What does your style say about you? What about the brands you buy and things you consume? Consumerism sinks deep roots into the culture of the United States. Brands are Associated with popularity and prestige. Nike, Supreme, and Apple are some of the brands considered necessary to be considered up-to-date with the ever-changing trend following culture. Western culture, specifically in the United States, encourages people to own as many things as you can to stay in trend. Trends change, causing people to buy more things. Consumerism is deeply tied with American ideals; the American dream is based in consumerism; a surplus of goods equates to a surplus of happiness. Just because it is a cultural value does not mean that the level of consumerism in the united states is immune to scrutiny. Many things that are imbedded in culture are considered wrong. Artist Barbara Kruger is someone who criticizes American consumerism. According to Kruger, the rate that Americans consume goods is unhealthy, and the reasons that people do it are even worse. Kruger criticizes popular culture and consumerism in her graphic art pieces. As an artist, she utilizes rhetorical appeals in her pieces to get her point across effectively. One of her more recent pieces, Untitled, dubbed Shafted made in 2008 criticizes popular consumerism and it’s affect on society. By examining Kruger’s work rhetorically, one can see her appeals to Ethos, Pathos, and Logos.
Barbara Kruger’s Shafted, is an incredibly impressive installment at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Broad Museum of Contemporary Art. The piece itself is printed on the inside of the elevator shaft of the Broad Museum of Contemporary Art. It spans the three floors of the contemporary art museum, as well as the foundation and sides of the elevator shaft. The message to Kruger’s piece is that these superficial, consumerist things are made to distract and can be inherently detrimental to society as a whole. She uses red as a bold color to highlight this idea. She uses short sentences, bold quotes, and piercing images to grab the viewer’s attention and force them to not ignore her overwhelming work. The intended audience for this piece is most definitely people interested in viewing art, whether it be other artists, critics, or the average viewer. The piece speaks more towards women than men, however the message can be consumed by anybody. At the highest level of scrutiny, Kruger seems to strive for Shafted to be a wakeup call for people to consider the toxicity of beauty standards, the dangers of consumerism, and the impact it has on people and the environment.
In Shafted, Kruger makes several appeals to Ethos. Kruger herself is a graphic designer who is a feminist and a skeptic of consumerism. Her experiences from working in advertisement in her early life influence and justify the criticisms she displays in her art. Because of her history, her criticisms are relevant. Kruger’s status as a feminist is also an appeal to Ethos. At first glance Shafted seems to apply to both male and female viewers, however, when one pays closer attention, the things referenced as frivolous distractions are all things directly related to either ideals of feminine beauty, or products for feminine beauty. Kruger also makes the viewer question the ethics of United States consumerism with the statement “Plenty should be enough – right?” The connotations of it make one reflect on the sustainability of our current culture. Does the earth really have enough res to support everyone the way we currently do? Does the earth even hold enough resources to support all the citizens of the United States the way the culture encourages? Lynne Ciochetto, an associate professor who researches environmental sustainability at The Institute of Communication Design, Massey University, New Zealand says that “Consumption levels of Western industrialized economies already exceed sustainable resource levels.” In another article, Dr. Joy Annamma and a team of other professionals make a similar statement about fast fashion, a considerably new buying habit spurred on by the public’s desire to have the trends set by designer brands without having the same price. The low cost and quality of fast fashion garments encourage buyers to buy more disposable clothes as theirs fall apart. The statement at the bottom of Kruger’s work “He entered shop after shop, priced nothing, spoke no word, and looked at objects with a wild and vacant stare” makes one wonder how much that statement reflects the goods one consumes. It causes one to reflect and question if the vacant stare truly represents them. It makes one question what is influencing this vacant stare, is it ethical to not evaluate the goods one consumes in cases of animal testing, unethical labor, and the impact the factories have on the environment: not at all. Dean Neu, a professor of accounting in the Schulich’s School of Business at York University, and others talk about how the pressure for cheaper garment manufacturing lead to the inhumane workplace settings that characterize sweatshops. It is up to us to buy products made ethically to discourage companies from exploiting the people of developing countries.
Kruger’s Shafted also makes several strong appeals to Pathos. Shafted is initially an art piece, and typically art strives to be emotionally profound. It would make sense that it inspires incredibly strong emotion from the first glance. Shafted starts with fear. The quote from Orwell’s 1984 inspires a gruesome image to manifest in the viewer’s mind. The implication coming from a boot stomping on a human face forever is as pretty as it is hopeful, which is to say: not at all. The image spells out a bleak future for mankind and though the context from 1984 to Shafted are vastly different, the message still rings clear. The future is bleak if nothing changes. The next emotions Shafted inspire are guild and shame. The second floor lists a total of fourteen things that are sensationalized in pop culture that seem harmless at first, but upon closer inspection consume one’s life, and are toxic to women’s self-esteem. The more things one can check off from the list, the deeper the guilt roots. Shame follows shortly after. The eyes that are visible peer down at the viewer almost scornfully, chastising them for falling into this trap of superficiality. Anger, the emotion that follows this comes later, after mentally ruminating on the precise meaning of Shafted. This anger, directed at pop-culture industries, is for despotically enforcing impossible standards of beauty in order to profit off of the products intended to fix the problems they create. In a study done by Dr. Analisa Arroyo, a Communications professor at The University of Georgia, found that exposure to fashion magazines encourage women to equate thinness with beauty, thus increasing the body dissatisfaction in those women. There are a wide variety of body types and no single one is inherently beautiful or inherently ugly. These ideas are imposed on us as a society.
Shafted contains appeals to Logos as well. The piece makes one ask if there is a need for all these superficial, material things. It makes the viewer question if it is even logical for one person to own so many things. By pointing out the superficiality of these things, Shafted makes viewers question the consumerist culture in America. Shafted makes viewers question why these things even matter, why people put so much time and energy into having these seemingly useless things. Shafted makes one question the logic behind needing these things. Many of the things we feel pressured to buy are rarely needed and hold little significance in the quality of life. Further thought on the message of Shafted makes one question the pervasiveness of the advertisements pushing these products. It makes viewers question the validity of currently held beauty standards and the need to adhere to them. Surely someone could be considered ugly and still be happy. Through knowing the effects of exclusive beauty standards coupled with willfully ignoring such standards, one could grow confidence in themselves.
By analyzing Barbara Kruger’s Shafted one can see how she appeals to Ethos, Pathos, and Logos, to create a compelling work of art. Her criticisms on consumerism are not made without reason. Trend obsession, fast fashion, and socially imposed beauty standards are detrimental to all people of all age groups. Societal pressures can cause things such as low self-esteem, bulimia nervosa, and eating disorders in young girls that last well into adult years. Dealing with these issues is often difficult and have a tendency to never be fully solved. Thinking about issues such as this makes one wonder if there is anything people can do to negate these pressures, and even change them for the future. It makes people question what one could even do to bring about change. The answers are unknown however, if many people try to bring about change, one person is bound to find the answer. After all, change is not brought about by doing nothing. These pressures and standards are not likely to come about on their own.
Arroyo, Analisa. “Magazine Exposure and Body Dissatisfaction: The Mediating Roles of Thin Ideal Internalization and Fat Talk.” Communication Research Reports, vol. 32, no. 3, Jul-Sep2015, pp. 246-252. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/08824096.2015.1052905.
I used this study to support my claim that fashion magazines impose ideals that are detrimental to women’s self-esteem. Arroyo has a Ph.D. in Communications and a minor in Human Development.
Ciochetto, Lynne. “The Sustainability Implications of the Global Expansion of Advertising and Consumerism in Emerging Economies.” Journal of Globalization Studies, vol. 4, no. 1, May 2013, pp. 84-94.
I use this text to support my claim that western cultures, specifically the United States culture cannot be environmentally sustained. Ciochetto has an MA from Canterbury University, her expertise is in sustainability.
Joy, Annamma, et al. “Fast Fashion, Sustainability, and the Ethical Appeal of Luxury Brands.” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture, vol. 16, no. 3, Sept. 2012, pp. 273-295.
I used this source as an explanation to why fashion has become unsustainable with the emergence of fast fashion. Joy has a Ph.D. and specializes in consumer behavior.
Neu, Dean, et al. “Accounting and Sweatshops: Enabling Coordination and Control in Low-Price Apparel Production Chains.” Contemporary Accounting Research, vol. 31, no. 2, Summer2014, pp. 322-346.
I used this text to show that the high demand for cheap stylish clothes encourage companies to outsource labor to sweatshop labor. Neu has a Ph.D. and specializes in accounting and speaks on how it can affect bureaucracies and businesses.