When art works

Peg by Mikko Luntiala FlickrWords. They equip us to define and explain, that’s their literal and ‘on the nose’ purpose. Their description in Hamlet (Act 2, Scene 2); “Words are the pegs on which we hang ideas”.

Words as pegs. For ideas. I’ve always liked that idea. What I also find so eloquently smart and cunning about words is what they don’t say, but rather what they evoke. Words don’t just convey meaning but incite feeling.

Beyond being pegs, words are triggers, provocateurs. Without even asking us to, words force us to feel. They prompt us to reveal ourselves, our opinions of things and view of the world and how we believe it should be. Here’s where I‘m going with this:

ART. MONEY. Two words, two triggers, two serious opinion grenades, no pin, chucked right into your lap. So many connotations, so much harbored opinion, such baggage.

I remember the first time I was pointedly asked about art and money, ‘the art vs advertising question’, specifically: ‘Is advertising about art or commerce?’

‘And’ not ‘Or’

1996, a sultry spring day, muggier than ideal if you’re in a job interview. I was an applying graduate, feigning wisdom I still don’t have as I considered the semantic hand grenade. The head of planning gave no clues as she thoughtfully opened the window in her office, before blowing cigarette smoke at it. I can’t say I nailed the answer, and I didn’t go on to work at McCann Erickson, but the question has stood the test of time considerably better than the unreformed social mores and interviewing techniques practiced in yesteryear Adland.

‘Is advertising art or commerce?’ It hasn’t taken me 18 years to formulate a decent reply, but it remains an unresolved and divisive polemic showing as much signs of wrinkle as Dorian Gray.

The answer to the question, of course, isn’t an ‘either-or’, but an ‘and’. ‘Art’ and ‘commerce’ (more pointedly, ‘money’) are not ninja’s striking poses on opposing sides. Certainly advertising is the inventive flux that helps ensure the wheels of consumerism glide smoothly. Consumerism is vital to the health of capitalism. Ergo, no denying it, advertising is commerce.

But. This is where the ‘And’ comes in.

Advertising is also, when done brilliantly, ambitiously, wonderfully, remarkably… an example of art. You betcha.

Advertising is artistry that can be registered on numerous levels. The art of human understanding and insight into what drives us and prompts us to behave as we do. The subtle art of encouraging us to behave differently, to feel something or something new about a brand, to buy into that brand’s representation and by extension, to part with actual cash in order for it to be ours.

Aside from these subtleties, simply consider the advertising we can see. Consider the genius print campaigns for Nike, Silk Cut, The Economist, Club 18-30, Wonderbra and Absolut. Advertising can, of course, be wildly creative, and is no less ‘art’ for being a message-carrier. Doesn’t all art try and communicate, on levels both literal and sub-textual?

But let’s now talk more of money, because this is where the water really muddies.

Money

We all need it, and most would agree that having more would, at the very least, be useful. Yet craving money, along with overt demonstrations of wealth, we typically find vulgar, in bad taste, rather unseemly.

We incline to link money with greed, and struggle to see the kind of goodness in it that Gordon Gekko found so easy. Akin to the pleasure-guilt conflict of Catholicism, money is as incendiary as they come, a hand grenade packed with conflict and cognitive dissonance. Money makes things better. Money makes things worse. With claims abound, that it spoils things; is amoral; overrides integrity; takes the fun out of it; “has ruined the sport”.

And it’s when we consider ‘money’ and ‘art’ in the same breathe, sentence and context that we really feel the eternal struggle.

For the ‘true artist’ does it for his art, never the money. It’s about the purity, the nobility, some kind of deeper truth on some kind of moral or spiritual plain that sits in a skyscraper viewing deck far above the amoral basement in which money counts its beans. And yet, I gotta say, to me this kind of posturing has always reeked high, with the thickest olfactory notes, of bullshit. And adding an extra note is the notion that for art to truly be ART there needs to be some kind of suffering.

The starving writer, the penniless painter, the threadbare poet – caricatures that imply that hard yards have to we walked, like some kind of purge or pilgrimage. Nobility in adversity? The only thing in adversity is adversity.

What’s wrong with being paid, paid well even, for the art you create? That is surely every artist’s ultimate goal? Art shouldn’t be a not-for-profit endeavour. Quite the contrary, unique creative talent should and can be worth its weight in gold. Cashing in on your God-given talent has nothing to do with selling out.

The American ‘commercial illustrator’ Bob Peak is a personal favourite of mine. His movie poster and advertising artwork are collage scenes of high-end glamour, covetable lifestyles of 60’s swagger resplendent of the life Peak himself could afford to live.

Crack open John le Carré’s latest novel, A Delicate Truth. Inside front page, third line of his biog: “For the last fifty years he has lived by his pen”. Now that’s awesome. To be brilliant at what you do, and paid to do what you love. To be able to commercialise your passion. For half a century. Crazy cool. Doesn’t get cooler.

We might not write or paint or sing for the money, rather the love of it, but you can only turn passions into professions if someone applies a price tag.

I believe there is everything right with art being collectively viewed as something of fiscal worth, of people wanting to own it, and by extension, its value increasing.

In March 1987, top art sales entered a new dawn when van Gogh’s Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers went under hammer for £24.75 million (that’s $82 million in today’s dollars).

In 2011, Cézanne’s The Card Players became the most expensive painting ever sold. Someone’s for the cool sum of $250 million.

Rothko, Malevich, Warhol, Baishi, Kooning, Modigliani, Pollock, Picasso, Bacon (Francis not Kevin), Newman, Klimt, Johns, Munch – 20th century artists who’ve produced works bought for north of $50m.

Long short: when art works, it works in all senses of the word. Art commands monetary worth, which is as it should be.

But for me, where this all gets seriously exciting, is that it’s no longer 1996. Which is to say, while ‘the art vs advertising question’ remains relevant, it’s no longer exclusive to those being interviewed at a big ad agency. What makes ‘advertising’ great, and who gets to make it is changing fundamentally. It’s becoming something anyone can become part of.

The ad model has mutated

“Mutation: it is the key to our evolution. It has enabled us to evolve from a single-celled organism into the dominant species on the planet. This process is slow, and normally taking thousands and thousands of years. But every few hundred millennia, evolution leaps forward.”

Professor Charles Francis Xavier, X-Men (2000)

In Professor Charles Xavier’s sense of the word, ‘advertising’ has mutated. This is where we’re at, what we’re witnessing, what we can all potentially be part of. Advertising’s evolutionary leap. Presently mid-air.

Push marketing, ‘magic bullets’, passive consumption, naïve consumers, silent witnesses: so much throwback thinking to the mass media conventions of a bygone age, to 1996 and considerably earlier.

Today brands have an opportunity to play a very different role in people’s lives. To create new opportunities for people. Consider Samsung’s ‘Launching People’ initiative.

Today brands can have a powerful role in society, and can contribute to society. They can mobilise and move things powerfully and positively forward. Consider the Arthur Guinness Projects.

Today brands can demonstrate genuine taste and be all the better perceived for their associations with independent talent. Consider Burberry’s Acoustic platform and Christopher Bailey’s helping hand in Jake Bugg’s career.

Today, great ‘advertising’ can potentially be made by anyone. If it’s content that turns people’s heads or prompts us to grin or shudder with delight, then brands like Samsung and Burberry and Guinness crave to be part of it.

Technological convergence, of devices that all connect, has inevitably rippled into cultural consequence.

‘Cultural convergence’ is about personal and creative liberation. The internet is an open-invitation to share, upload, express and create. Technology has become an opportunity-maker, an introducer, the connector of talent and inclination to new possibilities. From connectivity: connections.

The Digital Age is all about creating connections. The meeting of like-minds and kindred spirits. The connection of talents, of attractions, collaborations, mutual benefits and remarkable outcomes. So many synaptic snaps. Dots joined in new ways, something new, something brilliant. Sizzle, zing, spark. Wham. Not alchemy, but the potential for awesomeness.

‘Art and advertising’ have never been more curvy and compatible bedfellows. In the words of Jake Bugg, it’s time for advertising “to jump on that lightning bolt”. It’s time for brands to embrace their brilliant mutation and bare their adamantium claws.

Back in 1996, if only I could have talked about Wolverine.

SP.