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Artistic responses and attitudes towards consumerism

Artists, who individually contributed to artistic movements such as: Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Post-Painterly Abstraction, Minimalism, and Performance Art, expressed both positive and negative attitudes towards consumerism. During the 1960’s, industrialization hit American hard and artists would either invite commercialization and commodification to their work, or would blatantly oppose it. It is important to note that within these works, the processes always match the final product; therefore if the artist were pro- consumerism, his process would incorporate materials and techniques aesthetically and conceptually apt for achieving that end result and message. Some artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Frank Stella wanted to mirror the impersonality of mass culture, thus turning their work into objects. Other artists, such as Robert Smithson, deliberately shunned consumerism, creating works that could not be bought, sold, or commodified. As with Smithson, performance artists would also reject consumerist ideals by creating a work with the impossibility of being purchased and with the intention to make spectators aware of their own body, space, and time. In this paper, some artists’ attitudes towards consumerism will be discussed, as well as their reactions to mass media culture.

In response to industrialist culture, Roy Lichtenstein focused on mechanical construction, simulating techniques of mass production and reproduction into his work; through this media, he felt he could bridge art with modern life, which would appeal to popular culture. From 1961 to 1963, Lichtenstein based his work not on an actual object, but on a reproduction of that object as seen in magazine and newspaper images, specifically focusing on cartoon-like images. In 1963, Lichtenstein said, “One of the things a cartoon does is to express violent emotion and passion in a completely mechanical and removed style.” He felt that this mediation of the mass media was very important because it made the image father removed from reality, making the viewer focus on how they perceive the world through mass media. To attain this notion, he painted impersonally, trying to eliminate interjection of his feelings and sentiments by making his works look mechanically produced, giving the works a “cool,” deadpan anonymity. With use of the Ben Day-dot pattern, Lichtenstein was able to reproduce a mass media technique from reproduction of those images from magazines. His artistic method began with the gluing or taping of images from magazines or comic books. He would then make drawings from these pictures while frequently incorporating parts from one comic or advertisement into another to combine them into a new and semi-innovative work of art. After the image was chosen, Lichtenstein would stretch and enlarge the work, then transfer the sketch using an opaque projector to the canvas. Once the outline of the image was on the canvas, Lichtenstein would fill in the dots.              

This technique is applied to Hot Dog of 1962, in which Lichtenstein focused on a single, commonplace object, and encased it in blatant thick black outline. In outlining the hot dog (or any other object), no one could mistake it for anything but a drawing. By simplifying these objects, Jonathan Fineberg says, the work, now objectified, “hangs as though self-contained in a vacuum- it does not relate to the visual ground or have spatial context.” In stripping the work from all contexts, its meaning is straightforward and honest- its references are completely explicit. Hot Dog, for instance, alludes to America’s “Kitchen Culture.” The work, like American culture, is centered on food and America’s obsession with consumption of food. Like most pop artists, Lichtenstein respected common, everyday life, and urban environment; as such he glorified objects relating to mass media culture (the hot dog), and made it clear that the technique he employed would positively mirror our mass media culture, as he painted “a bigness and brightness that is important, and it is industrial. It stands for the actual world we are in.”               

It is evident that Lichtenstein sought to paint artificially, clearly seen in works in which his style demonstrates a deliberate rejection of the authenticity of Abstract Expressionism. In Little Big Painting of 1965, Lichtenstein mimics Jackson Pollock’s detail from Blue Poles of 1952: He ridicules Pollock’s spontaneity by freezing a blown- up brushstroke of drips and poured paint, making it impersonal and mechanical-looking with use of the Ben Day dot pattern and slick brushwork. Here, Lichtenstein transforms something once genuine into a commodity.  The denunciation of Abstract Expressionism, the detachment, and the “objectness” demonstrated in Lichtenstein’s work can also be seen in the works of Frank Stella. In fact, according to Fineberg, “Above all, Stella attacked the introspective motive in abstract expressionism.” Stella said, “My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there. It really is an object…you can see the whole idea without any confusion…what you see is what you see.” Therefore, Stella’s work does not allude to sentiment, emotion, or symbolism, nor do the works have any outside relationships or contexts. To orchestrate this idea, Stella eliminated all sense of foreground and background; He painted in a single motif of stripes in free hand, which would show all imperfections of the brushwork, making clear that his work is entirely disclosed. Furthermore, Stella painted using a 2.5-inch house- painter brush and used stretchers of identical width as the bands of paint. His paintings would project 2.5 inches from the wall, transforming his art into an object through the consistency within the image and within the structure of the canvas itself.

Stella’s formation of an object is best seen through use of his shaped canvases, which, like his unshaped canvases, relate to the sculpture and form of the work, however would allow for optical movement across the canvas, pure consistency, and oneness of shape. Using this technique, Stella could reveal the industrialization of the time with Luis Miguel Dominquin (Aluminum Series) of 1960. In this work, Stella used aluminum paints to evoke industrialization. Although one may see an architectural motif in terms of color and rectilinear forms, Stella’s intention was for the viewer to have a pictorial experience and not an architectural one. Again, he wanted the focal point to be the paint and the interactions of the lines. He said, “I began thinking about traveling of the bands. Moves along, jogs to the side, turns again to resume its original direction. That makes up a given unit: a band with a jog in it. Then it continues.” The paint and geometrical designs, which are the work’s core, shun any spatial illusions and add to the object’s presence as an object, making it as flat as or even flatter than Lichtenstein’s work. Moreover, because of Stella’s technique, he is able to be completely non-referential, while also creating an object, unlike Lichtenstein who deliberately referred to his culture to elicit a certain object.               

Although many artists exploited the commercialization of the time, certainly not all artists were pro-consumerism. These artists mostly appealed to the nature of Minimalism, in which art is dependent on space, and the viewer’s relationship with the space. In this mode, a theatrical situation can be presented as if on stage to demand interaction between the object itself, its container, and the person moving within it. Furthermore, Minimalist art is increasingly concerned with the outside world and the self-awareness of the spectator. These works employ a complex array of optical shapes, varieties, and directions, which depend only on the artist’s creativity and skill, and not on any particular site. Robert Smithson, for instance, rejected art centering on human beings and their popular culture desires and decided the only art to be valued was that which was experienced and not framed, visibly and conceptually distinct from works of Stella or Lichtenstein. In Untitled, 1964-65, Smithson formed crystalline structure geometric designs, which related to mathematics and would ridicule traditional art. He incorporated elements such as neon plastic colored mirrors connected by a steel frame in open areas to make fun of materials used in formalist art and criticism. In formalist criticism specifically that of Clement Greenberg, emphasis was placed on the physical qualities of a canvas as being rectangular and having a frame; so instead of canvas, Smithson employed a neon mirror and instead of a simple rectilinear canvas and frame, he employed complicated crystalline structures. Within the realm of consumerist art and objectivity, the goal of art is to reflect the state of the world, as seen in Lichtenstein and Stella’s work. Here, Smithson is literally mirroring the world, instead of creating an illusion of reflection as paintings usually do. Consequently, the mirrors mirror each other, the art mirrors itself as well as the outside world and therefore, art is ridiculing itself. Not only is Smithson mocking the function of art in the world, he is also deriding the recently derived shaped canvases of Stella, which blatantly translate art into object.               

Additionally, in Smithson’s Enantiomorphic Chambers of 1965, he forms crystalline compounds that have molecular structures that mirror each other instead of mirroring the world, so that when people stand before them, they will see reflections of reflections and their vision will be split. The manipulation of these structures negates a central vanishing point and presents an illusion of an illusion, causing the spectators to be imprisoned by the art, defying newer traditional ideas in art, as promoted by critics like Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried. Smithson, therefore, parodied artists like Stella, who claimed that what you see is what you see and nothing is hidden. Here, Smithson actualized what Stella implied by showing the act of seeing. Smithson felt that through these mirrors, he could help put order to the world by allowing people to directly experience art. In that, people would view their physical being and recognize its transience via the distortion of the mirrors. This personal transience, Smithson thought, would translate into the acknowledgement of the deterioration of all human beings, and thus, onto the entropy of the world, making aware the inevitable and steady deterioration of society.  In challenging and threatening one’s sense of limitations and meaning set by contemporary culture, Smithson spoke to the anti-consumerist set who sought a deeper connection with the world.               

Like Robert Smithson, performance artists felt that a work of art had to be experienced and not framed, in that the artist’s actions at any given place and time would compose the work. In conflict with the mode of the painting or sculpture in which an object is formed, performance artists focused on time, body, space, and the relationship between themselves and audience. Therefore, their art is based on achieving spiritual and physical awareness and not on exploiting subject matter that would merely appeal to the shallow instincts of mass media culture.  Hence, performance artists felt freer to express political rebellion, in which establishment was questioned and ridiculed in performances. In relation to the art world, in the late 1960’s, artists attacked the commercialization of galleries by creating exhibitions as performances; performances could not be bought or sold or be a pawn of the art markets, as they were intangible and were solely making spectators aware of their own existence. Furthermore, performance artists used the body as a medium because they felt their ideas would be optimally expressed through use of the body.         Laurie Anderson’s For Instants of 1976 also questions the definition of art and its boundaries. In this work, Anderson focuses on an autobiographical experience and reconstructs private, public, and past memories via phonograph. Through her narratives, she threatens the organization of time and space; again, like Smithson, she eschews all forms tangible and commercialized. According to RoseLee Goldberg, Anderson’s work can be described as “an appeal for help. About the media culture that controls, it appeals to a generation exhausted by its artifice.” These performance artists attempted to make the pettiness and transience of popular culture known to whomever would listen. The effectiveness of these performances was moderate or minimal because most modern day people were primarily attracted to the “bigness and brightness” of pop culture art.              

Clearly, a distinct split between pro-consumerist attitudes and anti-consumerist attitudes presents itself in these artists’ bodies of work. Pop artists who accepted consumerist culture were extremely successful because their art was a reflection of the state of the world at that time. People valued objects and representations of their own culture, which is why artists like Lichtenstein glorified things associated with 1960’s America. Stella, too, was appreciated because his art was pure object, which appealed to those who valued consumerism. Simultaneously, Robert Smithson and Performance artists came about to bash notions of consumerism, maintaining that only the ineffable should be highly treasured, as the superficial is fleeting and ultimately destroyed. These artists expressed the transience of physicality and commodified goods in their work, frequently through Minimalist mentality and methodology. Although their ideas are insightful and true, people tended to respect pop culture art more because of its superficial quality and attainability. 

-Alix Greenberg, 2018

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