VC501 – Design Manifesto: 1960s Consumerism

“When you think about it, department stores are kind of like museums.”—Andy Warhol

The 1960s were a a period of political, social and artistic activity in the United States. In 1964, the year following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the tumult of racial unrest arose in many American cities, the first bombs fell on North Vietnam, the Civil Right Act took effect, and the Beatles invaded America with their first concert at Carnegie Hall.

Artistic began to gain momentum in the mid-1960s: consumerism burst onto the scene, and was reverberated in the paintings of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein and in the sculptures of Claes Oldenburg and George Segal, whose works embraced elements of popular culture. The bravura gestures of 1950s Abstract Expressionism gave way to Minimalist artists such as Ellsworth Kelly, Donald Judd, and Carl Andre, who were exploring distilled forms, colors, and geometries in their work. Groups of artists, such as those associated with the Fluxus movement, sought the intersection of visual art, performance, music, film, and graphic design, and artists interested in a more democratic approach to art and its dissemination began producing a profusion of prints, multiples, artists’ books, and films.

In the 1960s young artists in the United States and England made popular culture their subject matter by appropriating images and objects such as common household items, advertisements from consumer products, celebrity icons, fast food, cartoons, and mass-media imagery from television, magazines, and newspapers. These artists also often used forms of mechanical reproduction that downplayed the idea of originality or the individual mark of the artist. The Pop Art style sought to test the boundaries between art and life. Consumerism suggests that happiness can be achieved through the purchase of goods and services. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy introduced the Consumer Bill of Rights, which stated that the public has a right to be safe, to be informed, to choose, and to be heard. American consumerism exploded in the 1950s and continued into the 1960s with purchases of cars, houses, televisions, furniture, and modern appliances.

Movies, records, and television spurred sales of products through advertising and product placement. During the 1960s, fast food chains spread nationwide, opening near strip malls in the new commercial districts of the suburbs.

One of the ways Pop Art challenged traditional art was by equating the mass-produced imagery of advertising with fine art. Attracted by the simple, graphic directness of consumer packaging and advertising, Pop artists such as Andy Warhol, took product labels and logos out of a commercial context and displayed them as art. He made sculptures identical to Campbell’s soup cans or Brillo boxes. Aiming to employ images of popular as opposed to elitist culture, Pop Art embraced the kitsch associated with consumerism and mocked brand loyalty and its implicit promise of happiness.

Andy Warhol is arguably the most important figure of American Pop Art. He is widely known for cool, detached works that borrow images from television, advertising, and other mass media. He often found source material in the packaging of commercial goods.

With his sculptures of boxes, Warhol took a popular consumer item and elevated it to the level of high art by producing large-scale versions of the original. Warhol silkscreened the Brillo logo and other product logos onto previously manufactured, painted wood boxes, and stacked the objects to mimic a supermarket product display.

Claes Oldenburg was interested in making art that broke away from traditional forms such as painting. The sculpture Shoestring Potatoes Spilling from a Bag was inspired by an advertisement in a 1965 issue of Life magazine. Oldenburg transforms the object by greatly enlarging its scale and using unexpected materials, such as cloth. Caught spilling from the bag in a frozen free fall, the fries become a satirical emblem of the basest level of American culture: greasy fast food to go.

Robert Indiana takes his inspiration from road signs. He sees the words “eat” and “die” as references to his own life. He recalls the childhood memory of “the EAT signs that signaled the roadside diners that were usually originally converted railway cars . . .” His mother worked in this type of diner after the disappearance of his father. The artist has also recalled that “eat” was the last word his mother said before she died. In many of his works, Indiana makes associations with love, cars, consumption, and death in American culture and combines these with his personal history.

“Consumerism suggests that happiness can be achieved through the purchase of goods and services”.

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