OUT NOW! ARTMargins 4:3 (Fall 2015) on Capitalist Realism. I edited this volume with an introduction on the historical origins in art in 1963 as well as the contemporary relevance of the term. I included Stephanie Syjuco's project on speculative dazzle camouflage projects as an example of capitalist realist art today. Here is an excerpt from the introduction. Follow the link above for information on the entire issue.
….If Capitalist Realism emerged during the Cold War as a means of creating visibility for capitalism’s emphasis on advertising, marketing, and stimulating consumption, what is its legacy for, or in, contemporary art? The question was taken up by the writers in the Leben mit Pop exhibition catalog, who see the continuation of the German Capitalist Realist project in paintings by Kai Althoff and Neo Rauch. But if Capitalist Realism is not necessarily bound by Germany’s postwar art history, and is to be understood as part of an international artistic response to capitalist expansion during the Cold War, then perhaps we need to see its continuation in contemporary art projects that expose global capitalism’s new frontiers and its innovative mechanisms for representation and reproduction.
The historical path from the Capitalist Realism of the 1960s to contemporary artists and projects that address the present-day convolutions of neoliberal capitalism traveled by way of Soviet Sots Art of the 1980s (Erik Bulatov, Alexander Kosolapov, Komar and Melamid) and Chinese Political Pop from the 1990s and 2000s. In the first case, the (seemingly affirmative) quotation of propaganda imagery from Soviet everyday reality created an equivalent to the flaunting of consumer culture by Capitalist Realist and Pop artists in the West. In the case of China, artists during the 90s began to appropriate images of Mao in the context of the country’s embrace of state-sponsored capitalism. More recently, Ai Weiwei and others have addressed the production of global art commodities in Chinese cities such as Jingdezhen. Since 2006, a collective named The Propeller Group, based in Ho Chi Minh City and Los Angeles, has made a number of projects addressing the complex ideological climate in Southeast Asia, where communist bureaucracies held over from previous regimes now coexist with neo- liberal policies that cater to the region’s media and global tourist industries. For their recent TV Commercial for Communism (2012), the group commissioned a Vietnamese ad company to rebrand communism. This strategy of hiring capitalists to imagine and promote communal life resulted in a strangely compelling advertisement.
In this special issue, we also present the work of Stephanie Syjuco as a way of connecting the Cold War moment of Capitalist Realism to neoliberalism’s battle with countless invisible enemies. Syjuco offers a speculative proposal featuring the new media technology of Google SketchUp to render a variety of capitalist objects—from Ikea bookcases to Philippine jeepneys to modernist homes—all wrapped in the dazzle camouflage patterns originally used on World War I ships. Her conflation of older camouflage war technology with potentially mass- producible objects and architectures speaks to the conditions of global capitalism as it operates in a diffuse field in which the promotion of war and consumerism merge.
As if formulated in some black-market design lab, Syjuco’s model objects exhibit a confusing, overdetermined semiotics designed to appeal to a wide array of global clients. Her work is aligned with a cohort of artists dealing with stranger-than- fiction elements in capitalism’s globalization. This includes not only the Propeller Group and Ai Weiwei, but also Thomas Hirschhorn, Minerva Cuevas, Omer Fast, and Goldin+Senneby. The camouflage signifers in Syjuco’s project can be related, for example, to Thomas Hirschhorn’s Utopia Utopia (2005) installation, in which the artist speculates that the introduction of military street wear throughout the global fashion market will lead to an army of khaki-wearing consumers with no one to fight. This in turn is a fantastic update on Akasegawa’s proposal to flood the world with model yen notes, or Warhol’s tongue-in-cheek “commonist” proposals that everyone should be a machine or that Coca-Cola is a democratizing product because everyone from the president to the “bum on the corner” drinks it. The efficacy of Syjuco’s project and these others depends on a certain level of semiotic exaggeration and distortion also found in the “extreme” realisms of the 60s.
Artists today may not be living the same capitalism as the “Capitalist Realists” of the 60s, but they are still motivated to create or open up tensions within its now even-more-extensive system. At times, their provocations may appear too circumscribed by the neoliberal ideologies of “freedom of expression” and “entrepreneurial innovation.”
In fact, this is the argument made by Mark Fisher in his 2009 book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? With only a brief nod to its origin in the 60s art context, Fisher uses the term capitalist realism to describe what he sees as a post-1989, post-postmodernist ideological formation whereby art and the imagination have been subsumed by capitalism’s presentation of itself as the most viable and “realistic” system that “seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable.” (8) But as this special issue’s historical revision of the concept attests, it was the very same pretense—of capitalism as the most comprehensive and realistic (in short: the inevitable) system—that provoked simultaneous responses by artists from distant places around the globe already in the 1960s.
Fisher’s criticism that contemporary art cannot withstand capitalist appropriation is not new and has long been part of the criticism leveled at the 60s neo-avant-garde. While the debate is ongoing, an extensive look at Capitalist Realism reveals the pressures within capitalism’s very own modes of (self-)representation. The subtlety of Capitalist Realist mimesis is what makes it such a relevant notion even for today’s practicing artists. In this context, the excessive production of commodities continues to be rich artistic material with which to show not only, as Richter had it, the “ridiculousness” of capitalism’s efforts to secure its own reality, but the often tragicomic conundrum caused by our own position within that system.