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Consumerism of the 1960s: Warhol’s 200 Cans

The most distinctive features of the 1960s could be enumerated from the point of view of several social and economic factors like secularization, decontextualization, totalitarianism, mechanization, democratization and centralization. Along with that, there was the advent of individualism, linear progression, homogenization, diversification, hybridization, unification, industrial society, reductionism, universalism, subjectivism, alienation, rationalization, and bureaucracy, making Modernism a complex and intricate civilization and the post-war period of the 1960s accelerated the basic norms of this society and developed concepts that could well be termed as cultural revolution and rise of consumerism. Andy Warhol’s artwork, 200 Cans, represent this consumerism with a satire. However, it is true that Warhol is more known for the pro-feminist activities and deconstruction of the image of males it is true that Warhol made it clear from the artwork that there is a fundamentally wrong perception of the life of the 1960s period and that consumerism was the main cause of this perception.

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As a prelude to the 1960s, the Second World War ended in a period of history that was a time when the world was going through a difficult phase after the horrors of the war. It could be mentioned in the initial stages that it was degeneration time. Imperialism had taken its tolls on the world, which was grilling on the last fires of WWII. The losses were too heavy, and the shocks, almost unbearable. People just lived through a test of the extent-organized cruelty, and purposeful ruthlessness could reach. As far as the future was concerned, the initial tremors of what would lead to a massive cross across the globe were being felt. In this context, it would be relevant to mention that the generation was not finding their existence worthwhile or in other words, they wanted more out of their life for they hardly knew what to believe. They were not able to keep complete faith in religion, and neither could they abandon it completely. Thus, while assessing the consumerist essence of the period, Spigel notes, “it is in the activities concerned with the home and religion that the automobile occasions the greatest emotional conflicts (Spigel, p. 25).

It was also a regeneration time. Ideological conflicts and military interests were shaking civilization right up to its foundations. The doubts, dilemmas and confusions were gradually, quite slowly indeed, giving way to a new and unique cultural revolution. It was happening all across the Western world. People suddenly seemed to realize that there was enough political warfare to disgrace humanity. The prevailing standards suddenly seemed to be meaningless, and the insurgent youths wanted something different to happen. However, it should also be mentioned that the aspects of modernism were already on their way from the time of the industrial revolution and the birth of capitalism with the assistance of better education and communication means. These aspects were influencing the society, and its culture and modernism were on their way, but the circumstances of the war changed the acceleration of this change and formulated a rapid and revolutionary transfiguration.

This entire formulation gave rise to a whole new generation that was induced by the market economy and shaped by consumerism. It is already established that the media holds enormous power to influence the mass. Hannigan notes, “The media were especially concerned with the issue of crowd order and control” (Hannigan, p.23). The role of media (TV, Radio) was almost absent in strengthening the values of national culture and in highlighting cultural icons. Cultural programmes were shallow and did not deal with real cultural issues of the society. This would weaken the national identity of future generations. TV stations show programmes that deal with cultural and social issues of nations, which sometimes do not respect traditions and moral values of our society and negatively affect behaviours of young generations. This was a prime example of the weak contents of cultural journalism. The cultural issues that highlight the national identity are not deeply covered and dealt with on the cultural pages of local dailies, monthly magazines and other publications, which created general ignorance of history and national and cultural identity among the 1960s generation. All these reasons amalgamated into a scenario where the American society in the postwar period became a culture of consumption that in turn resulted in a homogenous, content, and conformist society.

The artwork of Warhol, 200 cans
Figure 1. The artwork of Warhol, 200 cans

This approach is best observed in the artwork of Warhol, 200 cans. The predominant colour red indicates the vibrant aspect of the consumerist attitude and the indication of the market economy present. Again, the name ‘200 cans’ means the availability of surplus consumer durables and the indication of the nature of the generation indulged. The cans are lined up and placed one upon another, and there is no way one can be distinguished from another. This is the result of machine-made, homogenously designed, similar articles where there is no chance of exerting individualism or any sort. This again reflects the consumerist attitude as the interest of the minority and individuality is fundamentally ignored. (Warhol, p.1) Thus, it is not a surprise that Lewis Mumford, in 1961, stated, “A multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses….inhabited by people of the same class, the same income, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless food.” (McCracken, p.12)

Spigel’s text, Make Room for T.V.: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America, is the ideal text that defined this era. This text is a unification of interpretations about the era of the 1960s, and the author delivers the fundamentals that affected the nations and the shape of the modernization. In this text, it is clear that there was mass discontent among the civilians, and they tried to take every opportunity to show their distrust in the authorities no matter how much the state tried to tone down the social and intellectual disgruntlement. The text indicates that this was the vantage point that set the basics of modernism that would ultimately come to age at the end of the 1950s. In fact, the market induced economy became so fundamental during this period that the African American population, who were otherwise neglected from the mainstream economy, was targeted as potential consumers by the corporate and “advertising trade journals throughout the 1960s assisted this corporation by featuring numerous ‘how to’ articles concerning selling to African Americans” (Weems, p. 318).

In conclusion, it would be relevant to mention that consumerist culture was an intensification of cross-cultural relations, initiation of fresh categories of perceptions and distinctiveness, which exemplify cultural conduction, the craving to get through and have the benefit of foreign commodities and ideas, take on innovative technology and practices, and plays a part in world culture. Thus, it could narrate the aspect of the basic issue of consumerism and culture as but a two-way approach. There the basic maxims of a capitalistic economy are taken into consideration at every step of formulating the strategies of marketing. It is obvious that the basic impetus of any business is to deal with the principles of profit and the methods of maximization of profit margin. Consumerist culture in the period from the time 1960s has been driven by improvement in technology, which has declined the expenses of trade, and business arbitration rounds, initially under the sponsorship of GATT, which led to a succession of concords to do away with restrictions on gratis deals.

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Given that, the generation of 1960s, after the arrival of the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions, there has been a sudden increase in the attainment and influence of Multinational corporations and the fast expansion of global civil society. Neo-liberalism became a tag for economic laissez-faire during the 1960s that explains government policies intended to endorse liberated competition between trade firms inside the market, particularly liberalization and monetarism, which is distinct from cultural consumption, which generally refers to greater international cultural exchange, dissemination of multiculturalism, and enhanced individual access to cultural diversity. On a broad spectrum, neo-liberalism corresponds to a backoff from Keynesian economics that was prevailing without more ado during the 1960s. All these aspects formulated a society that was completely aligned with the evaluation of Lewis Mumford, and it can be rightly said that Mumford’s description accurately reflects American society, and the postwar consumption culture resulted in a homogenous, content, and conformist society. An artist protests this form of the ramification of the cultural society as an artist is supposed to be the custodian of this essence, and Warhol did the part of an artist to manifest a feeling against consumerism with the artwork ‘200 cans’.

Works Cited

  1. Hannigan, John; Fantasy City: Pleasure and Profit in the Postmodern Metropolis; (NY: Routledge, 1998)
  2. McCracken, Grant David; Culture and Consumption II: Markets, Meaning, and Brand Management; (Indiana University Press, 2005)
  3. Spigel, Lynn; Make Room for T.V.: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America; (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1992)
  4. Weems, Robert E; “The Revolution Will be Marketed: American Corporations and Black Consumers During the 1960s”; Consumer Society in American History; Lawrence B Glickman; (Ithaca and London: Cornwell University Press, 2003)
  5. Warhol, Andy; 200 cans; vw.vccs; 1962;

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