Consuming culture

Issue: 135

Bea Leal

David Campbell and Mark Durden, Variable Capital (Liverpool University Press, 2008), £28.50

The starting point for Variable Capital was an exhibition of the same name held at the Liverpool Bluecoat gallery in 2008. The book is not a catalogue though. It takes a selection of pieces, mostly by artists who took part in the exhibition but not all, and uses them to discuss various themes, for example, Hollywood, sex and recycling. Each theme is a chapter a couple of pages long, and most are illustrated by one artist’s work. An introduction sets out the wider topics the authors want to deal with: consumerism or “cultures of consumption”, how artworks work under capitalism, and how artists can (or should) deal with this.

Within these categories, the attitudes of the artists vary widely, as do the artworks. Some are photographs, picking details of everyday life related to consumption, while some reuse commodities themselves as artworks. Some use the visual language of adverts, making their “products” look as appealing as possible; others focus on tatty and rejected objects. Other pieces create situations where things or people are presented as commodities in unexpected ways. The authors are especially interested in two possible artistic responses to modern capitalism. One is to turn the experiences of producing, desiring or consuming products—described using the covering term “commodity culture”—into artworks. The other is to focus on the material results and remains of the process: excess consumption or waste (p9).

These themes repeat throughout the book, but on the whole the text does not flow from one chapter to another. We are given a general impression of the authors’ interests, not an ordered story or definite argument. This means the text sometimes poses questions that are left unanswered. On the other hand, they are not questions easily answered, and the primary purpose of the book seems to be to raise them, and provoke readers to think of their own answers.

For example, one recurring point is how artists take part in commercial relationships themselves, potentially commodifying or exploiting their subjects, and whether this is a legitimate strategy for highlighting these processes in wider society, or is simply unethical. For example, the Common Culture collaboration—of which the authors are members—hired comedians to perform their sets to an empty stage, and bouncers to stand in a gallery as living artworks. In both cases, people normally seen as confident and tough could be seen as vulnerable, and manipulated. The performances were intended to show that these qualities (confidence or toughness) have been made into commodities. They also give the uncomfortable impression of reducing the individuals who took part in the performances to these qualities, which again, as the artists point out, is what the labour market does (p55).

The implication is that these methods are appropriate because the purpose of the artwork is to make a point specifically about exploitation. On the other hand, the authors are very critical of Boris Mikhailov’s Case History, in which he paid homeless Ukrainian people to pose naked. They describe his attempt to justify this as “phony humanism”, which it does in fact sound like, and define him as “part of the ‘non-ethical’ capitalist art market” (p37). This poses the question of what an ethical version would look like, or whether it is even possible (this left unanswered). Where is the line drawn between exploitative art, and art about exploitation? Does it depend on the intentions of the artist—or their ability to come up with a good explanation—or on the finished result?

Although the introduction defines the last 50 years as key for such “critical” art (p5), comparisons can be made with pieces pre-dating this period. Common Culture’s Binge series may be motivated by different intentions to Hogarth’s Gin Alley (or not), but the appearance is similar. Hogarth composed “modern moral subjects”, satirising and exposing aspects of 18th century society, and several of the works in the book are apparently based on similar ideas. However, there is a risk of this blurring into actual moralising, in the sense of judging the people depicted. Some of the photographic pieces use their subjects, for example a woman collapsed after a night out or a family eating fast food at a grubby bus stop, as visual shorthand for generalised experiences or conditions. Although the accompanying texts discuss the images in terms of these wider messages, the photographs themselves can appear critical of the individuals.

Going back further in time, some of the ideas discussed, for example artworks as objects of conspicuous consumption by the ruling class, are arguably as old as class itself. Nevertheless, the authors are justified in saying that it is only fairly recently that artists have become so fascinated with using the problematic status of artworks and the work of art-making as the subject of their work.

As that tangled-sounding definition suggests, this is a rather self-obsessed subject, art about art. The book is critical of the “utopian and transcendental” status art is sometimes given (p147), and for this reason focuses closely on the negative aspects of the “global culture industry” (p146). This tends to downplay the value (in a human sense) of art, which persists despite commodification. However, that would probably need another book to discuss, and in terms of analysing the negative side, Variable Capital is very successful.

Lastly, the book looks good, which might sound either obvious or irrelevant, but for a discussion of mainly conceptual artworks, dealing with heavy theoretical issues, this is quite an achievement. The theoretical writing is largely in the introduction, and is dense but clearly written, giving potted summaries and references of various writers on popular culture. In the rest of the book, the text does not overwhelm the pictures. Finally the variety of the artworks selected means there is probably something to catch every readers’ interest.