‘The Rat Race’ – ‘Dog Eat Dog’ – ‘Swimming With Sharks’ – ‘The Pecking Order’.
‘A Sick Society’ and the problem with consumerism.
The apparent problem posed by consumer culture is evident both in art and critical art analysis. The paradox of art as a force for enlightened interpretation and hope whilst being a cultural product, often subject to commodification, is a well-documented tension.
Michael Josza is an artist who made ‘pokemon’ style trading cards that displayed images of viruses. He made them colourful and child friendly, mirroring the mode of address used by the manufacturers of children’s’ trading cards.
“They look like any other trading cards. The back of the colourful cards could easily be mistaken for Pokemon… But when you flip over the trading card, you see an image of a virus that could potentially kill you.”
Josza was attempting to liken consumerism to a virus particularly one that targets the often-undeveloped immune system of children.
“A virus is a nonliving entity unless it has a host, in the same way that a consumer product is basically non existent unless it has a buyer… The idea is that humans can take steps to avoid becoming the host.”
R D Lang claimed that our consumer culture is ‘sick’ and it make us sick. The people we should fear and fear for are those who work to succeed and conform in a sick society, where life is competitive and individualist. Within the study of clinical psychology, the systemic approach asks further questions of the ‘medical model’ and its understanding of mental illness. The position of ‘social constructionism’ questions the validity of diagnosing people as mentally ill when they have stepped outside of the boundaries of perceived social normality. Consumerism plays a significant role in the establishment of these boundaries and norms as it encourages mass production, mass ownership and therefore homogeneity. Perception of someone as ‘abnormal’ further alienates and excludes them and contextualises their social role as being of less value, which is of further risk to mental health.
Fry, in his documentary – ‘The secret life of the Manic Depressive’, points to consumer culture again as an escape from depression and a playground for the manic. It is almost portrayed as a drug, an addictive behaviour where a temporary illusion of happiness can be found. Marxist writers have also identified the escapist nature of consumerism. Chomsky, for example, damns mass consumerism as ‘diversion’; a distraction from the unfair, exploitative and controlling nature of capitalist consumerism.
‘The rat race’, ‘Dog eat dog’, ‘swimming with sharks’ and ‘the pecking order’… we are all too familiar with these animal metaphors for competitivity. Succeeding, to the detriment of your fellow woman/man breeds isolation and individualism – possibly the most harmful contributor to poor mental health. This individualism and the distinct lack of successful models for corporate ownership can be further linked to a society where blame is placed on individuals rather than also on systems and corporate behaviours. Blame, then leading to guilt, hopelessness, depression, low self-esteem and suicide.
Another major contributing factor to these conditions is personal debt a clear component of an excessively consuming society where success is identified and displayed through ownership and perceived success rather than personal fulfilment. Debt is a significant factor in depression and suicide especially among young men, now the most at risk of suicide according to the Samaritans.
“I’d do anything just to say ‘I got it’. Damn those new loafers hurt my pocket.” [Kanye West]
Finally, Consumerism as a worldview and cultural system, due to its emphasis on competitivity and ownership creates a social context of jealousy, criticism and hostility.
“Oh, yeah, freedom’s what it’s all about, all right. But talkin’ about it and bein’ it, that’s two different things. I mean it’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. Of course, don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free, ’cause then they’re gonna get real busy killin’ and maimin’ to prove to you that they are. Oh, yeah, they’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ’em… it makes ’em dangerous.”
(Easy Rider, Hopper, 1969, Columbia Pictures, USA)