Artists: Barbara Kruger (Body of Work)

This body of work comes from Barbara Kruger, a renowned artist known for her visuals with short superimposed text that questions the viewer's ideas about identity, women, power, materialism, and more. 

Kruger - and the other artists published on the site - are great to use in semester or term one of their first year in the course.  Why?  It allows you to teach or re-teach or practice close analysis without having to read tons and tons of text.  It also introduced (or re-introduces) students to studying visuals and images, something they may not have done before. 

As with most resources on InThinking, there is huge flexibility in both how you teach something and what part of the course it "falls" under.  Technically, this is placed in the "readers,writers and texts" area of exploration.  In this area of exploration, students are expected to pay close attention to the choices made by an author (or artist in this case) and connect those choices to the ways in which meaning is constructed.  In fact, by looking at an artist's body of work, students will start to see that "texts are powerful means to express individual thoughts and feelings" (22, guide).

However, if you work in a concept based teaching and learning school, you will have to focus on the concepts, and at least two of them at the same time.  Using that conceptual approach, identity, culture, and creativity jump out.  You might chose, though, to put this only under one concept, communication perhaps, and that's okay too.  In other words, you will need to make choices based on how you have constructed your course that may not exactly match with how the materials and resources are presented here. 

You can follow the lesson below or take only what you need to get students discussing, analyzing, and debating about this topic. Modify, mix and match, and do whatever it is that you need to do to make this body of work meet your needs. 

Area of Exploration Guiding Questions

1. In what ways is meaning constructed, negotiated, expressed and interpreted?

2. How does the structure or style of a text affect meaning?

Guiding Conceptual Questions (Combining Concepts)

1.  In what ways can identity and culture be creatively expressed and why?

2.  How are language and visuals creatively used to express and affirm identity and why?

Artwork by Barbara Kruger

Click on the icons for the artwork.

Untitled (You Invest in the Divinity of the Masterpiece), 1982

Gelatin silver print, mounted and framed

182.2 x 115.8 cm

You Are Not Yourself, 1981

Photo Collage

182 x 121 cm

Response and Interpretation - 5 Readings

Have students do five quick readings of the text.  Display the image on the board for five to ten seconds.  Then remove it.  Have students record in their notebook their initial impressions and their initial thinking about the image.  This is their first reading. 

Before the second reading, ask students to look closely at the language used.  Again, display the image on the board for five to ten seconds.  Remove it.  Have students record their ideas about the words, phrases, sentences, and questions used.  Get them to go beyond the literal and to move into the deeper implications. 

For the third reading, have students focus on the images and visuals.  Do they compliment or contrast the words?  Show the image for a short period of time.  Remove it.  Have students record their response and interpretations about the visuals. 

For the fourth reading, get students to connect their thinking from the first three readings to larger conceptual ideas and social concerns present in the work. This may be difficult for them at first and you may need to prompt them with key words: consumerism, gender, and patriotism to name a few.   

Finally, display the image one last time and leave it on the board.  Have them answer this essential question: How are language and visuals used to express and affirm identity in Barbara Kruger's work?

For more specific investigation into two of the pieces, you could have students delve deeper by answering the questions below. 

Questions for "We Don't Need Another Hero"

1.  How is the use of text/language important in this work of art?

2.  Why do you think Kruger uses such old-fashioned images of gender stereotypes?  How do they help subvert or maintain the status quo?

3.  How does Kruger’s image work to displace our reading of such images and the types of representations you might expect to see?

Questions for the last image titled "Questions"

1.  Comment on Kruger’s use of the flag to create meaning.

2.  Compare and contrast Kruger’s flag to an any advertisement.  How long does it take to understand an advert versus this work of art?

3.  What does Kruger mean by “Look for the moment when pride becomes contempt”?

4.  Do you think this artwork is endorsing or criticizing the ideals of the United States?  Explain.

5.  Where would be the best place to put this artwork?  Why? (museum, billboard, magazine, television…)

Whole Class Discussion

Once students have completed the "five readings" and the "questions," they will be primed to discuss the images as a whole class.  Allow them to grapple with the area of exploration or guiding conceptual questions, and if need be, tailor the discussion around the piece "I Shop Therefore I Am" as it may be the easiest of them all to interpret. 

If you need a question to start the discussion, ask: How does Barbara Kruger creatively explore issues of identity and culture in the six pieces (or one) you have analyzed?

Links to Theory of Knowledge (TOK)

Discussion questions

After students have completed the work in this unit - or if you feel it is better placed in the middle, for example - have students address this first question.  Often, students will enter our class and tell us that any interpretation of a text is okay.  Is it?  This first question allows you to - early in the course - deal with this idea and it allows you to set your expectations for interpretation. 

1. Are some interpretations of a text better than others? How are multiple interpretations best negotiated?

This second TOK question gets to the heart of how we construct knowledge in our discipline.  It might also provide you an opportunity to briefly introduce competing critical theories as well.

2. How much of the knowledge we construct through reading a text is determined by authorial intention, by the reader’s cultural assumptions and by the purpose valued for a text in a community of readers?

Towards Assessment:

Authentic assessment: Not everything must be IB "sanctioned."  You can have assessments in your class that are not IB mandated tasks.  Perhaps you ask students to create a visual about their own identity and accompany it with a 500 word rationale about their creativity or choices. 

On the other hand, you could use this as a quick get-to-know-you activity.  Students can complete it for homework - the visual - and you can use it the next class to discuss or present issues of their own culture, creativity and identity.  At the start of the year, with a completely new cohort of students, it is possible to begin in a way that invites them into the course. 

Individual Oral: Using one of these texts is great for the Individual Oral.  In fact, InThinking has published one (about a different Kruger piece).  The student, you will find, connects well to Kruger's larger body of work while maintaining most of the focus on the artwork he selected for the oral. 

Higher Level Essay: Can a student write a 1,200 - 1,500 word essay on just one of these pieces of art?  Maybe not.  In this case, connecting it to a larger body - 2 or 3 pieces that compliment or contradict each other in interesting ways - may be a way forward in using this for the Higher Level Essay.

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