no.29 vol.8 autumn 1998

Push & pull

Graphic design and advertising are two of the great driving forces in today’s visual culture – stronger than the once paramount “autonomous arts”. That makes them related, but not necessarily the same. Although both disciplines are often taken together as “commercial arts”, graphic designers generally feel they are more “high culture” than the “creatives” of advertising. From a historical perspective this may be accurate, but things have changed in the past decade. “High culture” itself these days often looks to advertising for inspiration, or even uses it as a means of communicating work. When Joseph Beuys promoted a brand of whisky in the 1980s it was an anomaly (and a provocation), but Barbara Kruger’s more recent ads for the Financial Times were not – however incongruous they may have looked to art lovers who remember her outspoken criticism of capitalism and consumerism.

The political opposition of the 1970s and early 1980s has given way to the political correctness of the 1990s – which, by the way, is more a form of oppressive politeness than of politics. To what is left of Leftist intellectuals, capitalism itself is not seen to be so inherently bad: now it is all about the ways in which it operates. If, ten years ago and earlier, advertising was used as a format at all by artists, it was because political radicals such as Hans Haacke and Kruger recognised its effectiveness in propagating condensed statements - and out of a feeling that one should fight the enemy with their own weapons. Today’s artists use advertising and public relations as an interesting context, with an almost academic interest in the means and methods of communication. Internationally acclaimed artists such as Fabrice Hybert and Sarah Lucas, however different their work may be, use images, display formats and communication strategies whose processes closely resemble – and refer to – commercial and mass-media communication.

The “de-politicisation” of art has its remarkable counterpart in a genre of advertising that is deeply political. Hans Haacke could only dream of the kind of social impact Oliviero Toscani has attained with his “reality campaigns”. Even the “one-worldist” campaigns of Coca-Cola and Nike are seen more as celebrations of a global, politically liberal consensus, than as neo-imperialist culture crushers.

Where is graphic design in this mix of contexts and media that links art and advertising? On the surface, the situation resembles that of the early 1920s, when Dutch graphic design pioneer Paul Schuitema stated that advertising was the new paradigm of art and proved his point by making stylistically ground-breaking ads for Berkel scales. Now, like then, graphic designers are obsessed with style. They may merely mirror an obsession of the dominant culture, where style is everything, but to maintain their claims to “high culture” graphic designers would do well to “reconsider the what and the why” of their profession, as Neville Brody recently said.

These days, in contrast to Schuitema’s time, stylistic innovation hardly touches the root of cultural discourse. If the merging of art, design and advertising indicates anything, it is that forms and formats have become “empty vessels”, whose appropriateness and quality is judged more by their content than by their form. This indicates that graphic designers should become as proficient in structuring, editing and accentuating cultural meaning in communication as they are in decorating its vessels. For inspiration, they can look at advertising’s growing awareness of mass communication as a cultural strategy – and the art world’s critique of these strategies.

max bruinsma