Enter Mark Leckey’s room in the bowels of Tate Britain and you enter modern popular culture. Music, television, cinema, advertising fused together as anthropological art.
In one corner of the Turner nominee’s room you’ll find a film of Leckey’s lecture Cinema in the Round. The installation is a romp through art history, his favourite cartoons and iconic images from contemporary culture. But watch closely and among Homer Simpson, Felix the Cat and Titanic you’ll spot Leckey referencing one of the best British ads of the 21st Century: Honda’s Cog.
Remember Cog? A series of car parts flip and tip and jostle each other, domino-style, in a sequence that ends up propelling a Honda car. The commercial needed more than 600 takes over five days and the finished film was considered by some to be a work of art. Thanks to Leckey, it is.
Oh, sweet irony. When Cog first appeared it was lambasted for being a rip off of a film by two Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss. Art had been raped by commerce, the critics said. And Cog and the agency that made it – Wieden & Kennedy – were denied an award at the Cannes advertising festival because of its resemblance to the art film.
In truth, though, advertising and art have long abutted and as high and low culture collide, as modern art increasingly deploys the tools of modern communication -- digital media, film, photography, the convergence becomes more pronounced.
Dig hard enough, too, and you’ll still find people working in advertising agencies who consider themselves artists. After all, back at the beginning of the summer, the Chambers Gallery in London held an exhibition titled Advertising Art, showcasing imagery that blurred the lines between advertising and art.
Among the famous ad campaigns that were hung was work for Boddingtons, Silk Cut and Benson & Hedges. And, yes, stripped of their commercial paraphernalia, some of the images had the power and impact of good art. Indeed, many of them originally hung in the most egalitarian of galleries: poster sites.
And it’s easy enough to argue that art can be advertising. Over the centuries art has had its own commercial imperative, from “selling” the status of its patrons to peddling the marital suitability of its subjects, through Toulouse-Lautrec, Warhol and beyond.
Still, this is all a long way from accepting that advertising is, can or ever should be art. Sure, advertising is shamelessly influenced by art, snaffling artistic images and cultural references with abandon. And the best advertising, like the best art,
demands our attention, appeals to our emotions, etches itself into our culture and holds us in thrall. Yet if great art achieves that, it has done its “job”, if it can be said to even have a job. Advertising, however, has only one job: to sell, one way or another.
If art is concerned with interpreting and enriching the human condition; advertising is about simplifying, caricaturing it in the name of marketing. Art is about pure creativity, advertising is applied creativity.
Debate has long raged in adland over whether advertising should be considered art. Take advertising awards juries. In trying to judge what makes a great ad, they get tangled up wondering whether they should be judging the image, the excellence of the execution, regardless of the demands of the client’s brief. Or should they judge an ad to be great only if it proves effective?
Forget art. Effectiveness is vital. It is a dangerous conceit to call advertising art, and never more so than in an economic climate when advertisers are demanding demonstrably effective work from their advertising agencies. The advertising industry must place a renewed focus on advertising’s contribution to the nation’s corporate balance sheets, not its cultural stock.
Advertising can help drive sales, and the message from adland must be that smart companies will continue advertising throughout a downturn. Art simply doesn’t come into it.