Art was and is a symbol of high status and luxury; to own art was to be successful, both monetarily and in society. Portraits of the rich and powerful were often filled with some of the person’s most prized possessions, likewise symbolizing their wealth. Yet it is only towards the end of the industrial revolution that consumerism and art have been clearly linked. The market for art has grown much broader; no longer is art for the rich, it is now also for the middle and the lower classes. Accessibility has grown for consumers, playing a large role in the way people buy and the economy works.
Art is the baseline of advertising. Companies use pieces of art to create recognizable logos which the public recall, thus helping with sales and marketing. Take, for example, the Target, Apple or Nike logos. All are simple, but if you saw them or something that gives the faintest impression of that shape, even without a company name, you would immediately think of the company. Commercials, billboard advertisements and online pop-up ads are created with an eye for design in order to draw people in and make people buy their product. For example, the Coca-Cola Santa advertisements used and commercialized the image of Santa to convince people to buy Coke products because he was a well-known and loved symbol. In this way, art is crucial to advertising.
The theme of using cultural images is not solely relegated to advertising, of course. The era of “pop art” began in the ‘50s, near the same time that the United States reached the peak of their “golden era.” The country’s victory in World War Two and the sense of power gained by this resulted in the explosion of the economy and in art. Soon, the explosion of “American” culture and consumerism became widespread, making its way into the arts community and resulting in what we know as “pop art.” This era of art was characterized by the utilization of cultural icons as symbols (Skotstad 561). Andy Warhol is most famous for his utilization of people like Marilyn Monroe and goods such as the Campbell Soup cans. His piece Campbell Soup Cans comments on the reproducibility and devaluation of goods in a consumerist society through the reproduction of, naturally, the Campbell soup can. He stated that through the devaluation of goods, the rich and the poor used similar products, giving common ground in a class-based divide (Fineberg 252).
Pop art and consumerisms’ intersection inspired a new wave of critiques on consumerism and anti-consumerist art in modern art. Amy Orr’s World Map-Credit Card Mosaic is made of plastic cards and glue, on a map backing. It speaks to the commodification of the earth and the extent to which consumerism has subsumed our identities. Orr stated that she works with credit cards because with the impact of consumer culture, “we place our livelihood in these plastic cards, and that gives them meaning” (Douglas and Orr 2018). The credit cards, which are arguably a symbol of consumerism, represent access to wealth, services, international commerce. Through the names tied to credit card companies still clearly seen on each plastic card, Orr ties identity with consumerism, arguing that consumerism has become so important that it has changed the way we shape our identity. We put our identity in our socio-economic status, which is signified by items as simple as pieces of paper and plastic cards.
A popular anti-consumerism artist is Banksy. Believed to be based out of the UK, nobody knows the identity of this artist. They are famous for their “pop up” statues and artwork, most of which takes the form of street murals. The famous and most recent work by Banksy is Love is In the Bin, a print of their mural Girl with Balloon which was half shredded immediately after it was bought in an auction in 2018. While there are many interpretations to this piece of art, it may also be a denouncement of consumerist culture because of the nature of the piece as performance art. In destroying the piece directly after it was bought, Banksy is making a statement about the nature of goods in a consumer’s society: namely, that they are impermanent, and should not be bought and sold at inflated prices which privilege the rich. In comparison to the pop-up shop which sold authentic Banksy paintings for 60 dollars, the extreme price and subsequent destruction of this Banksy work highlights the privileging of one group of people in consumerist culture.
Consumer Jesus by Banksy is the piece which is most critical of consumerist culture. Through the depiction of the crucified Jesus with shopping bags nailed to his hands, Banksy comments on the way that consumerism has subsumed other identities. If we look at this piece through a religious slant, it critiques the way that money and the wish for goods and power has subsumed Christian identity. Perhaps even more, it comments on the way that Christianity as a religion has been commercialized through holidays. What do you think this piece of art says about consumerism?
Douglas, Logan, and Amy Orr. “Gallery Talks Interview.” 15 Sept. 2018.
Fineberg, Jonathan. Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being. Prentice Hall, 2011.
Stokstad, Marilyn and Michael Cothren. Art: A Brief History. Upper Saddle River, N.J: Prentice Hall, 2007.