Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Banksy, Advertising and Sophistry

Well, who does? At least, who likes advertising as a form of communication, rather than, say, admiring occasional examples of it? The enthusiasm for it among those who work in the industry needn't detain us. It is worth wondering, however, what is so objectionable about advertising. Banksy has an answer:

This isn't terribly to read, so perhaps this version will better help you get the gist of his argument:

It is inescapable that some pixels must be spilt noting that the text was very strongly inspired by Sean Tejaratchi's 1999 essay "Death, Phones, Scissors", and the setting of it into the coke bottle shape was done by an Italian graphic designer. There has been quite a dispute about the text, and if you want to waste a bit of your life pursuing it you will find plenty about if you search hard enough.

The more important thing is the message. Aside from the observation of the obvious - that advertising is thrust in front of us and there is nothing we can do to avoid it - the main thrust of the statement seems to be that we shouldn't we afraid of defacing advertising if we so wish. I'm not sure I ever did feel worried about this, though I have never had a systematic desire to deface advertisements. Avoiding them has been enough for me, though I am sure I have taken a pen to more than one in my lifetime. I suppose the statement also makes a point, rather obliquely, about the attitudes of advertisers to the public they wish to influence.

All of this is fine. No objections from me. Except, of course, the obvious point that one might judge it a slightly curious argument coming from someone who's primary mode of expression is graffiti ("-art"), which forces itself upon us in public spaces every bit as much as advertising does. The point is nicely made by a representative of the advertising industry here.  In response one French advertiser has made a series of imaginary advertisements employing Banksy images. Here is one of them:

"But Banksy produces art." Well, maybe, but only if the criteria for something being a work of art will also allow that, in principle at least, an advertisement could be a work of art. Regardless, if all of the public advertisements encountered on the streets could be replaced by more or less subtle Bansky-like pictorial and linguistic reflections on modern life (graffiti-art), that would probably be an improvement. But we would, of course,  have the right to deface them and loath their creators that Banksy so eloquently articulates. Doing so would not make you a cultural vandal, but someone fighting back against the arrogance of the graffiti artists who presume to force their uninvited thoughts and images upon us. The deeper problem is that Banksy's work, like so much of contemporary art, has a deep relationship to the ends and means of advertising. If Damian Hurst had not become the artist he has become, he could have been a world leader in marketing and advertising. The key difference between contemporary artists and advertisers is that for the former they themselves are the brand their work promotes.

Enough of this. Surely we can do better in our critique of advertising than this stuff. I won't pretend to do more than scratch the surface of what might be said, but here are a few points. So much advertising is aesthetically objectionable. It is ugly in appearance and trite in message. It celebrates falsity in so many of that terms meanings. People are usually not as they are presented in advertisements (Banksy obliquely makes this point) and the products are often not as they are presented. But really, and this gets closer to the heart of the matter, advertising is the celebration of sophistry. If sophistry is the exercise of the means of convincing others to believe something regardless of its truth - and this is the sense of sophistry that Plato criticises in the Gorgias and elsewhere - then advertisers are simply the most accomplished sophists in the modern world - edging out lawyers and politicians, the traditional leading exemplars of the craft.

Oh sure, advertisers must comply with the Trade Descriptions Act which doesn't allow them to say anything that is demonstrably false about the product they advertise. But any sophist worth their salt would steer well clear of the demonstrably false as it provides too easy a means to exposing their fraud. But the avoidance of statements of outright falsehood still provides plenty of scope for misleading. But if advertisers operated to an ethical principle along the lines of 'Only communicate in you advertisement what you as an advertiser believe the be true and accurate', then I my objection would be diminished if not dissolved. The deep moral objection to advertising is that it is the product produced by an industry that does not feel the need to actually believe what they communicate.

I remember years ago standing in the kitchen at some party talking to someone who had been working for a couple of years in advertising. I asked him if they thought their company would accept the business of an organisation promoting paedophilia who were looking to start a campaign to change the laws on the age of consent. He thought about briefly and said, yes, they would take the account. After all, they don't have to believe in what they sell, they only employ the means to help those who want to sell something to do so. The responsibility lies with the seller, not the communicator. To be fair, this was the late 1980s, and I am not sure many young advertising execs would take this line today. Still, the point remains. You cannot escape the moral hazard of sophistry by claiming that the responsibility lies with the person on who's behalf you employ communicative deception.

There is so much more that could be said about the horrors of advertising, including perhaps that it is a necessary evil for the kind of society we choose to have. Even we if accept the existence of this necessary evil, we might nevertheless (and, if we like, in the tones of indignation employed by Banksy) ask how dare public authorities sell public space for advertising, or in conditions in which what we do with our property is controlled, why allow companies to sell public spaces for this purpose? We could improve our environment with a minimum of fuss and pain if we put heavy restrictions on the display of advertisements in public spaces. But I appear to have fallen back to my aesthetic objections . . .

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Bad Public Art

Coincidence is a sometimes a very strange thing. Yesterday I read a brief review of a new biography of the American modernist post Marianne Moore in which a brief maxim about art, attributed to Leonardo, caught my eye. The maxim is: "Art breathes from containment and suffocates from freedom". Clearly, the thought is ripped out of context, and my brief attempt to find where it was taken from was unsuccessful, but I take it to be saying something like, great art is more often the product of constraint than freedom. One reason I would like to see the context in which this thought occurs is that I suspect it is subject to important qualifications, but lets set these aside for the moment.

Much later yesterday I was listening to the 5:00pm news on BBC Radio 4 while pottering around the kitchen and a story appeared about Ukrainian protesters pulling down and destroying a statue of Lenin in Kiev. I didn't realise there were many of these left to pull down and destroy, but my heart was warmed by the renewed sense that the destruction of public sculpture can be a powerfully symbolic way of making a wider political point. (For those who hadn't heard of the protests they were directed at the Ukrainian government for having pulled out of an free trade agreement with the EU just prior to its formal signing, and indicated that they would instead join up with a Russian-led customs union. This has not yet resolved itself, and mass protests continue.) And it was in the course of the report of the Lenin sculpture being destroyed that the coincidence occurred.

The news presenter interviewed someone named Andrew Shoben of an artists collective called Greyworld, "a group of artists that create public art - usually in urban spaces."  In the course of the interview Shoben decried the poor quality of much public art, referring to much of it as 'beige'. So far, so good, so much we are in agreement - though I have a sneaking suspicion we might identify different exemplars of the mediocre public art, but who knows. But then Shoben diagnosed the problem, saying that if artists were given free reign they would not produce such poor work. The problem was down to the constraints placed upon artists by those who commissioned the works, and then selected from among the available artists and proposals. Artists can be 'scary people', and those responsible for commissioning works choose the safe, unchallenging and (therefore) mediocre.

Shoben, it seems to me, is conflating two very different things. On the one hand the constraints upon artists that come with and are contained within "the brief" for a work of public art, and the taste of those who commission and select proposed works. I'm sure there are many instances when such poor taste - call it judgment if you prefer - has resulted in the commissioning of mediocre or poor works of public art. But it should also be noted that there are many factors influencing the commissioning and selection of public art other than the taste of the selectors, no least the reaction (judgment again) of the many people who in various ways have to live with what they select. Wanting to 'get it right', and to choose something that will be loved by as many people as possible is just as likely to lead to mediocre work as poor taste.

But is more or less unconstrained artistic freedom the solution? I doubt Shoben it right to think it is, and that is because I believe Leonardo was onto something right about the conditions under which great art is created. But its hard to even make the point without introducing some of the qualifications I alluded to earlier. Clearly great art cannot be created if the artist is totally constrained, forced to follow a set of narrow instructions that negate any possibility for their imaginative or creative contribution. At the same time it is difficult to imagine any public art that is not to some extent constrained, if only by what the law and public will accept. So the real issue is about the proper balance between artistic constraint and freedom.

Shoben, along with the majority of contemporary artists, suppose a far greater amount of freedom is necessary to achieve this balance than one typically finds on the history of the arts. To choose an extreme example, just think of how much freedom Shostakovich had, or Pasternak? or what about those artists who work within artistic forms? The constraints of the sonnet and the sonata are pretty severe, and it would be frankly odd to suppose poetry and music suddenly became great when such shackles were discarded. (Or consider the very different but very extreme constraint upon Marianne Moore, outlined in this review of the aforementioned biography - though a different review to the one mentioned above)

Even if I don't believe that the production of mediocre public art would end if only artists were free to do what they wanted, I likewise don't think we can solve the problem by greater constraint, or trying to rebalance these two ingredients. It is a sad fact that great public art is a rare thing, and perhaps the most we should ever reasonably hope for is a popular public art, beloved by those who live with it. This is almost certainly because public art, because it is public, has to satisfy far too much to be successful on every level and for everyone. Maybe one measure of such love is a willingness to honour the work by putting a traffic cone on it - do you want to know why people do this? - though clearly some works are at a greater advantage than others in relation to this success condition. Here is another example of how the public can express love, of a sort, for a work of public art.

It would probably do us the world of good if we could occasionally throw some of the stuff away. But I would prefer to not have to live through a national trauma for this to happen.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Photograph of the Day

In my computer there is a file with a huge number of photographs, mostly by artists but some by journalists and various others, that I have collected over the years. I was looking for something in that file recently and came across this:

The only information I have attached to the image is "Roseanne Kahn - Sara Federlein". As I didn't remember the name, or where the image came from from, I googled both names and got no results. Well, I came across people with one or other of the names, but what was there provided no reason to think the person was either a photographer or the sitter. So this image is a puzzle for me, though it is rather intriguing. I can see why I put it in my collection, but I have no idea where the image comes from.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Photograph of the Day

Humphrey Lloyd Hime, a 19th century Canadian photographer catalogued sites and people, often native americans, he encountered in the western frontier in the 1850s. This is one of my favourite of his pictures, a view of the prairie beside the Red River, facing east, made in 1858.

Film at that time was not sensitive enough to picture clouds (and they were often painted in), and anyway it could have been a uniformly blue sky. But there isn't much here, other than the title, to give us a sense that it is a desolate landscape. In the notes accompanying the picture Hime tells us that the lack of visible grass is due to a swarm of grasshoppers that had recently swept through eating every last leaf. I first discovered this image in a very good university slide library collection. When I had a bit of extra time I used to like to dip into the collection almost at random - they catalogued it in part by generic subject matter rather than photographer - and I pulled this out of a bit of the collection devoted very generally to exploration. My first thought when I saw it, and before I knew when it was produced or its title, was that it was some sort of attempt at an abstract photograph. Imagine it were in colour, and the sky was a deep blue and the ground a rich if varied copper brown. It would almost be a proto-Rothko.

This image certainly whetted my appetite for more Hime, but although his work is interesting in that kind of amateur 19th century anthropologico-explorer kind of way, I lose interest pretty quickly in another picture of an alienated looking native american, or shanty looking construction. There was another like the one above, taken I believe at the same time and location - but this time looking west.

That stone in the foreground, to my mind, makes it less appealing than the one above. Its also a much poorer quality slide and scan of the slide, but it contributes to understanding Hime's purpose. That is, he took four images, all equally desolate and empty, facing each of the key directions on a compass.

Although it is only supposed to be one photograph of the day, and I have already introduced two, I can't help but post a third. All this semi-abstract desolation reminds me of one of the most striking and evocative of Roger Fenton's photographs:

Taken in 1860, and therefore among the last of the images he made (he gave up photography in 1863) it is an image of a target with what looks like a bullet hole just above and to the right of the centre point. For all of his many strengths Fenton was never able to use his camera to record the horror of war, though at his best he could evoke it (such as his images of the cannonball-littered road the Light Brigade charged to their doom) and for me this image does just that. But then, maybe he made it because he shot the rifle and was proud of having, finally, come near to a bull's-eye. Its a strange image whatever motivated its making.  

Monday, 25 November 2013

Autrochromes: When Colour Photography Began

As is reasonably well known, the first colour photographic process was invented by the Lumiere brothers in 1903 and first marketed in 1907. Wikipedia provides a reasonable account of how the process works, and so I won't bother with a full technical description, but the one technical detail worth noting is that the glass plate upon which the image is produced is coated with dyed grains of potato starch that create a chromatic filter. Since the grains of starch typically varied in size, the resulting photograph have a slightly pointillist and rather impressionist visual quality. These features made them ideal for those photographers working under the sway of the 'pictorialist' aesthetic that continued to predominate for a few further years.

But what got me thinking about autochromes was the general question of how photographers handled the introduction of colour to their medium. If you work in a period of very rich grayscale or black and white - think of those gorgeous platinum prints! - it takes quite a leap of imagination to incorporate colour into your photographic practice. Colour film had been around quite long time when it began to be quite commonly used by artists in the 1970s, following Ernst Haas and William Eggleston, but there was a huge quantity of filmic imagery in colour that could provide material for reflection upon how to use colour, or better, what colour photography could or couldn't do better than grayscale. But in 1908, this was a new and cumbersome technology, and it isn't obvious what it would be most effective for. Imagine, for example that a 3D camera is invented; that is a camera that lets you print a an object or scene in all of its spatial dimensions - using I suppose a 3D printer. (Probably such a camera exists, but I think its fair to say that it is rarely if ever used to make works of art.) OK, you have the camera, you are an artist, what do you do with it? The first autochromes suggest that very often the first ideas are not the best.

For example, this is Alvin Coburn's surprisingly dull Autumn Landscape:

This is the ever innovative photographer who only a couple of years before produced striking images such as this of St. Paul's:

But it is as if given a colour process he was just stumped and couldn't think what to do but photograph a tree with colourful leaves. Along the same lines is this from George Bernhard Shaw (ok, not the most noted photographer of the age):

Yawn. A bit better is J. Craig Annan's portrait of the children's book illustrator Jessie M. King:

Great hat . . . no, altogether a great outfit. An interesting picture, but it could hardly be said to have made much use of the new colour process. The one exception I can think of (though there may be others) is Baron de Meyer. Here are two still lives that clearly manifest an interest in what colour photography might be:

Sensuous, rich and very colour aware. It was sixty some years later that William Eggleston began the turn to an art of colour photography, and from that point the slow demise of black and white began. Still, compare Eggleston's groundbreaking The Red Ceiling (1973) with the first of the de Meyer still lives above:

It must be something about red. Isn't it captivating?

Friday, 22 November 2013

Photograph of the Day

This is Shepherdess by Stefan Moses.

It is one of a series of images Moses made in East Germany soon after German reunification. The images are very much in the tradition of August Sander, presenting 'types' of people - typically identified by the work they do - but Moses' images are more humane and less sociological than Sander's. They are often quite whimsical, as the composition of this image illustrates, and this lightly humorous eye is very effective at emphasising the humanity of people who had been both locked behind the iron curtain and as a result poorly imagined by those on 'our' side of that curtain. Another way that Moses emphasises the humanity of his subjects is through the very effective use of a backdrop, something that again distinguished his approach from that of Sander.

His work deserves to be much better known than it is in the English speaking world.