Is Consumerism Depicted in Art a Relevant Critique of Contemporary Society and Culture?
Once confronted with those artworks inspired by consumerism, we often find ourselves in the field of uncertainty. Built around familiar imagery of product advertisements, celebrity cults and everyday consumption practices, consumerist art is inherently rooted in the present social context, mirroring the dominant cultural values and making comments on the world we live in.
Unlike those movements which follow l’art pour l’art formula, pop art, or any other form of art which deals with consumerist imagery cannot be interpreted outside of the given context. But what is the message?
Is it a playful celebration of the carefree consumerist lifestyle or is it critically oriented towards it? Or is it both depending on the interpretation and our way of perceiving it?
What Is Consumerism?
The term consumerism first appeared to describe efforts to support consumer’s interests regarding the well-informed consumption of goods. As consequences of over-consumption became more transparent, the term took a completely different meaning during the 1960s and 1970s to denote a social and economic order and ideology that promotes the acquisition of goods and services in the ever-increasing amount. The promise of a good life in terms of happiness, well-being and the success of an individual presumed that we have to have more stuff. In terms of economics, the emphasis was placed on the consumption in order to produce a constant economic growth – an economic philosophy propagated by neoliberal capitalism. Under this presumption, the consumer demand is constantly stimulated as it is a key motor of the reproduction of capital. The citizen was redefined as a consumer whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling of goods. As consumerism seemingly emphasized the individual’s freedom of choice, people’s democratic rights and broader powers were undermined. Hence, the neoliberal capitalism moved away from satisfying people’s basic needs to the construction of those needs and desires themselves for the production to continue and to achieve the ever-increasing and constant growth in order for the capital to reproduce. But this growth doesn’t really come without consequences.
José Mujica on the Consumerism and Over-Consumption of Goods
A Brief History of Consumerism
Throughout centuries of human history, people have been producing and exchanging goods and commodities. The consumption of goods in order to survive is thus nothing new. What is new is the project of organizing an entire society around the necessity for ever-increasing rates of personal consumption. The concept arose from a unique historic milieu, more precisely, from the specific set of relations of production and exchange that emerged from the particular economic, political, technological and cultural context of the late 19th and early 20th-century capitalism. Since the Industrial Revolution, the society began consuming at a much higher rate than before. Further development of technology and the abundance of cheap fossil energy brought by the 20th century have vastly expanded the manufacture of a widening range of commercial products that led to the Mass Consumption. The basis of the material economy became the so-called consumer cycle that consists of extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal. In terms of supplies, colonialism was a key driver for consumerism. Thus, this concept emerged as a political and economic necessity for the reproduction of capitalist competition for markets and profits. The idea that consumption of consumer goods is equal to achieving success or even freedom followed as a strategy to intensify the concept domestically. In order to make it easier for people to buy things, the mindset “buy now pay letter” began to spread as loans and credit cards became available. As consumers took on more debt, the financial industry flourished and manufacturers sold more products.
The American Dream
The post-war era was marked by the inevitable period of prosperity. America, least struck by the hardships of war, started to develop a particular consumer lifestyle which became the role model for those countries still recovering from the devastating results of World War II. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the nation’s primary measure of economic success was introduced to formalize the government’s advocacy of increased consumption. By the 1950s, consumerism was deeply interwoven in the fabric of American society. This state of welfare was built on the ideology of progress, technological innovations, the rise of modern capitalism and further developments in the cultural industry. In 1955, the economist Victor Lebow wrote:
Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.
People were encouraged to express their individuality by purchasing products that would have been produced for meeting those needs. This drive for individualism was especially emphasized during the reign of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan during the 1980s. This concept of individualism served to remove or loosen people’s strong political and social activism that might occur.
Pop Art: A Celebration or Critique?
In the society which promoted the lifestyle of leisure and consumption, the dominant art movement of abstract expressionism centered on the explorations of spiritual seemed detached from everyday lives of ordinary people who couldn’t relate to it. Pop Art, born in the fifties, immersed itself completely into the mundane living experience, once and for all erasing the boundaries between high and low culture, fine art, and mass production.
After dadaism, which introduced the concept of ready-made profane objects to the world of fine art, Pop Art was the second largest movement which tackled the problem of mass consumption. Simultaneously developing in the US and the UK, this art movement started to include aspects of mass culture from advertisements to comic books and industrial labeling. The kitschy combinations of elements and reproduction of commercial images became commonplace in the work of artists in both countries. However, the British version of Pop Art movement was more critical towards the consumer culture, especially since they experienced it from the second hand, as something imported from the USA. Therefore, the works of some pioneering artists in the field like Richard Hamilton or Eduardo Paolozzi satirically and humorously presented their vision of consumerism still undeveloped in Europe at the time. Unlike their fellow colleagues overseas, American artists were completely surrounded by the mass-produced imagery and objects, completely trapped in the world of consumption which was both appealing in means of plentitude and freedom of choice and terrifying in terms of unification. The subtle irony which followed the works of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol and indirect criticism of social circumstances is what eventually resulted in the ambivalent assessment of their attitude towards consumerism. While some artists wanted to call attention to mass banality and spiritual nakedness of consumer goods, others were simply appropriating this imagery because they were fond of it, not as referential symbols that scream with meaning.
Culture Jamming and Other Contemporary Practices
At first perceived as the American phenomenon, consumerism soon took the world by storm through globalization and the rise of the free market economy. Advertisements and products became an integral part of one’s identity. Unlike Pop Art’s playful and often ambivalent attitude towards the consumer culture, the generation of artists that came after took a more decisive and hostile stand towards it. As a tool that plays a crucial role in perpetuating mechanisms and values of the consumer culture, the advertising soon became the focus of many artists whose practice revolved around the critique of consumerism. Artists such as Ron English, Vermibus or the Billboard Liberation Front Association have introduced the concept of advertisement hijacking or ‘culture jamming’. This tactic exposes the background of corporate advertisement by hijacking the billboard messages and radically altering mass media and corporate messages. Guerilla Girls have also appropriated the visual language of advertising, specifically fly-posting, to convey their political messages in a quick and accessible manner. Contemporary American artist Jordan Seiler is known today for his project PublicAdCampaign where he takes over billboards to use them as canvases for his artworks. The revolt against the hegemony of advertising over public space is also the main focus of the artistic project Brandalism.
Today, many contemporary artists employ various visual and conceptual strategies to question consumerism. Aiming to deconstruct this phenomenon from the inside out, they explore various aspects of commerce and exchange, the labor that generates these goods, global distribution networks, social and economic structures that support it, the notion of value or the role of goods consumption in the construction of our identities. The Mexican artist Gabriel Kuri creates sculptures and collages from the remains of everyday purchases and found objects. Transforming materials related to consumption into art, he extracts visual and linguistic value from the tracking systems, retail supplies, and trivial marketing mechanisms that constitute our daily lives. Focusing on the critique of consumerism and capitalism, German artist Josephine Meckseper juxtaposes everyday commodities, advertising and objects of political meaning to suggest a profound connection between consumer society, the politics of power, and the mechanisms of desire. The artist Martin Basher works with the language of retail and advertising to explore the emotional charge of common objects and images and the public and private impulses that inform us as consuming individuals.
Art and the Critique of Consumerism
One of the key points regarding the consumer culture is that the consumer sublimates the desire for cultural fulfillment to the rewards of buying and owning commodities. Also, the consumption of commodities and easy pleasures of popular culture renders people passive and content no matter how difficult their economic circumstances. Presenting itself as post-ideological and more natural than nature itself, the current economic system that reproduces itself through perpetual growth does so at the expanse of social rights and through the exploitation of the labor power and finite environmental resources. From the economic perspective, the extent to which capitalism is capable of maintaining constant rates of growth is also highly debatable. When ballon gets over-inflated, it explodes. Over-consumption leads to over-production that further leads to repetitive cycles of the economic crisis that could be overcome only through new wars and conflicts where goods get physically destroyed and certain industries stimulated.
The relationship between art and consumerism has always been a complex and complicated one. Popular culture is inherently troubled by its paradox nature. At the same time, it is imposed from above and a place where individuals, through the creative approach to what is offered, generate new meanings. Even in the works of the first pop artists love and critique of consumerism were equally distributed. The things are even more radical today when artists are taking radical approaches to the subject, whether they criticize the consumer culture or bring its glorification to the extremes like Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst for example.
The logic of late capitalism which controls our time is to sublimate any potential rebellion and turn it into it’s very opposite. In the light of this theory, every artwork, once it is exhibited and sold, becomes the product intended to be consummated just like any other mass-produced object. As Walter Benjamin pointed out, art and culture became co-opted and intended to suit capitalist interests where conditions of mass production and reproduction of art strip it of its function as an individual unit. It seems that the art itself has become a commodity to be bought and sold, meaning that consumerism has managed to swallow, devour and spit out the very thing that criticized it.
Featured image: Eduardo Paolozzi – Real Gold, 1949