Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Consumer

I created this portrait, which I call “The Consumer”, in 2010. (Click on the photo to see a larger version.) Originally, I wanted to call it “The Connoisseur”.  But I found that the more I looked at it, I realized that a connoisseur is often just a consumer with his little finger extended.

My family and I had just been through a huge financial reversal. We lost our dream house we had built. Our income had dropped astronomically. We were living in a rented house for the first time in 23 years. My business career, which had been a constant upward trajectory, was now bottoming out.

Oddly, I still have a lot of the trappings of more flush times. Many are seen in this photo. These had been acquired over the years. We always believed buying the best things was an investment in the future. And it was to some degree. These items had held up extremely well. Ironically, the reason they still exist is the quality of the items, which I recognized as somewhat of a connoisseur.

Concurrent with the financial changes, I had gone through somewhat of a mid-life spiritual awakening. I had founded a charity that provided education for children in Mexico. I built houses for poor people there with my church. At age 50, I had decided to pursue a career in my long-time love, photography. So I had gone back to school to get my MFA. In one of my first courses, a teacher had said, “All good art comes from pain.” I didn’t realize it when I made this photo, but it did draw a lot from the experience of financial reversal.

I would not call this anti-art. But it has elements of that. Many items pictured here would not be considered cool by the arty types I had come to know at school: the suit, aspirational life-style, the fancy watch. But these were things by which I had come to define myself on some levels. So I thought I would show them in this photo and see what reaction I got.

I think on another level, the photo is a slap at consumerism. I put the price for each item to show how much these things cost in dollars.  I figured there were some viewers who would be appalled. Yet, I know people who have these expensive items and thinking nothing of paying much more.

Although the exchange value in these prices is explicit, they meant much more to me. The watch was a gift from my wife. It was purchased at the height of my income. So its value to me was having an heirloom quality item that I could have my whole life. I still wear it as a constant reminder of this time. A reminder to be conscious of my consumerist traits.

I didn’t think of it at the time, but almost nothing in the photo is merely a commodity item. Almost all are imbued with a fetish aspect. Each item can be had much more cheaply as a knock-off or less expensive item. Whisky can be had for under $10. Sure I love the taste of single-malt, but drinking an expensive scotch enamors me with friends who similarly value being scotch experts. The iphone, puts me in that club of Apple-istas. Do I really need an MFA to be a photographer? No. But the value perceived by others in having that sheepskin gives me credibility and self-confidence.

Marx posited that the labor used to produce an item is sometimes ignored as it becomes a commodity fetish.  This concept has been turned on its head in our current society. It is used to market expensive items. We are told to buy items made in the USA to support American workers. Support the economy by spending. George Bush encouraged people to go to Disneyland after 9/11.  Spend money as a Patriotic act to support those working.

Don’t get me wrong, all of these items have high quality in their production. (I have had those shoes for 15 years.) But isn’t that another aspect of the merchandizing that persuades consumers to fork over the extra money? One can rationalize his purchase of these items. They have a higher value-in-use because of their quality.

But in the end, many of my fellow students were producing art superior to mine without a 5D MkII camera. As this photo shows, the concept is really more important than the tools used to make the art. As long as I realize these are tools, and can absolutely convince myself that these tools allow me to better realize my vision, then I am a satisfied consumer. 

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