Art Consumption Is One of the Most … Essay
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Consumption is one of the most challenging themes in contemporary art, because of art's centrality as a consumer object while art may simultaneously critique its own function as commodity. In the PBS series Art21, season one addresses the theme of consumption in an episode featuring Barabra Kruger, Michael Ray Charles, Matthew Barney, Andrea Zittel, and Mel Chin. The film starts with tennis superstar John McEnroe talking about his relationship with art as a tennis player who, ironically, has been described as being an "artist" on the court. McEnroe discusses the way both tennis and art are associated with bourgeois social strata, "out of the reach" of most people because of financial barriers, in spite of the fact that both tennis and art have no absolute barriers to admission. Art is available for free in galleries, on the streets, and in many museums. Likewise, tennis courts can be populist places. In exploring the theme of consumption through the work of Kruger, Zittel, Charles, Chin, and Barney, the filmmakers reveal the way art can subvert consumerism. Although not included in the episode, contemporary artist Barbara Bloom also continually comments on the relationship between art and consumption. Bloom's corpus of work includes ironic self-reflections on role of art in a consumer culture that is consumed with commodification.
One of the sub-themes of consumption that Bloom focuses on in her work is related to art collection. Collecting art is not a populist act; it is a brazen display of wealth, power, and prestige. There is innate braggadocio in art collection, and Bloom's understanding of this leads her to create two of her most important installations: The Reign of Narcissism (1989) and The Collections of Barbara Bloom. Both of these installations are to art what the mockumentary is to the documentary. Whether art can be consumed, collected, bought, and sold with honesty, integrity, and respect is a question that haunts artists like Bloom and her contemporaries like those depicted in the Art21 "Consumption" episode. Consumption connotes many things, literally. To consume is to eat, devour, take in, and possess. With art, consumption is an act of collecting and thus turning art into a commodity. As a commodity, then, art has a market value its creator may have never intended, or will never see.
Collection is an inherent act of consumption. To collect is to consume en masse, to the point where a collection of objects becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Art is often collected as a form of currency, which paradoxically devalues the role of art as being the medium of social critique. Yet were art not to be consumed at all, it would lose its potency and power. Bloom uses faux installations to draw attention to alternative methods of art collection and consumption. For example, The Reign of Narcissism and The Collections of Barbara Bloom both draw attention to the intersections between consumption, art, and narcissism.
Borin in 1951, Bloom has been producing art since the 1970s, and draws inspiration from Andy Warhol, who similarly critiques commercialism and consumption. In fact, Foster finds that Bloom was "inspired by the estate auctions of Jackie O. And Andy Warhol, with their peculiar amalgams of biography, fetishism, pathos and marketing," (Tallman). Bloom models her installations as mockups of actual estate auctions in which the works of Warhol were featured as commodities with market value. The faux collections, or faux auctions, are constructed as if by a third party who had been collecting Bloom's work. This is especially true of The Collections of Barbara Bloom (2008), which was designed to appear like Bloom had been collecting her own work, setting out on display to be sold to the highest bidders. Although critical of its coherence, or lack thereof, Johnson describes The Collections of Barbara Bloom as being an "ironic, overarching concept of the artist as an eccentric, narcissistic collector and curator of her own history," (1). Bloom's previous installation The Reign of Narcissism planted the seed for Bloom's heady exploration of the theme of consumption.
Seed thoughts for much of Bloom's early work derive from political and personal motives to explore social justice issues related to feminist concerns (Foster). For example, Bloom was keen to explore the way consumer culture was built on trends of increasing "fetishism and spectatorship," (Foster 647). Bloom weaves the themes of fetishism and spectatorship into the overarching motif of consumerism in her installations. Consumption is an act of narcissism, just as it is an act of fetishism: in collecting items, the collector must first fetishize those items and imbue them with a value that is entirely arbitrary. In the act of placing objects on display as in a private collection or art auction, the collector turns art into a spectator sport, a spectacle, and thus, something to be consumed. The visitor becomes the voyeur, who has the potential also to become the consumer and collector. In The Collections of Barbara Bloom, displays photographs behind a curtain, which the viewer may pull aside for a closer look, thus creating commentary on both "photography and voyeurism," (Johnson 1). Many of Bloom's individual pieces within the installations also play on the theme of voyeurism as being integral to consumption. For example, the photograph of a hand opening a safe appears in front of an actual safe.
Consumption, voyeurism, and fetishism are entwined in The Collections of Barbara Bloom. The viewer comes into contact with bits of Bloom's life as intimate as x-rays of her teeth, which have been silk-screened onto upholstery used on chairs in the installation. The use of the chair as a "stand-in" for a human being is a theme that runs through the collection. It is, as Tallman points out, a tradition that can be traced back to Van Gogh and Gauguin, who found symbolic value in chairs. In her dental x-ray upholstery, Bloom adds another layer of meaning. The x-ray is the stand-in for the person, literally allowing the viewer to see through her mouth, the primary orifice of communication. Likewise commenting on the meaning of human communication is Bloom's tongue-in-cheek edition of Playboy in braille. The braille soft porn concept is one that deftly weaves un-imagery of naked women, which is the quintessential object of consumption and the classic object of voyeurism. Braille is, paradoxically, a method of writing dependent fully on the sense of touch, which therefore connotes sexuality through its textured rendition of language. The act of reading Playboy in Braille takes voyeurism to a new level, one that entails touching as a form of looking or gazing. Corresponding directly with the juxtaposition of language, touch, sexuality, and sight, Bloom includes a grain of rice etched with pornography. Here, the pornography can be consumed in a more literal way because to consume means to eat.
According to the curator of the Jewish Museum, "Barbara Bloom has devoted her career to questioning the ways we perceive and value objects," ("As it were…So to speak: A Museum Collection in Dialogue with Barbara Bloom"). Bloom's interest in consumption derives in part from her autobiography. Born in Los Angeles and a long-time resident of New York City, Bloom has grappled with the effects of multiple levels of consumption. In fact, Bloom is sometimes grouped loosely with another artist featured in the "Consumption" episode of Art21, Barbara Kruger. Like Kruger, Bloom participates in a postmodern meta-commentary, laden with irony, on the function and form of consumption. In one of the most overt critiques of consumer culture and the consumption of contemporary art, Bloom includes a set of postage stamps depicting works by her contemporaries. Artists have been turned into something that has an absolute, albeit tiny, valuation.
One of the reasons The Reign of Narcissism resonates and remains one of Bloom's most remarkable works is because it comes so close to reality, the viewer questions whether irony is present at all. In The Reign of Narcissism, the fake installation is in this case not a self-retrospective like The Collections of Barbara Bloom, but instead, a classical room that could belong in a seventeenth or eighteenth century palace in Europe. Several busts are featured, as they would be in the traditional palatial homes of the ruling classes. As Foster puts it, Bloom is fond of mimicking the cultural forms that shape social identity (647). Self-importance is inherent in the act of collection. Both The Reign of Narcissism and The Collections of Barbara Bloom demonstrate the multifaceted functions of egotism in art.
The commission of self-portraits by famous individuals was one of the first historical indicators that art had turned inward upon itself to become the medium of the wealthy to display their lavish tastes as well as their abundant egos. Commissioning art as a self-portrait is not only self-referential, it is also supremely narcissistic. It is also an act of consumption, as the wealthy patron of the arts uses his or her disposable income in order to commission pieces of art that do have inherent market value. Just as the rulers… [END OF PREVIEW]
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