Wednesday, February 06, 2019

deeply superficial

Andy Warhol’s famous Brillo Boxes were first exhibited at The Stable Gallery on West 58th Street, Manhattan in 1964.

More than any other early works it was these boxes that shot Andy into superstardom, and prompt the Columbia University philosopher and critic, Arthur Danto to proclaim ‘the end of western art!’.

Those boxes posed this question. ‘What distinguishes a work of art from an identical looking object that is not art?’

In an amusing coincidence, the original commercial Brillo packaging as recontextualised by Warhol was designed by a fella called James Harvey.

Harvey was a lower league abstract expressionist painter – so far down he wasn’t even on the map - who (struggling to pay the bills through his art alone) had bitten the bullet and taken a job in advertising!

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, and advertising is still a business that few people really aspire to join. In particular, many creatives would much rather be directing movies or writing their novel than trying to get people to buy car insurance.

And so closing the irony loop, the striking Brillo logo had been designed by an action painter; a practitioner of exactly the kind of non-representational, raw expression art that Warhol’s was a reaction against.

Harvey wasn’t a fan of Warhol's work, although he did attend the opening of the 1964 exhibition and is said to have had a long chat with Andy. But didn't mention having designed the original Brillo packaging.

Never cross the streams.

This brings us to the much discussed Burger King/Warhol spot; probably the most interesting and important in this year’s #BrandBowl [sic].

Not because I think it was the best (I don’t) but because it is the most curious from a philosophy of advertising standpoint.

Not least in the way it spectacularly snatches defeat from the jaws of victory, as we shall see.

Warhol/BK is in effect a ‘readymade’.

Readymade was a term coined around the time of Marcel Duchamp’s notorious 1917 ‘sculpture’, Fountain.

Designed to shift the focus of art from physical craft to intellectual interpretation [sic], Fountain was a standard urinal purchased from Fifth Avenue hardware store and submitted into the first exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists at The Grand Central Palace in New York.

Often described as ‘the most influential modern work of art ever’, the original urinal was lost sometime in 1917 and is only known from one single blurry photograph.

To see it today, several ‘replicas’ - authorized by Duchamp Inc - can be found all around the world, including the Centre Pompidou of Paris, the Tate Modern in London and the San Francisco MoMA.

The film of Warhol eating a burger is essentially a readymade.

An existing non-advertising object, ‘found’ by Burger King’s agency and recontextualised as advertising.


This piece of film is an ad only insofar as it is not an ad.

It is what it is not – and this is why it is what it is.

This is called a dialetheia.

Or a 'true contradiction'.

(In philosophy this is the opposite of objectivism, in where contradictions cannot be true – check your premises!)

So Burger King’s spot is an ad that isn’t really an ad and a found object that is not just a found object, yet it is also both.

With Fountain and many of his other 'sculptures', Duchamp’s only contribution was to sign the object and exhibit it as art. Similarly Warhols only contribution to many of the works produced in his 'Factory' (including the Brillo Boxes) was to ‘sign’ or 'authenticate' them as art.

Using that logic, then, what are potentially true contradictions in media? Or advertising?

Burger King and their agency came oh-so-close to pulling off a great dialetheia.

Or a ‘true contradiction’.

What is media insofar as it is not media?

What could we simply label as advertising by ‘signing’ it?

However, BK snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by adding the superfluous #eatlikeandy hashtag.

Because that made it an AD.

It then ceased to be what it is not – and became only what it is.

To simply run the film and sign it with the logo would have been a masterstroke of postmodern meta-advertising and signaling.

What could be more of an all-American trilogy!

Andy, Burger King and the SuperBowl.

The balls to do that!

But they lost their confidence at the last second. They worried that we wouldn’t know who Andy was.

By the inclusion of self-conscious, self-contradictory and self-undermining element (the #hashtag), what could have been a piece of supremely confident branding on the big stage instead becomes more like slightly hesitant parody.

Parody is, of course, distinct from pastiche.

Unlike pastiche which celebrates the work it imitates, parody simply mocks (eg citing a convention only to ridicule it).

Compromise is often around when ideas have things taken OUT but sometimes the most dangerous compromises are the things you put IN.

It can be the difference between a great(ish) SuperBowl spot and THE greatest SuperBowl spot of all time.

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