The Shop It! exhibition at the Haifa Museum of Art critiques and subverts popular, mass consumer culture. The methods by which this is achieved consist of a wide variety of media and is developed or unpacked from various angles: photography, collage, painting, sculpture, installation, new media or video, prints and drawings are all on offer and fit into well-conceived curatorial themes. That is mass culture in fashion, in shopping, in the cult of the hero or fame, the concept of money and “cultural capital,” the commodification of objects or rather the objectification of the subject and the speedy, pop-ish, surface quality of capitalist dominance.
The question that the exhibition tries to answer is: How can one produce an artistic intervention that will not be co-opted by the system? This is a profound question for art, whether subversive or collusive with the prevailing and dominant system – whether culture is considered peripheral or central to the ideological arm of state power, is yet another object, another mechanism of control and power, both in terms of economics and what Jacques Ranciere referred to as “cultural capital.”
I enjoyed the video piece by Shaber Marcus, where he parades in a fancy car down streets in Israel, waving and saluting while passers-by are interviewed.
Most say that they care not about art and have never heard of this artist. It’s a quirky post-modern attempt to subvert the idea of fame and highlight instead the impotence of art, while heroes are hollow, living today in a society mesmerized by the bionic, the digital, the mass-produced – neatly putting art into another category or simply maintaining that everything is art – which amounts to the same thing.
What was really satisfying was the deconstruction of religion, of popular images, of fashion, of history so that everything can be reduced to a commodity, where trash and the holy co-exist, where everything, as Jean Baudrillard argued, is a simulacrum, a copy or a social construction. References to historical pieces deemed important in the narrative of art – such as by Henri Matisse, Gustav Courbet, Dan Flavin and Jeff Koons – and periods of art such as the Renaissance, Romanticism and so on are “quoted,” to use post-modern verbiage, and then reinserted in a new context so that “high” and “low” culture somewhat merge.
In that hierarchical destabilization – which includes another central theme in the overcoming of the male-female polemics where the former is valued more than the latter as powerful and materialistically abundant – the possibility for post-Enlightenment and rationalist, clinical aesthetics gives way and perhaps a new consciousness, beyond consumer culture may emerge.
Yet, whether art can really achieve this, as it is itself consumed, is a question the would-be gallery-goer may answer for him or herself. At any rate, the exhibition is well-conceived and probing.
Whether one can, however, get beyond the superficial, clinical aesthetic of the gallery itself and the drive for significance via the art work and reclaim an “authentic” and “unalienated” being is questionable, where the narrative of art history at these times rightly questions the “great artist” and “master piece” paradigm. Beyond words and exchange value, there is still surely the beauty of form through which a person – an artist – is inspired with something akin to (dare I say?) something metaphysical.