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Consumerism in Modern Art

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                If one is to speak of consumerism in modern art, the first thing that comes to mind is pop art.  It is because commercialism is inherent in the very concept of pop art.  It may have been a movement that started in the 1960s with the likes of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, but its effect and influence at present is still quite evident.  Its influence can also be attributed to the new artists that continue to make pop art known, which includes Burton Morris, Clemens Briels and Romero Britto.  Consumerism in modern art is more prominent now than ever, and this paper aims to illustrate how the new generation of pop artists makes that possible.

                Before delving into the issue at hand, it is necessary that an understanding with the terms used be established.  What is pop art and how did it start?  Pop is short for popular and pop art is that which vividly depicts popular everyday things (Gyure, 2002, p.1).  It was a movement in the 1960s that came after abstract expressionism, and was originally from the British.  In fact, the term ‘pop art’ was said to have come from the work of a British artist named Richard Hamilton.  In 1956, he made this collage picture with the bodybuilder with a Tootsie Pop, entitled Just What is it that Makes Today’s Homes so Different, so Appealing? (Gyure, 2002, p.1).  However, the Americans were responsible for making it what it is now.  It is characterized by two distinct characteristics: one, it is filled with imagery of consumer products; second; it catches the eye with bright colors.  The former speaks of the usual themes of pop art: for instance, Warhol became famous for his Brillo boxes and Campbell’s soup cans, while Lichtenstein was known for comic-book cartoon paintings (UXL Newsmakers, 2005, p.1).  Objects already familiar to people are redesigned and rendered with a twist.  According to Gyure (2002), “Pop artists borrowed heavily from the slick, flashy, cliché-ridden advertising industry to depict the objects that were a part of American consumerism (p.1).  From this statement, it can be derived that pop art is like advertising.  Alan Avery of the Trinity Gallery in Georgia states, “Pop celebrates, without apologies, American culture, which includes commercial products, movies stars, fast food, childhood heroes and all aspects of everyday life (as cited in Hagan, 2003, p.1).” The latter is the one responsible for making people sit up and notice.  “Strong, bright colors were favored, and the image was centralized within the pictorial space (Gyure, 2002, p.1).”  Nan Miller of Nan Miller Gallery in New York says, “The bright colors give us hope…people are looking for something with a happy joyous note. Pop art helps gives them that lift they need in life (as cited in Hagan, 2003, p.4).” Overall, pop art is essentially consumer-driven and visually rich.

                It is in the intrinsic nature of pop art to be commercialized.  It is based on consumerism.  However, does the fact that it is commercial in essence help its sales? Are ordinary people being reached? Does it profit the artists?  In this moment in time, how is it still relevant? Warhol may have been famous, he may have reached critical acclaim but it was not until after his death that his works earned millions.  “In 1998, Sotheby’s broke records for Warhol sales, Selling “Orange Marilyn” for $17.3 million (Hagan, 2003, p.1).”  At present, however, the new purveyors of pop art are making their works accessible to all and the artists themselves are being compensated for it.

                Pop art is not a new movement.  In fact, Avery thinks original pop art is was long gone. He says, “It’s sort of idiotic to tag oneself onto a time period and movement and not be exchanging ideas from [the originators] (as cited in Hagan, 2003, p.1).” But there have been a re-emergence of sorts.  Miller states: “I think many of these [Pop-style] artists are taking the best elements of the 1960s and 1970s, combining them with their own ideas and giving a fresh dimension to their work, taking it a step further (as cited in Hagan, 2003, p.2).” The list of artists includes Burton Morris, Clemens Briels and Romero Britto.  “They all work in a Pop style, and they all have found success in today’s art marketplace (Hagan, 2003, p.1).”

                So why did pop art enjoy a re-emergence at present? What makes it appealing in this day and age? Hagan (2003) speculates that maybe art lovers have learned to appreciate it in time, and have proven to be quite an investment (p.1).  Another suggestion that was raised was that the time of pop art and our time have more similarities than anticipated.  In addition, there is comfort in being exposed to similar things (Hagan, 2003, p.1).  Ruth-Ann Thorn of Crown Publishing in San Diego has this to say: “When Pop art made its way into the public eye, some of the issues that existed then are before us today (as cited in Hagan, 2003, p.1).” She was referring to the pervading atmosphere of the 60s, when the world was at war, and there were concerns regarding nuclear bombs.  She adds, “In serious times, we want a fun escape… Pop art is idealistic. It’s a bit like going to Disneyland (as cited in Hagan, 2003, p.1).” Recent circumstances have enabled pop art to be enjoyed because it still functions as escape for people.  One of the artists that benefits from this revival is Burton Morris.

                Art enthusiasts have called Morris the next big thing, but despite his association with pop art, he refuses to be categorized in the pop category, calling his genre as “Post Pop.”  He states that he was of another generation, and instead of having pop artists for heroes, he has Captain Crunch and Jolly Green Giant (Hagan, 2003, p.1).  Nonetheless, it could not be denied that he follows the same path Warhol pursued. If Warhol had soup cans, Morris had popcorn.  He also has other images to work with, such as “old-fashioned cars, jukeboxes, steaming coffee cups, a slice of pizza, a cupcake, a martini and King Kong clutching the Empire State Building (Hagan, 2003, p.2), images that strike a chord in every American, and objects that make him happy.  It is because the artist says “I like to make things that make me happy (as cited in Hagan, 2003, p.1).”  Unlike other artists before him that only gained recognition after death, Morris was lucky enough to receive public acceptance early in his career.  Morris says, “People know me as the guy whose work they’ve seen on ‘Friends.’(as cited in Hagan, 2003, p.1).” Thanks to the sitcom Friends, where his works such as “King Kong” (Art Business News, 2001, p.1) and “Coffee Cup” were exhibited, he has garnered quite a following and has found clients in the likes of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston (Hagan, 2003, p.1).  That very fact is an assurance that he has no problem being compensated for his works.  Not only does he have generous exposure, he is also assured of financial rewards.  His popularity and talent also caught the attention of an institution with discriminating taste.  Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences chose Morris to create the artwork for the commemorative poster of the 76th Academy Awards.  When asked about the commission, Morris replies: “Oscar is a uniquely recognizable symbol, not only in American culture but throughout the world, and I’m both honored and excited to create a design around such an icon (as cited in the Arts Business News, 2004, p.1).” He also designed artwork for the game play hockey surfaces for Carrom Company (Art Business News, 2001, p.1).  In this way, people need not look far to get a glimpse of Morris’ works.  His work is clearly displayed in popular culture images.  This way, because his work is so accessible, he will not have a problem looking for clients.

                Another artist that is worth noting is Clemens Briels.  He is a Dutch artist that has also done artwork that was exposed to the masses.  He was the official artist for the 2002 Winter Olympics, and when one of his works was auctioned off for charity, the work was purchased in an amount that exceeded the expected price.  His other work, “The Floating Islands of the Caribbean,” was sold for $700 (Art Business News, 2003, p.1).  In Holland, an art center named after him was opened in September 2003.  Earlier that same year, he was commissioned to paint a bag in Nordstroms (Art Business News, 2003, p.1).

                Romero Britto is another artist with pop art leanings.  This artist from Brazil, like Morris, does not want to be associated with pop.  He considers himself a “Neo Pop Cubist.”        “Britto has been commissioned by Disney, Apple Computers, Pepsi Cola and IBM for work. He is collected by Michael Jackson; Whitney Houston, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Guggenheims, Rothchilds, Kennedys and William Woodside, former president of the Whitney Museum.”  Given those clients, Britto would be assured not only of maximum exposure, but also a steady flow of income for his work.  Also, Knightsbridge Fine Wines had commissioned Britto to create images for their labels and other merchandise (Market Wire, 2004, p.1). According to Joel Shapiro, Knightsbridge CEO, “Romero Britto consistently works to reinterpret the meaning of art and its role in contemporary life…We look forward to working with him to craft a truly unique wine experience for today’s art and wine lovers (as cited in Market Wire, 2004, p.1).”  It seems like Britto would be enjoyed not only by art lovers, but by wine drinkers as well.

                If there is one art form that is commercial in essence, it would be pop art.  On the other hand, the landscape of pop have been changed by new artists, those who refuse to include themselves in the genre but work on the same style.  Pop, post-pop, neo pop cubist whatever people want to call it, it still participates in the consumerism of art.  Given that the works are based on familiar objects and pop culture icons, pop art has an advantage of being more accessible than other types of art.  According to Thorn, “What I think is great about Pop art is that it’s cross cultural. It’s not making a political statement. It’s the best art form for anyone who might be intimidated by art (as cited in Hagan, 2003, p.3).” Now that very accessibility works to the artists’ advantage, because they will have more clients.  Moreover, since it is an art of common objects, ordinary people who have not owned any kind of art before will not be intimidated to purchase the artworks.  If in the past, only rich people and upper classmen had access to art, at present it is a whole new different story.  The premise is quite simple.  The nature of pop art is consumerism, and pop art makes consumerism in art possible.


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    masters from the 1960s and ’70s, bring joy in difficult times. Art Business News, 1+.

    Kimball, R. (1992). Pop art then and now. National Review, 1.

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