In 1956, Gene Moore, one of New York City’s most-respected window dressers, needed a way to transform Tiffany & Co’s Fifth Avenue storefront into a head-swiveling icon of the modern age. He turned to Matson Jones Custom Display – a firm that was, like the windows they designed, just a make-believe world safely kept behind glass.
Nobody at the firm went by the name Matson Jones – nor the individual names Matson or Jones. “Matson Jones” was a pseudonym used by two of the most influential artists of their time, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.
“Matson” was Rauschenberg’s mother’s maiden name, while “Jones” was a play on “Johns”.
One might think it odd that Rauschenberg & Johns would hide behind a fictitious name to conceal their identity as the duo that produced something high-profile and successful. But if art and commodity lie side by side, they sit on a fault line that perpetually threatens to tear down the weak bond that holds them together. High art cannot be commodified, or so it says of itself. There has been a persistent thought in some halls of the art world that doing so will somehow cause a piece of art to lose its authenticity, its purity. But this is somewhat of a utopian dream. For as long as art has been around, it has been a commodity – bought, sold, or traded by elites as hobby, interest, or mere marker of privilege and status. But perhaps a stronger connection between art and commerce lies in their purpose. It’s true that if you ask 10 artists the purpose behind their art, you’re likely to get 10 different responses (if you got responses at all). Many artists hope their art causes a human reaction, sparks emotion. While marketers eventually want a product to be taken off the shelf, often the best way to ensure that happens is to use communications to make people feel something. This is a shared, simple yet crucially core goal between the two.
Johns and Rauschenberg wanted to protect their reputation as artists. They didn’t want to broadcast their slumming in the world of commerce. For a fine artist of the time, window displays for Tiffany’s was too pedestrian. However, what makes an artist isn’t cut and dry. Producing art mostly for commercial purposes doesn’t disqualify the artist – in fact, there is a long history of commercial artists whose work was purely and vitally artistic.
JC Leyendecker is regarded as one of the premier American illustrators of the early 20th century. He was Norman Rockwell before Norman Rockwell. For Leyendecker, there really was no distinction between illustration and commodity. He was an artist for hire. He began his career by producing covers for the Saturday Evening Post (Leyendecker produced a staggering 322 covers for the magazine). He also had a decorated advertising career. The most famous of Leyendecker ads is his work for Arrow Collars and Shirts. The man depicted in the Arrow campaign was described in Collectors Weekly as “One of America’s first sex symbols, [an] icon of masculinity defined by poise and perfection.” In fact, much of Leyendecker’s other advertising and cover illustrations celebrated the male body. His ads for Inter-Woven Socks and the Gillette Safety Razor prominently featured arms, legs, and backsides of the male body. In defining the ideal image of the perfect American male, Leyendecker’s work is an early example of how sex sells.
However influential and artistic Leyendecker’s work may have truly been, it is not exactly seen that way – at least in terms of the latter. Very little of Leyendecker’s work can be found at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Into the late 1940s and early 1950s, there was still, in popular culture, delineation between art and advertising. Pure artists like Rauschenberg and Johns weren’t openly creating promotional work, while advertising types like Rosser Reeves didn’t have any room for creativity when trying to sell.
Reeves was a successful adman, but his pragmatic approach began to be challenged in the 1950s. The likes of David Ogilvy and Bill Bernbach helped spark advertising’s creative revolution. Sure, you needed to persuade people to buy a product or service, but why did that have to be boring? Wasn’t there a better way to get people’s attention? Couldn’t ads, like art, make an emotional impact, seduce? Couldn’t ads be beautiful?
This was an atmosphere that suited some people perfectly, particularly, one Andy Warhol. Before Warhol was regarded as the godfather of Pop Art, he was one of the country’s most decorated, highest paid advertising illustrators. Among his most well-known and revered advertising work was for I. Miller shoes, much of which included simple, black-and-white ink paintings. They were elegant yet beautiful images and helped Warhol become a household name in advertising.
But Warhol did have grand artistic ambitions. While he was working as an ad illustrator, Warhol made repeated yet unsuccessful forays into the fine art world in the mid 1950s. At that time, the dominant popular form of high art (popular, that is, to the art community and not quite the mainstream), was Abstract Expressionism. The works of artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning attempted to elicit more dark and heavy, emotional themes.
As the 1950s faded from view, Warhol continued to venture into the “serious” art world. But Warhol didn’t believe that high art needed to be something that the layperson couldn’t quite understand, it didn’t have to portray darkness or evoke dread or anxiety. So, Warhol decided not to stray very far at all from the work he’d been producing professionally, for brands. He decided to simply tear down the wall between art and advertising, appropriating pop culture, celebrity, and brand imagery as art in and of itself.
Warhol’s early 1960s output, like Campbell’s Soup Cans and Marilyn Diptych, broke his work and Pop Art into the mainstream. As with any art, these works can be interpreted countless ways by the viewer. But on the surface, there wasn’t much pretense to Warhol. To him, a popular can of soup, something that the everyday person has once held, opened, emptied, consumed, and thrown out – something eminently recognizable – could be artistic. If not an outright celebration of consumerism, Pop Art at least accepted celebrity, advertising, and popular images as serious aspects of culture. Unlike his predecessors Rauschenberg and Johns, Warhol has no interest in upholding a concept of high art. Warhol flattened the hierarchy that had long existed, and perhaps some might say plagued, the art community.
Yet art often exists to push back. It can be to push back against the consumer culture that Warhol and Pop Art exhibited, governments, oppression, or war. While also regarded as one of the forefathers of Pop Art, the work of James Rosenquist was one of the early signs that pop imagery could be used as a critique of pop culture and branding. Like Warhol, Rosenquist had a background in advertising, working for years as a billboard painter. This experience and skill influenced his artistic vision, evidenced by the 1965 room-sized piece, F-111. The piece’s depiction of a U.S. Air Force bomber plane overlaid with stark colorful images of American exceptionalism – a Firestone tire, a young blonde girl underneath a bomb-shaped hair dryer – was a visceral political and social statement. This was a big step. Pop Art celebrated consumer culture, but as with any art it made statements, too.
In the 1980s, a leap was made by a handful of influential artists. If Rosenquist’s use of popular imagery for deeper meaning scratched the surface, the work of artists Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger, and Richard Prince made lasting marks. The work of them and their contemporaries also appropriated images of advertising and pop culture, but it used them in an implicit act of criticism of advertising and culture itself. Advertising has always had its share of iconic images, images which, whether intended or not, represented something more than a product or service. Leyendecker’s portrayals of the ideal man might have begun this tradition, one that endures today, but the critical art of the 1980s used these idealistic images in a way to critique the culture and identity the images were celebrating. Prince’s “cowboys” series appropriated the famous image of the Marlboro Man, a corporate-led depiction of American masculinity. The series used not just the tools of advertising, but the advertising itself, to comment on the consumer culture that brands had created and perpetuated.
Warhol and the Pop Art movement blurred the lines between art and advertising, while the likes of Prince and Koons in the 1980s used advertising as artistic critique of culture. We now live in a world in which advertisements can be seen as wholly artistic. Where, thanks to Warhol, Koons, and countless others who have done so, artists can vacillate freely and openly between high-art endeavors and promotional ones, all while holding onto their public status as unquestionable artists.
Two modern filmmakers stand as examples. Spike Jonze’s 1999 film Being John Malkovich earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Director, and in 2013 he won a Screenwriting Oscar for Her, a film he also directed. While Her doesn’t include brand images, its futuristic story of a man who falls in love with a Siri-like intelligent computer operating system is a clear commentary on the future of our all-digital world. In the vein of Prince and Koons, Jonze uses an aspect of mass culture to critique mass culture. In between the successes of Being John Malkovich and Her, Jonze continued to make films but also succeeded in directing commercials, culminating in a mid-2000s nomination by the Directors Guild of America for Outstanding Achievement in Commercials for his work for adidas, IKEA, and Gap.
The films of Wes Anderson have never been quite avant-garde or art-house, but they’re far from standard Hollywood fare. It’d be disingenuous to call Anderson anything but an artist, yet he has also done high-profile commercial and brand work. His “My Card, My Life” spot for American Express was an acute self-parody that poked fun at Anderson’s own films and filmmaking style. The ad is one extended tracking shot, is dressed in meticulously detailed costuming and set design, and features quick whip pans. All are hallmarks of Anderson’s artistic style, and he’s lent them to television commercials in addition to his many critically acclaimed films. And just two years ago, Anderson made the short film Castello Cavalcanti. The film was financed by Prada, and the brand’s logo is prominently featured on the back of the main character’s race-car driver outfit throughout.
This is a far cry from how the artists of the early and mid 20th century viewed themselves. There are surely some out there who still believe in absolute purity of the artist, the way Rauschenberg and Johns did. Some might watch Castello Cavalcanti and shudder at the sight of the Prada logo.
But in the post-Warhol age, advertising and art are more than just compatible, they’re constantly running into each other, intersecting and mixing. The best ads today do more than simply sell a product. They elicit feelings and emotions, make a political or social point, and comment on current culture. In that sense, great ads are great art.