[A thought experiment]
Let’s be honest – deep down many of us fear advertising is inferior to art. And (less deep down) many others fear that advertising aspires to something loftier but pointless, namely art. However, nobody need worry. For art – the contemporary visual kind – isn’t anything special. Including everything and excluding nothing, it has disappeared up its own backside in a puff of regarding self-regarding meaninglessness.
Novelist, essayist, and copywriter Sean Condon skewers the empty, limitless megalomania of ‘Art’:
For people like Tracy [Emin] and me, Art and Life are both capitalised and inextricably intertwined: everything we do, from getting up in the morning and not showering, to sitting at the kitchen table sucking on a fag and lovely cup of hot, sweet, milky English tea while flicking through Tatler magazine looking for pictures of ourselves at cocktail parties, is about Art. We are never not thinking of ways to make Art. It’s almost like a sickness, a disease we have contracted – but one which we have the grace, generosity, and first-class college degree to share. We are merely the hosts of an exclusive virus whose effects can be enjoyed by everyone. All we require is a sneeze of inspiration, the wet, hacking cough of execution followed by the fever of a gallery bidding war and, BANG – Art!”
Similarly, philosopher and cultural critic Nina Power points to all-encompassing nature of art:
The art market has expanded exponentially and has been losing its shape to achieve monstrous proportions. It is occupying all the space, wildly metastasizing in every possible direction. It is so bloated at the core that it doesn’t seem able anymore to digest all the data. It is on its way to surpass its function. … Today it is difficult to imagine anything that could be excluded from art. Its field has expanded exponentially to include the entire society. Along the way, it has grabbed anything that could be used for its own purpose, recycling garbage, forging communities, investigating political issues and perfumes, tampering with biology etc., simultaneously appearing and disappearing with an ambiguous promiscuity. Art has finally fulfilled the program of Dada with a vengeance, embedding art into life.”
When, as Google have recently done with their Deep Dream project, you take what you yourself confess “is just random noise”, put it in a frame, declare it to be Art, and get people buy it for thousands, we know that what Duchamp started has reached its logical and terminal conclusion. Art is dead. Now we’re just dancing on its grave.
Small wonder that sociologist, philosopher, and cultural theorist, Jean Baudrillard was moved to write art’s obituary:
The adventure of modern art is over. Contemporary art is only contemporary of itself.”
It has ceased to matter in Western culture, and does next to nothing to shape or challenge how we think about ourselves and the world around us.
Granted, there might be some quite wonderful exceptions, but the fact of the matter is that contemporary art’s only consistent line of vigorous enquiry is what it – Art – is. Its only real concern is to declare and sustain its existence. One need look no further than the language it wraps itself up in. With its tortured syntax and breathless insistence on its own perceptiveness and iconoclasm, it serves only to signal that it is Art, and to exclude everyone else:
Combining radical notions of performativity and the body as liminal space, my practice interrogates the theoretical limitations of altermodernism. My work, which traverses disparate realms of object-making such as painting and performance, investigates the space between metabolism and metaphysics and the aporia inherent to such a discourse.”
Self-aggrandising, infinitely self-regarding, endlessly self-examining, incapable of having anything other than a conversation about itself with itself, contemporary art is entirely self-serving. In its bid to draw attention to itself, as the philosopher Roger Scruton puts it:
It is indistinguishable in the end from advertising – with the sole qualification that it has no product to sell except itself.”
Art may well give us the occasional cheap thrill of spectacle – so Instagram-friendly, so good for cool-signalling. But it has no claim to moral, spiritual, or ethical superiority. It isn’t anything special, isn’t anything exalted, and rises above nothing. So we really need not fear that advertising is inferior to art.
Indeed perhaps it the artist who has reason to be fearful. For I would suggest that advertising is eminently superior to contemporary art. It has a purpose beyond its own existence in the pursuit of which, its craft and aesthetics are marshalled. Unlike so much of contemporary art it seeks not to merely proclaim its existence (“I am Advertising!”) but actually to make a difference, to have an effect in the real world. In doing so it publicises the things that give us pleasure and satisfaction, it recognises that it is nothing without the engagement of its audience, and it seeks to find a common ground of interest and meaning with that audience. It is transparent about that purpose. And there is no conspiracy and no con-trick.
So fuck art.
Jean Baudrillard, The Conspiracy of Art
Sean Condon, The Secret of Success is A Secret
Freize Magazine, ‘A Serious business: What is means to be a professional artist’, 12.03.09
Roger Scruton, ‘The great swindle‘
In a police line-up, the probability that an individual is guilty increases with the first three witnesses who unanimously identify him or her, but then decreases with additional unanimous witness identifications.
Under Jewish law, one could not be unanimously convicted of a capital crime – it was held that the absence of even one dissenting opinion among the judges indicated that there must remain some form of undiscovered exculpatory evidence.
If you want to nerd out on Bayesian statistics, I refer you to Lachlan J. Gunn, et al’s ‘Too good to be true: when overwhelming evidence fails to convince,’ published this month by The Royal Society.
In the meantime, it would seem to rather make a mockery of seeking unanimous feedback – whether it’s from clients or from consumers – to ideas.
Because if absolutely everybody is loving (or hating) something, then the chances are something hasn’t been thought about.
Just a thought.
Thanks go to Shane at the brilliant and essential Farnham Street for unearthing this gem
The first working week of a new year is around the corner.
A good enough reason as any to revisit and recommit once again to an old resolution.
Because here’s the thing.
Look past all the rhetoric, the confident future gazing, the self-congratulation, the slick case studies, the awards, the campaigns du jour, the smartass blogs, the authoritative keynote speeches… and it’s plain that the vast majority of what we produce as an industry isn’t brilliant or even good.
Most of what our industry puts out into the world is banal, mediocre, unremarkable.
Some of it is much, much worse – patronizing, insulting, hectoring, polluting, stupid, intrusive, toxic.
Perhaps this is not surprising at all.
Perhaps advertising simply conforms to what the American science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon termed ‘Sturgeons Revelation’ (or ‘Sturgeon’s Law’ as it is often referred to). As he put it in in the March 1958 issue of Venture magazine:
I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud. Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.”
All that effort, all that ingenuity, all that inspiration, all those years perfecting one’s craft, all those long hours, all that Powerpoint, all those brilliant rationales, all those conference calls… all those missed school plays and cancelled dates, all those postponed vacations, all those lovers never loved, all those bedtime stories never told, all those plans postponed, all those promises broken, all those passions never pursued…
To produce crap?
I confess I know from years of firsthand experience that producing crap takes almost as much time and effort as producing stuff that’s good or better.
So it strikes me that we have a choice.
We can choose to make those sacrifices in the name of producing crap, or in the name of producing something good.
As a new year begins, as we switch the laptops back on, as we resume the rhythms of the working week, picking up unfinished tasks and starting fresh ones… as clients, as creatives, as account people, as planners, let’s all say No to crap.
Crap conversations. Crap teamwork. Crap ambitions. Crap expectations. Crap standards. Crap objectives. Crap briefs. Crap advice. Crap feedback…
Because if we aren’t going to reclaim more of our lives, then at the very least we should maintain (or reclaim) our standards.