Consuming Representation: Insights From Dutch Art of the Golden Age

Jonathan E. Schroeder, University of Rhode Island
[ to cite ]:
Jonathan E. Schroeder (1999) ,"Consuming Representation: Insights From Dutch Art of the Golden Age", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 641-643.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 641-643


Jonathan E. Schroeder, University of Rhode Island

Art Historian Svetlana Alpers claims that in seventeenth-century Holland "the visual culture was central to the life of society. One might say that the eye was a central means of self-representation and visual experience a central mode of self-consciousness" (Alpers 1989, p. xxv).

In this paper, an art historical approach is applied to develop ways of thinking about how consumers consume visual representation. Representation is a key issue in the humanities, but remains understudied within consumer research. The purpose is to begin the investigation and turn disciplinary attention to representation as an issue. The paper discusses specific works by Dutch artists Judith Leyster, Cornelius Ketel, and Jan Vermeer to illustrate how the tradition of Dutch art profoundly influenced how we receiveCor consumeCrepresentation. The genres of Dutch artCthe still life, the group portrait, and the genre scenesChave markedly influenced the development of photography as a visual form, and exert a strong influence on pictorial advertising conventions. The paper concludes with a brief discussion of the problems and possibilities inherent in turning to the visual arts to illuminate consumer behavior. The concept of consuming representation, which refers to engaging with, reading, and responding to signs, symbols, and images, provides a framework for discussin the complex interaction between consuming and producing that consumers experience in the visual marketplace (Schroeder 1998).


There are many humanities based issues that might engage both consumer researchers. The growing importance of marketing as a cultural and historical institution has captured the attention of many writers from the humanities, who bring social, historical, and cultural understanding to bear in discussing marketing. In particular, two issues, one central to humanities work, one emerging as an important subject interest meCrepresentation and consumption.

Representation refers to meaning production through language. Language, then, is central to meaning via its role as a representational system (Stern 1989). Recent work utilizing representation as an analytic tool emphasizes how cultural practicesCsuch as laws, rituals, norms, art, and advertisingCcontribute to meaning production. Conventional views of representation hold that things (objects, people, consumers) exist in the material and natural world, and that their material characteristics define them in perfectly clear terms. Representation, according to this view, is of only secondary importance in meaning making.

Recent thought in the humanities and social sciences that emphasizes how meaning is produced or constructed by social and cultural forces implies that representation is of primary importance. Representation, in this view, is conceived as entering into the very constitution of things. That is, an object’s or idea’s meaning is shaped by the very process of representing it via language. Research utilizing this approach falls into two categoriesCsemiotic and discursive. Semiotic research, or the poetics of representation, is concerned with how representation produces meaning. Discursive research stresses effects or consequencesCthe politics of representationCand connects representation to power and culture (Hall 1997). Both poetics and politics are involved in the analysis presented here.

My research focuses on the production and consumption of images, in what I call a visual approach to consumer research (Schroeder 1997, 1998; Schroeder and Borgerson 1998). I am interested in bringing visual theory and art criticism to bear on consumption issues, such as patronage, representation, and ethics. Representation, it turns out, is a central issue in philosophy, literary studies, and history (cf. Stern 1998).

When I talk about representation, I am thinking of it as a system that produces meaning through language. The conventional view of representation, from Plato, held that representation is a copy-like process that creates clear, one to one meanings about the things that "exist" in the material and natural world. These things have natural and material characteristics that have a meaning outside how they are represented. Representation, in this view, is only of secondary importance, it enters the picture only after things are fully formed and their meanings constituted (cf. Wollheim 1991). In another, emerging social constructionist view, however, representation is conceived as entering into the very constitution of thingsCand thus culture is conceptualized as a primary or constitutive process, as important as the economic or material base in shaping social subjects and historical eventsCnot merely a reflection of the world after the event (Hall 1997, pp. 5-6).

In this view, best articulated by Stuart Hall, one of the founders of cultural studies, representation research falls into two broad approaches: the semiotic approach, which is concerned with the how of representation, that is how language produces meaning. The discursive approach is more focused on the effects of representation, the consequences and political ramifications. For our purposes these two approaches correspond roughly to the interest in understanding how marketing creates things like brand images, custome satisfaction, product identity on one hand, and more macro issues like the role of marketing in society, ethics, and consequences of consumption. "The notion that consumers are essentially consumers of symbols [or representations] rather than products, and that consumer culture is largely the construction of symbolic environments [and identities] gives marketing a unique position to deal with these environments" (Firat and Venkatesh 1993, p. 245). In other words, marketing ought to be right in the thick of things when it comes to studying and deciphering contemporary society (Firat and Venkatesh 1995; Meamber 1997).


Art provides visual devices that attempt to give form to ideas, beliefs, and values that are both essential and elusive, if not inexplicable (Yenawine 1991, p. 17).

Visual images play a powerful role in how we view the world. In the words of one art historian: "despite our resistance and growing cynicism, we remain to one degree or another caught in the light of what we seeCwhat we are shown. Images show us a world but not the world. ...When we look at images, whether photographs, films, videos, or paintings, what we see is the product of human consciousness, itself part and parcel of culture and history" (Leppert 1997, p. 3).

An art historical approach enables consumer researchers to look outside of the image or text to ground their analysis in social and cultural contexts. References from art history provide an historical and visual background to contextualize contemporary imagery and complement more traditional social science derived research. The interpretive process is complex, "and there is no one way critics use to arrive at their understandings of images" (Barrett 1996, p. 106).

Interpretive tools include information both internal and external to the object, such as context, comparisons, denotation, and connotation. In the table, an overview of basic interpretive techniques is presented, emphasizing the following art historical elements: subject matter, form, medium, style, genre and contextual issues. Internal sources of information include analysis of descriptive elements listed above, as well as photography-specific issues of tone, paper quality, and type of camera and lens used to generate the image. Contextual issues concern matters such as the picture’s purposeCfor the photographer, subject, owner, or clientCand how it is presented, for example, in a museum, magazine, gallery, or family photo album. That is, contextual issues encompass concerns external to the photograph or advertisement.

Comparison is a key contextualizing interpretive process (Barnet 1997). Comparisons can be made to other photographer’s work, other work by the same photographer, other images that seem connected, as well as cultural products such as other advertisements, novels or films. Comparison, in particular, demands a visual vocabulary of images, poses, and conventions. In addition, the cultural context of the photograph is also relevant. For example, one analysis of photographer Richard Avedon’s work drew comparisons to his previous work, other photographer’s work, writers, and plays. The exhibit "In the American West" comprised large black and white portraits of people who lived in the Western United States. Criticism of this exhibit made comparative references to many famous "storytellers" to support the argument that Avedon’s photographs told stories (Barrett 1996).


The art popular in the seventeenth century Netherlands shows that the Dutch delighted in depiction’s of themselves and their country’s landscapes, cities, anddomestic life, not to mention beautiful and interesting objects. (Stokstad, p. 788)

Important Dutch art genres include the still life, scenes of everyday life, or genre scenes, and the group portrait (Fuchs 1978). Group portraits, for all their seeming spontaneity, reflected and inscribed a strict social hierarchy. Dutch art is art of the here and now, anchored in daily actives of the middle class, preserving and recording the manners and mores of an entire society (Schama 1988). For our purposes, a particularly relevant example of Dutch group portraiture is Cornelius Ketel’s dramatic group composition The Militia Company of Captain Dirck Jacobsz, Roosecrans c. 1588. Comparable to a recent CK One ad, we see a jumble of people posing for a picture, arrayed in apparent random order, presenting a mixed social tableaux. The men, in this case, are posed at odd angles, lacking uniformity, and bring a dynamic composition to what is largely a static image. Each man has an assigned place within the portrait, based on rank, favor, and often payment to the artist (Schama 1988). What unites the subjects is their guild membership, they represent a group linked by a common activity. As in most portraits, what is revealed upon closer inspection is a mannered series of poses, calculated and scripted for a particular effect.

Another more subtle connection to Dutch art resides more in the cultural milieu of the golden age, where religious freedom flourished, and class systems were being broken down. As English Ambassador William Temple observed contemporaneously about Seventeenth Century Holland "men live together like Citizens of the World, associated by the common ties of Humanity, and by the bonds of Peace, Under the impartial protection of indifferent laws" (quoted in Herbert 1991, p. 19-20). One of the implicit messages of the CK One ad is that different looking people can live together, and that to be different is acceptable, a message further underscored in the CK be campaign. This message has visual antecedents within Dutch art. The perspectives and goals of Dutch art also prefigure much photographic practice, with its emphasis on genre scenes, snapshots of everyday life, and recording ownership and possession (cf. Stern and Schroeder 1994).

The realist style of Dutch art also profoundly influenced how we conceive of and view photographs. Photography has emerged as a ubiquitous representational form, "with us from sunrise to sunset, in the privacy of our homes and on public streets, in a format we can hold in our hands and one that towers over us on billboards the size of buildings. So familiar has it become to usCmore than any other artistic mediumCthat knowledge of photography is now crucial to our understanding of the terms of the debate about art and culture at the turn of the twenty-first century" (Cuno 1997, p.1). However, as in art, the disparity between the photographic record and perceptual experience reveals the artistic, political, and representational potential of photography (e.g., Goldberg 1993).

Vermeer’s work, in particular, resonates with photographyChis precise details, stillness of image, and intense engagement with interior process are hallmarks of photographic realism (Gowing 1952/1970). Dutch art is concerned with many of the same subjects photographersCamateur and professionalCof today are concerned with: families, landscapes, celebrations, groups, and formal occasions. Historian Simon Schama’s work is illustrative of how Dutch art can be "read" for insights into societyCspecifically consumption’s role in society. Schama turns to Dutch art "not as a literal record of social experience, but as a document of beliefs." (1988, p. 10). Dutch art celebrates eating, feasts, the householdsCa clean oneCall that money could buy. Schama concludes: "Dutch art invites the cultural historian to probe below the surface of appearances. By illuminating an interior world as much as illustrating an exterior one, it moves back and forth between morals andmatter, between the durable and the ephemeral, the concrete and the imaginary..." Judith Leyster’s work is "marked by a kind of affectionately ironic view of the dangers and pleasures of family life" (Schama 1988, p. 415). Dutch art helped construct the world that the Dutch lived in, and plays a powerful role in how the West represents today.


In summary, I believe there are several benefits in attempting to link art history to consumer research.

1) For studies involving representation, in the second, emerging sense of meaning construction, art history offers a rich resource. For investigating imagery, I have turned to art history, critical race theory, and visual theory for the cutting edge of scholarship in this area. It has taken a lot of reading and relearning, but I think that in taking marketing images seriously as cultural representations, my work requires more than an acquaintance with visual theory.

2) Consumer research is woefully ahistorical. Art history might help ground our studies in the bed of the past, and help us see the historical and narrative processes that influence marketing.

3) Art offers alternate sources of data, methods, and analysis, which is not a replacement for our information processing dominated experimental paradigm, but might serve as useful auxiliary methods.

4) Finally, I think consumer research has a poor reputation amongst academics. Much as we might not care, or feign indifference, I think many consumer researchers strive to be relevant, rigorous, and respected. Working with humanists, talking to them, learning a little of their language might go a long way in accomplishing these three Rs.


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