Just Like An Ad…

We have been warned millions of times not to interpret the past in the light of current states of mind because our ancestors were different from us. We abuse history when we view it from the vantage point of our own age, which we presume to be more intelligent and enlightened. Personally I’m not so sure if this cultural superiority is justified. Why should we assume that our ancestors were different from ourselves? What if they were not? What if the people of the past, in every culture and period, were exactly the same as us, in values, temperament, personality, subconscious yearnings, dreams and aspirations? Human behaviour of the old times was motivated by exactly the same forces that operate today; therefore, if we need to discuss the truth of the past in the light of current motivations, we need to be clear about the present culture: Nowadays it is all about advertising. Period. As a test, walk through any shopping mall and notice how many goods are emblazoned with the trade-names and logos of their manufacturers. My point is that the divisions (themselves the most creative constructs of artists) between art and advertising are meaningless. The boundary between the two things cannot be erected because there is no dividing line. This has always been true. Art, even so-called Fine Art, is no different in principle or spirit from advocacy. Chances are that our ancient predecessors, like us, were equally complicitous in the selling/buying pact. Throughout most of history, painters were paid to promote the prince or church or other patron. They made commercials, in exactly the same way and for the same reasons as today’s film directors Woody Allen, Spike Lee, David Lynch, Ridley Scott or others make commercials to please their corporate paymasters. The only factors that have changed are who owns the wealth to commission art, and the ability of that art to reach vastly more viewers than those actually standing in front of the original. That is why practically all art history textbooks are so ridiculous. They talk about solitary genius, iconography, stylistic movements and artistic influences, with only brief asides on patronage (Michelangelo) and politics (Goya). They all miss the important issue: Money. Art takes place when there is surplus wealth which can be spent on the promotion of an institution, product or person. It is no coincidence that the major centers of art production throughout history have been the centers of thriving commerce. It is no coincidence that in recent times New York has produced more “art” than Kandahar. But photography “for the masses” changed all that, right? Wrong! The invention and early history of photography is rooted in economics. Without the newly wealthy middle class in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution there would have been no need for an oil paintings substitute. Photography was invented, developed, made by and sold to those with surplus wealth, the nouveau riche of the Victorian Age. Which is the reason why the endearing but misguided attempts of multiculturalists are doomed to frustration: You cannot “balance” the ethnicity of early photography and this is not because of prejudice or discrimination, but because people in a survival situation do not produce art or photography. They cannot afford to do so. Only when there is enough surplus wealth, a culture (such as our own) can afford to siphon off otherwise productive citizens and allow them to become fine artists, in order to promote their own or someone else’s egos. But let us quick cut to the present days for a few examples. One of the biggest myths of contemporary photography is that of the solitary genius who is in opposition to corporate money-grubbing. Nonsense: The corporate world is way ahead of that. It has embraced rebelliousness and spirituality as slogans and created a climate where you can indulge a private fantasy about being a non-conformist if your dissent is confirmed by choosing to buy a specific product. Clever. This idea of non-conformity as a sales device is so pervasive, insidious and suffused within the culture that it is ironic that rebelliousness against corporations is being created by market strategists. Rebelliousness is not anti-establishment; it is the sales pitch of the establishment. And the Rebel is now the name of a camera by Canon! I know… You are saying to yourself that the photographs used in today’s advertisements are not made by artists but by commercial hacks. Or, if they were made by artists, then they are appropriated posthumously and, presumably without their approval. That is true in some cases. If ever there was a non-conformist, spiritually-minded genius in modern photography it was Bill Brandt. After fifteen years of solitary creation he produced Perspective of Nudes, a landmark publication, which was almost universally panned by the critics. But the reviews did not disturb Brandt nearly so much as the fact that advertisers quickly stole the idea and imitated distortions to sell all manner of products. However, it would be a mistake to suggest that fine-artists do not or would not sell their personal pictures to be used in advertisements. Examples are legions, from Ansel Adams’ wilderness image on a coffee can to Joel Meyerowitz’s Cape Cod photograph selling Adobe Photoshop, the list is endless. Hundreds of fine-artists are daily pitching their work as advertising and corporations prepay them to produce art, hence aligning commercial interests with the rebel-artist syndrome. A fitting example is the “Barbie” series of large Polaroid-style prints produced by David Levinthal. These have been exhibited, promoted, and sold by major art galleries throughout the entire world. The exhibition can also be seen in a book. This merely illustrates that art and advertising are not as dissimilar as usually assumed. I have heard gallery directors actually say that Levinthal has perpetuated a crafty scam on Mattel: The lone artist makes art which criticizes a product while getting the manufacturer to pay for it… But do you really think that Mattel is not aware of this? Of course it is: Mattel is a player in the rebel-artist stakes, and reaping the benefits of all the free publicity. However, Levinthal has not been singled out for special criticism: He is merely a prominent example of the syndrome. Other artists are more than willing to aid and abet the advertising process. Indeed a special agency was created just for this purpose. The Swanstock picture agency took already completed projects by fine artists and sold the results for commercial purposes. So successful was the idea that the agency was bought out by Image Bank, one of the biggest commercial picture agencies in the world. Image Bank is owned by Kodak. But you are right in that there are many undiscovered artists out there who are pursuing their own visions without regard to such commercial interests. That is why they are unknown and likely to remain so. Remember the old definition of a liberal: “A conservative who has not yet been mugged”. The artist-photographer is an advertising photographer who has not yet been economically mugged, but hopes to be and then will claim that he/she is cleverly subverting the system. By now the conclusion must be clear: There is no intrinsic difference between advertising and art. John Updike, the literary guru, once said that advertisements were “the aesthetic marvels of our age”. It would be hard to disagree, and I say that not in anger, or sorrow but as a fact of life. It is a cliché to say that the best television commercials are incomparably better than the actual programs, and clichés are clichés because they are all basically true.


About Mauro Metallo

A Writer and Photographer equally at home in Italy and in Canada.

4 responses to “Just Like An Ad…”

  1. Imants says :

    Our ancestors used paragraphs to make reading easier…….hmnnn just a thought from a long time ago

  2. Imants says :

    ………Fine Art, is no different in principle or spirit from advocacy…but if it is not relevant to us it is a s boring as bat shit

  3. Fundamental Jelly says :

    Spent the better part of two hours reading your essays, which I greatly enjoyed. While I don’t agree with everything, you make clear, well-reasoned arguments. Thanks for sharing these. All the best.

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