Signs of the Times

By Bayley, Stephen | The Spectator, May 2, 1998 | Go to article overview

Signs of the Times


Bayley, Stephen, The Spectator


Milton Glaser, who founded New York's Push Pin Studio in 1954, is one of the great poster designers of recent years. He quite correctly realised that the power and influence of commercial art (graphic design) threatened the established visual hierarchy which had painting at the top and mere 'illustration' at the bottom. He got around this critical conundrum with the clever formulation that `we should replace the word "art" with the word "work"'. That's a gloss on the entire century.

When it comes to getting the attention of the public, old-fashioned painting has been continuously under threat from modern media, something Walter Benjamin noticed as early as 1936 when he wrote his famous essay `The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' (in which he questioned whether the true value of a picture lay in its reproducible image or in its unique physical form). This is not to say that there are no great painters today, only that more lively opportunities for visual communications exist than the arrangement of pigment on canvas. Painting has become a relic: precious, revered, but a thing of the past. The spirit of art is fugitive and nowadays takes refuge in different media. Like the poster.

In many respects advertising has assumed the role of popular art. That this presents a crisis for fine artists is fully demonstrated by the vapid and pretentious nonsense practised by most (but not all) conceptual and performance artists. If you strip away from art the assumption that it should communicate visually, then there's not really a great deal left. While it may challenge with its effrontery, a remarkable proportion of contemporary gallery art has no aesthetic content. Unlike the poster.

The advertising poster -- whether for a Paris cabaret, War Bonds, the Health Education Council or Wonderbra - is a paradigm of modern art in its truest sense. It is a perfect expression of that uniquely 20th-century phenomenon which puts the fruits of technology into service as the materials of expression. Granted, the exaltation factor may be lower when you compare Fra Angelico of Fiesole at work on behalf of the Holy Ghost to Barrie Spiv of Wardour Street at work on behalf of panty liners, but artists have always gone where the money is. Today there is no market for Annunciations, but there is for sanitary towels. Even John Ruskin noticed: he wrote from Florence saying that the age of the bill-poster had succeeded the age of Giotto.

But this is not to say that advertising is art, only that it has something in common with traditional notions of it and has usurped many of its functions. This has its discomforts: for anyone who believes that visual art is fundamental to civilisation, the venal crudity of the advertising profession would be dismaying. Nick Welch, son of Colin, late of the Telegraph, is the creative director of a big London agency. He describes his professional community as a `mixture of posh pirates and barrow boys', a nightmare collaboration between wellbrought-up individuals who cannot resist the temptation towards organised lying (or what George Orwell described as `the rattle of a stick in a swill bucket') and gifted yobboes who chose art school rather than the building trade.

Nor can advertising art always be subject to the auteur principle of creativity which governs our assumptions about aesthetics: advertising is a collective activity, not an individual one (although you might be mistaken if you witnessed the tribal displays of mutual back-slapping at annual industry awards when authorship is rewarded... and, in turn, disputed: the argument between who was responsible for the immortal `Hello, Boys' Wonderbra ad was conducted with all the scratchy ferocity of a classic academic dispute). But, most significantly of all, advertising differs from fine art in that its product (the poster, the video) is intrinsically worthless, or, at least, worth no more than the paper it is printed on or the tape which recorded it. …

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