Stuart Jeffries

The artists ensnared by the capitalist system they affect to despise

Anti-capitalist artists like Barbara Kruger and Santiago Sierra are very skilled at making money from the capitalist machine

‘I shop therefore I am’, 1987, by Barbara Kruger, has been printed on a bag that is selling online for £1,476.61. Credit: DPA Picture Alliance/Alamy Stock Photo

A few years ago, the American artist Barbara Kruger covered the façade of Frankfurt’s Kaufhof department store with a pair of huge eyes. It was as if Big Brother had come out of retirement. Above that unsparing gaze was the slogan, in Kruger’s signature Futura bold italic font: ‘You want it. You buy it. You forget it.’

It was a typical work of art by Kruger. She made her career from what’s called culture jamming, subverting media messages by transforming them into their own anti-messages and by indicting the business of capitalism. In 1987, for instance, she took an advertising image of an all-American boy flexing his juvenile biceps before his admiring sister and subverted that message with the overlaid words ‘We don’t need another hero’ for a billboard. The text quoted Tina Turner’s hit of two years earlier to critique, no doubt, not just the patriarchy but also its expression in the American military-industrial complex.

But did she succeed in sticking it to the capitalist man in Frankfurt? Arguably, Kaufhof’s PR people realised what Kruger did not, namely that associating their brand with a hipster artist was good business, making them seem not just cool and tuned in but ironically knowing in the post-modern manner. It didn’t matter that her message was intended to trash their business model.

Auden suggested that poetry makes nothing happen; anti-capitalist artists go one step further. They want to be spanners in the works but become cogs in the capitalist machine. In 1984 Kruger’s friend Jenny Holzer put up a neon sign over Times Square reading ‘Protect me from what I want’, another seeming denunciation of how capitalism ostensibly shapes our desires. As Holzer’s art became voguish, though, corporations chased her for commissions. In 1999, Holzer was commissioned for the BMW Art Car Project. She wrote ‘Protect Me from what I want’ in metal foil and outlined the slogan with phosphorescent paint on a BMW V12 LMR that was due to race in that year’s 24-hour Le Mans rally.

Barbara Kruger’s shopping bag indicting shopping has become a collectible

None, though, has been quite so elegantly ensnared by capitalism as Kruger.

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