ALL CONSUMING IMAGES: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture by Stuart Ewen

ALL CONSUMING IMAGES: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture

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KIRKUS REVIEW

As in his earlier study of advertising and consumer culture, Captains of Consciousness (1976), CUNY Communications prof. Ewen manages both to entertain and inform as he documents here the ascendance of style over substance in modern and postmodern culture. Ambitious in scope, informed by theory, this often brilliant work of social history never bogs down in jargon nor loses sight of its political and psychological dimension. Acutely aware of advertising's role in the creation of contemporary notions of style, Ewen here broadens his purview to include the other grounds where art and public meet: in architecture, fashion, appliance and product design, and movies and photography. Ewen's extensive quotations from primary sources--whether high-minded designers like Peter Behrens or simple-minded admen--speak for themselves, forming a damning indictment of those who offer a democracy of images, not a real share in decision-making, nor even in the creation of durable objects. Historically, mass-produced goods, and workers willing to buy them, created the illusion of classlessness. But along with the putative democracy came an appeal to privilege--just about anyone could purchase furnishings that imitated luxury. At the same time, as the individual lost his unique role in the workplace, he was encouraged to exercise his individuality in the marketplace. The not surprising result was the beginnings of status anxiety--a psychic state best relieved by fashioning a new self. How style shapes these selves, and our relations to power, takes up the latter half of Ewen's pointed survey. Just as space replaced matter in architectural design, so too did abstract systems of credit and exchange triumph over cold cash. Style, as Ewen persuasively argues, not only becomes a means of social control--maintaining hierarchy under its different guises--but also appropriates and absorbs political discontent. Written from a thoughtful, radical perspective, this engaging work of cultural critique will also console those it implicitly condemns--they'll see how good a job they've done at manipulating our imaginations.

Pub Date: Oct. 12th, 1988
Publisher: Basic Books