Why Would We Talk about Art? Posted on | LBB Online

If it’s all about ideas, are artists and advertisers really so far apart, asks Hannah Hayes-Westall, strategy director at MullenLowe London. 

Shall we talk about art? In a time of huge democratic upheavals, identity politics, health worries, surging nationalism, the collapse of consumerism, widening inequality, and education in crisis, there is an argument for not talking about art at all, yet there is, equally just SO MUCH ART to talk about. If there has ever been a time when looking at how artists are parsing the concerns of society is valuable and urgent, now is it. Thanks to LBB’s editors I get to ‘wang on about art’ (cheers guys) once a month, so where shall we start?

I thought we might begin by not talking about art at all. Let’s talk about ideas instead.

When advertising people talk about art sometimes it can seem like we’re privileging one kind of creativity over another. But if there’s anything that connects art, from Ai Wei Wei to Artemisia Gentileschi, El Anatsui to Banksy, it’s ideas about the world and suggestions about how to look at it. And if there’s anything that connects the Cadbury’s Gorilla to the DFS Bank Holiday Sale then it’s also, truly, ideas about how the world works and suggestions about how to look at it. Arguably, the suggestion is that you should look at it with your feet up on a new sofa, chocolate bar in hand but I am almost certain there’s more to it than that. So let’s talk about ideas.

If we’re thinking about ideas, are artists and advertisers that far apart? Does it matter? And who would know about this from both sides of the idea fence? I asked some highly regarded advertisers-turned-fine-artists for their thoughts.

Speaking from his Los Angeles studio, the artist and Founding Partner of FNDR Stephen Butler has noticed fine artists increasingly adopting the tools of immediacy long honed by the advertising industry:

“My observation is that a lot of fine art today, as are the artists, are hugely influenced by the language and codes of advertising. In many ways the internet has accelerated the speed of ideas whilst diminishing our span of attention. As a result we are seeing a diminishing return on thoughtful artistic ideas that require too much deciphering in favour of fast hits. Advertising was always good at reading the zeitgeist and creating decisive stories that reflected that moment.

“Where advertising stole from art, craft, art is now stealing from advertising, speed.”

Whilst Butler sees the art world learning about landing ideas from advertising, the multimedia artist and creative director Graham Fink sees the way that (good) advertising can change the way we look at the world as more impactful than much of the art world.

“Most of the ad world looks up to art (and heavily borrows from it). But they are different beasts: how do you compare Leonardo’s Salvatore Mundi with a John Lewis Christmas TV spot?

“Yet both play a part in our society. Although you have to ask yourself if we’ll still be talking about the John Lewis ad in another 500 years time. But swap the John Lewis spot for the ‘Viva la Vulva’ campaign for Libresse and arguably it is a bigger cultural breakthrough for more people than the world’s most expensive piece of art.”

So should advertising be learning from art? Or should art be learning from advertising? When artists with a foot in both camps think that the balance is shifting toward advertising it feels like we’re in interesting territory for a column talking about both.

There’s an argument we could make about what responsibility having the skills to land an important thought about the world imparts. If artists, who have traditionally owned this space in society, are learning from advertising, do advertisers also have a responsibility to consider the impact of their work on society at large? Or is the more obvious nature of the client/patron in advertising the exculpatory get-out-of-jail-free card that lets advertising off the hook?

Or is it all too much to ask from a Mid-Season Sale Deals spot?

This column has made me think about goal oriented art and artists who go about their work in a very strategic way. I thought that we’d talk about them next month. What do you think? Be in touch, let’s talk.

Hannah Hayes-Westall, Strategy Director, MullenLowe London 

This article was originally published on LBBO