The art world profits from anti-capitalism

A few years ago, the American artist Barbara Kruger covered the facade of the Kaufhof department store in Frankfurt with a pair of huge eyes. It was as if Big Brother was coming out of retirement. Above that ruthless gaze was Kruger’s signature slogan, in bold italics Futura: “You want it.” You buy it. You forget that. ‘

It was a typical Kruger work of art. She made her career out of what is called cultural jamming, subverting media messages by turning them into their own anti-messages and indicting the business of capitalism. In 1987, for example, she took an advertising image of an all-American boy flexing his youthful biceps in front of his admiring sister and subverted that post with the words “We don’t need another hero” overlaid for one. billboard. The text cited Tina Turner’s hit two years earlier to criticize, no doubt, not only the patriarchy but also its expression in the American military-industrial complex.

But did she manage to stick it to the capitalist man in Frankfurt? Arguably the PR folks at Kaufhof realized what Kruger didn’t, which was associating their brand with a hipster artist was good business, making them not only look cool and attentive, but ironically knowing in a postmodern way. It didn’t matter that his message was aimed at destroying their business model.

Auden suggested that poetry doesn’t make anything happen; anti-capitalist artists go even further. They want to be rebels in the works but become cogs of the capitalist machine. In 1984, Kruger’s friend Jenny Holzer put up a neon sign in Times Square with the inscription “Protect me from what I want”, another apparent denunciation of how capitalism ostensibly shapes our desires. . As Holzer’s art became in vogue, companies pursued her for commissions. In 1999 Holzer was commissioned for the BMW Art Car project. She wrote “Protect me from what I want” on a sheet of metal and described the slogan in phosphorescent paint on a BMW V12 LMR which was due to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans that year.

None have been so elegantly trapped by capitalism as Kruger. In 1994, the streetwear brand Supreme appropriated the red and white Futura font it was using. They put it on sneakers, T-shirts, boxing gloves, even bolt cutters. Criticism of the culture jammer had itself been blurred.

A decade later, something even stranger happened. Feminist clothing designer Leah McSweeney has created a clothing line called Supreme Bitch. It aimed, she said, to “make fun of the misogynistic vibe of Supreme and the boys who wear it.” Supreme Bitch used the Supreme logo, which they in turn took from Kruger (who in turn had appropriated it from a German company called Bauer Type Foundry who created it in 1927).

But Supreme didn’t, like Kruger, turn around and wave his paws in the air. The company sued McSweeney for $ 10 million for trademark infringement. Bloody cheek, you’d think, given that she’d lifted Kruger’s typeface 10 years earlier and capitalized on her association with her cool brand. “What ridiculous hogwash of totally uncool jokers,” Kruger commented at the time. “I do my job on this kind of sadly stupid prank. I’m waiting for them all to sue me for copyright infringement. ‘ So far, no one has taken her to court, and Supreme and McSweeney reached an out-of-court settlement in 2013.

Three years ago, however, Kruger took revenge on Supreme. She created a pop-up shop satirising the billionaire brand by parodying its business model. Supreme is increasing demand for its products by weekly “drops”, which means that those who want to buy, say, a new line of insanely ugly but seemingly desirable sneakers have to line up at 5 a.m. in front of its stores.

Kruger’s pop-up store gave its fans the same experience by opening up for a private view and limiting their experience once inside the store, as if the guests were competitors on Supermarket Sweep. But like those who lined up for Supreme’s drops, those who lined up around the block were lining up to buy goods as much as to see his work. Art and shopping barely stood out. Inside, red and white Futura items were for sale, including an embroidered beanie with the phrase “Want it, buy it, forget it” ($ 40) and t-shirts that read “What hopes? Whose fears? Whose values? Whose justice? ($ 45). The New Yorker the reporter was confused about Kruger’s point. “It was hard to say exactly who was ripping who.” The moral? Subversive artists, for all their virtue signals, are adept at making the system they openly despise work and adept at making money out of it.

Take Santiago Sierra. The Spanish artist has already completed a project to pay workers to masturbate. At the Lisson Gallery in London, he nailed corrugated iron across the entrance so that guests arriving for his private tour could not enter. “My work does not respect the decorative and narcotic functions so valued by the industry,” Sierra explained to me. . “We are not all Damien Hirst,” he added.

But, like many artists who claim to be anti-Hirst lean, Sierra is not outside the system he claims to despise. On his website you can purchase many of his works, including a digital print of his “Economic Study on the Skin of the Caracans,” a work inspired by Sierra’s discovery of the inverse correlation between the dark skin of the Caracans. ‘a person and his income in Caracas. , Venezuela. The result is the photographed bare back of eight Caracan workers with different skin tones, some marked and injured. An edition of 75 was printed on Hahnemühle Photo Rag 188g gloss white paper, 200 x 32 cm, each signed and numbered. Each copy is for sale via fineartmultiple. com for $ 805 plus $ 125 shipping, and while the blurb says the job “tackles issues of social injustice and exploitation,” it may be fair to cheer up a wall in the bathroom on the ground floor. You can also buy its 2006 ‘Door Plate’, a metal plate stating: ‘This entry is strictly prohibited for disorderly and smelly people, smokers, alcoholics, drug addicts, blind, deaf, dumb or disabled… beggars, homeless, prostitutes, immigrants… non-American citizens, non-European citizens… ”for $ 11,597. Just the thing to screw on the front door, although you might want to electrically charge it to ward off art thieves and consider your defense against hate crime charges.

The virtuoso of money out of thin air is Richard Prince. He exhibited 38 paintings of screenshots of other people’s Instagram photos at Gagosian in New York in 2014, selling the results for up to $ 100,000, without crediting their original creators. Some critics have called his work “genius trolling”. He printed his painting of Ivanka Trump getting her hair done and sold it to her for $ 36,000. She then posed in front of her and posted the result on Instagram.

As for Barbara Kruger, she became famous at the end of the 1980s for her adaptation of René Descartes’ philosophical saying “I think, therefore I am”, transforming it into a new sentence, “I buy therefore I am” , and deploying it as a slogan in a range of media. It resonated with the contemporary neoliberal, consumerist, money-laden era, greed, that’s Reagan and Thatcher’s good.

Today, you can find versions of her “I shop therefore I am” shopping bag both in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and for sale on eBay. Barbara Kruger’s shopping bag incriminating shopping has become a collector’s item: the last time I Googled it, a 1990 lithographed bag by Kruger was selling online for $ 2,150.

A retrospective of Barbara Kruger’s work, Thinking of You. I mean me. I Mean You, is at the Art Institute of Chicago until January 24, 2022. This article originally appeared in The spectatorglobal edition of November 2021.

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Estelle D. Eden

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