The Austrian Graphic Designer Herbert Bayer Cultural Studies Essay
His work as their art director saw him contributing to their series of posters titled; The Great Idea’s of a Western Man. The "Great Ideas" series of posters consisted of prominent modern artists who were paired with philosophers quotes as an attempt to balance the relationship between art and commerce.
We chose three theories to discuss the "Great Ideas" series on: Veblen & Emulation, Bourdieu & the Anarchy theory. We felt these were the best and most relevant theories that could be applied to our chosen piece of design. I believe that the theory of consumption and emulation by Thorstein Veblen can be applied to Herbert Bayer’s collated imagery. Bourdieu sees power as culturally and symbolly created, this is apparent in Bayer’s poster with his use of symbolism. Bayer, through his Great Ideas of Western Man campaign covers most of "Anarchist" key points. The poster we chose from the series (n.d.) is as shown on the left.
What I noticed straight away is how Roosevelt’s "Get right quick" opinion of the Western Man is shown. It seems to promote that the world of luxury, corruption, gambling, money and women is open to the Western man. You can see this from just taking a quick look at the image, almost a form of propaganda.
The theory of consumption and emulation by Thorstein Veblen can be applied to Bayer’s imagery. Veblen suggests that the wealthy individuals of society attempt to enhance their social social status by their consumption of material goods. "People, rich and poor alike, attempt to impress others and seek to gain advantage through what Veblen coined conspicuous consumption, and the ability to engage in conspicuous leisure." (Thorstein Veblen, 2013). They believe that through the possessions and indulgences they endorse, the higher they will rank up in the social ladder. In Bayer’s poster, shown above are lots of examples of indulgences and possessions that almost suggest that consumption can choose the way you live. The imagery of Gambling, champagne and money can be seen as the main interpretation as it’s as if all of these things are falling towards the woman in the image. The woman in the image is smiling, being made happy by her possessions and indulgences. These things can all be interpreted as luxuries that a Western Man may use to build his social mobility.
Veblen’s theory of emulation suggests that we attempt to emulate those that we believe are socially superior to us through the possessions that we own and our luxuries and indulgences. A ‘trickle down’ effect is sometimes caused when the demand for this consumption falls from the upper classes to the lower classes. This emulation may be a factor in what Roosevelt described as the destruction of America. Individuals who pursue lives of gambling and luxuries who cannot afford this lifestyle but are drawn in by the thought of moving up in the social ladder may be damaging America’s prosperity. Bayer’s poster doesn’t just reveal the affluent lifestyle of Western society but also portrays the idea of decadence. The layout of the poster suggests that the woman is being smothered by the things around her, the gambling, champagne, luxury. The prominent word of ‘Corruption’ suggests that these things are corrupting her. The imagery of fruit can be interpreted as an indulgence, with the image of Greek gods being fed handpicked grapes. However, in the biblical reference of the poisoned apple, this could suggest that the imagery of grapes represents evil and that there are also hidden flaws in this lifestyle.
Bourdeiu has a particular way of seeing power as symbolocially and culturally created. You can see this in Bayer’s poster with the imagery of the champagne and the diamonds. These are two images which immediately make you think of wealth and power, something that would usually be associated with the upper class. An interesting theory that has been developed in modern day culture over a period of time. Bourdieu suggests in his theory that cultural capital is used by the upper classes in order to achieve mobility in society, which can be translated to them using education and knowledge to gain higher position in society. In the poster the quote from Theodore Roosevelt suggests that a lack of cultural capital in society will be it's downfall. In the poster, Roosevelt makes the point of "The things that will destroy America are prosperity at any price, peace at any price, safety first instead of duty first, the love of soft living, and the get rich quick theory of life." (ThinkExist, 2013). This is represented within the imagery of the poster. It suggest that the money earned through gambling or from somewhere without intellect, e.g. won in some other way, is used to buy these luxuries and possessions. It’s almost as if they’re cheating the other classes by gaining these possessions others may work their entire lives for, but at that price it comes with the cost of gambling. The imagery used is bright colours, layered on top of newspaper, a cheap medium of printing. This increasingly cheapens the commodities that are considered decadent and for the upper class.
Bayer has highlighted the word ‘Payola’ in the poster. If you look up the word Payola the definition it gives "Bribery of an influential person in exchange for the promotion of a product of service, such that of disc jockeys for the promotion of records." (TheFreeDictionary, 2013). I believe that the term refers to any secret payments made to cast a product in a favourable light, such as obtaining positive reviews. I can apply this to Veblen’s ‘trickle down’ theory whereby lower classes try to emulate. I think Bayer may be trying to suggest that because Gambling is considered as something that is enjoyable to those who can afford it, keeping the rich, rich and then enticing lower classes to spend money they don’t have.
The Great Ideas of a Western man poster is an interesting one to analyse under the Anarchist theory. In earlier days, art was a form of expression for just some priviledged social classes. It had very strict rules about its visual content and could just express a few specific messages. These might have been religious messages, showing richness etc. However, after the first world war and all of the horror and reactions to it, Dadaism came up. Its movement is first based on the idea of anti-war and progressed to anti-bourgeois. Dadaism emphasized that life was illogical and destructive, it rejects reason and logic, prizing nonsense, irrationality and intuition. It has political affinities with the radical left which seeks the creation of strong or complete social equality and the dismantlement of all forms of social stratification.
Looking at Bayer’s poster again with the Anarchy theory in mind, it is recognizable the kind of collage used. Also known as a Dadaist form of art, which by using appropriate images reveals the real structures of society which have frequently been hidden into the artwork during the classic movements. All of the imagery in this poster tell us about modern lifestyles. The champagne, jewels, money, newspaper print with the word ‘corruption’. A representation of a painting of a woman and the word ‘payola’, these seem to be linked as messages interpretable as an attack to the bourgeoisie, which is an Anarchist point. I have picked up on a lot of these points and for the various imagery there is another meaning to go with it. For example; the coins represent the luxury, the dice and gambling represent vice and the food and wine represent gluttony. Gluttony is the overindulgence or consumption of food. Greedy if you will.
To conclude these three theories, the Great Ideas of a Western Man has proven itself to represent an irrefutable social change. Container Corporation of America has been the first industry to commission such advertising. It changed common uses, knowledge towards such things and set a whole new bar in the advertising field. Because of the campaign’s great success and results, it became very popular despite being previously considered an unprecedented way of advertising. I believe that the Bayer/CCA collaboration has changed the way people look ad advertising in almost a propaganda type of way, very straight to the point but will always have another meaning when you look back at it.