Gilding the lolly: artists in advertising: Damien Hirst isn't the first artist to turn his hand to advertising. Adrian Searle surveys the art world's incestuous relationship with commerce

Adrian Searle
Sunday 11 September 1994 23:02
comments

The dead cow crashes to the floor of the darkened basement, and bounces horribly, twisting on its back. It's not exactly the Gold Blend couple, but it is a scene from an advert - Damien Hirst's plug for the cable and satellite channel TNT's 100 per cent Weird movie slot, to be precise.

This isn't Hirst's first foray into advertising, though I don't suppose one should count the fag packets which litter some of his works, or his cabinets of pharmaceuticals, as product placement - any more than the fragmented mastheads of la Journal and Figaro which crop up in Braque and Picasso's cubist paintings should be understood as surreptitious nudges to the demi-monde of Montmarte to change their newspaper reading habits. Earlier this year Hirst cut a pig's head in half for an Esquire magazine centrefold; the pig didn't get a name check, though the butcher it came from did, along with Hirst's bootmaker, his tailor and the manufacturers of the chainsaw he used to perform his grisly act. Not a drop of blood was spilled on the artist's Yves Saint Laurent navy single breasted worsted suit ( pounds 815).

'What I like about adverts,' Hirst told me, 'is that you can rip anything off.' Hirst is himself both an enthusiastic pillager of assorted cultural sources, and a frequent victim of spoofs and parodies. His work has been pressed into promotional service by Peperami, makers of a slender savoury sausage. Currently, one of these products occupies a Hirst-like vitrine in the bar of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (its spoof label announces that it is suspended in formaldehyde). Its presence has a fairly low symbolic quotient, with none of the vulnerability of Hirst's dead lamb, or the dread otherness of his tiger shark. If anything, dangling from a length of fishing line, the sausage rather resembles a pavement-bound dog-turd.

Image scavenging and product displacement, from Warhol's 1964 Brillo boxes to Ashley Bickerton's Le Art (Composition with Logos) - a late 1980's 'painting' whose image consists of the logos of all the brand-named art supplies he used in the composition and production of the piece - are wry comments on consumerism and the commodification of art. During the 1980s, a supposed crisis in the question of authenticity and originality led to a position where some artists viewed their work as nothing more than a commodity, to be promoted, bought and sold like any other. This position reached its apotheosis in Michael Landy's installation at the Karsten Schubert Gallery in 1992. Landy turned the gallery into a pile-'em-high cut-price supermarket, filled with brightly-coloured scrawled injunctions: Buy Now While Stocks Last. The gallery became an artistic Kwik-Save, with nothing to buy but the slogans themselves. Such artistic short- circuiting reduced art to a highly- fetishised token, and criticism to the status of the market report.

Damien Hirst claims to regard advertising as just another medium - an attitude which makes the activities of artists who lent their names and their skills to the promotion of the occasional perfume or the odd camera (Warhol once did an ad for Polaroid, and minimalist artist Sol leWitt has designed packaging for Nino Ricci) seem positively innocent. While art itself has now had a long relationship with the advertisers, art criticism, often in itself little more than a disguised form of advertising and promotion, has rarely been at the call of the ad agencies. Brian Sewell's sound-bite coda to the Gino Ginelli ice cream ad, and his voice-over for Robinson's barley waters, have everything to do with his credentials as an art critic. The panjandrums of corporate advertising have picked him up with more complex thoughts in mind than the peculiar Edwardian plumbing of his larynx. He's doing the ice cream ad because it is nominally Italian: as an old Courtauld Institute hand Sewell knows a thing or two about the Quattrocento, and the mere sound of his voice gilds the lolly with an aura of Italianate, Grand Tour sophistication.

Sewell's vocal delivery recalls a time set in aspic, a reminder of the days when Britons got to the Wimbledon finals and the players drank Robinson's Lemon Barley instead of Coke. He is also perceived to stand for traditional values in a world gone mad: his appearance in both these campaigns is as fitting and seamless as Hirst's intervention on behalf of a wacky movie channel. Sewell may have been the inspiration for the pretentious art critic who presides over the hellish, game-show parody of modern art in the new TV ad for Stella Artois. The ad includes joke versions of Yves Klein (an artist who died over 30 years ago) and the modish, grunge-art of Sarah Lucas. The endless recycling and requotation of images and styles breeds a deadening familiarity, and advertisers are keenly aware of the need to exploit the novel potential of the latest avant- garde manoeuvre.

The merging of art and commerce now seems complete, and it is difficult to tell where art ends and the sell begins. Beck's beer promotes Gilbert and George and Rachel Whiteread on their limited edition bottle lables, but do the artists sponsor Beck's? Art's flirtation with advertising is no longer the innocent affair it was in 1886, when Pears soap bought Millais' Bubbles as part of an early campaign to promote their soap, or when Marcel Duchamp took an advert for Saporin Enamel and 'adjusted' it to make a joke about the poet Apollinaire, in 1916.

The unprecedented publicity which has come to surround the Turner Prize has helped thrust contemporary art into the foreground of popular culture, and while advertisers have been using the works of da Vinci, van Gogh and Constable in their campaigns for years, the recent proliferation of adverts involving new art is undoubtedly the result. That artists should start to get involved in advertising in order to get their own back is no bad thing.

After all, when Michelangelo's Adam appears in publicity campaigns for ties, hotels, hi-fi, banks and political parties, we are apt to decry the sacrilege. We forget that the Sistine Chapel was painted to order, on receipt of a chit from the Pope, as a biblical advertisement.

(Photographs omitted)

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments