During the post World War II, shopping became a vital method to reviving the economy. In the decade following, the American people experienced a new condition of affluence and abundance that was previously unknown in human history. It was a time when people could have what they wanted. The "American Dream" to have a home, car, two kids, a dog and "a whole bunch of stuff," was now at its peak. Visions of June Cleaver vacuuming in high-heels, then having a perfect steak dinner ready for Ward, come to mind. In this time of plenty, there was an increase in the use of credit cards and a new tightening of corporate control over consumers (Dreishpoon and Trachtenberg). Buying was encouraged, and advertising made people want more and more. Brand names, trust in them and loyalty to them became cornerstones of American consumerism.

Advertising works by making people feel as though they are inadequate or incomplete with out some great new product. These new things supposedly make our lives easier or better, whether we need them or not. Simply buying stuff is supposed to make us feel better about ourselves. It’s a wonder that when we actually have that thing, we are no happier than before. While the trend of surrounding ourselves with material things began in the 1950s, it continues to dominate our lives today.

Advertising has become an inescapable part of our everyday lives. It is everywhere, on television, labels, clothing and buildings. Modern artists look at the actual advertisements, their assimilation into our daily lives and their eventual effect on us as people. Sometimes we can feel overwhelmed by the encroachment of advertisements on our lives, but after we have grappled with the fact that ads are here to stay, we can accept that they and their products are a part of our culture.

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Two artists that look at the ads themselves are Charles Blackman, an Australian painter with an interest in American consumerism and Cai Guo-Qiang, born in China and internationally renowned. Blackman’s The Cigarette Shop (Running Home), from 1954, shows the imposition of billboards on people. It also takes a look into the psyche of the girl. Why is she running? Is she scared of something? Maybe the advertisements are just so overwhelming that she wants to escape. The mystery and emotionality of the girl along with the stark reality of the ads create a confusing environment that blurs feeling and fact.
In Guo-Qiang’s Advertising Castle (1998), the artist installed numerous advertisements on a bamboo scaffold during the Taipei Bicentennial. The ads take over the space and anyone walking by would be forced to see them. There was controversy as to whether this work had artistic or commercial aims. But, this artwork can serve both purposes. During the bicentennial, tourism increased and the Advertising Castle was a symbol of the global market. With ads from multiple countries, it could promote certain companies, and also symbolize the internatinality of modern consumerism (Arnason). In naming the ads a "castle" Gui-Quang is showing the importance and power of advertisements in people’s lives.external image 1998_advertising_01.jpg
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Many artists recognize the sheer abundance of advertising in people’s lives and work to directly incorporate this into their art. Pop Art, in particular, looks at the way that brands and products have become a cornerstone of our lives. Andy Warhol made his artwork directly from labels. By painting his infamous Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962), he showed the American preoccupation with brand names and amount of material items. They are not Warhol’s soup cans; they are his Campbell’s Soup Cans. Warhol once said, "Buying is more American than thinking." He recognized the American way of life was to shop and poked fun at this in his art. In addition to the Campbell’s Soup Can series, Warhol also created and painted Brillo Boxes, and mass-produced many of his works by the silk-screening process, much like the depicted items themselves
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In his numerous paintings, Roy Lichtenstein took graphics from comic books and made them into his "original" art. He took a very common consumer product of his time and used them as the basis for his artwork. This was also a pillar of Pop Art, to make the everyday into art. Lichtenstein often made use of benday dots in his paintings. These mimicked the printing process of the comic books and made them resemble mass-produced items. In In the Car (1963), Lichtenstein depicts a good-looking and presumably wealthy couple, wearing nice clothes and riding in a convertible. Neither of them looks happy. Their situation can show that having a lot and seeming privileged does not necessarily mean that one is happy.
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From the 1950s to the present time, mass consumption has become a vital part of our culture and the sheer magnitude of it has generated massive amounts of waste. In Richard Hamilton’s Just What is it that Makes Today’s Homes So Different?(1956), he shows the beginnings of this mass consumption in the 1950s. The collage depicts a single-family household, equipped with many new appliances that are meant to make life easier. Hamilton includes a vacuum, television and tape recorder, along with ads, a Ford label, new and easy ham in a can, a movie marquee right outside the window and even a framed comic book cover, similar to Lichtenstein’s subjects. The couple is a modern day Adam and Eve in a consumer’s paradise (Arnasen). While this work does not show the consuming couple’s emotions, it displays their preoccupation with material objects, and looks, indicated by the muscular man lifting "weights" in the center. This work shows the beginnings of the mass consumption movement and foreshadows the consuming people that we have become.
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In the present, American consumers and manufactures have increasingly become more dependent and focused on one-time-use objects. Water bottles, coffee cups, cleaning supplies and soda cans are used for their purpose, then thrown away and never thought of again. The digital photographic artist Chris Jordan compiles images to show the full extent of American mass consumption. In this photo, Cans Seurat (2007), Jordan plays of off George Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Seurat used the pointillism technique, while Jordan substitutes soda cans for dots of paint. In all, there are 106,000 aluminum cans, the amount used in the United States every thirty seconds. This photograph is part of a larger series entitled Running the Numbers, An American Self-Portrait, that’s purpose is to look at the extent and excessiveness of American consumerism using facts and statistics. Jordan visually represents numbers that can seem overwhelming and wants to encourage the individual to consider their role in society and the environment. (Jordan)
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Duane Hanson, of the Super Realist Movement, is known for his creepily realistic renditions of human figures. In The Shoppers (1976), there are two overweight, unhappy people who have presumably, just gone shopping. Their clothing is characteristic of the time this work was made, which shows the effect of advertising in fashion on the people. They are carrying bags that are likely carrying their newly purchased items, which advertising has told them will lead to happiness. By their dazed and bored expressions, their new stuff had not made them happy. (Stokstad)
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This last work is Barbara Kruger’s Untitled. or I Shop Therefore I am (1987). This summarizes the post World War II mindset of many Americans and Europeans. It is taken from Descarte’s maxim, "I think therefore I am," which summarized the zeitgeist of the 1700s, or the Age of Enlightenment. If then the "thing to do" was think and acquire knowledge, then where are we today when shopping defines our lives?
Arnason, H.H. A History of Modern Art. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2004.
Dreishpoon, Douglas. and Alan Trachtenberg. The Tumultuous Fifties. Buffalo: Yale
University Press, 2001.
Jordan, Chris. "Running the Numbers." Chris Jordan Photographic Arts. 2007. 6 Jun
2008. < http://chrisjordan.com/>
Kleiner, Frank S. and Christin J. Mamiya. Gardner’s ART Through the Ages. Thomson
Wadsworth, 2006.
Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Halll, 2005.

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