‘What is the function of art?’ is an age-old question we must consider before attempting to understand any subgenre or political context present in the artistic world, with the next step being to share the answers to the function’s determination. The genres in the arts are dictated mainly by the achieved style, technique or social message communicated by the work, with the popularity of contemporary art being specifically its diverse parley and lack of restraint. Hence, what is the role of art? According to Tarrant College, we know that art is the barometer that measures levels of cultural sophistication (Fernandez, 2021). Considering what we’ve come to know and analyze out of the artistic world, we know that art serves as a means of communication, or even a visual language so to say. It uses non-verbal communications to display strong feelings and can function as critiques to ongoing discourse in our realities. During the second half of the 20th century, up until now, contemporary art has taken upon itself to unravel itself in social critiques towards present issues, predominantly those such as consumerism. Further on, we’ll understand why contemporary critiques on consumerism hold great accuracy and social relevance, through the use of example artists such as Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, as well as particular concepts that have influenced the idea of social critique in art such as Marcel Duchamp’s readymades and the idea of anti-art.
Art is packaged in the form of visual and auditory techniques as a means to criticize a social reality, such as consumerism, classism or racism, because of its communicative nature, which is expressed through the use of visual language, an idea extracted from the works of Terry Barrett in 1994, specifically in ‘Criticizing Art: Understanding the Contemporary’.
It isn’t uncommon to see particular works of art, especially when we concentrate on contemporary artists, with a direct and striking message that critiques one or multiple social issues that are present today. During the beginning of the second half of the 20th century, after the end of World War II, when social issues where evermore present, artists began creating art that critiqued the actions of the government, the war itself, or any other of the multiple socioeconomic inequalities occurring at the time, with their artwork being seen as an almost form of rebellion and causing great levels of controversy due to its possible direct and crass nature. These artworks did not focus on the idea of creating art to make something beautiful, they were created with the sole purpose of acting as a movement and expression against political agendas and civil challenges, with this being one of the essential characteristics for the base of the anti-art concept.
One of the most present and critiqued societal phenomena of the time was the rise of American consumerism. Consumerism is defined as “the buying and using of goods and services; the belief that it is good for a society or an individual person to buy and use a large quantity of goods and services” (Oxford Dictionary, 2022), with American consumerism being the specific use of consumerist ideologies in American culture and society (PBS, 2020). The latter would become a topic which would come to be almost condemned by most contemporary artists. To begin to understand the idea of consumerism, we must first understand what it means to live in a consumerist society, to cite Erik Olin Wright’s ‘American Society: How It Really Works’, we understand that “A consumerist society is one in which people devote a great deal of time, energy, resources and thought to ‘consuming’. The general view of life in a consumerist society is consumption is good, and more consumption is even better” (Wright, Chapter 7, 2009). During the 1950’s, we began to see a much consumerist view of advertising and visual publications in general, with a popularization of the idea that buying more equaled living better and the rise of the idea known as the American nuclear family, giving birth to what would become basically the shopping addiction of America and one of the greatest examples of nation-wide consumerism in the world.
Furthermore, one of the first artists to not only use the technique commonly known as Pop Art, but to also use it in a way that critiqued the 1950’s American society and it’s growing consumerist values was Georgia-born artists Jasper Johns, whose use of Pop Art and Neo-Dada began to pave the way for more socially-outspoken artists such as Warhol, Koons and Banksy, defined as such by the public in instances such as the Kelowna Art Galleries’ exposition focused on the sociopolitical movement surrounding contemporary pop artists. By definition, Pop Art is “an art movement that emerged in the 1950s and flourished in the 1960s in America and Britain, drawing inspiration from sources in popular and commercial culture” (Tate Glossary: pg. Art and Artists). In the realm of Pop Art and social critique, Johns created artwork such as his famous ‘Beer Cans’, or better known as ‘Ale Cans’, a print of two beer cans which in the words of Johns, demonstrated how through the use of visual arts, even he, an artist with no marketing background alongside his infamous art dealer, could sell even the two simplest of Ale cans, as stated by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The inspiration for this piece nonetheless came from artist Marcel Duchamp and his idea of the readymade, which as defined by Museum of Modern Art, are “mass-produced, commercially available, often utilitarian objects, designated as art” (MoMA Worksheet, Page 1, 2018). The readymade would come to be a vital idea in the topic of critiques on consumerism, present in most contemporary works which held critiques on the latter, the readymade became a symbol of critique towards the overwhelming and vigorous consumerist culture which plays by the rules of capitalist economies, it’s use of traditional objects of cotidianity draws attention to the overall lackluster and mundane idea of capitalism in general through transforming these objects into extraordinary pieces of impactful art. In ‘Beer Cans’, we further understand the idea of a readymade by Johns’ use of mass-produced ale cans as a symbol of consumerist culture.
Moreover, throughout the 20th century we began to see a rise in the use of readymades and critiques of consumerist mass-production in general. For instance, the burgeon of New York City native Roy Lichtenstein in the 1960’s. Lichtenstein, a professor at Rutgers University with a background in the visual arts began his interest for Proto-Pop imagery in 1961, Proto-Pop being essentially Pop Art with a focus on the use of readymades (Piper, ‘The Illustrated History of Art’, p.486-487). Consequently, in 1964, Lichtenstein would begin his Pop Art works with an inspiration in advertising imagery suggesting consumerism and the typical American home-life. Lichtenstein’s work in general, as not to specify on one specific piece rather on the entire subject-matter of his life work, is essentially a subversion or critique of the already existing commerciality in art-styles in America, as seen by his use of lesser-known styles at the moment, such as comic-art, in modifications of famous advertisements. Even though Roy Lichtenstein’s work was immensely critiqued at the moment for being ‘empty’ or essentially ‘meaningless’ (Benthall, ‘The Cambridge Quarterly’, p.107-114), we can see how his embrace of unpopular art styles in satirical changes towards critically-acclaimed pieces of advertisement form an extremely meaningful critique on the consumerist and populist culture of the 1960’s, where traditional art styles were glorified and utilized in promoting consumerist practices such as mass advertisement.
Without a doubt, discussing commentary on consumerist values through contemporary art would be unreservedly incomplete without a focus on who would come to be popularly known as one of, if not, the father of Proto-Pop, Andy Warhol.
At its core, as mentioned previously in this text, we recognize Pop Art as the movement in which objects found in general cotidianity are transformed into artworks that critique a subject larger than itself. Andy Warhol went on to create in this dimension multiple pieces of art which, though not all purposely meaningful, draw attention to the rising consumption habits in 1960’s capitalist America. Specifically, Warhol’s renown piece, ‘Campbell’s Soup Cans’, was not meant to out-right criticize consumerist values in the ongoing capitalist environment of the country, nonetheless it achieved a radical checkpoint in history for what would become social criticism through art.
The emergence of massive consumption in the midst of the 20th century saw mass production and consumption become the norm in America, with elements of this trend being present in most of Warhol’s repertoire overall, but also making his work and life in general an example of consumerist values themselves, with his work rising in value and becoming mass-produced through the upcoming years. Even though the soup can piece itself was deemed too-uniform, their representation of the status of consumption of the world embodies a uniqueness in Warhol’s subconscious move to call attention to mass culture and production, depicting a world in which mass consumption is glorified and calling towards the soulless and empty secular existence of mass-capitalism.
Lastly, to further explain examples of contemporary artistic analysis and criticism of mass commercialism, we take into account the example the work of Jeff Koons, another artist whose subject matter depicted views of consumerist America and who’s work also became mass-consumed itself, much like Warhol. Although, contrary to Warhol, Koons took it upon himself to publicly define his art as blatantly anti-consumerist.
Koons began his interest in art at a young age, idolizing icons such as Salvador Dalí as a teenager, going on to study painting in Maryland as well as the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He began his career as an artist in 1977, nevertheless his work relating to the mentioned subject matter did not begin until 1979. His earlier works, denominated ‘The Pre-New’, ‘The New’, and ‘Equilibrium’ used the concept of readymades in a more-abstract manner, with the use of strange configurations and montaging fixtures. It wasn’t until his Luxury and Degradation series in 1986 where Koons really exploited his anti-consumerist views. In this series, consisting mostly around a compilation of works centered around alcohol, more specifically advertisements thematically focused on alcoholic beverages. Koons repurposed these advertisements by recreating them as works of art which “deliver a critique of traditional advertising that supports Baudrillard’s censorious view of the obscene promiscuity of consumer signs” (Gibbons, ‘Art and Advertising’, p.150). In other words, Koons states the series as “the danger of chasing luxury. Everything was made of stainless steel, an artificial luxury, a proletarian material. I could have melted it and turned it into pots and pans” (Koons, Interview with Der Standard). Through this specific series, we understand that Koons’ critiques go further than focusing only on the rise of general consumerist America in the 20th century, which was the main protagonist in the works by Warhol, Lichtenstein and Johns, Koons turned his focus towards the specific matter of mass consumption surrounding luxury. Critiquing the superficiality of luxury goods, he goes on to depict the dangers of materialism and over-consumption of products marketed towards a ‘wealthy audience’. In an interview with daily publication Der Standard, Koons states: “I tried to show people that they should learn to preserve their political and economic power rather than strive for luxury”.
Lastly, after carefully analyzing the subject matters and specific examples regarding critiques on a consumerist America through the works of contemporary artists such as Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, we can understand the negative impact posed by the rise of over-consumption and mass production in the 20th century, and even though these works date back to an earlier time, their impact still poses significant relevance in our current time. The consumerist values that came to be after the end of World War II and the introduction of the concept of the American Nuclear Family continue to be present, and even more than ever, in an era where consumption rules above all. After observing and understanding the different critiques presented by these contemporary works of art, we come to appreciate the timelessness that socially meaningful art has on American society, and even though time has passed, values have yet to change and these subject matters have become even more relevant, even after years of their original debut.