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Barbara Kruger in Relation to Ideology and Consumerism

Simran Singh is a student at Griffith University studying for a Bachelor of Arts degree in creative writing and art history.

Artists including Barbara Kruger unveiled the consumerist hunger at the heart of capitalism through drawing from feminist and Marxist ideologies. Her experience as an activist, magazine employee and avant-garde artist influenced her to expose the manipulative nature of advertising for consumerist audiences.


By satirically juxtaposing the meaningful and cheap, Untitled (I shop therefore I am) and Untitled (Who owns what?) investigates the diminishing value of products and philosophical ideas in mass production.


Through a pro-feminist lens, Kruger criticises the use of femininity to promote luxury products in Untitled (Talk Is Cheap) while Untitled (Your body is a battleground) advocates a pro-choice stance. Ultimately, items are consumed to contribute to a consumer’s desired lifestyle or identity, where Kruger critiques the relationship between the audience, ideology, and consumerism.

barbara-kruger-in-relation-to-ideology-and-consumerism

Kruger carried her experience in picture editing and graphic design in advertisements for magazines under Condé Nast publications to comment on consumerism. Kruger adopted the unconventional and boundary-pushing avant-garde style by overlaying found photographs with eye-catching black-and-white text to remove the obscurity prevalent in modern art (Mitchell; Barbara Kruger 1991).


Her artmaking practice consisted of slogans, questions, and statements reminiscent of the images taken from mass media. Difference Feminism catalysed Kruger’s support of the equal treatment for the differences and similarities of both genders (Scott 1988).


In artworks, she used events such as Washington’s pro-choice march in 1989 to displace patriarchal control over women’s bodies and promote the ideology to female audiences (Kamimura 1987).


Kruger also applied Marxist perspectives to comment on working class exploitation and the development of the “commodity self” due to consumerism. The “commodity self” referred to consumers purchasing reflections of their identity which Kruger questioned the lines between consumers, workers and production (Cartwright; Sturken 2009).

barbara-kruger-in-relation-to-ideology-and-consumerism

In Kruger’s Untitled (I shop, therefore I am) and Untitled (Who owns what?), the blurred lines between identity and products are exposed. The bold slogan “I shop, therefore I am” parodies Rene Descartes’ famous quote “I think, therefore I am” (Descartes 1985).


The focalised quote within a persuasive advertisement format commentates on how advertisements act as company propaganda. Such propaganda tactics were used by reds to signify urgency and draw the audience’s attention to the slogan held like a product by a monochrome hand. The slogan and bag juxtaposed ideas of philosophy feeding the soul versus how purchases maintain the “commodity self” (Cartwright; Sturken 2009).


Alike the shopping bag, the cigarette box’s cheap disposability symbolises the expandability of workers in mass production. The centralisation of this slogan also comments on how prominent philosophies and values are also cheapened in its commodification. This implied now critical thought was replaced with purchasing an identity.

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Thus, Kruger uses her artwork to make the audience question their identity in relation to the power of the free-market and consumerist desires. The signifier of rich philosophical thought propagated in Untitled (Who owns what?) through the contrast of the black background creating a marble statuesque effect on the hand.


This signified the birthplace of philosophy, Ancient Greece, which juxtaposed the disposable cigarette packet with meaningful questions, “Who owns what?” The divorce of the three fingers on the box symbolises the detachment of the worker’s role in mass production. Overall, the combination of these avant-garde techniques touches on visual and ideological advertisement language while criticising consumerism.

barbara-kruger-in-relation-to-ideology-and-consumerism

Feminist issues of patriarchal control over the representation and agency of women were explored in themes of the male-gaze and the pro-choice movement.


In Untitled (Talk Is Cheap) the female body panders to the male gaze through the woman’s outstretched tongue against the diamond necklace she pulls out of her mouth (Foucault 1984). The focalisation of her bottom half of the face implies sexuality is linked with materialism.


The phrase “Talk is cheap” flanking the necklace suggests words are unimpressive in comparison. The added sensuality challenges how advertisements market the indulgent high-status lifestyle of Hollywood glamour can be purchased. To a male audience this suggests a woman can be bought with expensive objects. Kruger removes the patriarchal power over women while including women into the world of men (Kamimura 1987).


The patriarchal view was further challenged in Untitled (Your body is a battleground) in response to the 80s pro-choice movement. The composition caters to propaganda posters consumed by society to sell an ideology (Cartwright; Sturken 2009). The composition divided a woman’s face with positive and negative filters. The exposures represented the duality of the pro-choice and pro-life debate.


This woman fiercely confronts the audience with her gaze while divorcing this into a strictly female struggle with feminine signifiers of makeup. The message “Your body is a battleground” is stressed through an attention-grabbing red box. Here Kruger argues women are entitled to autonomy over their pregnant bodies instead of being restricted by anti-abortion policies (Markowitz 1990).


Resultantly, the artwork showcases women leading the battle to free the agency over their bodies from patriarchal oppression (Princenthal 2016). Consequently, feminist ideology was thoroughly explored by Kruger’s confrontation of the role of the male gaze in consumerism and female rights.

barbara-kruger-in-relation-to-ideology-and-consumerism

Kruger’s assessment of consumerist culture and ideology delineates the relationship between advertisements with the audience. Marxism in reflection of consumerist culture and philosophical discourse was highlighted in Untitled (Who owns what?) and Untitled (I shop therefore I am) to comment on the value of products in relation to the commodity self.


Feminist ideologies are prominently featured in Untitled (Your body is a battleground) and Untitled (Talk Is Cheap) in arguing for female autonomy over their reproductive systems and exposing the male-gaze in advertisements.


Therefore, advertisements will always adapt to fluctuating desires behind ideology and consumerism, while the artworld will continue to respond to this development.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Simran Singh

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