postmodern decontextualization

This is my shorthand way of talking about a phenomenon that has become more prominent with the advent of performance abduction in the late 20th and early 21st century, though it has always been part of culture. There are two ways in which appropriated work may be decontextualized: (1) the appropriaters may be ignorant of or indifferent to the work’s meaning in its original context, and (2) the audience may be ignorant of the original context entirely.

Decontextualization and recontextualization happen when a creative statement is removed from its original political, social, and aesthetic context and put into a new one. For instance, the funky disco song “Good Times” from the 1970s was written for a mainly African American audience as a dance track, and was meant to celebrate some relaxing time off, dancing. When it is used as the soundtrack for driving around committing crimes in the video game Grand Theft Auto it has been taken from its original context and turned to a new one.

The idea of postmodern decontextualization is that it is now really easy to repurpose other people’s work and performances in new contexts. Commericial appropriaters such as advertisers do this all the time. When discussing the “recontext” as a form of appropriation I mentioned the use of the 60s Bob Dylan protest song “The Times Are A-Changin'” in the 90s BMO online banking ad, for instance.

In many cases, as with the Bob Dylan song, the original context is well known and understood by the appropriaters, and they want at least some of the original context to colour their new context for at least some members of the audience (the baby boomers who are reminded of their rebellious youth and are expected to associate those feelings with the “radical” newness of banking on the Internet). In other examples, however, appropriaters may be unaware of or indifferent to what the work meant in its original context.

For instance, in the Gap ad that uses Audrey Hepburn’s crazy avant-garde dance from the 1957 film Funny Face, the original context is unimportant to the appropriaters. The dance is recontextualized as an ad for skinny black jeans, and occurs to the accompaniment of the AC/DC song “Back in Black.”

Hepburn’s dance in Funny Face was more than anything else a pastiche of the kind of avant-garde modern dance being done in the 50s by Martha Graham and other cutting edge choreographers. The original context is one of underground culture (Paris, books, artists, youth, beatniks). The new context is a party girl looking good in her black pants. The AC/DC song has a vaguer context, but is again part of rebellious youth culture. The lyrics sound not unlike an anticipation of rap songs where gangsters talk about getting out of prison (or free of something) and living large, for the moment.

The appropriaters may have liked some of these residual resonances, but they don’t need or want most of them in their performance abduction from Funny Face. More to the point, the typical viewer of the ad, especially those in the Gap’s target audience, are unlikely to recognize the context of Hepburn’s dance at all, and may not even recognize Hepburn.

  • The appropriaters don’t care about and the audience mostly knows nothing about
  • žThe intentions of the film maker or the scriptwriter
  • žWhat the choreographer was trying to do with the dance
  • žWho Audrey Hepburn thought she was when doing the dance – what either Audrey Hepburn’s character or Audrey Hepburn herself was dancing for
  • The intentions of AC/DC in writing “Back in Black” and how their original audience would have understood the song

Although it is as common as dirt, I’ve been trying to suggest that postmodern decontextualization can be seen as disrespectful, ignorant, and a dangerous practice when the appropriaters themselves don’t understand the contexts of the works they are appropriating.