Materialism and Modern Art


Jonathan E. Schroeder (1992) ,"Materialism and Modern Art", in SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, eds. Floyd W. Rudmin and Marsha Richins, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 10-13.

Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, 1992      Pages 10-13


Jonathan E. Schroeder, Department of Marketing, University of Rhode Island

In the 1960s, material objects and consumer goods crept into the world of art as never before. The presence of well-known corporate symbols and mass-produced goods in modern art reflected the commercialization of popular culture. Pop art, as the movement is called, has been defined as 'having a common concern with the problems of the commercial image, popular culture and metaphysical disgust" (Kozloff, 1962). The concern of Pop art with materialism suggests a sameness of mass production, the common objects of our affluent society taken out of context and scrutinized for their symbolic value.

Most of the critiques of and commentary about the Pop art movement have, of course, been written by art critics. In this paper, Pop art is analyzed from the point of view of consumer behavior, with particular emphasis on how Pop art illustrates and often illuminates the construct of materialism. Three types of evidence will be explored; the artists themselves talking about their art and the Pop art movement; art critics and historians writing contemporaneously and in retrospect; and scholars analyzing Pop art from several perspectives.

In general, the Pop art movement reflects the uncertainty with which consumer researchers view materialism. On one hand, concepts like envy, possessiveness, and materialism have psychologically negative implications. People who are materialistic have been found to have less self-esteem, more conforming behavior, and so on (Belk, 1984, 1985; Schroeder, 1991b). On the other hand, consumption is researched as a vehicle to express ourselves, to explore and maintain our identities, and enjoy the good life (e.g. Sirgy, 1982; Solomon, 1983; Veblen, 1899; Wicklund & Gollwitzer, 1982). The artists who developed Pop art, using commercial objects, advertising themes, and consumer culture as their inspiration, also share this ambivalence. Some of the work seems to glorify materialism, while other work supplies a devastating critique of the affluent society. Investigating the Pop art movement through a consumer research framework can shed light on consumption; Pop art provides impressive and eloquent content to examine materialism.


Materialism has been conceptualized at several different levels and from many perspectives (Bamossy & Dawson, 1991; Belk, 1984, 19115; Fournier & Dawson, 1991; Richins & Dawson, 1990; Veblen, 1898). Previous researchers have disagreed about whether materialism is best viewed as a cultural value, trait, attitude, or norm. In this study, materialism will be discussed from a value conceptual framework, emphasizing that this is just one level of analysis, albeit a meaningful one (Schroeder, 1991a).

The value of materialism centers around placing an importance on material possessions as a way of defining, constructing, and maintaining one's self-concept. Materialism stresses the outer world over the inner world, emphasizing one's relationship to others through ownership and possession. Specifically, materialism is reflected in today's affluent society by the consumer culture and the urge to buy and possess goods (cf. Douglas & Isherwood, 1979). Advertising is a primary vehicle promoting materialistic values, encouraging self-fulfillment through consumption and materialism. Moreover, it plays a leading role in 'perpetuating the mechanisms and ideology of consumption" (Mamiya, 1992, p-15).


Belk's grounding discussions of materialism with examples of literary, anthropological, and philosophical evidence provides a basis for turning to art in studying the concept (Belk, 1985, 1988). Indeed, he suggests that art offers a useful medium to study materialism (Belk, 1986). Not only can art serve to illustrate materialism, artistic expression is a vehicle to generate knowledge and theory about consumer behavior. Belk cites literature, comics, painting, photography, etc. as valuable records of materialism and sources of data for scholars (Belk, 1986). Art and science do differ in their methods, biases, and purposes, Belk insists, but there is much more overlap than is usually thought. He concludes this paper by suggesting that uses of art in research "are attempts to draw on art as data for evidence to vaJidate a point or to provide a thicker, richer description' (Belk, 1986, p. 27). Art and esthetics is described by other writers in an attempt to circumscribe a field of inquiry within consumer research. Esthetics within the consumer context usually refers to a response to a sensory stimulus produced by media, entertainment, or the arts (Holbrook, 1979). What sets these responses apart is an appreciation of the stimulus for its own sake. Painting, then, enjoys a esthetic reaction due to its existence as a end in itself, rather than a means to some other end. For example, Holbrook has called for a study of the experience of art and its creation as a basis for understanding esthetics within artistic organizations (Holbrook & Zirlin, 1985). Esthetics and our perceptual systems are integral to our understanding and appreciation of art (cf. Arnheim, 1974; Lucie-Smith, 1977; Yenawine, 1991).

The present study was sparked by attendance at two major art exhibits showcasing the Pop art movement of modern art. The first exhibit was entitled "Made in U.S.A: An Americanization of Modern Art the 50s and 60s" and was held in 1987 at the University art museum in Berkeley, California. The notes of the curator, Sidra Stich, made clearer what the artists were trying to accomplish and why this art had reached such widespread fame (Stich, 1987). The second exhibit, held at the Museum of Modern Art in Now York City, was "High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture.' High and Low was organized into four themes, or sources for Pop art: Comics, Advertising, Graffiti, and Caricature (Varnedoe & Gopnik, 1990a).

In these art exhibitions, the themes and questions that the artists and curators were struggling with seemed extremely similar to those that attract consumer researchers. The methods, training, and outlook of the two groups, artists and researchers, may be quite different, but the underlying issues they attack are indistinguishable.


Pop art has been succinctly defined as "a movement with its roots in the late 1950s, Pop art has endured and proliferated since. Most obviously, it incorporates the imagery and/or media of popular culture, usually manipulating them to some degree. The" appropriations examine the look, content, and effect of . pop culture,' including package design, celebrity watching, and advertising. They also question the values and communication system of 'high culture' by juxtaposing it with 'pop' mediums..." (Yonawine, 1991, p. 152).

The Pop movement was, in part a reaction to the current dominant form of painting of the day, Abstract Expressionism, which focused on the inner imagination of the artist and the technique of creating art. In contrast, Pop artists drew from the popular culture in achieving an easily recognizable and reproducible art form. Unconcerned with painterly style and brushwork, many Pop artists utilized mass production techniques in their work. Indeed. several influential Pop artists were trained in commercial art and the techniques of printing and advertising.

Depicting material goods and consumer artifacts was not entirely now to the art world. The history of painting is replete with examples of scones of wealth, possessions, and display (e.g. Berger, 1972). In the twentieth century, Picasso stunned his followers by incorporating bits of common objects like newspapers and ropes in his work. Stuart Davis foreshadowed the Pop artists by painting brand images in the 1920s. What set Pop apart is the critical and commercial success of a group of artists, all having a common concern with the problems of the commercial image and popular culture (Mashun, 1987).

The movement began in the 1950s with artists like Richard Hamilton and Jasper Johns depicting common objects for maw consumption in their art. Pop art exploded in the 1960s to become the dominant style of the period. Success came quickly for artists such as Tom Wesselmann, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, and Roy Uchtenstein. Early critical reviews were mixed at best, but museums, collectors, and the press were infatuated with this vibrant, accessible art and the highly quotable artists who produced it (see Mashun, 1987, 1989).

Pop art remains one of the major movements of twentieth century art. One fitting indicator of the movement's stature is the fact that seven out the top ten highest prices paid for contemporary art were examples of Pop art (Mamiya, 1992). Whereas Pop does not hold the dominant force it commanded in the 1960s, artists are still exploring Pop's theme and major retrospective exhibitions are held regularly (e.g. Livingstone, 1991; Papadakis, 1991; Stich, 1987: Varnedoe & Gopnik, 1990). In addition, the most well known Pop artists, such as the late Andy Warhol, have become celebrities in their own right (cf. Garrels, 1989; Smith,1988).

Andy Warhol was trained in commercial art at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now part of Carnegie Mellon University) and started a successful commercial art career in New York during the 1950s. His early work drew its inspiration from comic strips and advertising slogans. His first huge success resulted from the Campbells Soup can series, which attracted widespread attention and notoriety (e.g. Stuckey, 1989; Swenson, 1963, 1964). Other works of this period include the Coca-Cola series, consisting of repeated images of Coke bottles, Brillo boxes, reproductions of actual commercial shipping containers, and celebrity portraits. He also produced many films, books, and advertisements through the 70s and 80s, achieving a stature few 'serious' artists attain (Mamiya, 1992).


Warhol's work is most closely associated with Pop art, and his themes are so blatantly commercial that he stands in for much of commentary on the movement as a whole. So, analysis of Pop art and materialism naturally begins with Warhol. Two other Pop artists will be discussed briefly, Tom Wessolmann, known for his still life series, incorporating brand images and female forms; and Class Oldenburg, known for his soft sculptural forms of consumer goods. The" and other Pop artists were united in their recognition of consumer goods as expressive devices and a preoccupation with manufactured objects removed from nature (Uppard, 1966). Pop art's power stems largely from the symbolic connotations of brands and products, symbols created by the ubiquitous and pervasive force of advertising.

The question of approval or disapproval of consumer culture by the artists and their work is difficult to answer unequivocally. The artists themselves seem to making an ant-materialistic statement by calling attention to *mass banality - the innocent standardized products of our industrial society [taken] out of context and revealed in their spiritual nakedness' (Mashun, 1987). However, Warhol claims that he painted Campbell soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles because he consumed them every day and liked them (Garrels, 1989; see also Johnston, 1989). In the mind of the viewer, Campbells and Coke serve as referential symbols, spewing meaning all over the canvas. Moreover, companies like Campbells and Coke actively cultivate symbolic associations through advertising, of course, but through other means as well (Joy & Dholokia, 1991). Thus, to use only the artists statements and motivations in researching meaning in Pop art is only part of the story.

Scholars disagree whether Pop art represents social and cultural criticism (e.g. Cooks, 1990; Eco, 1989; Hughes, 1991), or reinforces and supports the consumer society (Mamiya, 1992). Other critics insist that searching for positive or negative attitudes in Pop art oversimplifies issues and misses the point (Mashun, 1987). Art allows us to go beyond basic questions of good or bad and reflect on the nature of our relationships with consumer culture. In so doing, Pop art in particular reflects and illuminates materialism, as described by Beik (1986).

As in consumer research, the socio-cultural context of Pop art cannot be overlooked in any analysis (cf. Marcus, 1986; Nicosia & Mayer, 1976). By using common consumer objects, the Pop artists draw on pro-existing forms of communication: advertising, symbols, mass production, etc. (cf. Forty, 1986). Taken from their usual context, these symbols attain special meaning, and serve to redirect the viewer to now linkages and as associations. "y redirecting the function of art back into the world, [Pop art) provides us with an instrument by which the preexistent forms offered up by our culture can be evaluated as to their adequacy to create ourselves and our relationship to that world" (Eco, 1990, p. 40). Scrutiny of the Pop art can illustrate how artistic expression serves to 'mediate, contradict, perpetuate, or reinforce ideological claims presented by consumer culture' (Marniya, 1992, p. 5).

Far from criticizing or distancing themselves from materialistic culture, Pop artists "embrace the encroachments on art by media arts such as advertising, comics, film, and television, and packaging while examining their visual language, their exercise of power and their language' (Eco, 1990, p.45). Only in the context of social and cultural values can Pop art be understood and appreciated. This is why the works of Warhol, especially his Campbells and Coke pieces, have been so notorious and successful; these products are among the highest in brand equity, and evoke extremely strong feelings in people.

Advertising encourages self-expression through consumption and materialism, playing a leading role in perpetuating the mechanisms and values of consumer culture (Marniya, 1992). Therefore, Pop art not only represents the modem consumer landscape, but also reinforces materialism. Pop's stillifes are themselves visions of the good life. In addition, museums, often considered a refuge from commercialism, become extensions of the consumer ethic.

Pop art was one of the first forms of "high" art to be widely available to the public through printmaking and the press. Several Pop artists employed sophisticated marketing techniques to promote and sell their work. Thus, Pop art often blurs the distinction between art and consumer goods, between brand names and expressive devices, between advertising and artistic creation. Being so close to the material and issues it seeks to address makes the criticality issue that much more difficult to unravel. 'The total immersion of the Pop movement into the apparatuses and strategies of consumer culture through its presentation by artists and dealers and reception by collectors and public surely rendered any potential for critique futile and invalid" (Marniya, 1992, p. 158).


Pop art sheds light on the problem of materialism in ways that experimental research cannot. Whereas the use of data not specifically created for research is difficult, the use of art offers exciting insights that otherwise would be missed (cf. Holsti, 1969). This discussion of Pop art and materialism demonstrates the richness and complexity of both the construct of materialism and the art that utilizes so many elements from consumer culture. Directs answers, pointing to simple hypotheses are not to be found.

To discuss art, one must deal with qualities of the artwork itself, such as the subject, physical construction, formal properties, etc., the artist, origin, training, influences, personality, the viewer, and the context. This paper is an attempt to start with the art itself and criticism offered by scholars and art critics. One thing is certain, Pop art is fun, popular, and here to stay. For consumer researchers, the Pop movement offers an excellent opportunity to see how talented people, with widely different training tackle the ambiguities of living in an affluent, materialistic world.

Materialism is one of the most powerful cultural values. As state-controlled societies are collapsing and experimenting with market economies, the urge to consume is becoming greater throughout the world. At the same time, the global economy serves as a matrix for promoting homogeneous, ubiquitous consumer symbols to ever-increasing blocks of consumers. These forces pose an exciting challenge for consumer researchers. Equipped with tools and constructs borrowed from social sciences and humanities, scholars are charged with grappling with tremendous issues irrevocably changing the face of the world. Traditionally, artists and researchers are distinct, each being a little leery of the methods and purposes of the other, However, in the reaim of cultural values, the two fields ought to be seen as complimentary and mutually supportive.


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Pablo Picas , Still Life With Chair Caning, 1912

Stuart Davis, Odol, 1924

Ray Johnson, James Dean, 1957

Roy Lichtenstein, Girt with Bali, 1961

Allan D'Arcangelo, Full Moon, 1962

Edward Ruscha, Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas, 1963

Tony Berlant, Camel Burger, 1963

Wayne Thibaud, Bakery Counter, 1961-62

Wayne Thibaud, Lunch Table, 1964

Andy Warhol, Soup Can, 1962

Andy Warhol, Soup Cans, 1962

Andy Warhol, Big Tom Soup Can, 1962

Andy Warhol, 210 Coca-Cola Bottles, 1962

Andy Warhol, Five Coke Bottles, 1962

Andy Warhol, Brillo, Campoll's Tomato Juice, and Kellogg's

Com Flake Boxes, 1964

Andy Warhol, 100 Cans, 1962

Andy Warhol, Campoll's Soup with Can Opener, 1962

Robert Rauschenberg, Coca Cola Plan, 1958

Jasper John, Painted Bmnze (Ale Cans), 1960

Patrick Caulfield, Pottery, 1964

Mimmo Rotella, Omaggid al Prosiderfe, 1963

Claos Oldenburg, The Store, 1962

Class Oldenburg, Hamburger, Popsicle, Price, 1962

Richard Estes, Food City, 1967

Richard Hamilton, Just What is it that Makes Today's Home

So Dftrent, So Appealing?, 1956

Tom Wessolmann, Still Life #24, 1962

Tom Wesselmann, Still Life #30, 1063

Robert Rauschenberg, Tracer, 1963

James Rosenquist, F- 111, 1965



Jonathan E. Schroeder, Department of Marketing, University of Rhode Island


SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism | 1992

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