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Capitalist Realism

Capitalist Realism Collage

Started: 1963

Ended: 1971

"Capitalist Realism was another form of provocation. This term somehow attacked both sides: it made Socialist Realism look ridiculous, and did the same to the possibility of Capitalist Realism as well."

Gerhard Richter Signature

Summary of Capitalist Realism

Though a relatively short-lived movement, Capitalist Realism took a darker, more ironic stance than most of the Pop Art that spread across Western countries at the height of the Cold War. Started in Düsseldorf among a group of art students, including Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke, the Capital Realists shared a critical stance toward the invasion of American capitalism and consumerism into West Germany. A play on Social Realism and capitalism, Capitalist Realism used various styles and media to create imagery that called into question middle-class values and aspirations and that hoped to remind Germany of its not-so-distant traumatic past that the artists felt was being too easily repressed and papered over.

Coming out of the international Fluxus movement, the Capital Realists' most recognizable happenings and paintings were made in the mid-1960s, and its tenets and younger artists were later promoted by gallerist René Block. Its influence was consequential for German artists like Martin Kippenberger, who was a provocateur of Bad Painting, and the more contemporary Neo Rausch. Additionally, in the increasingly globalized world, many younger artists, including prominent artists such as Ai Weiwei, have taken up the Capital Realists' philosophical critiques of capitalism in their efforts to expose the unseemly side of its global reach.

Key Ideas

Like its British and American Pop Art counterparts, Capitalist Realism employed mass media imagery, including advertisements and photographs to create their compositions, but Capitalist Realists tended to be more critical of consumer culture. This criticality had roots in the international Fluxus movement that often relied on staged events, or Happenings. It shared with Fluxus ideas about the democratization of art and the use of multiples to subvert art market value.
Capitalist Realism is less a unified style than a set of political ideas and beliefs about art, Western culture, and capitalism. Critical towards traditional artistic and social values, Capitalist Realists employed photorealism, mechanical reproduction, as well as collage to take aim at their subjects. Because they rejected the unique, auratic art work that had traditionally been hailed by Modernism Capitalist Realism is one of the first recognizable Postmodern movements.
While Capitalist Realism has had a global influence reaching to Japan and China, it was originally calibrated to the specifics of Cold War Germany and specifically West Germany with its influx of postwar capital and American influence. In addition to their leeriness of American influence and values, the Capitalist Realists felt that Germany had not sufficiently confronted the horrors perpetuated by Nazism during World War II, and many of their works address the widespread repression of memory the artists witnessed in West Germany.
Capitalist Realism Photo


In a politically divided Germany, Berlin in the 1960s was a microcosm of the Cold War, a city in turmoil, physically split into two ideologically opposing halves by the Berlin Wall - the West, American-allied side and the East, Soviet-allied side. The political ideas held by each bled into visual culture; in the East, Socialist Realism was the prescribed doctrine implemented by the artistic powers in the Soviet Union, who instructed artists to portray in a realist style an optimistic, idealised version of factory and farm life. The depiction of negative imagery was banned, and artists were expected to depict joyous, celebratory workers in public murals and sculptures - propagandistic imagery aimed at promoting the benefits of Soviet life. In the West, Germans embraced the stylistic freedoms of the American avant-garde and other Western European art as well as new styles of sculpture and performance art.

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