I’ve always been a fan of the 1980s and its loud, fun, frivolous materialism. But when I made it to the third floor of the Hirshhorn Museum for its 1980s commercialism-themed exhibit, I quickly realized this art was about much more than beauty, or realism, or just politics. It was about my very own work – creative advertising, marketing, and branding.
“Witty and subversive,” as the curator describes it, is hardly a start. Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s is a warm, buzzy, and vibrant exploration of my industry, and led me to look deeper at my career and my limits.
The artists – including Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, Jeff Koons, and Haim Steinbach – harnessed the strategy behind their materialistic culture in which brand marketing had infiltrated daily life. They expertly celebrate and critique brand-driven advertising through art that imitates ads. If you’re immersed in the world of media and marketing, the large block headlines and aesthetically-sound graphics featured in many of the exhibit’s pieces will look familiar.
As you ascend the Hirshhorn’s narrow, zigzagging escalators, you are immediately confronted by large letters painted on the massive, adjacent wall: “ON VEND DU VENT” over and over again. Even if you’re familiar with French, you might not immediately understand this phrase. Entirely out of context, it nonetheless ingrains its foreign words into our minds. Like a billboard you pass every day on the way to work, or a designer’s name acting as the print on a leather suitcase, you won’t forget this alliterative phrase too quickly.
The phrase in Haim Steinbach’s 1988 piece roughly translates to “One spends (or buys) to the wind.” Steinbach masks a statement on frivolity with bold design and wordplay. It sets a tone for the rest of the exhibit by acting as an advertisement – a message – heralding the rise of the Brand. As with other product symbols, phrases, logos, and jingles, we might not already know what Steinbach is selling, but we internalize the feeling and the essence of whatever it is. We might even subscribe to it.
Deeper into the exhibit, Ken Lum takes a similar, slightly less cynical and more humorous approach. His 46” x 80” print resembles a billboard even more in size and style, but it’s not selling anything at all. It doesn’t even posture a profound statement. “Alex Gonzalez Loves his Mother and Father” is an image of a young man next to text that reads exactly that. The shirtless Gonzalez peers into our eyes with his arms folded across his chest. The bright pink block lettering of his name is tilted on a bright yellow background. It looks and feels like an exciting Miami Vice-esque storyline is about to unfold. But no – this is just a kid who loves his mother and father. That’s it.
Lum’s anticlimactic ad might make you laugh in the middle of the museum (and that’s okay). It might also make you realize how interested you are in something so ordinary.
Like Lum’s work, the art of Brand New cleverly mocks branding and advertising but also imitates them so well that we might learn a thing or two.
The exhibit duly highlights the rise of digitalism and computer technology. Apple’s game-changing “1984” Super Bowl commercial makes an appearance. A remixed VCR-recorded Remy Martin commercial playing on an antenna-wearing TV endlessly loops alongside one of Jenny Holzer’s neon-dyed political diatribes.
An introductory 1980s timeline at the front of the exhibit shows us seminal moments for congregations of New York City artists. These collectives – with mocking names like The Offices and General Idea – intentionally juxtaposed Wall Street’s nearby wealth with their independently operated studios and stores. Brand New features their founding documents, faux business cards, and event flyers – some of which act sincerely as negative advertising, such as the Guerilla Girls’ striking list (below).
The timeline also highlights political entanglements, the ending of the Cold War, key moments of the Reagan era, and the AIDS epidemic. Many artists featured in the exhibit took aim at Ronald Reagan, the president often credited for the 1980s economic boom. Several works contrast the cult of Reaganism and economic upturn – the frivolity of the decade – with the social and political strife that lay beneath glossy, neon surfaces.
Half of Donald Moffett’s 1987 lithograph titled “He Kills Me” places those words under a photo of Reagan looking as though he’s about to chuckle, with the other half overtaken entirely by an orange and black target. Moffett’s is another work that looks like an ad ripped from a magazine: Its words and graphics are razor sharp. As an artistic piece, the morbid meaning associated with a casual, jovial turn of phrase feels profound. It burns with a sense that the unrestrained capitalism of “Reaganomics” had come at the expense of others. And it convinces us of its message through clever commercial workmanship.
Barbara Kruger’s “I shop therefore I am” is emblematic of the entire exhibit. Kruger’s 1987 work imitates the straightforward, assertive messaging of a fashion ad. It proposes a brief, catchy slogan, one that we recognize yet is totally new: not Rene Descartes’ philosophical musings but those of a 20th century artist. Kruger may not be stating that thinking doesn’t define us anymore but she is definitely asserting that brands do.
Brand marketing declares, like Kruger’s words, that what you buy is a reflection of yourself. That’s true even if, as consumers, we don’t realize the psychology at play every time we throw a Michael Kors bag over our shoulder or dust off our Vans. Kruger’s modern aphorism quickly and effectively summarizes this, grabs our attention, and makes us think – maybe even convinces us of something. That’s good advertising. That’s good art.
Let’s keep the conversation going. Please leave a comment – let me know the questions that the exhibit sparked in you.
Just a few years ago, Meghan Sauer came out of Buffalo by way of Montreal, Canada, armed only with an English Lit degree and a dream. She now helps create websites, ad campaigns, and many, many marketing emails for online degree programs as a copywriter at 2U, and is serving as Ad 2 DC’s Public Service Co-Chair this year. In her free time, she’s that brooding individual scribbling in a notebook on the Metro.