PRINT May 2005


art and competitive consumption

MOCKING TITTERS AND condescending volleys erupted from the culturati in January when the big-box, membership-only retailer Costco offered an authenticated Picasso drawing for the strategically irresistible price of $39,999.99. The source of dismay was obvious. Costco is home to everything from institutional-size cans of tomato sauce to billboard-size plasma screens—not fine art. In highbrow discussions one heard an incipient, disdainful qualification: This was a late Picasso drawing, one of those “doodles” jotted off in Saint Tropez when the Master was feeling the need to raise some quick capital.

We might do well to consider more fully how it is that the appearance of a canonical artist like Picasso at Costco could still cause uneasiness, much as Picasso’s instant bartering of drawings for cash (or boats or whatever) did in its day. In the bluntest terms, both instances would seem to upset the stealth capitalism that is the art market, placing the relationship between art and commerce into plain, fluorescent-bright light, rendering connoisseurship as mere consumption. But perhaps a more nuanced reading of art in the marketplace is demanded of us now. After all, what more highly refined and resolved display of consumerism is there today than the art auction? The stereotypical image is of collectors daintily wielding paddles in a choreographed performance of discreet desire, but perhaps what is really going on is a power play, a battle more red in tooth and claw than nature herself.

Authors Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter have a name for the kind of behavior of which the art auction is exemplary: “competitive consumption.” This is not the same thing as “conspicuous consumption,” for, as Heath and Potter write in their 2004 book Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture, “competitive consumption often has nothing to do with people’s motives; it is often imposed by the very nature of the goods that are sought.” For example, even city dwellers of relatively modest apartments are still engaging in competitive consumption—as Heath and Potter suggest, they are paying a price to keep out all of the other people who would like to live where they do. Taste itself, with its hierarchy of distinction, is a particularly energetic expression of competitive consumption. If too many people share the same taste, then the vanguard moves on. “Good taste, in other words, is a positional good,” write Heath and Potter. “One person can have it only if many others do not. It is like belonging to an exclusive yacht club, or walking to work downtown, or hiking through untouched wilderness. It has an inherently competitive logic.” Art, steeped as it is in questions of taste or rarity or “getting it,” also adheres to this logic.

How might this sensibility inflect the making and receiving of contemporary art? Implicated though it may be, art has long attempted to engage questions of consumerism and luxury, in particular by blurring the lines between critique of consumption and actual inflammation of consumerist desire. Recontextualizing the totems of consumer culture creates new objects whose original value has been interpolated by the artistic aura added to it. Pop art was the first intersection with a mass-market culture that reached maturation in the decades following the Second World War—and it offered neither a critique of mass-consumer culture nor a celebration, but a symbiotic system. Arthur Danto writes: “What made pop art popular is that the meanings its work embodied belonged to the common culture of the time, so that it was as if the boundaries of the art world and of the common culture coincided. . . . The art redeemed the signs that meant enormously much to everyone, as defining their daily lives.”

Not everyone appreciated Pop art’s so-called redemptive qualities. Claes Oldenburg once condemned it as sheer hucksterism, recalling a television show in which the “pop art salesman, or the pop art dealer, was selling pop art in order to get money to buy Picassos.” (Which, as Warhol would certainly appreciate, are now available, like bulk-size cans of tomato soup, through Costco.) Pop art even played havoc with the ontological nature of art and consumer objects themselves. Canadian customs inspectors refused to grant an artistic duty exemption for Warhol’s Brillo Box, 1964, labeling the sculpture merchandise. For Danto, the issue was less “the question of what made Brillo Box a work of art than . . . the somewhat Kantian question of how it was possible for it to be one.”

Subsequent artistic interventions in consumer culture have had to walk a similarly fine line between critique and absorption. But as consumerism grows more sophisticated, it’s hard for art to keep pace. Joseph Beuys’s Economic Values, 1980, consists of shelves filled with everyday products from the former East Germany and was exhibited (in its state of progressive decay) in a room at the Tate Modern. But with its dimly remembered products from a failed state, in an age when broadsides against shopping are considered recherché, does the work continue to have any power, especially while housed in a setting which itself represents a form of commodification? (As Warhol predicted: “All department stores will become museums and all museums will become department stores.”) When Haim Steinbach took objects from department stores and placed them on carefully constructed shelves later in the decade, he witnessed this inversion firsthand. As he observed in these pages: “Paradoxically, an average person walking into the gallery would sometimes lift a sneaker from a shelf and ask if it was for sale—engaging the everyday.”

Artists engaging with consumer culture these days are playing an increasingly abstruse game. Tobias Wong’s Money Pad, 2000, is a stack of a hundred one-dollar bills, ready to be peeled and used. It is a taunt, commenting on consumer culture and speculative art value: Use it for what it is—a hundred dollars—or let the artistic value accrue (its original price was around four hundred dollars). Airport Gift Shop, Wong’s installation at the short-lived 2004 exhibition “Terminal 5” at JFK airport in New York City, was filled with unusual objects so appealing they made me check my wallet before I checked out their metacommentaries. Not available at the store but providing a denouement is Wong’s gift wrapping using original Warhol silk-screen prints: Pop art rendered as a superfluous, luxe covering for some bauble. What’s changed is a certain innocence that surrounded Pop art. Warhol could viably proclaim his apparent love for, say, the Coke bottle’s democracy—everyone, high and low, drank from the same Coke bottle (even if few could afford his interpretations of that bottle). Coke, like Campbell’s, had a particularly potent meaning for a generation that had gone through the Depression and then war and was ready to enjoy what Fortune once called the “dream land,” ready to wash Kruschev right out of its hair with powerful, gleaming washing machines.

Four decades on, consumerism is more complex, more ambient. The simple icons of Warhol are drowned out in an Andreas Gursky–like infinite horizon of stuff: Where there was one Coke, there are now dozens of permutations; the soup aisle, as every other, bustles with dozens of “brand extensions.” When Warhol made his paintings of the Campbell’s cans in 1962, there were only thirty-two soup flavors; today there are more than eighty. There is also increasing evidence that having all these things is no longer engendering the optimism it did during Warhol’s day (indeed, the average lifespan dropped last year in the United States owing to obesity, a direct by-product of Super Big Gulp abundance). In his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, psychologist Barry Schwartz notes that “Americans spend more time shopping than the members of any other society.” But it is no longer a source of pleasure. In economist Richard Easterlin’s famous paradox, as the standard of living has increased, the number of people reporting they are “happy” has decreased. Schwartz is puzzled: “It’s not so odd, perhaps, that people spend more time shopping than they used to. With all the options available, picking what you want takes more effort. But why do people enjoy it less? And if they do enjoy it less, why do they keep doing it?” At some point, choice becomes disabling—it’s the paralysis of too much freedom. The more kinds of Cheer we have, the less cheerful we are.

In light of this rampant overaccumulation, the recent work of Toland Grinnell, evidenced on a studio visit, is instructive. In A Simple Truth, 2004, he has carefully arrayed the entire contents of a late-night order from the Knife Collector show on the Home Shopping Network (“It’s all one SKU number,” Grinnell points out, referring to the numerical code used to identify specific items of merchandise). A dazzling selection of cutlery, everything from edge weapons to pizza cutters, all for $156. Calling it a “store display on steroids,” he describes his intent as “to try and amp up the fetish aspect of this absurd product, to try and get you closer to the place where you might question why on earth would you need this many of anything, let alone tactical folding knives and swords.” If Warhol was able to play off the tremendous cultural power of the Coke bottle, Grinnell needs to do the opposite. He is trying, in the face of a consumer bounty so abundant and so cheap as to lose meaning, to question the function of such plenty. It is as if he is saying: The only thing to do with such a panoply of cutlery is to put its symbolic excess on display.

Previously, Grinnell’s work had been largely associated with exclusive luxury, e.g., gilded, logoed, handmade steamer trunks that open to reveal caches of mineral water and iPod-driven music systems, things that meld contemporary objects of consumer desire with epigonic nostalgia for a lost, sybaritic age. Now, he has gone from class to mass, with a whole set of sculptural works drawn from common consumer goods: actual bottles of Cheer Dark and Purex Mountain Breeze, bursting out of—or being sucked into—explosive, vaporous clouds of three-dimensional neon tubing. Titles like KA-BLAAM, of a 2004 work, ostentatiously evoke Pop art, raising the question of what meaning Pop still could have today. In 1960, mass-consumer culture and Conceptual art bristled with novelty. Today, we are versed in both. Grinnell himself sounds nostalgic in talking about Pop art. “There wasn’t really a running dialogue about the meaning of consumer culture yet,” he says. “In the same way people didn’t yet have the framework to talk about Cubism, people weren’t thinking about branding. Today we can use terms in the newspaper that could never be used then, like ‘consumer landscape.’”

And yet given that sophistication, given the ever-increasing boundaries of that landscape, given the presumption that we are all savvy about marketing and know how to TiVo past ads, given that shopping is now supposed to be liberatory and not some ritual of Marxian false consciousness, given that artists like Grinnell create works out of the products of companies like Muji or Tandy (which are then snatched up by collectors or proudly displayed on corporate campuses), what is left for art to say about consumerism? Is an object, with its own value and market imperative, an honest way to even think about the issue? Art finds its way into Costco, while Costco finds its way into art. In the end, everything is consumed.

Tom Vanderbilt is a frequent contributor to Artforum.