“In a world that is really turned upside down, the true is a moment of the false.”
Guy Debord 1968
Visual culture is defined as the way visual texts can be understood and deployed, especially in the Western tradition of art (Schirato & Webb, 2004: 105). Consumer culture is one of the ‘symbolic embodied and experiential aspects of acquisition behaviour’ (Arnold & Thompson, 2005:871). Both cultures work together within the global advertising industry to create an environment that is false and fragmented (Debord, 2002: 6). This essay will discuss the argument that visual culture is consumer culture by referring to two visual texts that are based upon specific commodity signs. The first is a work of art created for the Reebok Corporation that reifies the Reebok running shoe. The second is a work of art created as a foil for such commodity signification. With these texts I contend that consumer culture uses visual culture to authorize itself as an embodiment of power.
Research into consumer culture shows that many people’s lives in consumer society are constructed around multiple realities, and consumption is used to experience these realities which are linked to fantasies, invocative desires and aesthetics (Arnold & Thompson, 2005: 875).The process of reification in consumer culture is where a commodity is attributed with human qualities, becoming an entity that ‘thinks’, ‘is sexy’, or ‘alive’ (Pugliese, 2011). This is important when advertising a product’s life enhancing qualities, the message being that if you consume the product you will improve your life (Pugliese, 2011). Reebok’s uses fantasy and reification to advertise its latest running shoe range advertising it as pioneering and ‘whose graphic, crenelated sole not only reduces muscle fatigue but transfers energy back into the runner’s stride…’ (Wallpaper Magazine, 2011). They are referred to as ‘eye catching’ and supposedly have inspired an exhibition of artworks (2011).
Capitalism celebrates the individual through an illusion created by advertising (Pugliese, 2011). This illusion of individualism relies upon the contradictory mass production and distribution of goods rather than the individual and handmade. From the nineteenth century, where shopping became a recreation, to the late twentieth century where shopping promised self-fulfilment and self-realisation, it is this ‘therapeutic ethos’ to which advertisers appeal (Pugliese, 2011). They do this by promising glamour, wealth, prestige and allure (Pugliese, 2011). Art provides a means for this type of advertising because it provides the associated authority of high culture (Schirato and Webb, 2004:107) . Contemporary art as opposed to advertising has a tendency for obscurity that implies a required knowledge or literacy to understand it (2004:107). To combine the two visual cultures together, as Reebok has done, implies the exclusivity and elitism not of a top athlete but of an international contemporary artist, thereby creating the illusion for the consumer of individual accomplishment and self-realisation.
Advertising does not need to sell the image of a product or even mention the company name as long as a well-recognised logo is attached to the advertisement (Sturken & Cartwright, 2001:239). These logos are called commodity signs or signifiers. They do not sell the consumer the products functionality or quality, they sell the products style (2001: 239). These commodity signs infer the value of the commodity until this signifying value becomes more important than the commodity itself (Pugliese, 2011). Brand logos, such as Reebok designer running shoes or Apple computers and phones, compete with other similar commodities for their signs to be recognised across the globe (Pugliese, 2011). The commodity signs become hierarchical within themselves with Reebok running shoe inferring more social value than another generic or cheaper brand (Pugliese, 2011).
In the “Society of the Spectacle” Guy Debord argues that the global economy has degraded social life into one of having not being (Debord, 2002:8). The notion of social value being inferred by a commodity sign goes to the heart of Guy Debord’s notion of the ‘spectacle’, which is the visual deception that creates a world view produced by the technologies of mass media (2002: 6). The images of the Spectacle create a visually deceptive culture that provide the motivations for hypnotic behaviour (2002: 8). Jean Baudrillard continues this notion by asserting that consumer culture has become a form of simulation (Sturken & Cartwright 2001: 153). Baudrillard’s notion of simulation is when signs of the real are substituted for the real (Felluga, 2011). He states that this has caused the contemporary consumer society to be unable to discriminate between nature and artifice, or what is real and what is unreal or simulated (Felluga, 2011).
For Karl Marx, commodity became associated with class structure with the commodity itself being alienated from its system of production (Noble, 2008:101). Marx described this as ‘commodity fetishism’ where the commodity is just an object in a shop rather than having any association with its means if production (2008:101). Through this objectification there is no longer any means to see the system of exploitation that has gone into the product (2008:101). The advent of an increasingly globalised world has meant that the exploitation of many workers remains hidden in poor nations and through the commodity this exploitation becomes part of everyday life (2008:102). By being alienated from its means of production, commodity fetishism is able to infer value upon a product through conferring value and prestige upon the consumer (Pugliese, 2011). This is done through the elitism of expense, if only a few can possess it this signifies affluence, good taste and refinement (Pugliese, 2011).
The commodity signification of hierarchical branding is shown at its zenith when a brand name seeks to equate itself with something that is considered high culture and elitist. This is seen in the recent collaboration of Reebok with various contemporary international artists. Reebok invited various contemporary designers, architects and artists to come up with concepts that would create one-off artworks inspired by the Reebok design (Wallpaper-Reebok Exhibition, 2011). This lends to Reebok the authority of contemporary art and lends to the various participants the global notoriety of the Reebok brand. The pictured work is one by the French artist Ora Ito who took the imprint of the base of a Reebok shoe and created a wall-mounted sculpture made from “Hi-Macs”, an acrylic material made from wood chips and toxic resin. This infers upon the running shoe images of the consumer being socially-influential and trend setting. The sculpture’s clean whiteness completely erases any connection of the product with the production of the shoe by a third world workforce. Commodity fetishism, as Marx called it, eliminates any responsibility between the product and the producer (Debord, 2002:9).
The products of the spectacle, from computers and shoes to cars, are designed to isolate and create the ‘lonely crowd’ (Debord, 2002:10). Spectators are only linked by their vision of the spectacle which keeps them from each other (2002:10). The more the spectator views the spectacle the more they are alienated, the less they live and the more they need. Their gestures become the puppet gestures of the spectacle (2002: 30). The economy of the globalised world has totally subjugated humanity to itself and the spectacle which sustains it (2002: 7). This global economy has degraded social life into one of having not being (2002:7). No longer is it sufficient to be someone, but to be fulfilled through having possessions. This idea of possessions has then shifted from having to appearing so that prestige comes from appearance (2002:7). The appearance of the commodity sign, such as the Reebok logo, gives the elitism of expense and exclusivity which signifies ‘affluence, good taste and refinement’ (Pugliese, 2011). The prestige of appearance inferred by the commodity sign is one of the dominant modes of visuality (Pugliese, 2011).
Nicholas Georgouras, Stick People, 2007
The dominant mode of visuality is one that occupies a position of cultural power and authority, such as the media or a corporation. Through this, a power attempts to control meanings related to an object or image (Pugliese, 2011). However, these visual meanings can be contested and changed (Pugliese, 2011). Through the targeting of commodity fetishism and commodity signs consumer culture can be subverted. This is called ‘culture jamming’ (Pugliese, 2011). Culture jamming sabotages advertising campaigns and parodies logos to expose the exploitation of the commodity’s producers and ridicule its promises (Pugliese, 2011). The artist Nicholas Georgouras’ group sculpture of Stick People (2007) attempts to emphasise how commodity signs become more important than the product. Being made of recycled wood and plastic tags, each of the sculptures is alienated from the other and focussed on their position in the spectacle. Each of their positions is a puppet gesture parodying the modelling gestures for each product for which the plastic tag is the commodity sign. Consumers of such products become mere extensions of the product, something to which the product can attach itself. This process of dehumanisation is what Debord calls the commodification of society (Debord, 2002: 12).
Visual culture encompasses all forms of visual media in the postmodern world (Irvine, 2011). Advertising agencies use visual culture as a communication device in all its forms. In capitalist societies, advertising is ubiquitous and pervasive. Consumer culture is veracious in its use of visual culture to establish and authorise its commodity signs and commodity fetishism. However, to state that visual culture is consumer culture would deny all the forms of visual culture that deny a capitalist society its consumer. To deny the effect of culture jamming, the effect of art forms done without thought for power or money is to deny visual culture its own legitimacy. Consumer culture is a dominant mode of visuality but it is not visual culture. Therefore, visual culture is not consumer culture.
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- Wallpaper Magazine Editorial: Reebok- Great Leap, Retrieved from: http://www.wallpaper.com//bespoke/reebok , on 12 August 2011
- Wallpaper Magazine – Reebok Exhibition, Retrieved from: http://www.wallpaper.com/fashion/Wallpaper-Reebok-exhibition-London/5382 , on 8 August 2011