Culture  /  Book Review

Freedom for Sale

In the 1950s and 1960s, a new generation of American artists began to think of advertising and commercial imagery as the new avant-garde.

The fuse for the explosion of Pop Art in the US in 1962 had been lit in postwar Europe. Younger artists in the dreary, austere Britain of the early 1950s began to reject the modernist disdain for the garish hucksterism of capitalist salesmanship. As Menand writes of Eduardo Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton, and the theorists who helped to shape their discourse, Reyner Banham and Lawrence Alloway, “they did not see consumerism as a blight. They saw it as a stimulus, a source of pleasure, an antidote to insularity—the future.” This was especially true of American consumerism. In 1969 Banham recalled the British art of a decade earlier:

How salutary a corrective to the sloppy provincialism of most London art of ten years ago US design could be. The gusto and professionalism of widescreen movies or Detroit car-styling was a constant reproach…. To anyone with a scrap of sensibility or an eye for technique, the average Playtex or Maidenform ad in American Vogue was an instant deflater of the reputations of most artists then in Arts Council vogue.

Hamilton articulated in 1957 the idea of Pop Art as an aesthetic that aspired to the condition of the consumer product. He listed the qualities it should have: popular, transient, expendable, gimmicky, glamorous, and—he used the term explicitly—big business. Such a frank alliance between avant-garde art and capitalism was made possible by the cold war. The rivalry with communism gave consumerism an appearance of depth. It was not, as elitist critics had long maintained, shallow and meretricious. Consumerism stood for what Harry Truman called, in the 1947 speech that inaugurated the cold war, a “way of life.” Communism imposed everything from above. But capitalism—in its own self-image—created infinite choice. Its claim (seldom borne out in reality) was that it allowed the consumer to make all the decisions. Coke or Pepsi, Gillette or Wilkinson Sword, Max Factor or Revlon—it’s entirely up to you. And that is what makes America, and by extension its allies in the Western bloc, distinctive from and better than its Communist rivals.