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Commerce and Commercialism

“Much of Kruger’s work pairs found photographs with pithy and assertive text that challenges the viewer. She develops her ideas on a computer, later transferring the results (often billboard-sized) images. Examples of her instantly recognizable slogans read “I shop therefore I am,” and “Your body is a battleground,” appearing in her trademark white letters against a red background. Much of her text calls attention to ideas such as feminism, consumerism, and individual autonomy and desire, frequently appropriating images from mainstream magazines and using her bold phrases to frame them in a new context.” Wikipedia entry for Barbara Kruger.

I recently visited some friends who live in Long Island. I don’t do such things very often, and I thought this short trip might enable me to have a laconic suburban experience. Instead I was introduced to a fast-paced throng-filled world of viniculture and farm-to-table gastronomy. It seems that Long Island agribusinesses have made themselves into a thriving service industry aimed at the deep pocketbooks of well-heeled weekend home owners. The best way to describe this cavalcade of epicurean pleasure seeking is that it’s modeled after the highly successful tourist-friendly Napa Valley – a Faux-Napa, if you will. My friends and I headed out for the wine tastings on offer only to find that the back roads and blue highways were jam-packed with hundreds of other gastro-nauts turning what should have been an ordinary twenty minute drive into an hours long commute.

What’s immediately apparent is that the gentrification going on in this farm country is astounding to witness. Homes are being bought up by wealthy city dwellers looking for weekend get aways, and the locals are cashing out and leaving. It seems that NYC is exporting more and more of its economic theoretics. Bloombergism is flooding through the tunnels. Anyway, my first taste of ex-urban second-home living left me a bit uneasy and riddled with lots of questions I just wasn’t prepared to engage. I sat with my friends, whom I love, at the Bedell winery enjoying a conversation about life, incomprehensible traffic, the pros and cons of antipasto, and contemporary art when I suddenly realized that the labels on the wine bottles were designed by Chuck Close, Eric Fischl and Barbara Kruger. As it turned out the Barbara Kruger wine was actually extremely good – in addition to being extremely expensive.

Considering the moment- good friends, lovely wine, good conversation – I was bothered by what I thought these labels might mean. I found these artists’ involvement in this particular commercial enterprise just a bit off putting. But why should this be so? I’ve never had a problem with artists making money from their work. I mean it’s just a gig after all, right? One has to work for a living. Make money when you can. Put a roof over your head and food on the table. Maybe these artists hang out at this particular winery. I know that I would, especially for that Kruger Red – delicious. Maybe they drink, run up a tab, and this is how they pay it off. Artists have been doing that kind of thing for centuries. But these are successful artists. Their works sell for tens of thousands of dollars and resell for millions. Surely a bar tab is an easy nut for them to crack.

Which brings me back to my unease. It stems from what Robert Hughes was talking about in his Mona Lisa Curse – the annoying unanswered question in our Neo-Liberal era. What is the purpose of Art? If one uses one’s ideas, one’s style, for purely commercial purposes does this invite parody, insincerity, bad faith? I really had no idea what was going on here or how this artists’ label series came about. For all I know there’s a perfectly noble reason for this kind of commercialization – like charity or something. I mean why would successful artists package a bottle of wine or for that matter endorse a consumer product with their serious work? Especially in the case of an artist like Barbara Kruger. Her entire critique depends on satire and irony, appropriation and exaggeration. The work’s centered on “feminism, consumerism and individual autonomy and desire”, and yet, here the same imagery is used for packaging a bottle of wine, a high end consumer product priced to sell at 70 bucks a bottle. What exactly does Barbara mean by “Taste”?

To be fair to Barbara Kruger making a label for a wine bottle may not have been a difficult decision. Her work has been used in commercial ways before. She comes from advertising, has worked and prospered in that world. Like most Postmodernists who like to play on all sides, Kruger seems to like to do so as well. Context is everything! But still I was bothered. So I began to think about and question consumerism and contemporary artists relationship to that consumerism. When does an artist turn their work into a product for sale rather than an art work for sale? IS there a difference? Do we still make distinctions  between unique works of art and consumer products? Should we? And if so what is that distinction here in the Neo-Liberal world where everything has an economic purpose? What is an artist’s ethical duty to their work – is there one? Should there be one? What, exactly, is a Postmodern avant-garde provocation and where is its focus? And why would an artist whose work is committed to a critique of consumer culture and its impact on society use their work to sell consumer products? Does it matter?

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