Once upon a time, way before I hit 30,
I had the liberty of looking down on consumer culture. It
was easy; I had no money to consume with anyway. When I went
to Europe for a semester during college I had a student ID
that let me into museums on the cheap or for free, but what
did I do with my spare evenings? I went shopping. Mostly,
I didn’t buy anything, but I went in and out of all
sorts of stores. Shopping was like visiting an interactive
museum of cultural mindset. I could pick things up, feel the
texture and the quality; I could even sniff them. I let the
products on the shelves tell me about the things people would
spend money on and how the concerns of the people were different
in each place I went.
Then, in July of 1991, I went to Prague.
Communist rule had ended in Czechoslovakia just a year earlier.
At night, the city was dark; no billboards, no flashing ads,
no architecture lit in such a way as to really be an ad, just
night. I thought this was nice, until I ran out of deodorant
and had to go shopping. I went into what looked on the outside
to be a store, but there were no aisles to walk up once I
went inside, so I left. Where were the stores? I found another
place and still there were no aisles. I could see products
behind counters, but I couldn’t touch them. A counter
person stepped up to me. After making wiping-under-the-arm
motions I was presented with one container of roll-on deodorant.
I don’t like roll-ons so I asked to see another kind.
There was no other kind! This was the deodorant. So I bought
the deodorant. Then I got a little mad. Whether I could afford
to go out and buy or not, the abundance of buying choices
was always around me. As much as I hated consumerism, it had
so transparently formed my expectations that I couldn’t
The Czechs I spoke with all seemed disgusted
and shocked with the waves of goods appearing each day and
the way this changed their world so quickly. Even in the short
time I was there I could see the city changing. Advertising
appeared and the quaintly gothic city center became dotted
with billboards where females posed provocatively with merchandise.
So there it was: “Democracy” means having a market
economy and sex was right there to help get the goods moving.
Welcome to political freedom. Now get ready to be paranoid
about your thighs for the rest of your life.
It is through this Czech experience that
that I am able to understand works by Lichtenstein and Warhol
---- quite possibly because of the irony behind the painter-less
painting of a subject, something that I don’t need to
go to a gallery to see. At this moment I need only take about
10 steps to admire a soup can or a cartoon. What never occurred
to me was that these artists were seeing a great outpouring
of manufactured, pre-packaged goods flood the nation after
WWII. They didn’t grow up with supermarkets full of
canned food and brands to choose from like I did. They were
reacting to the sudden abundance and homogeny and how quickly
this condition of plenty was happily assimilated as normal.
When I shared my deodorant buying experience with my Dad,
born in 1928, he said, “Well, yeah, that’s the
way things always were...”
Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can
(1964) is not about the form of the soup can in space. The
can itself is a cartoon. That piece is about the label on
the can. It’s a deliberate, simple, ironic jab at the
flatness of buyable culture. Because the more choices we have,
the more we have to turn up the volume on what makes one thing
more buyable-looking than another. This is what shapes our
mental environments in deep, intangible, and unavoidable ways.
There is no lifestyle that exists outside the world of being
a consumer. I’ve gone through stages of trying to not
feed into the “American culture of consumption”
by not using goods that exploit workers or animals or even
bees. And you know what? I had to buy a lot of stuff to live
One may feel uninvited to reflect deeply
into one’s conscious or unconscious everyday life by
the barrage of advertising information and products that surround
us. But looking into the forces that shape our decisions doesn’t
make one any less a part of what’s going on. There is
no artistic commentary or standing apart from the larger culture
that doesn’t somehow amount to reaction. The ironic
jab I get from Campbell’s Soup Can says: “Within
sight, out of mind.”