Portrait of a Whipping Boy

Advertising’s grudge against contemporary art.

There is no better gauge of the low esteem in which the visual art of the last century is held in mass media than that provided by your typical evening of television. Contemporary art almost never makes an appearance on prime time. (All right, maybe on Frasier, starting with that Dale Chihuly vase delicately perched on a pedestal in the background; but Frasier is in its own weird elitist space.) What I’m really talking about are the shin-kicks that modern and contemporary art (or more precisely, some preposterous effigies of same) are routinely subjected to in TV ads for beer, burgers, cameras, pro golf, and any number of other mass market products. Let’s take a look at some of the multifarious ways contemporary/modern art has become American advertising’s favorite object of scorn. You don’t need to rewind very far into the archives: All the following examples, with one exception, have been on televison in recent days, weeks, or months.

In one credit card ad, a young artist-painter type fatuously discourses on the deep meanings of the all-white canvas standing before him while his girlfriend looks on, giving it—and him—the skeptical once-over before prompting him to confess that he’s actually run out of money for paint. In another ad for a popular beer, a guy dragged by his girlfriend to a contemporary art gallery is repeatedly flummoxed by the works on display (mostly a caricatured version of the “ready-made” variety) until he happily chances upon a bar well-stocked with brewskies. Grateful to find it, he sits down to do it justice in a Rodin Thinker-like pose on a pin-spotlighted, minimalist white cube. When his girlfriend comes to fetch him, she is prevented from approaching by a security guard who warns her not to touch the “art.” And then there’s the new McDonald’s commercial in which just another “regular” guy is being dragged by his girlfriend through yet another assembly of dubious ready-made sculptural products (an assembly of car bumpers, among other objects) before happening on the real thing: a brown bag stuffed with various McEdibles.

Note the recurrent impostor/skeptic male-female dichotomy that drives this social satire. When the artist figures directly in such commercial vignettes, it is a) a man and b) a self-aggrandizing charlatan; a latter-day Tartuffe strutting Prada and attitude in a TriBeCa loft. Meanwhile, the disbelieving, sternly arch-browed woman stands for the let’s-get-real principle. When the ad focuses on the art consumer, the genders are reversed: The woman is a) a pretentious snob at worst or b) cheerfully gullible in the face of yet another art-world con at best. Her flummoxed foil, the regular guy, will first demonstrate a well-meaning but uncomprehending open-mindedness but quickly realizes what’s really what in the grand scheme of consumables: Modern art is a sham, but [insert product here] is the genuine article.

Then we have what might be called the Pollock exception: This is when the leading character in the ad is shown having his riotous way with paints of many colors across a hero-sized canvas, the messy action denoting some form of creative self-expression or mastery. These ennobling and self-actualizing attributes are meant to be associated with the consumption of the product in question. Remember Andre Agassi during his hirsute, frosted period some years ago, smashing paint-soaked tennis balls at a white canvas on behalf of Canon cameras? Virtually the exact same formula was reprised recently for a Senior PGA Tour ad, of all things, in which alter kocker stars of yesteryear like Tom Kite drive paint-dunked golf balls into yet another long-suffering stretch of pristine cotton duck. Message: We may be fully eligible for AARP membership, but just like that tragic Jackson Pollock fella, we still got the cojones to lay down a masterpiece (in their case, presumably by winning the Kaanapali Classic or the Novell Utah Showdown). Needless to say, the Pollock exception is an all-male province.

But the Pollock exception represents a backhanded homage at best, applied with a wink and a nudge. The subtext is: We know (or at least we know you know) that that drip-and-angst stuff is just another crock; after all, a tennis player randomly hitting balls at a canvas could produce the same effect. But hey, Pollock is securely ensconced in the common wisdom as the epitome of modern individualistic artistic genius and self-expression (as Hollywood just reaffirmed with its latest biopic about Pollock). And since we can take that as a given, it’s a good enough premise by which to represent Tom Kite’s inner Jackson or to sell you on the idea that a 35 mm SLR will let you find the artist in you.

What’s particularly cynical about the lame lampooning of modern/contemporary art in TV commercials is that big-name ad-makers are likely to practice in private life exactly the opposite of the snarkiness they routinely retail in their productions. Some of the world’s most prominent ad figures are also ardent supporters of contemporary art; the most notable example is of course the Saatchi brothers, founders of the eponymous global ad powerhouse, who’ve used their fortune to build one of the world’s most important private collections of rigorously avant-garde and outré contemporary art. It’s not that the folks on Madison Avenue are a bunch of know-nothings and knuckle-draggers when it comes to contemporary art. On the contrary, many of them appreciate, even adore the stuff, not least as a source of new ideas from which they can cadge fresh visual come-ons, or perhaps as a way to redeem themselves in some symbolic way from the various compromises of their chosen trade.

What helps to explain their disingenuous skewering of contemporary art is the apparent conviction that the millions of people comprised in their target demographics must believe that art is pretty much one big scam put over on decent people by smirky East Coast cultural cadres. But contemporary and modern art consumption is actually as mainstream as leisure activity gets. Visiting a museum is one of the most popular recreational activities in the United States. New York’s museums, for instance, are a bigger draw than all of the city’s professional sports teams combined. And for better or worse, billions of dollars are being spent to build mega-art palaces, with much of their square footage dedicated to showing current art, in Boston, San Francisco, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, New York, and elsewhere, and which will receive ever-swelling multitudes in search of an afternoon of art contemplation. While the advertising industry panders to a public allegedly down on aesthetic experience and dumps on an ostensibly discredited cultural product as a pretext for shilling suds and spuds, the public on whose behalf they do their trashing are voting with their feet and Acoustiguides and going to see art in unprecedented droves.

And perhaps advertising’s dissing of modern and contemporary art can also be explained by that very popularity: There are, after all, so many demands that can be made on the much-harried American eyeballs, and it’s never a bad idea to knock the competition.