Is it art or is it advertising or is it art? Or is it all just a load of ol’ toot? Last Thursday the charity Shelter nailed the answers to the walls of London’s Haunch of Venison gallery on Burlington Gardens – it’s neither art nor advertising, it’s simply a clever idea. Shelter’s current advertising campaign depicts a series of London buildings collapsing like houses of cards to illustrate the fragility of current home ownership in the UK. The charity’s agency, Leo Burnett, also gave 53 artists and names of note an individual playing card (52 plus the joker) to interpret in whatever way they chose. Standout pieces are Damien Hirst’s flashy ace of hearts, Rachel Whiteread’s minimal five of spades and Boo Ritson’s painterly eight of hearts. Thursday’s exhibition was a great success and an auction of the works will be held tomorrow at the gallery.
Of course, Leo Burnett’s appropriation of art as a medium with which to promote a cause or sell something is not entirely new. In order to engage an audience it makes sense to employ an individual who is well versed in commanding attention. After all “normal” people will sit and stare at art for hours. Imagine if you could get “normal” people to sit and stare at advertising for hours. Wait a minute…
The debate as to whether great advertising can be considered high art or artworks as commercial instruments trundles on, but what is wrong with artists creating advertising and vice versa? Artists have made it their business to sell themselves for centuries and ad men have been trying to win Pulitzers and Oscars since the invention of the big ad budget. Many copywriters and art directors do go on to supposedly worthier enterprises – luminaries include Salman Rushdie, Alan Clarke and Ridley Scott – after all the ad industry attracts big thinkers.
Certain artists have also been attracted to the commercial glint of adland. Salvador Dalì designed the cheerful logo for Chupa Chups and went on to direct and star in a commercial for French chocolate brand Lanvin in the Seventies. Haruki Murakami turned high fashion into fine art for Louis Vuitton, Andy Warhol made a popish promo for TDK in Japan and Joan Miró was persuaded to design the logo for the Spanish tourist board for free and presumably for the simple love of his country. That logo still sits on anything that leaves the Spanish institute of tourism offices.
As the gap separating art and commerce fuses before us, this fad for collaboration between artist and commercial entity is already tired. Sure, ad men can knock out a spark of 60-second seduction, but how would they fare over a full two hours? And an artist can rework the logo on a leather accessory but imagine one allowing a client to rework their idea? The two worlds have collided and clashed and now it’s time for them to whirl away from one another. Leo Burnett made the decision to turn artists into altruists and thankfully not into ad men. They came up with a clever idea and that’s what ad agencies should do, nothing more.