When you first saw the famous Obama “Hope” poster, recently acquired by the National Portrait Gallery, you may have experienced dAcjAÿ vu. The street artist who designed the ubiquitous vector print, Shepard Fairey, is well known for similar work that appropriates the imagery of historical propaganda with little alteration. Some people have argued that he's an unrepentant plagiarist.
Fairey's work is a recontextualization of rebellion that's always been about grabbing your attention the same way an ad executive might. From his early Andre the Giant “Obey” stickers to his Time magazine Obama cover, Fairey creates bold, iconic imagery by vaguely updating the language of the past with modern graffiti culture and attitude. He walks the fine line between art and advertising.
“Whether we realize it or not, art influences our ideas all the time,” writes Joe Alexander, senior vice president and creative director at the Martin Agency. “We glean from music, images, words. We steal from galleries, postings, shows.”
“It makes sense,” he continues. “Ads are a two-way cultural mirror. They reflect us and we reflect them.”
Certainly the minds at the Martin hive on Cary Street are responsible for many of our daily images — the Geico caveman and gecko and the shiny new face of Wal-Mart. These totems are a part of us now, for better or worse. So it's worth thinking about how these minds that live right down the street from us control a message that's seen on every street in the nation.
Mollie Partesotti, a master's degree student specializing in strategy at Virginia Commonwealth University's Brandcenter, says those who can create movements that are culturally relevant define success in her industry.
“Art's motive is the transfer of a concept to an idea to represent someone's voice. But for a brand, instead of an individual, you're doing it for a [corporation],” Partesotti says. “There may be debates over which is more ethical, but they are born of the same essence of connecting with the things going on around us.”
By now we're so accustomed to seeing our daily art in the service of commercialism, such as graphic design in magazines, posters and billboards, it barely registers. Research statistics vary, but for most people the number of ad messages seen per day falls anywhere between 300 and 5,000. Does that mean advertising has become the new context for art among younger generations? And is it a bad thing that artists can now feed themselves?
“Many companies trying to reach the younger audience are doing so through relationships and collaborations with artists,” says Charles Hall, a creative professor at the Brandcenter. “They're turning to artists to design and redesign their products and bring new consumers to the brand.”
Mountain Dew chose local painter and collage artist Adam Juresko to design a special label. He's one of 12 artists whose original images were married to the timeless ideals of high-caffeine soda.
Award-winning local illustrator Robert Meganck's work has been seen around town on posters and handbills for groups such as the Barksdale Theatre and the National Folk Festival. President of a local design firm, Communication Design, and a longtime professor of communication arts at VCU, Meganck says it's wrong to gauge the seriousness of art by its commercial use. He points to the work of Sterling Hundley, whose historical illustrations are featured on the back page of Virginia Living magazine. “Every one of his images could be sold in galleries,” Meganck says.
He still feels like he has a personal voice in his own work, he says, and commercial limitations don't stifle his artistic expression. He agrees that younger students' art sensibilities are being formed by this commercial art, but he doesn't see much wrong with that.
“Just because there's a commercial entity behind it doesn't make it evil,” Meganck says. “If there's any kind of ethical dilemma it has to do with parents not taking their kids to museums.”
And the wall between artist and audience is also coming down. As people in the media business know all too well, companies are increasingly taking money away from traditional advertising budgets in TV, print and radio and allocating it to interactive or nontraditional media. “It's the only way to break through the clutter,” says Ashley Sommardahl, assistant director of the Brandcenter.
Of course, even if an advertising creation manages a life of its own, this doesn't mean we're witnessing art that can translate across media. Just look at what happened to a certain caveman that briefly got his own television sitcom on ABC.
The urbane complexity apparently didn't hold our attention for that long.