Unedited first sketch.. changes and corrections are encourage - 2000

Rainer Ganahl

When art goes ad …

Historically speaking, advertisement entered the field of artistic production as early as the arrival of commodities. Consumer products were the result of industrialization and industrialization resulted from and was financed by colonization. Colonies from around the world – an early form of “globalization” - provided raw materials (cotton), work (slave labor), markets and an imaginary to exploit in early advertisement and PR strategies, (on logos up to these days) as well as in art making: “Orientalism” as a visual and literary art form.

Advertisement and the esprit of commodities entered the artistic domain in multiple ways: artists worked from the very beginning on in the field of advertisement and visually enhanced the process of commodification. They did this as crafts people when they weren’t called yet graphic designers. They did this also as photographers and as writers, today referred to as copywriters. Some people used their proper names, others – like Mallarmée, already understood, that it might be better to work with pseudonyms.
We also have to think of people who romantically chose to run away from this process of industrialization, commodification and the arrival of mass products with its visual brand name logic. But dialectically speaking, even a movement like Arts and Crafts in England that had in its program the resistance to commercialism, industrial work and product alienation underscored the logic of commodification by creating a refined taste that made class issues “class-ic”, i. e. something that from then on needed to be purchased for a high price. The entire field of refined high cultural production became therefore a subtext of a new form of inexplicit advertisement that didn’t need to work with company and product names. By the end of the 19th century not just newly arrived industrial products needed names, recognition, styles, changing prices, changing demands and competition but entire life styles were “up for sale”.

It doesn’t take much of a lesson in historical materialism to understand that the development of industrial and late-industrial production, the process of globalization, the development of commodities, their PR- and advertisement strategies and the ever increasing sophistication in the definition of the art work are interdependent and reflect the same technical, production specific, socio-historical and ideological movements. Sharing these contingencies had a twofold effect on the logic of commodities as well as on the logic of the art works. This seemingly self-contradicting double effect can be characterized on one hand as an infinitive differentialization and autonomization of commodities and art work and on the other hand as a rapprochement of these two categories of objects that seemed to exclude each other by definition.

At the beginning of the 20th century it was the Ready Made logic that crossed this thin line consciously for the first time. The arrival of a banal functional object from the Bazaar de l’Hôtel de Ville de Paris by Marcel Duchamps to a fine art exhibition context was symptomatic for a changed understanding of art and its conceptual and ideological context. But this decontextualization was also symptomatic for a completely changed context of industrial and social production, its mass marketing and its new advertisement strategies. From that moment on, everything could become an object for an art work as well as an subject for artistic representation. The commercial world also new more and more how to incorporate the spectrum of art into its design, its imaginary and its PR tactics. Dadaism and Surrealism were still gaining ironic, critical and imaginary mileage from confrontations with the world of commercial products and advertisement. Expressionism and Neue Sachlichkeit starred at products and ad campaigns and incorporated them pictorially when they were in their view. But with the institutionalizations of the Bauhaus and DeStyle the marriage between the aura of the product, advertisement and fine art is consumed and becomes highly professionalized and institutional. At the same time industrial products too became beautiful, completely enwrapped in new packages and mobilized, in fact ran on the first high ways, the Autobahn, until they were chased away by tanks and troops.

After the destruction of Europe and the most brutal slaughtering of millions of people for religious, ideological and chauvinistic reasons including the most talented once in the arts and in design advertisement and art gained a new marital triumph in New York during the 1960s with new reproduction techniques, something that always played a big role in the relationship between art and advertisement. Photo-based techniques had always helped in cheap, efficient and faithful image reproduction and shouldn’t be looked at just another 19th century invention. It was inherently linked to the commodification process taking place at the advent of industrialization. It is the industrialization of imagery production. Imaging and reproduction technologies developed with the pace and the money of capitalism and industrialization.

Andy Warhol was an advertisement specialist that turned artist without leaving his techniques behind. As a matter of fact, for the purpose of his art making he even reinvigorated commercial imaging techniques and subject choices. He gave the domain of hitherto the least commercial subject of art making, portraiture, a complete commercial look and was able to incorporate pure advertisement products into his art work with an artistic aura almost no artist before could claim. A Cambell soup can still is a major signifier for any serious artist, art historian or even the public imaginary, a fact, that I guess, even influenced this company to never even change the product design over more the last 30 years.

Products, advertisement strategies as well as all technologies for production, reproduction, communication and transportation kept changing and, indeed, revolutionizing during the 60s and 70s. Miniaturization, inmaterialization and early computerization are only a few characteristics of the 60s and 70s that highly influenced the production of commodities, spectacle and art and media. Conceptual art of that time was not without coincidence a phenomenon that mostly worked and played with the mere definition of art and its contextual and institutional constituencies. Naming, logo-typing, placing, advertising, and the promotion of all kind of art and non-art specific objects and causes, political and social included, became synonymous for art making. With conceptual art it became more and more difficult to find, recognize and identify art works and distinguish them from anything else. On the other end, media products too become more and more sophisticated and difficult to be recognize as such. Wasn’t it also during these years that behavioral and experimental psychological studies advanced before the eyes of artists and media consultants so everybody could get inspired and latter come up with indirect subversive advertisement inserts into the social world in the world of films and still pictures?

The seventies were also a period where art became defined and famous per se even without a particular family of objects. Performances, happenings, events but also film and video dominated avant garde activities. Artists with a clear political, social or ecological agenda used advertisement strategies directly to communicate their points and interests to a large audience – if possible, via mass media. Even a charismatic artist like Josef Beuys with his interest in Socialist ideas was in no way inhibited to make TV-spots for liquor in Japan. The equivalent to that in the economic world of products and services could be found in early tendencies that become omnipresent in the eighties till today: not the sale of a product or service is what counts most, but name recognition, branding, market shares, indirect income via advertisements, co-venture, IPO’s, stock market evaluations, mergers and being bought up.

Just before these business models became more predominant and put into reality through the technological paradigm of personal computers and digital communication via the internet enabling a industry we could see very intriguing artists interventions that blurred the borers of advertisement and art elevating both to new levels of reflexivity in urban contested spaces. For example, Cindy Sherman, dubbing female actresses in imagined movie settings; Sherrie Levine, copying famous photographers of the 40s and outperforming their fame for a decade; General Idea, turning all their work into a logo for aids activism; Jeff Koons, exercising promiscuity with advertisements, commodities, kitsch and pornography playing with tastes for different consumer classes; Barbara Krüger, stressing the logic of advertisement for her critical politics, Jenny Holzer, using LCD’s and street posters for her survival series with existential and critical messages, and Heim Steinbach with his commodity display formula are just a few names. All these works – whether shown on bill boards, on TV, on large scale public displays (for ex. Time Square) or in museums and galleries - have in common visual, textual and conceptual strategies that are informed by the tactics of advertisement and commodity displays. In return, advertisement as usual was more and more incorporating visual modes of operating artists were using.

These works in the 80s used new media and new channels of reaching out to a large public that went far beyond the mere depiction of logos and corporate names on two dimensional surfaces like Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquat were emblematic for it. Aggressive visual activism in subways, buses and streets was brought about by the graffiti movement with Keith Harring and many others who were using paid advertisement surfaces in public spaces differently: they usurped it and partially had to pay for these “non-signifying monkey” wordings with their own life. Urban police forces were merciless, even gunned them down, if they could get a hold of these artists who often were minority kids .

The trend to challenge and engage directly with main stream media, their persuasive modes of production and the politics of representation was coupled with a fierce political activism against Reagonomics, the outbreak of the aids crisis and the vehemence of new identity politics that vigorously expressed and struggled for ethnic, sexual (feminist, gay and lesbian) and lifestyle diversities. But it was also supported by an elaborate media critique and a post-modernist analysis of appropriation, commodification, simulation, history, society, sexual politics and race. Philosophers like Jean Baudriallard, Jürgen Habermas, Francois Lyotard, Paul Virilio, Frederique Jameson, Judith Butler, Stuart Hall, Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhaba, Douglas Crimp, Slavoy Zizek are some of the many influential writers that were published and read by artists and that community. These discourses had been so powerful that even I as an art student used my 5 years in art schools just with critically editing TV-advertisement materials without even once touching a camera. I wasn’t at all alone in this. Peter Weibel published a book and organized an exhibition on logo-art such introducing us students in the mid-80s to the intersection of advertisement and art. Wolfgang Staehle’s video sculptures were for sure one of the most successful and influential works for that time mostly fed with TV-footage from commercials. When I see today videos and light boxes by Daniel Pflumm I can’t help but feel reminiscent of these works done for the market and in art schools in the second half of the 80s where only companies or art schools had easy access to video equipment.

With the collapse of the art market and the beginning of the Clinton era the radical and aggressive use of visual advertisement tactics came to an abrupt end. The return of the “real” was celebrated without media, without representation, without any such discourse. Felix Gonzales Torres belonged to the last serious artists to use a bill board though his advertisement was non-verbal, non-representational: just an empty bed room without any action, without any particular message. From that period on, the subject of advertisement in the art world was a non-topic. Interesting enough the realm of the economy and advertisement too adjusted to this: successful commercials tried to look not as commercials: “Think different” – Apple’s ad campaign has been using celebrities from other fields and common faces without any association to a technology product; fonts started being used that resemble hand writing; logos got a touch of dilettante understatement (; and fashion had discovered the look of hand knitting and vintage clothing.

Today, we are dominated by the strongest American economy ever, a crazy stock market powered by digital technology that penetrates every mode of production: artist now profit from very powerful digital media, cheap home studios thanks to personal computers and user-friendly programs. But most important is the access to an almost fully expanded internet. The internet has somehow supplanted public space and is about to dominate our political and public sphere. I am playing with the German word for public sphere, “Öffentlichkeit” and call the internet a “Doppelöffentlichkeit” – the public sphere’s double – that expands and doubles corporate spaces and our ways to relate to them and to each ourselves. It is therefore no surprise that not just the commercial realm and its products and services are on line, but artists and their activities as well. In order to maximize clicks and purchases on the net, corporations use all available ways and media to attract their visitors to their web sites. So do artists like me who work with the web: I myself for example have been using my URLs for years in installations, as concrete art works (for example: ; - neon, plastics) and in print media.

Advocating an interest for one’s own critical and artistic agenda and not anymore just for an art work or an art career is inscribed now in the very presence of certain artists who today may use a variety of techniques and practices to make his/her cases without being confined to the way commercial advertisement works : It is now the commitment itself to a particular agenda that counts and functions as some kind of public relation: to name just a few of these artists: Peter Fend with ecology, Mark Dion with biological and ecological causes and me with linguistic politics and some kind of academic and ideological activism using reading seminars, publishing and other activities. Artists following agendas without investing in traditional art objects are market spoilers and easily dismissed.

The last show Damien Hurst produced with a mega budget for Goggosian in New York advertised itself very well as an expression of the “irrational exuberance” only this internet bubbled economy with a new invigorated art market in a consolidated new art district – Chelsea - can produce. This show not just swallowed large sums of production money and other artist ideas like medicine - Mark Dion’s dioramas with freeze framed scientists in action and Jeff Koon’s and Heim Steinbach’s estetics of commodity displays - it also used successfully medical commercials that are worth looking at. Hurst mocks the design of medical drugs with large scale prints that want to be read as ads for medical products. He also used TV-commercials for medical drugs and displayed them within one of his tanks. Corporate lobbying for the drug industry and its important question copy rights and prizing is as gigantic as it can get. So are the budgets for advertisements which are addressing not just the general public but also the specialized, often very sophisticated and art literate community of doctors and hospital personal for which fine art is often a lingua franca. This topic is wonderfully shown by a large series of blown up commercials taken from specialized medical journals for an exhibition context by … (name not present but coming soon).

The use of art in advertisement for influencing a class of people on the upper end of society in order to press corporate interests should be countered by artists who should use art and advertisement as art for influencing the same class of people to resist corporate interests that can threaten our chances for a human and just social survival.