Artvertising: AT&T channels Christo in covering the world
It’s pretty easy to tag most artistic types as wonky lunatics. Routinely, they seem to do things that not only defy logic but that exist entirely absent of anything remotely resembling reality. Often, their level of insanity seems to exist in direct proportion to their level of success - the loonier the better – but this is by no means a rule. Artists simply think differently. From the sliced-up shark under glass of Damien Hirst to the melting clocks of Salvador Dali or the apple obscured faces of Rene Magritte – their thoughts and reasons are uniquely their own while their creations await judgement as to their level of inherent value, or not.
Back in February of 2005 two artists, Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude, installed 7,503 vinyl “gates” along some 23 miles of pathways in New York’s Central Park. They then hung a nylon fabric panel, colored in bright saffron, from each gate, creating a visual that was impossible to miss against the grey palette provided by typical New York mid-February weather. The two artists worked at this project for 26 years. 26 years! From concept to completion, more than two and a half decades passed before anything creatively came to life. The installation said nothing. It did nothing. It advertised nothing. But there it was for two wonderful weeks, 7500 plus swatches of yellow/orange fabric draped in and around one of the most famous parks in the world. Personally, I found it ridiculously beautiful. I can even remember chastising myself for not possessing the requisite spontaneity to board a plane and fly myself to New York for no other reason than to walk through “The Gates.” To this day, I’m still kind of cheesed that I didn’t make the trip.
Well AT&T has managed to bring that strange little bit of magic back again. They are running a new ad trumpeting their cellular network by showing folks unfurling massive bolts of luxuriously billowing, saffron-colored fabric across the country. We see them cover the Hollywood sign, entire cities, the St. Louis Arch, the Hoover Dam, Las Vegas and even right up to the edge of the ocean, covering the vastness that is America. A song plays in the background – a soft, slightly scratchy tune by some guy named Nick Drake called “From the Morning” with the following lyrics:
A day once dawned
And it was beautiful
So look see the sights
... that you learnt
From the morning
The stark little ditty sets the perfect tone for the almost transcendent beauty inherent within this simple act of, literally, blanketing a nation. An officially purposeless image to be sure, yet it’s still incredibly beautiful and somehow comforting too. Yes, AT&T’s network covers 97% of all Americans, but even as the ad pitch is made the stunning loveliness of the scene remains. It’s inescapable.
Once, I wrote a fairly mind-numbing magazine piece about art and advertising. It never got published and though I like to think it was because the magazine went broke my own BS meter won’t totally allow that notion to gain too much traction. Still, in it, I waxed poetic about the conundrum this sort of thing represents. “It can be offensive or uplifting. Sometimes it shocks you with rudeness or comforts in the warmest way possible. It has been known to make one stand very still and simply wonder why or to even go so far as to question every single thing previously held near and dear to the heart. It can waffle between being subtle and obtrusive, inconsequential and significant or even transcend easy description thanks to an otherwise undiscovered universal message. It can even be so blatantly pathetic and narrow-minded that one questions the very intelligence of its creator. What field could contain such shrieking opposites? Art? Not this time. Advertising.”
Can a commercial actually be considered art even when its filthy lucre-based intent is so bullhorn clear? They’re selling stuff. Is that not reason enough to dismiss all that advertising is and embrace art instead for all it claims to be? What is art? What is advertising? If you ask me, they are different until they’re the same. I have come to believe that the whole issue may be as simple as recognizing that one of them just tries just a wee bit too hard. Which one that is - art or advertising - at any given time, resides clearly within the eye of the beholder.