Guy Debord writes in his book The Society of the Spectacle, “The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.”

If that is so then it is worth examining the nature of the flurry of images that confront us as we scroll through our Instagram accounts and newsfeeds on Facebook. What do people want the world to know about them as they post everything from the minutiae of their everyday life to grand events and achievements?

For example, as people post vain, self-indulgent pictures of their travels, they are also often interspersed with carefully arranged pictures of plates laden with exotic foods. In doing so, they are not just demonstrating how cultured and eclectic their gastronomic buds are, there are, in fact, other subtexts at play in this consumption of images.

Genres and subgenres in still life patently depict the meaninglessness of life

“What it shows invokes what is not shown,” John Berger writes about the power of a photograph. Images of food in these narratives are a marker of status, economic power and newly acquired wealth — they remind us what we cannot experience but desire to experience. Before photography, still life painting preyed upon our desires and senses in the same way.

The Dutch still life painting emerged in the Protestant Northern Provinces during the 16th century. Spain and Netherlands had ushered in an ‘Age of Exploration’ and, in the wake of thriving economic activity, there was a curiosity about the world and the unknown that was coupled with a desire to show off newly acquired wealth. Enter the various genres and subgenres of still-life painting where anything from game pictures, banquet pictures and breakfast pictures could be produced and hung in the homes of the emerging mercantile class.

Rich in colour, these meticulously rendered arrangements overwhelmed the eyes with their profusion and variety. Chinese porcelain, brocades, gilt bronze goblets, Venetian glass, olives, pheasants, oysters and lemons narrated stories of exotic travels, opulence and decadence of owners who prized these paintings for their immaculate skill. In the absence of photography they represented “the frozen moment”. They were beautiful to look at, celebrated and showed off wealth; they were carefully staged compositions (like food selfies) yet they were not subject to the vagaries of time.

The Vanitas — a symbolic work of art showing the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death, often contrasting symbols of wealth and symbols of ephemerality and death — thus emerged as a reaction to such untethered deification of commodity. It was a new subgenre courtesy the Dutch who were falling prey to the lure of consumerism. These still lifes featured insects and flies nibbling at food, withering flowers, clocks and even giant skulls set smack in the centre of sumptuous, mouthwatering compositions. They were a memento mori (a reminder of death) that was meant to nudge one’s conscience so that the viewer could also contemplate on his final end and the frivolity of such obsessions.

Hundreds of years later, an aesthetic emerged that critiqued consumerism and the material world in much the same way but transcended the didactic preaching and moralising of Dutch vanitas. It was an art that was not just different but indifferent, and therein lay its ability to engage us with our chilling disengagement. Many of Andy Warhol’s Pop Art images were bland. They were portraits of nonchalance owing to the ubiquity of images and the bombardment of mediocrity.

Cold and ridiculously deadpan, Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans predicated on Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ that rejected the importance of painterly skill and ushered in an era that broke every rule in the book. The hand of the artist replaces the machine in his work. Multitudes of sometimes-smudged-yet-identical screen prints of celebrities, crushed ambulances and electric chairs hang side-by-side with screen prints of communist leaders, and even the Shah of Iran’s wife. There is no emotion. Even the desire to acquire was once laden with emotion and meaning, wasn’t it? The success of his work lies in this realisation, that the interpretation and sensuousness of objects is no longer nuanced or subject to wonder. It has been desecrated, destroyed and stripped away — like Warhol’s dried-out hair colour.

Contemporary artists such as Takashi Murakami have inverted Warhol’s approach to imply the same meaning — we are now slaves to a cornucopia of a luscious paradise in synthetic colours. Even as we drown in these new illusions and simulated worlds homage is paid to the vanitas for rivers of milk are replaced by piles of meaningless, cascading skull doodles that grin and mock at the viewer. They also look like jellybeans. To look at his work is to experience a nauseating hangover that accompanies the consumption of too many packets of skittles. The world has changed and for Murakami consumerism just said “Veni, vidi, vici” [I came, I saw, I conquered].

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 18th, 2018