06 September 2011

Taking business advice from photographers

FeatureShoot.com | Alison Zavos | Q&A: Brian Ulrich, Chicago

Chicago-based Brian Ulrich’s photographs portraying contemporary consumer culture reside in major museum collections such as the Art Institute of Chicago, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, and the Museum of Contemporary Photography. He earned his MFA in photography at Columbia College Chicago and a BFA in photography at the University of Akron. It is this understanding of history that informs much of his work which today addresses issues social, political and historical.

Q: Have you noticed any similarities in the stores you have photographed in regards to marketing techniques (colors, displays, “tastings”) that may result in consumers over-spending?

A: ... ‘I believe it’s a strategy in some large stores like Ikea to actually so overwhelm the shopper that one feels tired, empty and slightly depressed; to circumvent this emptiness it might seem to make sense to a shopper to fill up on goods’.
This is absurd. Specifically it's the kind of absurd that seems really profound to someone -- perhaps including many artists -- who have never thought about the subject.  In this case, the subject is how to actually run a retail operation, or how to satisfy customers.

What's the plan Ulrich is suggesting? Make your shoppers sad ... and then what? Then maybe, just maybe, these shoppers will respond by spending money in your store. You know how else they might respond to store-induced depression? BY LEAVING THE STORE AND NEVER COMING BACK. To me, that is a lot more reasonable, likely and less condescending model of how shoppers (i.e., fellow people) behave.

Ulrich's whole outlook is premised on that sort of condescension.  "You stupid consumers," he seems to be saying, "you think you like these things but actually they suck.  I know how you should buy, how others should sell, and what both of you should value."  He actually criticizes one chain for promptly re-stocking shelves!  The sellers want the shelves fully stocked. The customers seem to want the shelves fully stocked.  Who the hell does this guy think he is to suggest that's the wrong way to do things?

PS This, in a nutshell, is why I am uninterested in artists whose work "addresses issues social, political and historical." That kind of artist is just a pundit who can't write arguing exclusively from visual anecdotes. To comment on those issues you must first understand them. Address you life, your experiences, things you know.   Rothko's paitings don't tell me about depression and mental health as Social Issues they tell me about depression and mental health as Things Mark Rothko Experienced.

(Via Suicide Blonde)


  1. > PS This, in a nutshell, is why I am uninterested in artists whose work "addresses issues social, political and historical.

    I LOATHE the phrase "my art addresses ..."

    "Addresses" is a weasel word.

    In what way does your art address it?

    "It holds a light up to it"

    What does that mean?

    "It makes you think about it"

    What does it make you think?

    Folks learn early on that they either need to say something coherent (and thus refutable), or they need to say something incoherent.

    Artists, by and large, go with the second approach.

    If it's not coherent, it can't be refuted and shown crisply to be idiotic.

    This artist made a mistake by venturing into the refutable zone.

  2. I think "addresses" is fine IF it's followed up by an actual thesis. Preferably that thesis would then be backed up with actual claims and support and arguments. All that being rare* I'll settle for taking a particular, defined stand rather than just providing a hollow link between the art work and some high-brow theme. The latter does nothing beyond helping to categorize the work. This one "addresses commerce." Great. Now I know where to put it in the Dewey decimal system of art topics. But I don't know anything about the artist's claims, and I certainly know nothing more about commerce.

    * Rare in part because artists' statements are not a good form for hashing out these arguments. But I think that means we shouldn't look to artists to provide much in the way of usable ideas through their statements.