Is advertising art?

Art: THE CREAM OF BRITISH DESIGN & ADVERTISING Saatchi Gallery, London
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The Independent Culture
Picasso liked to say that all art is copying, although when someone copies someone else today, the smell of litigation pervades the art world air as odiferously as linseed oil and varnish. Jay Jopling and Damien Hirst were not amused (and threatened legal action) when the Saatchi Gallery made a cutesy play on Hirst's infamous Away from the Flock (dead lamb in a case of formaldehyde) in its advertising for its current exhibition of advertising: "The Cream of British Design & Advertising".

This seems a little rich given that "contemporary" artists have been plundering the iconography of advertising for the better part of the past 40 years. Andy Warhol turned the Campbell's soup can into art; since then artists have gone through a veritable supermarket of tins, bottles and labels.

So, if they get huffy when advertisers (as represented in the current Saatchi show) lift, adapt or "pay homage" to various contemporary artworks, they are surely getting too uppity for their own good. Perhaps artists and their puppet masters have learned only too well over the past decade the degree to which copyright laws established in the United States are now filtering through to the United Kingdom: there is often more money to be made through legal action than in the creative act itself.

The question of who is ripping off whom is a delectable one. Shakespeare was not averse to borrowing from ancient and, even, contemporary authors. Turner quoted Claude in sunset oils. In Kubla Khan, Coleridge borrowed a great chunk barely altered from Purchas: His Pilgrimage (1613). Mahler paraphrased (or made what we now call "knowing references") to Wagner. Should they have been sued? By Hirst and Jopling's criteria (money?), of course. On the basis of art, history and common sense, no.

The other question raised by Saatchi's exhibition is that hardy perennial: is advertising art? Or, perhaps, given the number of contemporary ads that make reference to contemporary art, is art advertising? The simple answer to these questions is that art feeds advertising and vice versa.

Advertising is without doubt an art form. It can nurture interest, however superficial, in new movements in art and design, bringing these to the attention of huge audiences. Conversely, an artist like Warhol does sales of Campbell's soup a favour. When someone who would never drink the stuff displays a shelf crammed with condensed chicken soup and says, without a trace of irony, "It's my homage to Andy Warhol", you feel that here is truly a case of art masquerading as advertising advertising art. Or something to this inscrutable effect.

In any case, it makes perfect sense that an exhibition celebrating the work of advertising agencies playing with contemporary art should be shown at the Saatchi Gallery, playpen of a man who has made a fortune in advertising and now spends it on sensational art that advertises itself as loudly and as effectively as anything Saatchi & Saatchi could have come up with in their prime. Here is a showcase of Charles Saatchi and the Design & Art Directors' Association having their cake and eating it.

n To 30 July. Details on 0171-624 8299

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