but very little to do with the overworked pretensions of the exhibition description.

The only work worth discussing after we left was the audio piece looping in the background, A New York Minute by Alan Licht, recorded in 2001. The piece was a 15 minute, 17 second long loop of a NY weather report recorded probably in February– I’m assuming since there was a Groundhog Day “Eve” announcement, if I recall correctly. When we first entered the gallery, I assumed the broadcast was just a radio left on by the gallery’s attendant, and, surprised by the report of a “high temperature of 26”, I remarked that the announcer was reporting the temperature in Celsius. It took a minute for me to realize that the recording was actually a part of the exhibition.

I thought it was the only piece included that got at the proposed intent of the show. It sounded, at first, like a piece of my daily life I’m accustomed to hearing in indoor spaces. I experienced a sense of abrupt dislocation when I realized that I was hearing a weather forecast for my city, but for the wrong time of year. The presentation was a mimetic one (can sound be considered mimetic?), and yet I had to remind myself that when I left the gallery I’d be stepping out into hot, sticky July weather and not a snow shower. Not exactly relevant to tourism, but definitely relevant to the decontextualization of our everyday experiences in space.

Posted in art, barthes, exhibitions, galleries | 1 Comment »

Sarkozy and Le Jogging: What Would Barthes Do?

Posted by gninja on July 6, 2007


I love, love, love this story. It’s been around in the French media for a while now, but the IHT brought it to my attention. Apparently, in France, “le jogging” is associated with right wing politics, a sense of egomaniacal self-interest and individualism, characteristics associated with Americanism. (Hey, don’t blame the French– just ask Adam Smith.) Sarkozy has made a show of his ritual jogs, inviting the media to analogize his exercise regimen with his prescription for French reform.

What I love, love, love about the treatment of le jogging du Sarkozy is that it throws into high relief the very French treatment of images. France is, after all, the country of Roland Barthes. Barthes is among my favorite semioticians because he — in an extraordinarily (and I do mean that) accessible way– took the quotidian, things we take for granted, and attempted to explain the messages they plugged into our heads. The images we see, for example, in ads are not hidden symbols that are difficult to decipher, but rather components of our culturally informed experience that retain numerous associations we’d have a hard time ignoring. One of Barthes’ most famous essays, “Wine and Milk” gets at that. Cultural semiotics is different from standard visual analysis with with a socio-cultural bent because it understands that certain things (e.g. milk) have associations that, while certainly not a priori, get carried along with it into no-matter-which context.


The image of the jogging politician has received much comment among French journalists and cultural commentators. Pretty incisive comment getting at all the messages this one, seemingly (at least to an American audience) innocuous and unremarkable act conveys. It’s not just a president running for his health, or even to promote good health– it has a host of associations.

Which, of course, can be weighted one way or another, depending upon which image gets used.


It’s not too far off from what our own president does, no? There’s been no shortage of news items on our ersatz cowboy at work. I’m not so sure the commentary on this side’s been all that insightful, though. Mostly just mentioning it as something he does while on his record long vacations.

Posted in barthes, politics, semiotics | 1 Comment »

Multivalence: A Preamble

Posted by gninja on June 17, 2006

In his most recent publication, Becket’s Crown,Paul Binski addresses various images that have multiple, overlapping meanings, or, “multivalence.” I believe that, unless there is evidence pointing to a single specific meaning, most images do possess multivalence and are informed by numerous cultural and contextual factors. This is not to advocate a kind of interpretive anarchy (this is a terrible turn of phrase; I’ll have to think of a replacement), in which anything can mean everything. Rather, I endorse a moderate approach that sees an artifact as containing a finite number of significations, each of which can be emphasized according to form and context.

For example: a bottle of red wine.

Situated at a table set for a dinner of steak and greens, it represents earthy health and even national pride (see Barthe’s essay on “Wine and Milk” in Mythologies). Yet, that same bottle, set beside caviar and cigars becomes a sign of pretension and elitism, perhaps. In the hand of a tipsy homeless person? We associate it with inebriation and dissolution.

But this bottle of red wine does not inherently mean any one of these things; its meaning ensues from what our cultural presumptions and its contextual accompaniments impose upon it. At the same time, and returning to what I had said above, denying “interpretive anarchy,” picture our bottle of red wine in the waiting room of a dentist’s office, and we become confused. What does this mean here? There is no immediate answer, and we have no way of locating a meaning for this bottle of wine (aside from just that: bottle of wine) until we are given some justification for its presence.

What does this have to do with medieval art?



These images, taken from the interior of Ely Cathedral, are discussed in Binski’s book, and provide a useful illustration for intentionally simultaneous multivalence in medieval images. In my next post I’ll discuss how these vault corbels are laden with numerous religiously and mythologically informed meanings. At the same time I will argue that it’s both the multiplcity of these meanings and the dominance of one specific, contextually determined meaning that makes these sculptures so useful in–not surprisingly–asserting the importance of this particular church.

Posted in architecture, art, barthes, cathedrals | Leave a Comment »