The term "Capitalist realism" has several meanings or uses. It has been used, particularly in Germany, to describe commodity-based art, from Pop Art in the 1950s and 1960s to the commodity art of the 1980s and 1990s. Alternatively, it has been used to describe the ideological-aesthetic aspect of contemporary corporate capitalism in the West. When used in this way, it is a play on the term "Socialist realism".
The phrase Capitalist realism was first used in the title of the 1963 art exhibition in Düsseldorf, Demonstration for Capitalist Realism, which featured the work of Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Wolf Vostell and Konrad Lueg. The exhibition's participants focused upon depictions of Germany's growing consumer culture and media-saturated society with strategies, in part, influenced by those of their American Pop counterparts. They were inspired primarily by the iconography depicted in newspapers and magazines.
- See: Sigmar Polke.
Capitalist realism is a German art movement co-founded in 1963 by artist Sigmar Polke. Polke embraced the advertising and publicity commonly found in the popular press in renderings of everyday consumer items. Often ironic and with critical overtones of society and politics the Capitalist Realism movement is considered more explicitly political than conventional Pop Art.
- See: Michael Schudson.
In the mid-1980s, Michael Schudson used the term "capitalist realism" to describe mainstream practices in advertising. Chapter seven of Schudson's Advertisng: The Uneasy Persuasion compares the messages and appeals of advertising to those found in the Socialist Realism of the Soviet Union. In his account, the realism of advertising promotes a way of life based on private consumption, rather than social, public achievement.
The term next appeared in 2009 with the publication of Mark Fisher's book, Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative? Fisher argues that the term "capitalist realism" best describes the current global political situation. His argument is a response to, and critique of, neo-liberalism and new forms of government which apply the logic of capitalism and the market to all aspects of governance.
As a philosophical concept capitalist realism is indebted to an Althusserian conception of ideology. Fisher proposes that within a capitalist framework there is no space to conceive of alternative forms of social structures. He proposes that the 2008 financial crisis compounded this position; rather than seeking alternates to the existing model we look for modifications within the system. The crash confirmed within the populace the necessity of capitalism rather than shake it loose from its foundations.
"Capitalist realism as I understand it cannot be confined to art or to the quasi-propagandistic way in which advertising functions. It is more like a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action."
Blogger Christopher Schwartz has taken up this theme and expanded it in his photo-essay, "Capitalist realism: homo capitalus / homo financus". In contrast to socialist realism, particularly its formulation in Stalinist architecture, Schwartz notes that capitalism realism is still liberal:
"It’s a bit trickier to diagnose what’s at stake in capitalist realism. [Like socialist realism] it also has a totalizing tone, but somehow liberal at the same time, in a Hobbesian sense, of outward conformity that allows for inward or out-of-sight, out-of-the-way plurality — in other words, it doesn’t matter what one does and desires 'privately' ... so long as they do their job well, i.e., grease the wheels of commerce. The untenability of this position notwithstanding, the ideology at least purports not only to not want to invade one's innerspace, but it often claims that by allowing a certain degree of freedom and idiosyncrasy, the system as a whole can become stronger. After all, the heroes of capitalist realism, unlike the heroes of socialist realism, are the rogues, the mavericks, the outliers, the individuals."
- Joan Gibbons, Art And Advertising, I.B.Tauris, p53. ISBN 1-85043-586-3
- Hugh Honour, A World History of Art, Laurence King Publishing, p847. ISBN 1-85669-451-8
- Thomas Crow, The Rise of the Sixties: American and European Art in the age of Dissent ISBN 1856694267
- Joan Gibbons, Art And Advertising, I.B.Tauris, p55. ISBN 1-85043-586-3
- Barry Richards, Iain MacRury, Jackie Botterill, The Dynamics of Advertising, Routledge, 2000, p99. ISBN 90-5823-085-6
- Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism Is there no alternative?, Zero Books. ISBN 978-1-84694-317-1
- John Caldwell, Sigmar Polke, (San Francisco:San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) 1990, p 9