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.

‘66 Scener Fra Amerika’ (66 Scenes from America) is a 1982 documentary film by Danish director Jørgen Leth.

It presents a variety of short vignettes with no discernable connecting narrative, other than exhibiting a seemingly random patchwork of objects and scenes that all together resembles a collection of cinematic postcards from a road trip. Essentially an experimental visual time-capsule of nothing-much-happening smack in the middle of life in Reagan-era America.

The film's best-known scene is a four and a half minutes long segment of Andy Warhol tucking into a Whopper from Burger King. An obvious pastiche of Warhol’s own signature film style, although the entire film is Warhol-esque.

While doing their research in advance of preparing a campaign for Burger King, the fast-food giant’s agency stumbled upon the Andy footage on YouTube and took it to their client.

After much high-fiving and a year of wrangling with the various parties and rights owners, they had secured usage rights and set about preparing it to run as a showpiece in the advertising event of the year, the 2019 SuperBowl.

If not the most flamboyant, it is undoubtedly one of the more extraordinary SuperBowl ads of recent times when looked at from a philosophy of advertising standpoint. Not least in the way it spectacularly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, as we shall see.

The Warhol/Burger King spot is, in effect, a ‘readymade’.

Readymade was a term coined by Marcel Duchamp, exemplified by the notorious 1917 ‘sculpture’, Fountain.

Duchamp was a French-American painter turned sculptor. While he made his name as a kinda Cubist, he is widely regarded as one of the primary influencers in the rise of conceptual art. His Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2 brought the house down at the 1913 New York Armory Show – even the Manhattan art public was scandalised by this European weirdness - however following that he pretty much abandoned painting and focussed on ‘sculpture’, creating the first of his readymades in 1913.

The theory behind the readymade practice took a while to develop. It was finally explained in the editorial of the May 1917 issue of the avant-garde magazine The Blind Man, edited by Duchamp.

Whether Mr Mutt, with his own hands, made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, and placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.
The object has been recontextualised.

There are three essential components to the readymade provision.

Number one; the choice of object is itself a creative act.
Number two; by doing away with the function of an object, it becomes art.
Number three; presenting the object as art gives it a new meaning.

In a nutshell, what is art is whatever the artist says is art.

This mini-manifesto represents the beginning of the movement towards conceptual art – and the post-modern aesthetic - as the status and relationship of the artist and the object are called into question.

The new postmodern artists disparaged modernists and their naive belief that a work of art could somehow appeal to a broad audience who had neither the time nor inclination to get up to speed with the latest continental philosophy gobbledygook.

Vous m'avez mal compris, vous êtes idiot.

If the readymade concept can be understood, at the very least, as a deliberate assault on the conventional understanding of the status and nature of art, is Burger King’s use of an existing non-advertising object ‘found’ by the agency and recontextualised as a 45 seconds SuperBowl spot a assault on the conventional understanding of the status and nature of advertising?

Almost. It is achingly close to being a dialetheia. Or a 'true contradiction'.

Had they pulled it off we could have been saying this Warhol film – this object - 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 idea slightly offends objectivism, in where contradictions cannot be true – check your premises! - yet Burger King’s spot is oh-so-close to being an ad that isn’t really an ad and a found object that is not just a found object.


Take the statement ‘this sentence is false’.

This is the famous “Liar’s Paradox”, the statement that everything being said is a lie. So, if the liar is lying, then the liar is telling the truth, which means the liar just lied, which means they’re also telling the truth, which means it’s a lie and so on, and so on.

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.

What are potentially true contradictions in media? Or advertising?

What is media insofar as it is not media?

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

Burger King’s marketing people are quoted in the press as saying 'we didn’t want to change or touch the film in any way that would take away from its original intent’.

Yet they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by adding the superfluous #eatlikeandy hashtag on the end frame.

Before the big game, BK's social media followers had been encouraged to claim a free Mystery Box Deal via UberEats style meal delivery service DoorDash. The box contained a silver wig, a bottle of ketchup and a Whopper voucher redeemable on game day. It was anticipated that recipients would don the wigs, eat the burger and post pictures and videos of themselves, and some of them did.

But now 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 it.
To allow simply the choice of object is itself to be the creative act.

What could be more of an all-American trilogy!
Andy, Burger King and the SuperBowl.

And a burger chain decontextualizing and commodifying an artist who famously adored advertising for its powers of decontextualization and commodification.

The balls to do that!

But they blew it at the last second.

By the inclusion of a self-conscious, self-contradictory (in the wrong way, keep up) and self-undermining element, what should have been a piece of supremely confident branding on the biggest stage instead becomes more like an overly hesitant parody.

And even after the fact, the boffins of mediocrity at Kellogg School of Management guffed in their assessment ‘It’s also unclear how many viewers will recognize Andy Warhol, who died in 1987, which limits the appeal of the commercial.’

Kellogg could not be more wrong. Warhol is very much an artist of our time.

Self-commodification is now ubiquitous. The idea of a Facebook ‘friend’ is not only a reified commodity but is also now increasingly becoming the way we understand the nature of authentic friendship.

Instagram influencers are not influential through possessing any particular expertise or knowledge, one now becomes an influencer by merely declaring oneself an influencer (a readymade) - and Warhol's 15 minutes of fame dictum is more accurate than ever in the social media era.

Parody is, of course, distinct from pastiche.

Compromise is often thought to be in play when ideas have things taken OUT, but sometimes the most dangerous compromises are the things you put IN.

It can be the difference between an ok SuperBowl spot and what was nearly THE greatest SuperBowl spot of all time.