I hate shopping malls, but I found myself in one recently, on a family outing to see Disney’s new mega-hit Frozen. But then Frozen was sold out, and so we found ourselves actually shopping at a shopping mall.
I was walking past Wet Seal, a teenage clothing retailer that sells cheap trendy threads to girls and very, very young women. The name is particularly grotesque— suggestive of sex, or, at the very least, something slimy and endangered.
As I passed the store, I saw something that made me stop so hard and so quickly that my sister-in-law almost ran me over: an in-store advertisement featuring a woman against a red background, with her hand cupped out from her mouth, and the phrase “HOLIDAY STEALS” coming out of her mouth in rigid, blocky letters, framed in the shape of a megaphone and pointing towards the store. I knew the instant I saw it that it was an homage to the Russian constructivist artist Alexander Rodchenko—a riff on his advertisement for books (the original reads “Lengiz, books in all branches of knowledge”). Rodchenko created the ad in 1924 and the woman cupping her hand to yell was Lilya Brik—whom Pablo Naruda called “the muse of the Russian avant-garde.”
Rodchenko’s ad, one of the most iconic designs from one of the most revolutionary art movements in world history, was now being used to hail customers as they lumbered through the mall. As one of my facebook friends commented, after I posted the images side by side, the Wet Seal ad was “the very definition of irony.”
We could read this bizarre Soviet style Wet Seal campaign in three ways. The first is the easiest. It could be nothing more than a rip-off—the ultimate pilfering by the capitalist establishment of the revolutionary spirit of early Soviet communist artists. A gross injustice to Rodchenko as well as to the movement he has come to represent.
The second possibility, and this I suspect is closest to what actually happened, is that some Wet Seal designer, fresh out of graduate school, decided to try something cool s/he had learned about Russian Constructivist design and thought it would be a funny wink to folks like me, who were either design hounds or revolutionary art historians or both.
But the final interpretation, and the one I am most partial to, is to read this Wet Seal campaign as a slip of the capitalist unconscious, which in the course of trying to sell things we do not need taps into our desire for real revolution, for real social and economic change. I find it interesting, for example, that the Wet Seal poster heralds “HOLIDAY STEALS” and not “HOLIDAY DEALS.” Is this poster, unwittingly, telling us to enter the store and “steal” what we like?
This utterly counterintuitive way of interpreting Wet Seal’s advertisement is based on Fredric Jameson’s seminal essay, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” published in Social Text in 1979. In this essay, Jameson argues that if something is popular (in this case Wet Seal clothing), and, if we are not brainless automatons, then mass culture must offer something positive to go with whatever repression it is handing out.
Jameson calls this the “fantasy bribe.” He argues that “all contemporary works of art—whether those of high culture and modernism or of mass culture and commercial culture—have as their underlying impulse….our deepest fantasies about the nature of social life, both as we live it now, and as we feel in our bones it ought rather to be lived.” And what it is that mass culture offers, Jameson asks? “Some sense of the ineradicable drive towards collectivity.”
I am not suggesting that the Wet Seal advertisement injects the revolutionary spirit of the Russian intelligentsia directly into the brain of the mall zombie. But, perhaps unconsciously, Wet Seal is using some revolutionary zeal to sell its products because it knows that many of us crave collectivity and a better world—fairness, equality, jobs for all—the kind of world represented by Soviet idealism (though not necessarily Soviet society)—in the 1920s.
In the last few months we have seen hundreds of protests against low wages, targeting Walmart and fast food corporations, involving thousands of workers and labor leaders, suggesting that our “ineradicable drive” towards collectivity is not just a fantasy. Somewhere, buried deep in the capitalist unconscious is its opposite—radical socially conscious revolution. And sometimes we run across it at the mall.
So keep your eyes open this holiday season. Who knows what other revolutionary messages are hiding out in our cathedrals of consumption?
Kathy M. Newman