Capitalism and Consumerism Throughout Art

How can art be utilized in exposing consumerism’s destruction to a Capitalist society? Capitalism is a form of government based on demand and supply. Consumerism is an ideology found within Capitalism. Consumerism is a social and economic order that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts (Dictionary.com) This ties into and benefits Capitalism because this type of society runs based on demand and supply. Meaning, the people get what they want (or think they want), even if it subdues what they need. This way of life limits economic mobility, utilizes sweatshops, and declines standards of living. The American society today is an avid participant in this epidemic, provoked through corporation advertisements and the development of accepted “social norms.” Consumerism is a powerful ideology that increased consumption is socially desirable by framing a society’s views, relationships, values, identities, and behavior.

Thorstein Veblen was an economist and sociologist who originally invented the term “conspicuous consumption,” along with the terms “conspicuous waste’ and pecuniary emulation’ (striving to meet or exceed someone else’s financial status),” (Investopedia.com).  Conspicuous consumption is the purchase of goods or services for the specific purpose of displaying one’s wealth, essentially to exhibit one’s social status. Veblen was responsible for coining many terms related to the luxury industry provoked by consumerism.

Veblen analyzed social order, discovering that people made purchases to signal economic status and pride. Thus, a Veblen good is a product of consumerism purposed to showcase its owner’s self worth and status. Veblen goods are a product of the luxury industry, marketed as being exclusive, they are only available for those affluent enough to match their heavy price tags. As self status starts becoming more widely recognized, veblen goods become a more coveted commodity because of their ability to be easily recognizable yet rarely seen. The development of the term came with the establishment of the middle class.

The beginning of the middle class meant people had disposable income to spend on goods and services not considered vital. As businesses recognized this newly established subdivision of customers, a marketing modification swept the country: Rather than exclusively focusing on merely the affluent or the indigent segments of consumers, this new development allowed companies a comfortable margin for gross incorporation. Thus, businesses adopted a differentiated targeting strategy to appeal to every segment of their consumers: prove your own worth. By doing so, it no longer stood a matter of varying income, but promoted the total consumption pushing one’s financial ability, for the reason of remaining participant in the new competitive society. Advertisements helped companies to source the matter of material acclimation to prove status, earning them a greater profit at the cost of the country’s integrity and societal peace.

There is no consuming without producing. Exploitation is very common within consumerist societies and requires sweatshops for the excess production of goods. A country that consumers more than it produces, is automatically deemed unsustainable. Not only could people not afford what they were buying, many relied on credit to pay their way to the elite, influencing the coining of  “$30,000 millionaires.” This is when the need for credit allowance came into play and the country’s financial state began a downfall. People began depending on money they did not have that was lent out to them with the responsibility of reimbursing the fee, plus interest. The greater consumption grows, the less strong the incentive to manufacture long-lasting, viable, products is and the greater the likelihood that cheaper, low-grade imports will be brought in as a substitute from other countries. If allowed to pursue, this increases imports to the U.S. and decreases exports, effectively sending the country’s GDP into a trough caused by loss of jobs due to offshore goods and services replacing the home country’s because of lower labor costs and pricing.

Consumerism had become America’s social norm, people were buying goods they could not afford in order to give the illusion of greater disposable income, driving many of them into debt and creating a negative, status-driven competition throughout the U.S..  This generational development in the U.S. left a consumerist nature in the country. People’s lives were controlled by simplistic materialist psychosis. They were replacing sustaining desires with an ongoing artificial search for goods and the money to buy them. America had hit an abyss of falsely perception-alized ideologies of capitalism, the unlimited market, spending money, having it all, and always wanting more that eventually influenced the creation of the pop culture movement.

Pop culture was a new form of art, talking about Americans everyday lives and experiences. Pop artists created work that portrayed the egotistical, preoccupied, and self-destructing world of it’s time. Artists like Andy Warhol used their artwork to hold a mirror reflecting on a failing society, driven by a social obsession to shine above all.

 

“Through his paintings, he represented America as a nation that was built solely upon consumerism and transaction. It is a projection of everything that can be bought and sold, the practical but impermanent symbols that sustain us”, (artnewsnviews.com).

 

Andy Warhol was a leading influence in the visual art movement of pop culture. One of his most recognized and accredited pieces is known as the Campbell’s Canned Soup. Warhol was swayed by marketing and the effect it had in promoting consumerism, and Campbell’s soup was a benign object representing that culture. Campbell’s work was widely tied to pre-existing commercial sources, preferring his work to focus on easily recognizable objects to viewers. Additionally, Warhol often included multiple versions of these items throughout his career to symbolize excess production within the U.S.. It was his interest in marketing that showed him repeating exposure upon individuals, drained meaning to these goods. Constant repetition of items made them obsolete to a society driven by status and exclusivity. Thus, once Warhol decided to recreate Campbell’s Soup through his work, all 32 flavors were carefully drawn, creating a mechanical series that mocked mass production itself. The Campbell’s Canned Soup series was the first artwork he did that involved strict precision and close attention to detail. He redrew every Campbell Soup flavor throughout his series. His intention was to mimic the mechanical, reproduced aesthetic found on each label of the soup.

Warhol’s purpose of his work was to mimic a capitalist society. He accomplished this through not only the visual symbols of his text, but the precise placement during its exhibit. Warhol wanted the series to symbolize a grocery store shelf, aligning each drawing side-by-side that extended the entire length of the building. Warhol chose to expose consumerism through the representation of the Campbell soups’ general placement when found on store shelves, emphasizing the vast production of items customly found within society. His intent was to demand people’s attention, urging them to focus on everyday consumption they didn’t even think about.

Warhol wanted his audience to question the value of his work, eventually questioning the purpose of their constant purchasing of items they did not need. He wanted the viewers to see the reflection of his work upon society and realize the implications that consumerism had. He was comparable to Lacey in this way. Both wanted people to use interpretation to pull meaning from text, rather than mindlessly viewing an image. Lacey states that there are many components of a piece to be taken into account when viewing it in order to analyze and interpret its meaning. Warhol’s work relied heavily on interpretation from it’s viewers. Art is not two-dimensional, it is never as simple as a visual appeal. Each visual within a text holds a distinct meaning as to what it represents. Through sight we can turn a two-dimensional piece into a multi-dimensional text through analyzation and interpretation. Once the viewer begins to put these two skills into effect, then he or she can truly recognize the director’s work.

Andy Warhol was an important protagonist of the pop culture movement. His fascination of consumer culture and mass production within a capitalistic society is what influenced the first art movement that related directly to this society and their everyday lives. Warhol helped to show his audience that the as repetitive items become obsolete and the need for constant consumption prevails, little attention is shown to items true use and economic consequences. Money spent towards mundane objects offer little social return and promote materialism. The accelerated discarding of the old, long before their expiration will leave consumers without a sense of value, continuously searching for it in their next purchase.

Consumerism was promoted from Capitalism by companies projected to reap its benefits. It was sold as a means to boost the economy through constant discarding of “old” goods, but only left a trail of economic mess in its tracks. Capitalism is based on supply and demand. Consumerism manipulates this to its benefit by encouraging the people to purchase what they think they need, instead of what they actually do. Owning less items raise their intrinsic value by appreciating what you have and allowing yourself to become familiar with it. Overcoming consumerism allows one to live a more environmentally conscious life.

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