Warhol's Ugly Brood: Is Consumerism Killing Creativity?
Originally published in MISC Magazine, 2015
4 MINUTE READ
There is a mountain of scholarly and social criticism that has examined the relationship between consumerism and culture. From Naomi Klein’s No Logo to Kalle Lasn’s Adbusters, social critics have feasted on the deleterious effects of our unfettered consumption of material goods, entertainment and pretty much anything that has a price tag on it. The basic conclusion is that consumerism has turned us into a collective version of Rabelais’ insatiable monster Gargantua, a ravenous, greedy giant who kills and eats his way through the late Renaissance.
The same image is invoked in the biting critique of consumer culture penned by 20th century author and social critic, Julian Stallabrass, also called Gargantua. Stallabrass, a professor of art history at the Courtauld Institute, posited that mass culture leads to an increasingly homogeneous identity among its consumers, to the tyranny of the brand name, and to the reduction of the individual to a cipher.
If Stallabrass is right, then the answer to the question posed in the title of this article would be a resounding yes. It would also explain why artists are commonly depicted as outsiders, misfits, driven by some mysterious inner drive to poke at the normal, to consciously collide social norms with cultural taboos and to question everything most of us hold dear. In this scenario, the artist is considered a fringe operator who dances to a tune the rest of us can’t hear.
In today’s media-saturated world, we can be forgiven for not being able to hear that tune. If the sound track of contemporary urban life is flooded by pop music and the music of advertising, both of which have a way of overtaking almost everything else within our auditory purview, it’s no surprise that contemporary composers like John Cage and Philip Glass are unknown to all but a relative few. You just can’t turn their work into a radio jingle.
One could argue that creativity is a rebuttal of consumerist ideology, a refusal to accept the noise of the marketplace as life’s soundtrack. One need not look too far for examples. The work of artist cum social critic Barbara Kruger is an ongoing challenge to consumerist norms. Combining altered clichés with the rough vernacular of archival imagery culled from the visual culture of old print ads, Kruger’s art bluntly triggers the uneasiness that underlies our hunger for more and more stuff. It suggests that we have surrendered to insidious corporate tools of mind control, inducing us to wander the malls in a kind of consumptive stupor as we fill our lives with tons of purchases that we don’t need, may never use and will eventually dispatch to a landfill site.
Barring the notion of insidious mind control, there is undeniable truth in this statement. Japanese artist Takashi Murakami also turns the embrace of commerce to his own ends: he has chosen to mass produce his signature imagery. With great entrepreneurial gusto, Murakami extracts some of the more innocent elements of his now playful, now sinister visual lexicon of smiling flowers and cartoon mice and applies them to consumer goods ranging from soccer balls to cell phone caddies. While his more “serious” work adorns museum walls with monumental, nightmarish canvases of the same innocent creatures sporting blood-soaked fangs and half-eaten flesh, the far less threatening elements of his anime-inspired iconography can be found on Louis Vuitton handbags and Citizen wristwatches.
The notion of consumer culture as creative fodder is far from new. In a recent article in The Guardian, art critic Jonathan Jones goes so far as to say that the consumer world we now live in was, in significant measure, created by art. Jones writes, “All the shallowness of modern mass culture began in avant-garde art 50 years ago. We’re Warhol’s ugly brood.” He goes on to explain that Pop Art “took the surfaces of objects, the instant appearances of the new bright world, as its subject matter. Everywhere, emotional depth in art was censored. Pop Art taught everyone to enjoy money and the mass media.”
It seems then, that even some of the most creative individuals in our society may be aiding and abetting the consumptive stupor in which we apparently find ourselves. Blurring the lines between high and low culture, they have simultaneously mocked our “shiny” reality and profited from it. But while it fuels their creativity, it limits ours to the choice between one brand of consumer goods and another. Not much of a canvas to work on.
So what is the solution? Ironically, it will be creativity that gets us out of this situation. We are seeing early signs from some of the more networked members of the general public, those who engage with brands through social media. More and more, people are challenging the way they are treated by brands, and challenging brands to listen to what they have to say. Is it too naïve to hope that consumers will challenge the very fundamentals of the marketplace? When that day comes, we’ll all be artists. wn