The Role Visual Arts and Visual Culture Play in the Modern Society

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What role do images play in encouraging us to conform to, modify, or resist conventional ideas of behavior or appearance? Within this essay, I will unpick the above question through the way modernism has informed architecture within council developments and how this has or has not shaped the way in which we live.

When discussing the concept of an image it is important to get a true understanding of the word ‘representation’. The noun ‘represent’ defines to: 'describe or put forward (a person or thing) as an embodiment of some specific quality” (Universal dictionary, 1987, page 1300). It is easy to forget that this term is actually subjective as the thing in question can be open to many different ideas, but because it is so often already done for us, through advertisement, or even popular word of mouth, we can fall short of actually interpreting something for oneself. Gillian Rose writes “explicit or implicit, conscious or unconscious, they may be felt as truth or as a fantasy, science or common sense; and they may be conveyed through everyday speech, elaborate rhetoric, high art, TV soap, operas, dramas, movies… different groups in society will make sense of the world in different ways” (Visual methodologies, 2016, page 2). In which way has society made sense of the council estate culture is what will be explored further on in this essay.

The 20th-century image of ordinary men is made into a “heroic image” (The encyclopedia of visual art, 1989) argued by Lawrence Gowing due to their contrast with the large scale frame of work. The bold colors and solid lines demonstrate the aesthetic of the modernist movement.

Before modernism, every item was handmade, which meant that each item was slightly different. This changed in the mid-1800s when factories were made and volume and production speed was the new big thing. Every day factories began to produce cheaper items, but to keep the costs low meant that the items were poorly designed, easily broken, and unattractive.

The Arts & Craft movement (1860-1910) was the first kickback against this tide of poor design. A typical Victorian home would look cluttered to our modern eyes as they emphasized detailed patters and rich, time-consuming decorations - the kind that factories couldn’t produce.

It wasn’t until modernism came about and movements like the Bauhaus, challenged aesthetic. Bauhaus had a different response from the Arts & Crafts movement, instead, they asked why they could not make good use out of cheap materials which relate back to one of their key values of the truth to materials. The theory that the nature of any material should not be hidden, but rather celebrated. Their mission was to provide new, affordable, utopian designs that would be used by the everyday kind of person.

Advertisement through the form of posters, like this Willi Baumeister (1927) one, is an example of how society was influenced to resist the conventional appearance of the Arts and Crafts. With big crosses, boldly slashed in red, implying that the old architecture is becoming outdated and will be replaced with a new, bold, modern look. However, a quote by Whitney Davis states that “art must have culturally-recognized aesthetic aspects about art” (A general theory of visual culture, 2011, p. 4), therefore it could be that maybe it was the society that initially inspired this new movement.

Das Staatliche Bauhaus was founded by Walter Groupis and opened in Germany from 1919 to 1933. Bauhaus’s aesthetic is very minimal and simplistic, they stripped back everything and went back to the basics, consisting only of primary shapes such as rectangles, squares, and circles and only used a limited color pallet which consisted of primary colors also. When comparing the visual imagery of the buildings beside each other it is easy to see how the Pruitt Igoe development took on Bauhaus’ style. By sticking to the idea of truth to materials by leaving the brickwork untouched and not adding fancy detailing. By briefly recognizing how art has helped to influence, and modify architecture through the appearance of modernism, it is time to talk about how architecture itself has affected people's behavior.

Charles Jencks stated that the “modern world died in St Louis, Missouri on 15 July 1972. At 3:32 pm” (Pruitt-Igoe: the death of the American urban dream, 2012) as this is when the Pruitt Igoe development collapsed on itself. The movie Pruitt Igoe Myth dispels different beliefs surrounding housing developments and why this one in particular ended the way it did. Within a Youtube documentary one tenant stated that by the time the property was destroyed, the blocks had already notoriously become known for its violence and vandalism. Although some residents that actually experienced living in the apartments would disagree. Stating that “my memories of Pruitt-Igoe are some of the best I have” (The Pruitt Igoe Social Housing Development, 2016). A previous tenant recalls when she first moved in that ”it was like an oasis in a desert, all this newness, I never thought I would live in that kind of surrounding” (The Pruitt Igoe Social Housing Development, 2016). But was this just the beginning of an end?

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Over time it was argued that “the lifts stopped working” and “pipes burst” (The Pruitt Igoe Social Housing Development, 2016) as the government failed to keep basic maintenance of the property. Although, theorist Elizabeth Birmingham argued with the phrase ‘Defensible space’ – the theory behind this term is that “having a concentrated high rise housing project can contribute to crime and lack of care for the physical property one may live in, this is because the residents do not feel as though they have any contribution or personal responsibility for an area occupied by so many people”(Pruitt-Igoe Film, 2015). However, a further point of view from an interviewee within another documentary would disagree as he claims that “it had very little to do with the fact that Pruitt Igoe was a public house, or a high rise as if you would cross Jefferson Avenue… into the street of the low rise private housing that existed… what you would see would be similar levels of poverty… the same kind of maintenance issues… and often you would actually see higher crime rates in the surrounding neighborhood… but no one really talks about it”(Invisible, 9, 2012). This is a strong statement as is demonstrates how powerful visual images can be. This dispiriting image of Pruitt Igoe collapsing had been so publicized that it had become the main representation of poor public housing. Val Williams writes: “If we accept Andersons’ theories, it would seem that what blinds the British (or indeed a nation) together is not actual experience, but shared mental images, images that are reinforced by what we read and hear, and most importantly, by what we see through representations in cinema, television, art, design or photography (How We Are, 2009, p. 11).

Another viewpoint is that the development failed due to the “psychological effect on of the prison-like living conditions” (The Pruitt Igoe Social Housing Development, 2016) commented on the Youtube video by Brittany William. This statement is a valid one, as it is a fact that Males were not allowed to live within the homes which caused families to be separated. This hostile feeling is confirmed by a tenant stated that the attitude was: “we’re giving you money so we control you” (The Pruitt Igoe Social Housing Development, 2016).

A key fact to note is that there was racial segregation right from the beginning of the development, white people lived in the Igoe apartments and African-Americans lived in the Pruitt homes. A housewife within the documentary stated - “I moved here because it is a white neighborhood” and “I can just not live alongside them, they want mixed marriages and to be equal with us” (The Pruitt Igoe Social Housing Development, 2016). Due to this conflict, it is what caused the white flight - the migration of white people from inner-city areas to the suburbs. The consequences of this were the loss of tax income to the city, factories and jobs also evacuated, which combined with discrimination in job hiring, left the black residents with little work causing them to struggle to pay for their bills. The form of white flight left the majority of the public housing communities to be represented by black people, which unfortunately left them with the damage of the community and its bad representation. For the final discussion of this essay, I will explore how this may have caused the ideology and stigma that now comes with being black from urban areas.

Although the Pruitt Igoe development was in the United States many believe that this issue is “happening on a global scale” (The Pruitt Igoe Social Housing Development, 2016). A Youtube comment stated that “I agree, I live in the UK these types of homes are destroyed here by people who don’t care as they are given for free and nobody has to work for it” (The Pruitt Igoe Social Housing Development, 2016). 60 years later and history still repeats itself in that the housing crisis is at its worst and crime is still highly associated with these types of developments. It is advertised within the media and in the newspapers nearly every week… This leads the question of, has the damage from the concept of public housing spiraled and lead us to conform to this image?

Going back to Andersons’ theory of “what we see through representations in cinema” (How We Are, 2009, Page 11) is what blinds, UK movies such as Bullet Boy (2004), Kidulthood (2006), and the tv series the Top Boy (2011) show similar representations of a youth growing up in these settings. Kidulthood (2006) and the series Top Boy (2011) give insight into the youth growing up in public housing. A lot of excitement was felt over their releases as it was uncommon for this type of storyline to be shown mainstream so authentically, especially with the majority of a black cast. The movie Kidulthood follows West London teenagers and their responsibilities and choices they make along the way.

Looking at the poster for Kidulthood The black highlighted landscape presented behind the actors could be implying that this is where they are from, what they are representing. Because they are outside and look to be quite comfortable due to their body language being in a lounging state, could suggest that a lot of the scene will be shot outside, also, almost implying that the streets are a second home to them, not in a homeless sense but in gallivant way. A critique by Niloufar Haidari stated “I was walking near my home in North West London when I clocked the poster for a new film called Kidulthood. It showed a bunch of teenagers sitting next to each other on the roof of a council flat, all dressed in regular clothes like tracksuits and jeans, the sky heavy and grey above them. Unlike most of the dirge advertised at my local cinema, the poster stood out – it was a scene I recognized.” (Haidari, N. 2016). The key point that Haidari makes is that it was a ‘scene she recognized’ therefore the visual imagery worked in hopes of catching its prime target audience. Gail Dines states that “video makers are in the same position as ad makers in terms of trying to get attention for their message” (Gender, race, and class in media, 2015, p. 249). Although the poster was successful in its branding, it can be questioned why video makers are not trying to challenge these messages that can often be seen as stereotypes.

Haidari then goes on to say that the film represents the “harshness of growing up fast on London's council estates, Kidulthood presented a radically alternative teen narrative that had, until then, been largely undocumented in the mainstream” (Haidari, N. 2016). Therefore it can be argued that because these films are so popular amongst the youth that society in fact encourages itself to conform to these roles as they too want to be a part of this popular culture.

Looking at a more recent representation of black people placed in urban environments, but this time through videography is through Jorja Smith's music video ‘Blue Lights. Jorja “questions why you should have a guilty conscience even if you’ve done nothing wrong. The video is about a black male who portrays three different paths he could’ve gone down in life… as a boxer, a police officer, and as a guy in a hoodie.” (Jorja Smith's 'Blue Lights' Video Impressively Examines Social Stereotypes, 2016). This shot is particularly interesting due to the position of each subject. As we have discussed before, an image can be picked apart and viewed in many ways, but in this case, it has been used to bring Jorja’s idea together, however, as a viewer, we are still entitled to our own interpretation. Similar to the Kidulthood cover, the young men are on a roof and directly looking at you, again dressed in similar clothing, you can see how visually society begins to represent this type of culture. The low shot of the camera makes the viewer feel as if the two men are looking down at us, judging you, almost as if you are in trouble. This could have been done intentionally to give us a small taste of how young men feel within a society feel today. The two CCTV cameras positioned behind them reinforces the idea of constantly being watched, judged. Going back to the concept of council estates, the director of this video has chosen to place the two men in the foreground of a council block. Similar to the Pruitt Igoe housing, the block lacks slight maintenance due to the broken windows on the right. It is interesting how the only window that is open out of them all is the one in-between them, could this be a sign of resistance to the stereotyped behavior of black men, possibly a visual metaphor that the two men have a problem between them, but instead of resolving it with violence, they have opted for a calm resolution. Something that should be represented more on screen.

If people living on estates/council housing are not presented in association with crime on TV, then it based on chavs, Little Britain being a prime example. Although in such a diverse country, there are definitely other storylines that can be brought to the screens. The latest series that moves away from the conformed nature of people living on estates/council housing is Channel 4 series Chewing Gum (2015) written by the main actress, Michaela Coel, and directed by Simon Neal. Different from the shows discussed earlier, this show is a breath of fresh air offering a new take on the visual culture of the working class.

This image is a huge difference from the Kidulhood poster, not to take away from the award-winning film, but for the first time the main character of the show is black, and although the whole cast is not, it shows what a real community looks like without any violence. Within the image you can see different races and ages, bringing real people to the screens and is showing what a good community can actually look like. Within a Vogue interview, Michaela Coel stated that “It's about my life, my upbringing - every character is made up of people I know” (Meet Michaela Coel: Channel 4's New Star, 2015). This is proof that a woman from an urban environment can live a life that is not associated with gangs or violence. Although this is a huge step within UK television there is still a lot of work to be done as Michaela Coel also stated that the world of acting is tough and competitive but “even more so for women - but actually, for black female actresses, the issue isn't really that it's competitive, it's that there just aren't enough roles for them in film and TV” (Meet Michaela Coel: Channel 4's New Star, 2015). Spoken by someone who actually works in the industry, this goes to show that there just aren’t enough diverse characters being portrayed for black people on TV - more perspectives need to be brought to our screens.

To conclude, images do play a vital role in how they influence society as a whole, because “these made meanings, or representations, structure the way people behave… in everyday life” (Visual methodologies, 2016, p. 2). Gillian Rose stated that “there is an obvious risk of self-serving definition – of mere tautology” (Visual methodologies, 2016, p. 12), when applied to the concept of the essay, if the same vision of black youth, in gangs or getting into trouble, making bad life choices is repeatedly shown on screens then we only risk damaging future generations to come. Because we are not offered other viewpoints visually, whether that be through films, music, or advertisement, we are left to spiral in the same stories that have already been told for us. New viewpoints and storylines need to be presented to us and challenged. Of course, movies like Kidulthood and Top Boy are great because they do tell stories of real people, but to move off from this, as discussed before, where these types of movies are so popular, young people can be inspired by them for the wrong reasons. Once a new visual image is presented to us, then, and only then, can the ideologies of council housing be renewed.

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