Consumer society and Pop Art | STELA ANASTASAKI



Fancy images of products and advertisements inundate our everyday life, while walking on the street, turning on the TV or browsing a magazine. There has been no such collection of images, such density of visual information in any other time before. This is because image is easily approached and understood by everybody without leaving time for the thought or the reason; it aims immediately at the sentimental string.1These messages may be easily remembered or forgotten, but at least for a moment they stimulate our imagination through memory or expectation and sooner or later they become accepted. The advertisement images belong to the moment, in the sense that they should constantly be renewed and kept up to date, expressing the impatience of consuming, which often reaches fever pitch and neurosis.

“Nowadays there is all around us something like an imaginary evidence of consumption and abundance consisted of the multiplication of objects, services, materials, which causes something like a fundamental transmutation to the ecology of the human being… Objects form neither fauna nor flora. However, they give the impression of wild vegetation and jungle in which the new savage man of the recent years is difficult to retrieve the culture reflexes.”2

The character of the recent years, referred by Baudrillard in 1970, is precisely expressed by Pop Art, an art movement of international character, which invaded the art scene after the mid ‘50s. Pop is a short word for popular and was used to describe the character of the popular or, to be more exact, of the urban culture. However, the word “popular”, according to G. C. Argan “does not express the creativity of people, but the non-creativity of the mass…and above all it makes obvious the frustration of the individual towards the homogeneity of the consumer society.3

Following an imaginary course through typical works of Pop Art, we are going to watch how the spirit of the Consumer Society4 of Baudrillard is expressed through the artistic manifestations of Pop Art. In order to guaranty the success of the simulation of the imaginary course, let’s put in the place of the typical American woman, or of any of us, the Supermarket Lady (1969) by D. Hanson and follow her to a daily route.

So let’s imagine that in her first stop she enters a place where the first thing she sees is: 100 Campbell’s Soup, (A. Warhol, 1962). Successive rows of Campbell’s soup, one packed over the other, form a group which reminds us of armor or a collection5, while by imposing the cohesive sight they evoke an intense purchase desire to the viewer. The brand (Campbell’s), which becomes a symbol, is playing a vital role here, by replacing the object with an image, it drags the consumer to a series of thoughts. “There is no doubt that our time…prefers image to object, copy to original, representation to reality, appearance to being… What’s sacred in our time is illusion, and what’s unsacred is truth.”6 On the other hand, by the accumulation, the surplus, the excess, the magical and definite denial of lack, which create a suspicion of utopia, become obvious.7

This work presents in the most realistic and direct way the concert of consumption, where brands, symbols and objects are synchronized in the same tone creating a game of atmosphere, a repeated musical pattern which, like a siren, hypnotizes the consumer and forces them to a consuming spree. Thus, the “cogito ergo sum”(= “I think, therefore I exist”), changes to “consumo ergo sum” (=“I consume, therefore I exist”), forming a new art of living and being, a new lifestyle.

The abundance of the new lifestyle will later accompany or keep up with the wastefulness, making some people talk about the culture of the dustbin and even visualize the sociology of the dustbin.8 As a result, we move from I consume, therefore I exist to: “We are what we throw away!”. We are concerned with this waste of goods only as an indicator of the goods on offer and of their abundance, which is free of usefulness and necessity.9Let’s not discuss necessity! Even the last beggar has something unwanted of the most miserable thing. Limit nature to your natural needs and man becomes an animal: it’s no worth living any more. Do you understand that we need, at least one thing in excess to be human?10

This one excessive thing of the abundance is about to be found in the next stop of the Supermarket Lady in The Store,(1962) by C. Oldenburg, given in a humorous and mocking tone. We are now surrounded by loads of gigantic hamburgers, pieces of cake and 7-Ups, the constitution and the size of which wipe out their use value. Like Alice in Wonderland, Supermarket Lady in the Store of the artist is surrounded by tempting cakes and enormous hamburgers, unable to taste them, while only staring at them satisfies her appetite. Oldenburg’s goodies of enormous dimensions create a new worship of the abundance, which by praising the small values of existence, they take us a step closer to happiness and the mirage of bliss. But these “masses” of standardized and industrial food – of hamburgers – which become a symbol of the time of the mechanical reproducibility 11?, are identified to the “mass culture” of a gluttonous consumer society.

The daily route of the Supermarket Lady is completed by the way back home. After having satisfied biological and consumer needs during her short course, in the way back home she is going to meet dozens of indifferent strangers, while her attention will be drawn by smaller and larger posters by the “master of means of communication”, Andy Warhol, where TV stars, immediately recognized, will be vainly posing – Golden Marilyn Monroe (1962), Ten Lizes Taylor(1963), or tragic events will be depicted – Death 11 Times, (1963) and Suicide (1963).

And it is here that the spectacular dramatization by the media appears (of presenting minor events to major catastrophes): the peace of privacy must appear as a detached value, constantly menaced, surrounded by a destiny of disaster. Violence and inhumanity of the world around us is needed in order not only to experience security more deeply, but also feel it in every moment.”

Now using the “arms” of the media, the artist studies how these images-news are “digested” by the unconscious, become simplified and turn into visual slogans.11? Watching Warhol’s repeated images, which follow each other like film stills, the viewer is gradually taken to alienation and goes into a state of hibernation. Surrounded by images of celebrities, she becomes disorientated and conceives less and less her own existence and her own desire, since her own gestures, her dreams and her desires do not belong to her, but to the one who represents and impersonates them every time. On the other hand, Warhol by his persistent repetition is like he “struggles to show us that in reality there is no repetition, but all the things we may look at deserve our attention.”12? At the same time, the large scale of the works as well as their almost monotonous repetition have a double functionality: they either protect and immunize against the power of visual information, or just like alarms they make the viewer recover from the state of TV lethargy and react.

Along with the Supermarket Lady we have gone along spaces which could be identified with the closest supermarket or store of our neighborhood (first stop), the restaurant (second stop), the way to work (third stop) or just the space in our house where there is our friendly and always turned on TV. Following the short route through the words of Baudrillard and through famous works of Pop Art, it is easy to realize the timeliness of these messages. There is no need to go three decades back in order to confirm the truth and the felicity of these works, as long as we look around and realize our position within the present consumer society. Seeing these works and thinking of the words of Baudrillard a “certain smile”13 appears in our lips. “Well, in this cool smile, we don’t recognize the smile of the critical distance, but that of cooperation.14

1 John Berger, Ways of Seeing, Penguin, London, 1990

2 Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures, translated by George Ritzer, Sage Publications, London, 1997

3 Julio Carlo Argan, L’Arte Moderna 1770-1970, l’arte oltre il Duemila, Sansoni, Florence 2002

4 Jean Baudrillard, La Sociéte de Consommation, Éditions Denoël, 1970

5 Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures, translated by George Ritzer, Sage Publications, London, 1997

6 Feuerbach, in Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, translated by Ken Knabb, Rebel Press, Wellington, 2004

7 Jean Baudrillard, ibid.

8 Jean Baudrillard, ibid.

9 Jean Baudrillard, ibid.

10 Shakespeare, in Jean Baudrillard,ibid.

11 Julio Carlo Argan, L’Arte Moderna 1770-1970, l’arte oltre il Duemila, Sansoni, Florence 2002

12 John Cage, in Alkis Charalambidis, Art in the 20th century, University Studio Press, volume ΙΙΙ, Thessaloniki, 1995, p. 89 (in greek)

13 Jean Baudrillard, ibid.

14 Jean Baudrillard, ibid.