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Capitalist Realism: Challenging Consumerism and Redefining Art in 1960s West Germany

In the realm of art, there have been numerous movements and styles that have emerged in response to the socio-political climate of their time. One such movement, which gained traction in the 1960s in West Germany, is known as Capitalist Realism.

This unusual and slippery art movement drew inspiration from Pop Art, Fluxus, Neo-Dada, and Punk, and featured artists such as Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke. In this article, we will explore the definition, characteristics, influences, origins, formation, and early exhibitions of Capitalist Realism.

Before delving into the movement itself, it is important to understand what Capitalist Realism actually refers to. Unlike the traditional art movements of the time, Capitalist Realism did not have a strict manifesto or set of rules.

Instead, it was characterized by a skeptical view of American Pop Art and the commercialism and celebrity culture it propagated. Capitalist Realism sought to question and challenge the status quo through art that provided a satirical take on consumerism and capitalism.

The origins of Capitalist Realism can be traced back to the post-war society of West Germany, where artists were grappling with the aftermath of World War II and the ensuing Cold War. The influence of Socialist Realism, a style of art that was popular in communist countries and often served as propaganda for the regime, cannot be understated.

Artists like Max Lingner, who created works such as “Building of the Republic,” provided a stark contrast to the expressive abstraction that was prevalent in the West. This stark contrast allowed artists in West Germany to explore new avenues of artistic expression.

One of the key institutions that fostered the growth of Capitalist Realism was the Dusseldorf Art Academy. Under the tutelage of artists like Joseph Beuys and Karl Otto Gotz, students were encouraged to challenge the prevailing art movements of the time.

Fluxus, a movement that rejected the traditional confines of art and celebrated the everyday, was a major influence on the artists associated with Capitalist Realism. Additionally, the rise of Pop Art in the United States, with artists such as Andy Warhol bringing mundane objects like Campbell’s Soup Cans into the realm of high art, provided inspiration and a point of departure for these German artists.

Artists like Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke, who would go on to become instrumental figures in the Capitalist Realism movement, were greatly influenced by Warhol, as well as Roy Lichtenstein and his use of comics in his art, such as “Girl in a Mirror.”

The formation of Capitalist Realism as a cohesive movement can be traced back to a series of pop-up exhibitions and performances. Artists such as Richter, Polke, Lueg, and Kuttner would find unconventional venues, such as an abandoned butcher’s shop, and showcase their art in these grim settings.

These exhibitions often featured lo-fi paintings that focused on the banality or horror of everyday life, a characteristic that would become a hallmark of Capitalist Realism. The goal of these exhibitions was to critique the consumer-driven society and challenge the notion of what could be deemed as art.

The official founding of the Capitalist Realism movement can be attributed to the Mobelhaus Berges furniture store and a bizarre performance called “Living with Pop – A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism.” This performance, organized by Richter, Polke, and Lueg, featured crude and unappealing caricatures of celebrities, further emphasizing their satirical take on consumerism and capitalism. The performance attracted the attention of art dealer Ren Block, who recognized the potential of this movement and agreed to represent the artists associated with Capitalist Realism.

In conclusion, Capitalist Realism emerged in the 1960s in West Germany as an unusual and slippery art movement that challenged the prevailing notions of art and consumerism. Drawing inspiration from Pop Art, Fluxus, Neo-Dada, and Punk, artists such as Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke sought to highlight the banality and horrors of everyday life through their art.

Influenced by post-war society, Socialist Realism, and the rise of Pop Art in the United States, Capitalist Realism found its footing through pop-up exhibitions and performances that critiqued and satirized the consumer-driven society. The founding of the movement at the Mobelhaus Berges furniture store solidified its place in the art world, paving the way for artists to explore the boundaries of art and challenge the prevailing capitalist culture.

As the Capitalist Realism movement continued to gain momentum, it underwent further development and saw the inclusion of new members who brought fresh perspectives to the movement. This article will explore the second wave of Capitalist Realism, the dissolution of the movement, and its lasting legacy.

One of the key figures in the second wave of Capitalist Realism was Ren Block, an art dealer who recognized the potential of the movement and played a pivotal role in its further development. Block had a strong digital focus and believed in the power of technology to democratize art.

He represented artists such as Wolf Vostell and K.P. Brehmer, who embraced digital techniques in their work. Vostell, known for his use of television screens in his art, explored the possibilities of video art and pioneered the concept of “de-collage.” Brehmer, on the other hand, created affordable editioned prints that challenged the notion of art as a unique and exclusive commodity.

Both artists pushed the boundaries of traditional art forms and utilized technology as a tool for their artistic expression. While the movement continued to grow and evolve, the dissolution of Capitalist Realism was inevitable.

The members of the movement started to pursue provocative new directions and explore different mediums and styles. The dualities that had once defined Capitalist Realism, such as the tension between painting and photography, began to fade.

Artists like Gerhard Richter, for example, developed his signature “blur” technique, which blurred the lines between painting and photography. Richter’s artworks challenged the superficial nature of images and questioned the authenticity of representation.

Sigmar Polke, another prominent member of the movement, started incorporating rasterized dotted patterns into his work, further expanding the boundaries of what could be considered art. This technique allowed him to explore themes of consumerism and mass production, while also questioning the role of the artist in an increasingly commodified art world.

K.P. Brehmer took a multi-layered approach to his art, combining elements of painting, drawing, and photography. His works often featured political and social commentary, highlighting the contradictions and complexities of capitalist society.

Brehmer’s art challenged the viewer to think critically about the systems and structures that shape our lives. Ultimately, the dissolution of Capitalist Realism as a formal movement did not diminish its enduring impact on the art world.

The movement’s legacy can be seen in the work of contemporary artists who have replicated the German approach to art. Artists such as Kai Althoff and Marlene Dumas have drawn inspiration from the satirical and subversive nature of Capitalist Realism, incorporating elements of social critique and introspection into their works.

Additionally, Capitalist Realism had a profound influence on artists from various backgrounds and styles. Martin Kippenberger and Albert Oehlen, for example, incorporated parodic expressionist paintings into their art, challenging the tradition of high art and elevating the concept of artistic freedom.

Damien Hirst and Maurizio Cattelan, known for their controversial and provocative installations, also drew inspiration from Capitalist Realism, using art as a medium to comment on consumerism, commodification, and the excesses of contemporary society. In conclusion, while the Capitalist Realism movement eventually dissolved as a formal entity, its impact on the art world endures.

The second wave of the movement saw artists embracing digital technologies and challenging the notion of art as an exclusive commodity. The work of artists like Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, and K.P. Brehmer pushed the boundaries of traditional art forms and explored new mediums and techniques.

The legacy of Capitalist Realism can be seen in the work of contemporary artists who draw inspiration from its satirical and subversive nature. The movement’s influence on the art world is undeniable, and its questioning of capitalism and consumerism continues to resonate with artists and viewers alike.

In conclusion, Capitalist Realism emerged in West Germany in the 1960s, presenting a skeptical view of American Pop Art and the commercialism it propagated. Artists such as Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke challenged the status quo through their satirical take on consumerism and capitalism.

The movement drew influences from post-war society, Socialist Realism, and the rise of Pop Art in the US. Capitalist Realism’s legacy lies in its exploration of the banality and horrors of everyday life, its use of technology, and its enduring influence on contemporary artists.

By challenging the superficial nature of images and questioning the role of the artist, Capitalist Realism holds a powerful critique that continues to resonate with artists and viewers today.

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