The Artist’s Role in Consumerism

Compared to earlier times, most of the Western world’s middle classes are now drowning in stuff and in debt.  Their houses are too small to store it all, even as real wages have stagnated, over a period of decades.  There has been an explosion in the provision of off-site, lock-up self storage – an industry that barely existed, in earlier times.  Many people own more books than they can ever read, have access to more TV shows and DVDs than they can ever hope to view, possess more music than you can ever listen to and have more apps on their mobile devices and computers than they can ever hope to use.  Some people solve the problem by simply throwing away perfectly serviceable, usable stuff, at intervals, but it’s a recurring issue.  Why have we become such churners of stuff and why do we spend so much of our money on fuelling this aberrant behaviour?

The answer is consumerism and it has to be said that artists have played a significant role in the rise of this phenomenon.  Our art has been used to create the products that people throw away and to increase desire for those products in the first place.  Our art, far from being appreciated and valued for its own qualities, is increasingly valueless, unless it can be pressed into the service of creating short lived consumer products, or advertising to promote the sale of these.  Our art is becoming (or has already become) a disposable commodity.

As artists, do we strive to make the world a happier, more beautiful place, or do we deliberately (or accidentally) amplify misery and harm?  Shouldn’t we care about how our art affects people, our society and our environment?  Do we want to be agents of environmental and cultural destruction?  Are we mere hucksters for banksters that loan the consumer credit to buy all this stuff, at onerous rates of interest?  Are our actions, as artists, merely increasing wealth inequalities, through the seductive, attractive appeal of the art we produce being used to transfer net wealth from ordinary consumers to the producers of all this tat?  Is our art being incorporated into meaningless, valueless objects of sheer, lustful desire?

We’ve had planned obsolescence since the 1920s, when all manufacturers of light bulbs conspired to shorten and limit the life of the electric light bulbs they made and sold.  It increased their profits by double, over a period of only five years.  Who lost?  Well, the consumer now had to buy and throw away two and a half light bulbs, for every one they previously had to buy.

Things have only intensified, since those days.  Planned obsolescence has now reached its zenith, with many high priced items now cheaper to throw away and replace than to repair.  We have been encouraged, by a relentless bombardment of ads and media commentary, to change our things annually, as fashion statements.  Items that still have utility and value to somebody are, instead, destroyed or discarded.  You can find recycling plants that are destroying brand new printers, for example, still in their boxes and never having been sold or used, in preference to selling them at discounted rates or giving them away to the needy.  By destroying brand new items, they protect the market for their new products.  A discount or a giveaway is thought to simply prevent a sale of a brand new, more profitable one.

Our throwaway society is now officially out of control.  Landfill sites are full, incinerators are difficult to establish and the emissions are hard to detoxify and we damage the planet as we draw more raw materials and resources from it, just to return them as junk, in a very short time.  We’re chewing through the environment and turning it into worthless, useless shit, at an alarming rate.  Our consumption results in the production of mountains of toxic, noxious waste, using non-renewable energy in the process and producing needless waste heat, where there was previously only unprocessed, innocuous dirt and buried, decaying dinosaur slime.

In order to pay for this manic churn, people are increasingly borrowing money to fund their insane purchases.  The debt burden causes long term hardship and unhappiness.  People’s freedom is hampered by their obligations to repay their debts, at alarming rates of interest.  By submitting to fashion, we are destroying our environment, our wealth and our happiness.  How can this be rational?

The answer is that it isn’t rational.  In fact, we have been made mentally ill on purpose.  Corporations have spent billions to manufacture fear and dissatisfaction in our minds.  These are feelings that would not have existed at all, or have been rather more attenuated, had it not been for the deliberate, systematic, relentless, orchestrated, cradle-to-grave campaigns of marketing to make you feel this way.  You have been programmed to consume to increase the profits of the corporations.  They don’t care about you, your environment, your freedom or your happiness.  All they care about is emptying your pockets.

What is the net effect of this almost century long campaign of cultural influence?  We have a population increasingly prone to anxiety disorders and ill health arising from the stress of constant dissatisfaction and fear.  How have we responded to the epidemic?  We’ve seen it as an opportunity to sell more prescription remedies.  Statins, blood pressure pills and antidepressants.  We eat them like sweets.

What we haven’t done is addressed the root cause and asked whether we want a world that is constantly programmed to want more, regardless of how much they already have and to buy products the manufacturers tell them will alleviate, or insulate them from, the fears that these companies, themselves, have inserted into people’s consciousnesses.  Is that the life we want our children to lead?

We’re conditioned to consume from childhood, because we’re easiest to influence when we are innocent and trusting.  We also have unique leverage over the family’s finances, because parents are keen to make their children happy.  By inserting dissatisfaction and unhappiness into young minds, it is possible to make parents spend more, in a futile attempt to create happiness and satisfaction instead.  It never works, of course.

A consequence of our programmed relationship with the artefacts of human ingenuity is that we never develop a reverence for made objects and the makers that created them.  We think of everything as worthless, temporary, breakable and disposable.  We never develop a meaningful relationship with the durable tools of creativity – paint brushes, pianos, block planes, chisels, etc.

The most powerful tool of creation ever invented, the computer, is itself a disposable, short lived item that needs to be replaced at intervals of less than three years, taking our data, software and our relationship with our actual tool of creation with it.  We have to buy a new computer and get to grips with that one, as if we were just born.  We never experience the feeling of the tool melting away, as we get into the flow of creating with it.  It’s always a slightly foreign object, in our hands.  Instead of becoming familiar and comfortable with our tools of creation, we succumb to insatiable desires to collect and consume, then discard and replace.  This harms our own creative efforts immeasurably.

We’re infantilised by consumerist marketing.  Having discovered how to sell to children and turn them into pre-programmed, but avaricious, rapacious consumers, the same techniques are used to cause adults to behave as children, impulsively indulging their own whims and narcissistic desires.  Imelda Marcos, with her rooms and rooms full of barely worn shoes, is no longer a bizarre exception.  She was merely a forerunner.  By turning adults into childlike consumers, it influences our general behaviour and our relationships with others.  We’re no longer able to relate to each other, as mature, thinking grownups.  Instead, we become overgrown man-children and shopping obsessed women.  We organise our lives around obtaining more stuff and then showing it off, up until the point, reached too soon, where we need the next fix.

Even the artefacts of our culture (pop or otherwise) have been commoditised and turned into valueless, disposable, temporary items.  All music and film, fashion and art is sold as if it were disposable and replaceable.  The back catalogues of artists are considered passé and worthless.  We forget last year’s films, albums, bands and models as soon as this year’s offerings are available (or pre-released).  Bands and artists come and go, enjoying their fifteen minutes of fame and then consigned to obscurity.

Record companies are no longer interested in developing an artist over a long career.  Instead, they want television tie-ins and disposable heroes that allow them to rake in quick returns on their investments.  We first bought our records on vinyl, then bought them again on cassette for our Walkmans, then we bought them as CDs for our new digital music listening environments and finally in MP3 format, to use in our iPods and iPhones.  Now, we’re being asked to buy them all on vinyl again, for retro nostalgic reasons, but it’s all just churn.  More stuff to throw away.  More ways to pay multiple times for the same thing you already used to own.

We constantly encouraged to notice and buy the products of the new, new thing and expected to discard our old tastes.  In embracing the new and discarding the old, our collective memory is foreshortened.  We no longer learn the lessons of history.  Old wisdom, hard won and fought for, is thrown out and forgotten.  Ask the average twenty-something who Nixon was and why Watergate had significance and you’ll be met with blank stares.  You’ll struggle to get them to watch “All the President’s Men” or to even find a copy.  Getting them to understand the connections between that Whitehouse behaviour and current events is simply impossible.

Artwork is not seen as having intrinsic value.  A painting doesn’t count at all unless you can buy the image on a t-shirt or mug.  A movie doesn’t have much value, unless you can buy the action figures and licensed lunchboxes tied-in with it.  Art has become something that is only valuable and valued to the extent that it can cause consumption and sales of something else.  Its utility is purely commercial, not aesthetic.  Far from increasing the store of beauty in the world, much art serves only to transfer wealth from consumers to owners of capital.

The marketing is seductive and deceptive, too.  Computer games with names like “Call of Duty” or “Medal of Honour” appear to encourage and uphold what were usually regarded as positive moral values to which we should all aspire.  However, the content of these games is not positive or moral.  They present a dystopian world, where morbid fantasies about killing and destroying can be indulged and played out, at least in a virtual sense, pandering to the most brutal instincts of consumers.  We promote and enable the desire to act in anti-social ways, without conscious thought, penalty or consequence.  Is the bringing to life of this wholly destructive fantasy not disturbing?  Are we not changed in some material way, in our psyches, if we vent our basest instincts and rehearse them on a regular basis?  Why not create a rape game, if not?  I think that’s a fair question.  I don’t think that engaging your mind in anti-social fantasies, on a casual, recreational, careless, emotionally-detached basis, is actually healthy.  I could be wrong, but I don’t think so.

Who brings these games to consumers?  Artists do.  Animators, sound designers, programmers, engineers, graphic artists, character designers, storyboard artists, writers and musicians collaborate to create a product that plays as a computer game, on a console, computer or mobile device.

In the name of increasing consumption and profits, we’re being entertained to death.  We are being distracted from the important things in life, such as self actualisation, relationships, learning, nurturing a family, increasing the stock of beauty and wisdom in the world and taking care of our environment, so that future life remains viable.  These are the things we don’t do at all, while we’re entertained.  We’re entertained by artists.

Take a look at any group of people in a restaurant or train station platform.  They all have their heads in their mobile phone screens, with their ear buds in.  They don’t communicate or interact with people in their immediate vicinity.  They don’t even make eye contact.  They’re isolated and alone, even in a crowd, insensate to the sights and sounds around them.  Our distraction is total.

Our distraction, of course, leaves a vacuum in our lives to be filled by still more manipulators and profiteers.  They see our inattention as their opportunity to further shape reality to their own benefit.  They know we won’t lift a finger in protest or resistance.  They take advantage of the submissive void created by our preoccupation with consumption.  Profitable wars can be contrived, by war profiteers, but if marketed the right way (appealing to fear), we consent.  Our public finances are drained in a transfer of wealth from all of us to the providers of war materials, but we don’t care enough to notice.

It’s a very short step from playing computer games to online gambling, where our wallets are under attack as never before.  We neither feel alarm nor care about the attack.  We’re fulfilling our pre-programmed role.

As creators, even our relationship to our creative tools has been distorted.  Because we consume impulsively, we buy one of everything we think we might need.  We present ourselves with too many tools and options, failing to master any of them.  It degrades the quality of our creations, if we never develop an intimacy with the extensions of our hands and intellects, our creative tools.  In fact, you very quickly learn that you have to limit your options, bring only a few brushes and putting only a limited number of colours on your palette, to make any meaningful creative progress at all.  Less is more.  You have to leave some of the tools at home and work your way through your options, slowly, deliberately and methodically.

The thing is that, if your art is used in support of increased consumerism; you’re part of a deception.  You’re an accessory to a thinly disguised and dishonest attempt to cause people to spend their money on things they don’t really need, without really knowing why they are doing so or for what purpose.  In participating in this deception, you become dishonest, predatory and your actions are not harmless.

If your art is used to seduce people away from the things that would really make them happy, you’re hurting them.  Why is your art co-opted to serve such a purpose?  For profit.  That’s all.

As artists and coders, myself included, you can easily fool yourself into thinking you’re doing one thing – making your art in a pure way – but actually doing another – serving the profiteers at the heart of consumerism.  It’s an easy mistake to make.   We’re as programmed to consume as the next man, after all.  You think you’re being paid to produce art and for creating, but your creations and art are pressed into the service of influencing consumers to consume, or to produce seductive products that nobody really needs.  We’re willing accomplices, prostituting our art to earn a living, so that we can continue to create.

We don’t like to think that our work causes consumers to be more effectively and efficiently preyed upon.  The story we tell ourselves is that these pre-programmed consumers are willing accomplices too, but are they?  Do they have any free choice left at all, if their entire existence is organised around training them to spend irrationally?  Do we have any free choice left at all either, for that matter?  It’s not a very savoury or comfortable idea, when you come to think about it.  We think we’re rebellious artists, taking a stand against the man, but often we’re just fuelling more consumption, with all the ills that this brings.

The way that adults were encouraged to act like children was by making everything feel like it’s a game.  They call it “gamification”.  Gamification caused us to come back to buy more, that we didn’t want or need, just so that we could succeed in the game.  For example, the Monopoly scratch promotion that is run annually at McDonalds is worth three quarters of a billion dollars in increased sales, such is the draw of completing the Monopoly board and winning prizes.  We consume more burgers, not because we’re hungry, but because we want to win the game.  Meanwhile, McDonalds takes our money for the privilege of playing.

Gamification has even infected corporate life.  Rather than just doing your job, in an honest way, employees and partners are now encouraged to participate in rewards and leader boards, incentives and games of relative performance comparison, often organised on line in the company’s intranet, to encourage you to produce more on behalf of your employers.  A significant portion of your real working life is now governed by the need to beat your colleagues at the game.  This distorts your relationships with colleagues and customers alike.  Your challenge/achievement dopamine is constantly stimulated so that the corporation can extract more value from you for relatively little additional compensation.  All they want from you is more for less.  The constant competition is exhausting for all of us.

The effects of overstimulation of your brain’s dopamine producers and receptors, over a sustained period, are largely unknown, but desensitisation is suspected strongly.  The more you are gamified, the less you will respond to it (hence you will feel like and be treated as a failure on the job) and the less pleasure you will derive from other aspects of your life.  Your ability to feel pleasure is being bled dry.  You are, effectively, being deliberately burnt out.

As consumers, we all pay more for everything to support gamification.  The costs of gamification are included in the prices we pay.  Artists, of course, make the games and the game artefacts for gamification, in which the house always wins and the consumer is always made yet poorer.  Consumers are, in effect, exchanging more of their labour for nothing very durable or substantial.  The opportunity cost is that they have even less money available to buy things that can help them create and earn.

Under consumerism, we’re busy converting our sweat and even our future sweat (via credit cards) into disposable, ephemeral, narcissistic impulse purchases of disposable junk or evaporating, momentary experiences.  Credit defers the pain of parting with your cash, which represents your hard work, but it amplifies the pain, because you owe the interest as well as the principal, in the future.  More and more of your future income is assigned to previous purchases, many of which have already broken or been thrown away.

Artists have been complicit in selling their work relatively cheaply, to aggressively market sugary cereals to children at premium prices, using fun cartoon characters, slick ads, toys hidden in the box and in-store displays.  Tony the Tiger was made by artists.  The consumption of these sugar-saturated cereals has resulted in a generational epidemic of obesity and related morbidities.  Why did we participate?  Did we really need the money?  Couldn’t we have done something better with our art?

It used to be the case that the movie was the story and the piece of art that was made to convey certain ideas and morals.  Then movies became vehicles for licensed merchandising.  Now, the need to sell merchandise has begun to subvert the story of the movie, so that the actual entertainment value of the movie is seriously degraded and compromised, just to sell more tie-in stuff.  The Transformers franchise is a case in point.  The story lines no longer even make sense and the continuity with previous episodes is broken irretrievably, so that new toys could be made and sold.  In so doing, the movies themselves have become unwatchable, stupid junk.  The story has been hollowed out and becomes meaningless, the more the movie becomes just one big advertisement for merchandise.  Why should anybody waste their precious, finite and scarce time and attention on this?

The introduction of children-only television channels such as Nickelodeon saw the cannibalisation of “Watch with Mother”, slaughtered on the altar of monetisation for profit.  Who participated in this loss of an intimate moment between mother and child, in which bonding, sharing, care and comfort could take place, only to be replaced by He-Men and action figure ads?  Animation artists, voice actors, musicians, storyboard and background artists, editors and compositors did.  You name it.

Ironically, even as we throw away the stuff we’re told we’re supposed to throw away now, we’re nostalgic for it and the moment in our lives that it represented.  Consequently, we wind up overpaying for retro collectibles, which somehow escaped their own obsolescence, often miraculously.  Everything retro is flimsy, though (it was made with built-in planned obsolescence, after all), so we have to treasure these old artefacts and treat them as some sort of shrine, not usable objects.  If we actually used our new old stock, it would wear out prematurely, become unrepairable for want of old parts and be gone forever.  We have to worship old stuff, because we have nostalgia for it, not because we want to use it.  We can’t use it.

We have to ask ourselves, as artists, some fundamental questions.  If we get involved in the activities of licensing our art in the service of selling, in creating disposable products, if we voice, produce and animate the advertisements, design the packaging, provide graphic design services to push more consumption or participate in the product design of thousands of meaningless, nearly identical,  fashion statement items, are we part of the problem?  Are we culpable in producing ever more waste, fear and dissatisfaction, through consumerism?  Are we electing to become accessories to mass bamboozlement?

It’s notable and ironic that all of the people that most enthusiastically participate in the orgy of consumption encouragement live in lavish, substantial, old houses and they have expensive cars.  It tells you what their real priorities and interests are.  Invariably, the high priests of selling disposable, planned obsolescence, through the manufacture of dissatisfaction and fear, to you and I, choose a Rolls Royce or similar vehicle, renowned for its hand crafting and durability.  They buy differently to what they sell.  It has become the case that only the wealthiest can afford to buy things of lasting value and quality.  It didn’t have to be this way.

What’s the solution?  How can an artist eschew fear and dissatisfaction being imposed on the general population and all the harm that results from planned obsolescence, frivolous design, marketing, advertising, jingles, sales-pitch voiceovers and playing along with the one-hit-wonder culture?  There are no easy answers.  Being outside of this system is a recipe for not earning, because our culture and economic system is so geared up for consumption that no other alternative activity is valued or tolerated.  We can only solve this as a unified body.  I wonder if we have the courage and will, or the awareness of what’s really happening with our artistic contributions.  Are we creating the world we want, when we create our art?

As tainted as artists are in the century old story of consumerism, what I hope is beyond dispute is that we will need to reclaim our mental and physical health by stopping the constant daily assaults on our self esteem and our capacity to work.  I also hope we recognise that ceasing the rape of the planet and the production of unconscionable waste is beyond argument.  We will have to take action, as a community and society, to curb the excesses of consumerism.  We have no choice.  It’s not sustainable.

We’ve been seduced into believing that the accumulation of money is all that matters, that ownership of stuff is the highest goal and that surrounding yourself with conspicuous consumption is the only way to care for your ego.  In fact, the only currency that matters is life.  We are threatening life itself in meaningful and significant ways, while we remain wedded to these erroneous notions of what matters most.  We have to reorganise our society around the enhancement and nurturing of life, not around producing death and dead things, in a mad frenzy to have more.

It’s time we took a long hard look at ourselves as artists and our participation in the consumerism culture.  Are we doing any good, through the use of our art to stimulate consumption, or are we doing inestimable harm?  Is a successful artist, these days, anything more than a consumer brand?

If we tacitly support the idea that art has no intrinsic value, unless it can be used to make people spend on other things, we devalue our own work as artists and the intrinsic value of our artworks as things of standalone, lasting, aesthetic value.  We assign a price of precisely zero to aesthetic enrichment and viewer delight, if our art is always seen as just a part of an elaborate deception to convince consumers to exchange their money, which represents their effort, into disposable, temporary, worthless junk.  Knowing you’re doing harm eats at your integrity and soul.

What are we going to do about this?

About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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2 Responses to The Artist’s Role in Consumerism

  1. Susan Winter says:

    I do feel the same way and yet I am not sure it is possible to turn the tide. I listened to a talk on JRR Tolkien that cited the essay by him, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” in Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol. XXII, 1936, pp. 245-
    95. ( Tolkien writes [Beowulf’s author] is concerned primarily with man on earth, rehandling in a new perspective an ancient theme: that man, each man and all men, and all their works shall die. “.. We live in a complex world. and perhaps the only solutions for creative practice whatever the form, is to somehow engage us with the debate of what it means to live a meaningful life.

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