Section: Opinion

Capitalism pushes buttons

By Natalie Marsh

I am pleased to hear that Steve Lambert’s public sculpture, Capitalism Works for Me! (True/False), has elicited such debate and consideration. Although I have not had time to follow the social media conversation, I have been asked to reflect on the value of the work to our community and within the context of the exhibition to which it belongs: Resistance and Revolution: Print, Technology and Community Activism, on view in the Buchwald-Wright Gallery in Gund Gallery through March 8. This small exhibition brings attention to an intentionally varied selection of politically engaged art from the past decade.

It ranges from a traditional intaglio print edition by Enrique Chagoya that references important 18th-19th-century works by Spanish artist Francisco Goya (1746-1848), to mass-produced prints by Shepard Fairey of “Obey” fame, to the far more socially interventionist works by Lambert, the Yes Men, and numerous others working within an active artistic arena of digital, mainstream media and social venues.

I began to think about this exhibition a couple of years ago when contemplating the role of visual images during the various Occupy movements’ activities when an outpouring of creative effort went into the production of posters, T-shirts and other forms of communication. More recently, the troubling events in Ferguson, Mo. last year motivated an equally visual form of ongoing protest that demanded we question the different experiences of the systems of power that we are responsible for having constructed.

With the belief that exhibitions have the power to ask tough questions, I opted to organize the exhibition in order to focus our attention on the artistic and popular visual responses to the political, economic, racial and other social issues of this moment. Sometimes artists articulate, with perfect pitch, exactly what needs to be said about existing in a particular time and place. Their sharp satire and poignant parody often make us laugh while simultaneously exposing our complicity. 

Parody has proven to be one of the most effective forms of cultural critique available in today’s media age, an era in which many younger socially engaged individuals gravitate toward commentators such as Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart to learn about and understand the complexity of our political world. Lambert’s public work is a familiar sign fixture, manufactured by an Ohio company that makes signs for stores, restaurants and other commercial entities. His voting booth (which was vandalized; ironically, the “no” button was removed) asks participants to actively decide whether our economic system works for them.

Sometimes Lambert stands next to the piece and poses questions to participants about their immediate assumptions, regardless of whether one might be reaching for the “yes” or “no” button. The responses to his questions are revealing; sometimes people are even moved to share intimate personal and family narratives. Indeed, in order to participate fully as a viewer, he asks us to think critically about what we do, where we come from, and what our stories are. We might weigh our relationships, the things we see, read and hear, and the compelling stories others share with us. Ultimately, the work asks us to examine who we are.

Natalie Marsh is the director of the Gund Gallery. Contact her at marshn@kenyon.edu.

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