PRINT October 1979

John Baldessari’s ‘Blasted Allegories’

All thought, judgment, perception, as comparison has as its precondition a positing of equality, and earlier still a making equal.
—Friedrich Nietzsche1

Allegories are, in the realm of thought, what ruins are in the realm of things.
—Walter Benjamin2

JOHN BALDESSARI’S “BLASTED ALLEGORIES (Colorful Sentences)” of 1978 consist of clusters of four or more Polaroid photographs of “random T.V.” scenes (often tinted), captioned and arranged in novel kinds of syntax. Some are reminiscent of subject-verb-object declarations, others of equations or ratios similar to rhetorical figures or tropes. Still others are structured in quasi-semiological grids, the horizontal axes with photos as syntagms in a metonymic order and the vertical axes with the photo-paradigms “carved out,” in a metaphoric order, of each photo-syntagm.

In each case a caption articulates the photo or adds information that is necessary, contradictory or superfluous: it seems right or wrong, right if it signified as the photo signified, wrong if not. Quickly, the work devolves around this opposition—for all the captions oppose the photos somehow, reducing, obfuscating, or erasing them. Photo and caption have to be sorted, then reset as one term, to read the sentences and to extract meaning. If not impossible, this is difficult: one reads the visual and verbal separately or skims both simultaneously. This is valid: two conditions appended to each work—that the photos are “random” and “prior named”—make meaning, based on the unity of photo and photo and photo and caption, problematic. Such doubt, however, is lessened by the introduction of mathematical connectives of photo to photo, within the work (brackets and signs of proportion, : and :: ) and of algebraic reductions of photo and caption, below the work (letter-symbols: A, B etc.). In effect, meaning is both given and taken away: Baldessari maps out a morphology of meaning independent of a logic of truth. One begins to think: is the allegory to be “blasted” the allegory of meaning; the way we read a work—by finding or imposing, so as to extract meaning; the way we make equal what is unequal; the need to separate and then unite what is ineluctably separated and united?3 Or is it the need to codify and so ossify all dialectical relations?

Allegory (Greek allos, agoreuein), to “speak other,”4 is a term laced with polemicism: since the Romantics,5 it has accrued a pejorative status; it became a punitive label. Allegory was (is) moralism or abstraction. Worse, it related meaning to a transcendent order (ultimately the Logos) that is now tenuous. First a technique of literature wherein a story engages a structure of meanings set in hierarchic levels (Bocaccio lists four: literal, allegorical, moral, anagogic), allegory presented and protected (divine) meaning. Crucial to poetry and its defense in the early Renaissance, it was seen as the poetic method of Scripture: to respect the Logos (“pearls before swine”) and yet to incarnate it somehow, its writers had enclosed it, like the Word within Flesh. The letter was given: the spirit was to be extracted, in faith and in labor, a process that both led to the Word and reformed the fallen will. Allegory then was its own hermeneutics. Indeed, as all criticism doubles its object, it is inherently allegorical.

I review allegory to define a norm that will locate the allegory of Baldessari. Clearly, he is not concerned with an anagogic or overtly moral meaning. Still, given that the photos are “prior named” and the “name” is “to suggest the color (the photo tint),” the works fall strictly within the category of allegory in that the concept is prior to the image; and inasmuch as Baldessari disguises and reveals, allegory is pertinent. If meaning that is allegorical is somehow devious or impure, and the enterprise is to “blast” it (deconstruct without program?), and if the anagogic and moral levels do not apply, then the meaning that is true and pure, that is to remain, is the literal meaning. The question becomes: what is this, what constitutes it? (Is it, for example, the visual sense of the work, apart from any literary idea or critical concept?) Does it reveal itself in the process of the blast, or are we left to anticipate or imagine it? If this is so, is that not to revert to allegory? In the end if one does not, per allegory, speak or show other, what is it to speak or show the same? Doesn’t it, finally, make more sense to say with Derrida, “It is not therefore a matter of inverting the literal meaning and the figurative meaning but of determining the ‘literal’ meaning as metaphoricity itself”?6

One form of allegory is of course that of television—its typology. This seems simple, but is complex, because compounded; residual in it are the psychology of physiognomy and the value-system of color—color as emblem (e.g., blue as faith) or character-index (e.g., yellow as cowardice), both of which are related to humor in the old sense. In television these things are the codes of personality and, as such, they are standard; for the more immediate our attraction/ repulsion, the better. This is where typology relates to discrimination, and if this may be called a moral level in the schema of allegory, it is here blasted. It is blasted in many ways: (1) Baldessari decontextualizes the types, defining them as such, that is, as artificial; (2) he performs on the types the typological technique of hyperbole, that is, he overdetermines them; verbal and visual typology compound and the whole is inflated to a melodrama that deflates itself; (3) he underdetermines or contradicts the types, reducing or opposing a verbal and visual typology or otherwise confusing or disconnecting them. The result is that our discriminatory reflexes are retarded, even checked.

If the typology of television is the allegory Baldessari has in mind, perhaps its highest level—what in true allegory would be the anagogic—is here an ideological level (one may substitute, for divine order and anagogic meaning, social order and ideological meaning). Now is to blast this to free language (as the spirit of the letter), to allow for a language that does not sully itself (in the service of ideology, with political, class, or other nuances)? It seems that Baldessari betrays a longing for a pure language (and he is not alone: Susan Sontag shows much the same sentiment in Illness as Metaphor).7 On one hand, the issue is practical: what are the politics of language? And on the other, it is idealistic: what would the pure seed of language be? Rather sterile, I imagine. Language—to enfold a concept sensuously—is by nature allegorical; as a mediation, it de-literalizes. To blast allegory or, in another variant, to get rid of the “myth of depth”—to do this in language—is impossible.

The vision of a pure language is related to the vision of a perfect system. A language that denotes meaning purely (without connotation) is like a system that transfers energy purely (without, say, friction). The issues become what I will (crudely) call entropy and hypertrophy, entropy as the loss (dispersal) of energy and hypertrophy as the retention (accumulation) of energy within a system. Both result, of course, in a transfer of energy that is inadequate, insofar as our minds are engaged in the systems as too sophisticated or not sophisticated enough. Any system (the universe, for one) is subject to one or both: my sense is that, if these works are systemic, they are subject to hypertrophy: energy (meaning) is retained within them. This may well be because of a fear of entropy, of the dispersal of energy or of a multivalence of meaning, which is to say, a fear of allegory.

All the sentences that are equationlike deal with entropy. One does so manifestly. CAREFULLY WEIGHED WORDS WITH GREY DEFINITIONS relates two sets of ratios—BEGIN is to (:) WEIGHING as (::) STOP is to (:) BALANCING—and equates the whole (=) to STASIS. The photos of BEGIN and STOP are alike and contrary: both are portraits tinted gold, BEGIN of an elderly woman, STOP of a young man (Elvis Presley): the woman holds a plate of biscuits, offers “begin”; Elvis cradles a rifle, orders “stop.” One initiates action, the other terminates it. These are related respectively to WEIGHING and BALANCING—the same photo tinted mauve of two men (lawyer and defendant?) in deliberation. The photos are the same, not identical; here as elsewhere Baldessari plays with difference-in-repetition and the entropy which that involves. Explicit, then, is a concern with the ratios of energy or energy transfer. BEGIN and STOP are vectors of energy, and WEIGHING and BALANCING are their intersection, an intersection that is STASIS, both semantically and equationally (the ratios are equal), as expressed by

(both ratios signify → and are equivalent to ≡, STASIS). The sign, as a term in the pure language or perfect system of mathematics, allows for no loss (indeed, if we translate → as “generate” as Baldessari does, equivalence ≅ is a generation, a gain not a loss; this is not the same as proliferation by dispersal, which is a loss). However, this is contradicted by the facts of the photos: the luscious gold and mauve of BEGIN/STOP and WEIGHING/BALANCING are sapped to the gray of STASIS. The title of the work confirms the loss: deliberation, definition, equation, involve entropy. Entropy is also related to the subject, television; the STASIS photo is of a dulled couple before the tube; the sense is that the garish energy of television affects a gray tedium or vapidity. The work (the entire ensemble) seems to dispute the Nietzschean notion that appropriation—making equal, positing as equal-is the process of preservation and constitution, of the discovery of truth and the establishment of knowledge.8

It is clear that Baldessari is concerned, through allegory, with the structure of meaning. As allegory is first an operation of language—indeed as we, by reflex, look first (if not only) for verbal meaning—I will examine the rhetoric of the captions or, more precisely, the rhetorical figure(s) they compose in one work. YELLOW (VIOLET) + BLACK (WHITE)

YEARN BASHFULLY (GREEN) consists of four photos, the top two black and white with YELLOW written in violet and BLACK in white, the bottom two both green with YEARN BASHFULLY written in white. The generation (→) of words is associative: YELLOW generates YEARN and BLACK generates BASHFULLY, by assonance. The generation (≡) of colors is oppositional: YELLOW in violet equals green (BLACK in white cancels). The two operations—one associative, the other oppositional—are solved in the figure of oxymoron (the combination in one expression of two terms that are normally contradictory): such a figure is YEARN BASHFULLY (to desire and repress simultaneously). The photos show a similar construction. The YELLOW photo, top left, is of a cowboy who, threatened, shies away from other cowboys; the BASHFULLY photo, bottom right, is also of a cowboy who, threatened in a different way, shies away from a cowgirl (both cowboys in the character-attribution of color, especially relevant to Westerns, are “yellow,” i.e. cowards). The BLACK photo, top right, is a right profile of a blonde girl, alone and aloof, the YEARN photo, bottom left, of the left profile of a darkhaired boy, alone and desirous (both girl and boy in the color attribution are black, without mutuality). The figure that the construction is like is chiasmus (in which the terms in the second of two parallel phrases reverse the order of those in the first to which they correspond). Chiasmus, although a verbal figure, is first a figure, that is, visual (from the Greek letter chi, a diagonal cross “x”); which is to imply that even here to explain the structure in verbal, linear terms is a travesty: we are returned to the visual sense. Indeed, as both figures, chiasmus and oxymoron, are dialectical, simultaneously separating and uniting, to define a meaning is contrary. Moreover, I think it is clear that although there is a structure of meaning here, no meaning is conveyed—again we are returned to the visual sense, the literal level.

The work is also not resistant to semiological analogy or analysis, and it is true that Baldessari does use symbols pertinent to structural linguistics (→ is the symbol of signification, technically, the exchange of dissimilar things, i.e. signifier and signified; and ≡ is the symbol of value, the comparison of similar things, i.e. two signifiers),9 so that one may discuss the work as sign-system. Indeed, it seems to tend toward a semiological study of television, but television is too complex, too heterogeneous a “corpus,” and even to discuss the photos and captions in terms of signifier and signified may confuse the issue. Suffice it to say that as such, they are equivocal, so that meaning, if there is any, is not set. Moreover, insofar as the work is related to semiology or to structuralism, it is about how it may mean, not what it does mean, nor indeed that it means at all.

I see the work, with its rhetoric of binary operations, as a parody of the activity or simulacrum of the structuralists, the reconstitution of an object (here television) in order to reveal its functions and systems of signification. Structuralism may be another allegory under the gun, its binarism another “taxonomy meant to be swept away by history.”10 It does seem that the binarism of the work is of a specious sort. Perhaps Baldessari, like many now, questions the notion of the sign “as a homogeneous unit bridging an origin (referent) and an end (meaning), as ‘semiology,’ the study of signs, would have it.”11 The wit and play of the work, the blend of rigor and whimsy (even eroticism), and the sense of the ritualistic in the banal, recall the more playful Roland Barthes and the kind of decoding of social products that he does in Mythologies (1957). But is the decoding a serious enterprise here, or is it meant to draw us in so as to collapse us in its own absurdity?

The question, really, is whether the work is systemic or unsystemic: my sense is that it works through, and seeks to undo, such polarities. But then we face the ambiguity of a constructed object made to signify a deconstructive process. Is there a logic here, or do the images just cross-foliate randomly, with any meaning being fortuitous? To me this work does make visual sense (and I do not mean to hide behind its ineffability), does, that is, make for a construct within which a deconstruction of verbal meaning may be rehearsed. This, then, is the sense in which allegory is returned to literalness. But the blast may be superfluous: allegory, as it opposes in union the allegorical and the literal, is an operation that, by its very operation, dictates its own (partial) deconstruction. Here I refer the reader to the thought of Walter Benjamin’s which I use as an epigraph.

Blasted Allegories. Is the violence directed at the allegory of criticism—the appropriation of the art object by a critical concept, the eradication of complexity and density, the perversion of the art experience in verbal linearity? If it is such a defense, it may be valid. Yet if it is an attack on the way criticism speaks other than the intention of the artist, it is fraudulent. One may hope at least, if the thrust is toward criticism, that “Blasted Allegories” is not another form of The Painted Word thesis: that modernist art is the creation of the critic.

Such extrapolation, I know, is perilous, and risks its own condemnation. But I wonder, finally, whether “Blasted Allegories” is not a self-revision of sorts. Hasn’t Baldessari reread, and so rewritten, his own status as a Conceptual artist? No longer is the idea, the word, the meaning, primary. In the blast there is a cancellation and a (re)generation; there is a reconciliation.

For Charlie and Thatcher

Hal Foster



1. Friedrich Nietzsche, Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann, New York, 1968, p. 227.

2. Walter Benjamin as cited by Susan Sontag, “The Last Intellectual,” The New York Review of Books, October 12, 1978, pp. 78–79.

3. Here the filmic or, more precisely, the montage, quality of the work is important as it reflects such a dialectical process.

4. “To speak other” infers irony. In a sense, irony is “blasted allegory.” Allegory relies upon an order of thought at once hierarchic and homogeneous, whose highest level is the anagogic referent to the transcendent order of the Logos. If that level is lost and meaning becomes relative, allegory as a device and habit of mind gives way to irony. This is the case with English Literature in the seventeenth century.

5. The Romantics, though often allegorical, opposed allegory to symbolism and preferred the latter because allegory, as a process of idea to image, was prone to be didactic and abstract.

6. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatari Chakravorty Spivak, Baltimore, 1976, p. 15.

7. I am indebted for this point to David Shapiro.

8. This is a paraphrase of a discussion of Nietzsche in Spivak’s preface to Of Grammatology, p. xxxvi.

9. See Roland Barthes, Elements of Semiology, New York, 1967, p. 52.

10. Ibid., p. 82.

11. Spivak preface, p. xxxix. She goes on to say, “The structure of binary oppositions in general is questioned by grammatology. Différence invites us to undo the need for balanced equations, to see if each term in an opposition is not after all an accomplice of the other” (p. lix).