Foucault’s power theories in contemporary art

Nov 2012

This paper discusses Foucault’s theories about power and works from contemporary artist Barbara Kruger are used to discuss the related issues.

Michel Foucault, a French philosopher, has made substantial discussions about power and its structure.  Many theorists and artists were influenced by his discourse; some believed his analysis provides answers for achieving equality.  Body, power and knowledge are heavily discussed in Foucault’s works, the relationship between them and their effects are analyzed.  In his works Discipline and Punish (1995) and The History of Sexuality Volume 1 (1978), the theorist explains the mutation of the form of power – from physical torture and violence on bodies to the systematic supervision of minds and souls, norms gained from scientific knowledge are formulated within organizations.

Like Foucault, Barbara Kruger is interested in body and power.  She explored fundamental social and political issues in her works through acute slogans and photographs from existing sources.  Some of the artist’s ideas about power are comparable to Foucault’s theory.  Her criticism on inappropriate power acted on culture and society demonstrates Foucault’s (1978) suggestion about struggle against power is inevitable, wherever economic processes, knowledge relations, and sexual relations exist, struggle exists.

Foucault (1978 p. 93) stated: ‘Power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere.’  Kruger visualizes such thought in her works with juxtapositions of images and texts, a lot of them resemble the forms of controls in modern society, like mass media, advertising, propaganda…  In Untitled (We don’t need another hero) (1986) (Fig. 1) and Untitled (I shop therefore I am) (1987) (Fig. 2), the iconic red boarders induce association to the red boarders on the famous TIME magazine covers; and more than once she used the billboard, posters, advertising platforms to display her works.  Kruger wisely adopted the society’s forms of control (media and advertisements) to suggest power is embedded in the things we see everywhere, like signs and icons of culture, media, advertisement, and thus the society and culture are influenced by power unavoidably.

Foucault (1995) pointed out, historically body was treated as object by the authorities.  The kings and emperors manipulated and trained bodies in becoming more skillful, forceful by strengthening their physical power; destroyed and damaged bodies of others by executions, wars and tortures to punish the oppositions.  And he dissected, the form of control in the modern system and the ways power is exercised have been changed.  Yet, the body is still objectified and being acted upon – scientific calculations and methods are developed and employed to different organizations including the educational, military, and health-care systems to control and enhance the operations of the body.  The body is arranged, regulated and supervised to reform of not only the body but the soul of individual.  These methods of control formed ‘disciplines’ by ‘increases the forces of the body (in economic terms of utility) and diminishes these same forces (in political terms of obedience)’ (Foucault 1995, p. 138) and made possible to control the operations of the body and maintain power in a stable and economic way.  The ‘docile bodies’ (Foucault 1995, p. 138) formed by disciplines are well-trained and practiced, do not possess power on their own but as units to form domination.

By appropriating ‘docile bodies’ in the Foucaultian sense, Kruger challenges the stereotype and objectification of women.  In her works, women are powerless.  Their bodies are weak and wounded as shown with the injured hand as in Untitled (We will undo you) (1982) (Fig. 3), they do not have minds like statues as in Untitled (Your gaze hits the side of my face) (1981-83) (Fig. 4), they cannot enjoy freedom to sit up straight like normal as in Untitled (We have received orders not to move) (1982) (Fig. 5)…  Such immobilized female bodies resemble Foucault’s (1995) powerless, manipulable, submissive, puppet-like docile bodies; where they are ‘to remain motionless until the order is given, without moving the head, the hands, or the feet’ (Foucault 1995 p. 136).  The declarative texts further reinforced the submissiveness of women, as they need to be ‘[undone]’, to stay ‘[silent]’ (Fig. 6) and to ‘[receive] orders’.  The artist exposes the norm of the society where women are weak and docile; she reasserts the inferiority of female in the male-prioritized society and challenge the male power in the society.

According to Foucault (1995), the panopticon is built to reinforce disciplines for development of society in becoming more economic and effective.  These prison-like structures are made for authorities to monitor the individuals and train individuals to become identical and unified to create power.  The system is built in a way to make it impossible for individuals being examined to unite among themselves, and they are aware of themselves being monitored but could not identify who observed them.  The individuals are being supervised according to the set of ‘norms’ gained from scientific methods and knowledge about human nature and behavior, such structure to classify individuals formed the governing authority and created the solid bond between bodies, knowledge and power.

In line with Foucault’s work on the panopticism, Kruger confronts the issue of surveillance in her work Untitled (Surveillance is their busywork) (Kruger 1999, p. 58), she criticizes the controlled social body and discuss the situation where citizens are being monitored by anonymous authorities and the invisible power enacted on the society.  The artist’s work was displayed on a billboard in a public area of Sydney, the image of a man with the lens-like object suggests surveillance is everywhere on street-level where discipline is expected.  The use of advertising billboard as the medium to present the work suggested ‘a sense of permanent visibility that ensures the functioning of power’ (Foucault 1995, p. 201) like the panopticon and like the abundance of advertising such examination is spread throughout society.  The pronouns ‘their’ and ‘busy’ in the slogan implies the existence of more than one observer and strengthen idea of the plentiful monitoring that takes place.  The observer is partly covered (by the slogan and the handheld object) and made his face hardly identifiable, while the citizens can see the observer but never know who is observing them, nor why we are being observed.

Foucault’s theory on the manipulation of bodies to gain knowledge and control for establishment of power provides insight to the system of society.   Sharing similar views, Kruger considered critically the ways in which illegitimate authority is enforced in our culture, and her works compliment Foucault’s theory with the investigation of the body’s relation to power and the way social norms controls the body.




Boyne, R 2002, ‘Foucault and Art’, in A Companion to Art Theory, Blackwell, Cornwall, pp. 337-348

Foucault, M 1978, The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction, Pantheon, New York

Foucault, M 1995, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of Prison, Pantheon, New York

Kruger, B 1994, Remote Control: Power, Cultures, and the World of Appearances, MIT Press, Cambridge

Kruger, B 1999, Barbara Kruger, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

McLaren, MA 2002, Feminism, Foucault, and Embodied Subjectivity, State University of New York Press, New York

Rainbow, P 1991, ‘Space, Knowledge, and Power’ in The Foucault Reader: An Introduction to Foucault’s Thought, Penguin, London, pp. 239-256



Image 1

Kruger, B 1987, Untitled (We don’t need another hero), photographic silkscreen on vinyl, 90”x117”, Mary Boone Gallery, New York, viewed 10 October 2012,


Image 2

Kruger, B 1987, Untitled (I shop therefore I am), photographic silkscreen on vinyl, 111”x113”, Mary Boone Gallery, New York, viewed 10 October 2012,


Image 3

Kruger, B 1982, Untitled (We will undo you), photograph and type on paper, 26.4cmx17.5cm, Skarstedt Gallery, New York, viewed 10 October 2012,


Image 4

Kruger, B 1981-83, Untitled (Your gaze hits the side of my face), photograph and type on paper, 23.8cm x17.8cm, Skarstedt Gallery, New York, viewed 10 October 2012,  <;

Image 5

Kruger, B 1982, Untitled (We have received orders not to move), photograph, 71”x49”, viewed 10 October 2012, The Art History Archive, <;

Image 6

Kruger, B 1982, Untitled (Your comfort is my silence), photograph and type on paper, 27.6cmx 19.7cm, Skarstedt Gallery, New York, viewed 10 October 2012, <;

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: