Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Your shadow knows: Where advertising gets its ideas

These days I seem to spend a lot of time pondering whether the changes that have taken place over recent years in the broader culture of art are really as damaging as art historian Donald Kuspit and others have been making out.

In an article published last year on Artnet (Art Values or Money Values?) professor Kuspit argued that "the irrational exuberance of the contemporary art market is about the breeding of money, not the fertility of art," adding that "the surge of art buying is money's parthenogenetic way of saying that it is valuable in itself, indeed, value distilled to purity, the quintessence of value in capitalist society."

The upshot of all this, in Kuspit's view, is that "Art's esthetic, cognitive, emotional and moral value — its value for the dialectical varieties of critical consciousness — has been subsumed by the value of money."

At the time Kuspit's piece was published I argued that he was over-egging the pudding. His language smacked of academia's age-old suspicion of anything remotely market-orientated. He seemed to be suggesting that we were in danger of losing our critical faculties altogether, of understanding art merely as an expression of capital rather than appreciating its aesthetic or moral freight.

I've now begun to revise my own position on this as the market delivers up ever more convincing evidence of the decline of critical approaches to visual culture. A couple of recent television advertising campaigns here in the UK would seem to endorse this.

The Christmas advert devised for high street department store John Lewis featured a series of set-dressers judiciously arranging a variety of John Lewis consumer goods into a pile in such a way that when a back-light was shone upon it it cast a shadow on the wall opposite. The resulting silhouette is of a well-dressed woman seated beside a table holding a champagne flute.

A video about the making of the advert has been posted on YouTube here. It includes various advertising creatives and John Lewis executives waxing lyrical about the advert's combination of elegance, simplicity and originality.

But what the video failed to mention is that the concept was cannibalised from a contemporary art installation by British artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster. Noble and Webster have become known for their clever shadow pieces in which they artfully arrange found objects in a pile so that when backlit they create a shadow whose meanings contrast with the nature of the objects in the pile.

One of the most notable examples (right), is entitled Dirty White Trash (With Gulls) (1998), in which the pile of detritus creates a silhouette portrait of the two artists. The work was included in the exhibition 'Apocalypse: Beauty and Horror in Contemporary Art' at the Royal Academy in 2000, an exhibition visited perhaps by Lowe ad agency creatives such as Michael Gracey and George Prest who were responsible for the John Lewis ad.

Studiously avoiding the original source of the idea, Gracey said, "It's not often that someone comes up with a key idea that encompasses elegance and simplicity and is unique. Those three things are pretty rare in the world advertising."

So rare, it seems, that instead of conceiving their own original ideas, ad agencies now use contemporary art as their creative archive. It helps, of course, if they don't need to credit their sources. After all, if you take from contemporary art, who is going to notice?

Tate Modern visitor numbers notwithstanding, contemporary art remains a marginalised cultural activity towards which the general public tends to express at best skepticism and at worst unalloyed suspicion. Creative ideas such as Noble and Webster's shadow installations thereby become fair game for ad agencies and others to plagiarise. Once piped into the nation's front room as a John Lewis advert — abracadabra! — the idea becomes culturally relevant and artistically praiseworthy. But it's not Noble and Webster that get the praise, it's London ad agency Lowe.

"When we road-tested some early thoughts on customers, they loved it," says Gill Barr, Marketing Director for John Lewis. "They were delighted that we had something that was inspiring, thought-provoking, creative, and, above all, intelligent." How often do we hear those words used in relation to contemporary art installations?

It seems to me that Lowe added nothing that was not present in Noble & Webster's original idea, although clearly the social and political critique that underpins their creative project has been surgically excised from the Lowe-Lewis mix.

Overjoyed at her company's ad campaign, John Lewis Merchandise Director Jill Little said, "It is something very different, very inspiring. It really stretches your thinking; it will really take us to a place where nobody else has been and it will definitively say 'John Lewis'."

Well, for me it says, 'Tim Noble and Sue Webster.'

Such blatant appropriation by the persuading agents of late capitalism could be construed by the artist-originators as either the kiss of death or a flattering homage. I'm sure this wasn't what the British pair had in mind when making the work entitled Kiss of Death (2003) (left), (recently acquired by the Guggenheim Museum in New York). Nevertheless, the stuff that casts the shadow — carrion crows, jackdaws, rooks, minks, brown rats, various bones — seems aptly metaphorical under the circumstances.

Given the ever closer relationship between art and corporate identity, one suspects that Tate Modern will have no difficulty in raising the £215 million private sector funding for its new wing by Herzog and De Meuron.

The current Guinness TV advert (right), which shows the people of a remote Argentinian mountain village arranging suitcases, old bicycles and other junk in a row to create a domino effect, can only have been inspired by last year's Fischli & Weiss video installation at Tate Modern. Once again, however, you won't find the advertising agency crediting the source of their ideas.

Paul Jordan, the art director for the Guinness ad, told the Telegraph: "We wanted to do something different and we realised that just toppling dominoes could get boring so we decided to develop it and topple other stuff."
The Fischli & Weiss installation The Way Things Go (detail left) confronted that very challenge, extrapolating the simple domino effect with which we're all familiar into something wackily elaborate and genuinely enthralling.

The domino effect seems another apt metaphor for the movement of ideas and creativity from contemporary art into commercial culture. But credit where credit's due.