"I still think the social function of art is that kind of negative aesthetic. Otherwise there’s no social function for it."
From "Art in the Twenty-First Century" Season 1 (2001)
"All of these artists reference the other kinds of images we are familiar with," writes Katy Siegel in her essay for the Art in the Twenty-First Century Companion Book. "We spend our whole lives training to understand movies and television and video games and clothes and beds and houses. And so contemporary art often invokes these experiences and objects; art often looks like a commodity, because in a consumer culture, nothing could be more essential."
Consumption begins with an original work created by artist Barbara Kruger. Hosted by tennis star and sports commentator John McEnroe, the humorously frenetic video explores the ways in which people consume things in their daily lives, from food to money to sex. Throughout the video, Kruger's trademark phrases in red and white demand the attention and obedience of the viewer. Proclaiming "Love art, Buy art, Sell art," and "Feed me, Love me, Buy me, Sell me", Kruger's text addresses the viewer in much the same way advertisers sway a consumer to buy a product.
Michael Ray Charles is filmed on location at his home and studio in Austin, Texas. Through his studies of advertising, the minstrel tradition, and blackface, Charles seeks to deconstruct and subvert images of blackness through painting. "I've been called a sellout. People question my blackness. A lot of people accuse me of perpetuating a stereotype," he says. "I think there's a fine line between perpetuating something and questioning something. And I like to get as close to it as possible." Pointing out items from his collection of memorabilia, Charles traces the transformation of stereotypes in his work. The segment concludes at an exhibition of Charles' work in New York City.
"A system that has an internal object, Freudian narratives—consumer and producer, violence, sexually driven, NFL films—these are the things I think about," says Matthew Barney. His CREMASTER series of films twist narrative flow, challenge genres, and interrogate art as they explore the ways "that violence is sublimated into form." This segment follows Barney and his crew on the set of CREMASTER 3 at the Saratoga race track and at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. At Saratoga, Barney transforms a group of horses into racing corpses; at the Guggenheim, the artist transforms the Museum into a set for an obstacle course/video game.
From her experimental home and clothing projects to her artificial "Pocket Property" island off the coast of Denmark, Andrea Zittel is an artist who truly "lives" art. "We're obsessed with perfection, we're obsessed with innovation and moving forwards. But what we really want is the hope of some sort of a new and improved or better tomorrow." Filmed in Zittel's Brooklyn home and studio, which serves as her artful business A-Z Administrative Services, the artist takes the viewer on a tour of her specially designed bathroom, furniture, and wardrobe—a whimsical blend of the artist's Southern California roots and 20th Century Modernist design philosophy.
An interactive video game based on rug patterns of nomadic peoples and a garden with "hyperaccumulator" plants that clean up contaminated land are just two of Mel Chin's unique collaborative ventures, incorporating botany, ecology, and even alchemy. "Making art, I think, is not about one track, one method," he says. "The diversity of mediums and techniques is minor. But the diversity of ideas and how they survive and the methods that are transmitted is very important." The segment follows Chin in Detroit as he scouts locations for his latest project that converts arsoned houses into worm farms that benefit the local economy. Fractured by television static, Chin's segment resembles a subversive broadcast.