Sunday, February 03, 2002


Art into Advertising

A young man stands in a brightly lit room, turns, and runs straight through the wall... it explodes at his touch. He keeps running, flying through more and more walls, unstoppable. A woman appears running next to him, exploding into the scene in a shower of rock and plaster. They pause, panting, and look at each other... then run straight through the side of the building. Suddenly they are running vertically up the trunks of two giant trees. They jump... upwards, outwards, away from the earth, into the sky, and space. Not only bent on escape from the confines of their prison, they have escaped even from the confines of the planet. Its beautiful, ultra-modern, hi tech melodrama set to an arrangement of Hendel. Every time I see this piece of film, the final moments make my mouth drop open with amazement.
Which is quite often at the moment. The film has been on heavy rotation on C4 and ITV, because it's the latest Levis ad. Which means, of course, that it probably isn't art after all. It was devised by a bunch of advertising guys, and that amazing final scene is plastered over with the 'engineered jeans' (the ones with the funny diagonal cuffs that nobody likes) logo, 'freedom to move'. The freedom on offer isn't at all obvious, unless it's the freedom of the Levis company to appropriate art language in order to try and flog jeans.

A little investigation via the Levis website reveals that film is entitled "Odyssey", and directed by Jonathon Glazer, the music video director and creator the gangster flick 'Sexy Beast'. It brings to mind a similarly flashy piece by Chris Cunningham, commissioned for the Royal Academy's 'summer blockbuster' exhibition Apocalypse. In Cunninghams piece, entitled "Flex", a man and woman physically batter each other, brutal, naked, in some kind of life or death struggle. No motives are revealed for this slightly sickening fight but a primal instinct of some kind. The film is striking for its beautiful imagery, and also for its lack of content... what you see is what you get.
Cunningham and Glazer serve as an interesting examples - they represent a new group of commercial/creatives who make extremely striking, artistic works in the field of advertising (presumably for large piles of cash). Cunningham created Sony's famous "Mental Wealth" Playstation campaign (featuring a girl with a CGI altered face) and has directed music videos (notably Portishead, Bjork, and Aphex Twin), but in interviews has stated that he sees no boundary between his commercial work and his art-context work. On the other hand, artist Simon Faithfull (co-director of was recently quoted as saying -
"An artist may sometimes earn money through design work but an artwork is not a solution to a design brief and so I wouldn't see commercial web design as art." (BBCi, 'Well Connected Art')
This a sentiment which directly opposes the idea of these two directors' work as art. Their films are undoubtably pre-approved and heavily storyboarded existing, as they do, in a primarily commercial context.
Many artists seem to simply not care about using commercial money where it is available, shrugging off ideological concerns (e.g. Absolut Vodka's commissions, Tracy Emin's gin advert). But the broader academic dialogue, based in Marxism, Adorno's ideas of the 'Culture Industry', and more recently Naomi Klein's work, suggests otherwise.

Can corporations function as benevolent sponsors of the arts, or does their underlying agenda to hijack culture by imbuing their product with cultural value make the relationship damaging rather than supportive?
Yes. They usually have too little idea about art to be able to "hijack" anything. Your question is phrased with the assumption that this is what they want to do, when in many case they only want to show that their company is "putting money back in the community" and they don't care too much where, as they have to spend a certain percentage per year, showing the public at large that they are not just there to make money. The problem occurs when the curator THINKS they have to pander or indeed anticipate the sponsor's (often imagined) objections and present a self-censored programme. In the end if the curator thinks they are being manipulated, they are perfectly able not to go ahead with the event. However most of them will have put their self promotion ahead of ethical or cultural intergrity and will of course go ahead with it. They will be very proud to have organised a show sponsored by Becks and Sony, as it will make the show seem more official/established/important. I therefore argue that the curator's/ organiser's underlying agenda (self-promotion?) has hijacked commercial brands to give credibility to their cultural endeavours. Pierre Coinde, Co-Director of The Centre of Attention
It's not a question of outlook, perspective, feeling, or sentiment. Or agenda. Corporations don't hijack art in addition to supporting it; benevolence is damaging. The State has to be included in this formula, too. Look at how philanthropists in the C19 paid their fortunes into schemes for improving the working class. Improving the working class? The working class don't need to be improved; they need to be liberated from the class system. It's not so much that the philanthropist or the philanthropic corporation distorts the culture it sponsors by applying subtle pressure for that culture to support its own interests (which, of course, it does, anyway); the principle problem is that the very social relation that sponsorship establishes, whether on behalf of a corporation or the State, is lop-sided: industry and commerce as the host; art as the guest. Sponsorship is a form of neutralisation and mastery. The more benevolent it is, the less it applies its own agenda as a condition of funding, the more efficiently will the relationship set conditions on and divisions within the social world and the subjects that participate in it.

Dave Beech, Artist/writer
Yes it is damaging, but it can stil be supportive paradoxically.

Giorgio Sadotti, Artist
If art is effective, intelligent, emotive, striking and thoughtful - in other words 'good' - then it will inevitably become part of the fabric of wider culture. In which case it will be impossible to stop it existing alongside 'products' and 'corporations'. If an artist produces a work that genuinely throws up questions or challenges people, and then a corporation wants to co-opt it (for whatever reason) then the artist has more than achieved his aims. His ideas are reaching a mass audience. Isn't if better for an artwork to be featured in the Sun than in a little-attended, but oh-so-cool gallery?

Tom Sharp, :here magazine

"Serving" Britart now
"Beck's Futures" is an annual art prize held at the ICA. This show seems to have been colonised by Becks. The handouts, the posters, the invites, the private view... all geared more towards promotion and advertising of Beck's than the artists on show. It is immediately obvious that Becks see this as a equally beneficial partnership, but the heavy handed nature of their side of the bargain is difficult to ignore. The website is the most overt example of their co-option of this event. Everything about it screams Becks - the colours, the layout - even the familiar pop-up window, rather than being associated with the video on show, is entitled "Beck's pop-up space". The "topical" section entitled 'art or arse?' features an article entitled 'the art of brewing', as well as an opportunity to send in your own 'my eight year old could have done that' art piece and win some... you guessed it. It is actually quite difficult to find any reference to the artists in the Beck's futures show at all, and when you do it's a flimsy paragraph. There are magazine style portraits of all the artists, but there is not a single image of their work. It's strange that with advertising currently obsessed with using terms such as 'freedom to move' (Levis again) or 'everyone needs a place to think' (BBC4), that it is the sponsor that seems to crowd out thoughts, allowing precious little freedom to think about anything else.
Naomi Klein, in her seminal study of late 20th Century capitalism "No Logo", states the problem like this -
"...a stampede of manufacturers [are] now looking to replace their cumbersome product-production apparatus with transcendental brand names and to infuse their brands with deep, meaningful messages. By the mid-nineties, companies like Nike, Polo and Hilfiger were already taking branding to the next level: no longer simply branding their own products, but branding the outside culture as well - by sponsoring cultural events, they could go out into the world and claim bits of it as brand-name outposts. For these companies, branding was not just a matter of adding value to a product. It was about thirstily soaking up cultural ideas and iconography that their brands could reflect by projecting these ideas and images back into culture as 'extensions' of their brands."
The effect of this is an entangling of the different functions and responsibilities of the various individuals, institutions, companies, sponsors, and state funding channels involved in making a show happen. The positioning of all these things in relation to an exhibition changes the ways in which it is received. With the sponsor normally in the position of benefactor, this changes the position of the artist accordingly to that of recipient - suddenly, as in the case of Beck's Futures, the artists are the guests in Beck's exhibition. And each instance of this passive/aggressive relationship slightly changes the wider relationship of 'culture', 'business' and 'state'. This has already happened on television - every programme now has a "sponsor", or a company which sees the opportunity to have their logo hover in front of their favoured demographic's eyes for a few seconds and register positively with them. This is an even more uncomfortable arrangement when applied to an art exhibition.
It could be argued that this is a naive argument, and that the relationship between art and advertising is not only necessary, but progressive and positive in it's outcomes. And looking at it from the angle of the relatively few artists that benefit from events such as Becks Futures, it must be hard to disapprove of sponsorship. As Hillichamp spells out in the text below, art needs money. And as Dave Beech (artist and Art Monthly critic) states in his response (see the text box), it may not be the source of the money that is the problem, but the conditions in which it is given. In this case, it is the awareness of these conditions that becomes all important. Art remains art, and we view it as such, but always at the back of our minds is the discomfort at the conditions in which it is exhibited.

It's no secret that the most important things on television are the paid adverts, followed by the trailers promoting forthcoming programs, followed by the programs themselves.
It's also my opinion, and I know I'm not alone in thinking this, that adverts are the greatest artform of our age.
Art needs money. It's as simple as that. Maybe in some utopia, where the wheels of commerce no longer grind, and all the work is done by Microsoft programmed atomic robots/angels from Heaven/divvied up by egalitarian worker's co-operatives* we can all enjoy and or make art free from the taint of The Dollar, but until then we have to live in the real world. The real, unfair, random, nasty ridiculous world. Art makers have to eat, and office working art-philes like me don't have the free time to or energy to go tracking down the latest and most exciting art shows and happenings for ourselves, so it's nice for it to be brought to us. And if it's a beer brand or a bank or a Third World exploiting jeans manufacturer that has to bring it to us, okay.
The Beck's Futures competition is a great example of how corporate sponsorship and involvement can raise the profile of new art makers and contemporary art itself, getting real art makers and their wares in all the magazines and giving them money to boot - ace!
In the art world, like any market, there is no underground. Any art makers who show and sell their work are no less commercial than the animators at Disney, or the poor souls who worked on the comic book adaption of Star Wars Episode II. Does this mean art is lost? Does this mean it has no integrity? I don't believe so.
Our civilization, like it or not, is about selling, is about value-added, is about measuring and targeting demographics, tapping into the zeitgeist. It's about advertising and sales. Brand awareness, if you like. So why not commission something beautiful at the same time as promoting your brand? Why not reward creative talent, and share it with the audience the mass marketing media creates?
You may say that commercial pressure will taint the art, undermine its validity, but every art maker is constantly dealing with many conflicting constraints/demands/desires/wishes/expectations on or for their work.
Here's a quote from the brilliant (in my view) Brian Duffy (creator of the ModifiedToyOrchestra), about his experience at art college:
"...I thought to myself 'Oh my God, this is just awful' because you have to learn all these intellectual levels of veiling that means someone who doesn't understand those terms doesn't understand the paintings, and without that you can't get peer approval."
Here's a quote which really got my goat, from Meredith Etherington-Smith about the Affordable Art Fair, (from an editorial in Art Review):
"OK**, so some of the art is dreadful. But it pleases someone and the artist gets paid. I'm all for democratic art."
"I'm all for democratic art"? How incredibly patronising! In my opinion this kind of snobbery is more of a danger to art than the lure of sponsorship from desperate to be hip corporations.
I believe in the democratic ideal. I believe that the people know best what is good for them. Not in an ironic 'oh, aren't Abba' kitsch way (look at that hilariously tasteless print of Ganesh) but in an uprising against slavery way, in a deposing the Tzars (and later the Communist party), in a risking your life to fight Hitler, or Franco way. In voting for Will as the nations Pop Idol and not Gareth Gates (who I hate). And you know Rick would have won if he hadn't stepped out (or was he pushed..?).
Back in the day my man Marshall McLuhan was telling people that the mas media was the folklore of the industrial age (see The Mechanical Bride), even if he saw that as a bad thing. Well folk stories never were for the folk, but were a social construct to bind them to the status quo.
I say:
Advertising is our art. We should be proud.

*( select the appropriate option according to your pipe dream)

**(I may not know much about art, but at least I can spell "okay")

by Hillichamp

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