April 13, 2010

Artist University


You walk into an office building. The first thing you do is provide proper identification. You have to sign in; verification of being there. In big buildings, sometimes the security guard often calls the person you want to see before they let you get past them. And if that person's not picking up or not by their phone, you have to wait. It can be frustrating. After a while you begin to get somewhat irritated and your blood pressure goes up. Your temper gets hotter, just as the delivery guy next to you--also waiting to deliver coffee--is getting colder by the minute. Hot or cold, it doesn't feel cool. It feels depressing.

Bank Run New York April 1933.JPG

How different is that than in the 1930's when people were standing on bread lines waiting for a little tea and sympathy? It wasn't cool then and it's not cool now. Yet the irony is that "all the great art ever made is centered on that very thing."

Acting as the legendary rock critic, Lester Bangs' Philip Seymour Hoffman used that line in the film "Almost Famous" to William, the 15-year old main character lucky enough to be hired by Rolling Stone Magazine to cover the band "Stillwater," the imaginary rock musicians in the film. Positioning themselves on stage as artists, behind the curtain they asked William to "just make us look cool" in his magazine rock review. As if cool was and/or should be threshold of achievement.


Selling something called art in Rolling Stone or at an art college or gallery is a challenge to say the least. Being uncool, or dealing with a great depression, either personally or economically brings out the worst of us. Yet, it also can bring out the best in us, as Hoffman's character said.

Look at "art deco" which came out of the depression. Of all the 21st century styles, it still remains the "pique" of resistance' for ever other artist to beat.


Maybe that's the problem with advertising today. We have it too good. Sure there's a war going on, gluttony in Washington, oil prices skyrocketing and people getting hurt from all the above, but as a whole, we've become soft. We now live in a "culture of cool," like the person upstairs in the office sitting smirk-ily by the phone keeping the people in the lobby waiting.

Since 2001, we've all built a security system both in our building lobbies as well as in our minds. Whether it's a messenger or a message, we prevent anyone or anything we don't prefer--to meet or to see-to be prevented from being let in. This ain't due though to a great depression. It's due to a great secession. We've checked out. "Take a message," or "I'll get back to you," or the greatest secession of all, "Let's have lunch!"

In the Great Depression, certainly a difficult time when jobs were scarce and people barely made enough to feed themselves, advertisements of luxurious goods and services were put off. Rather, the emphasis on the reduced price of a product was enforced. The sales prospect for this consumer society was the hard sell, the aggressive, exaggerated, and straightforward emphasis was on price; always communicated in some ways to be accessible to the consumers.


In the film "Almost Famous," the movie had a thing about coolness. "One day, you'll be cool," William's sister promises him early on. Yet later on, "I've met you, and you're not cool," Philip Seymour Hoffman tells William after he meets him.

Question is, is cool really "cool?"

To test this theorem among today's "cool" community, the avant-garde, bohemians or finger-snapping beatniks, a dear friend of ours is creating a test of her own, using an imaginary art gallery, called "Artist University." Whether its today's great secession or yesterday's great Depression, the ideas she's putting on paper are provocative and innovative, designed to stir/smash-through people's minds, with the goal of reaching people's right brains.

Admittedly the goal is ambitious, but when you're trying people to snap out of the hypnotically antithesis to being cool, she knows that it has to be dramatic; be a mirror that people can see themselves in the ad without disturbing their sensibilities. Another hurdle she's aware of is that people view advertising generally that reinforces their self-developed perception, especially about something as subjective as art.

The campaign will be advertised in a repeated fashion as a poster and as a give-away shopping bag, ultimately to bombard the streets with the message. As a give-away shopping bag, the ad campaigns will be portable. The message will be posted and/or printed on shopping bags and handed out outside of grocery stores and malls.

"What is life without art?" is her pitch. The ad shows an alarming picture of people looking confused and unsettled, walking forward in a haze, a blur, all looking very much like they're "uncool."

Research shows that the right brain is the creative, artistic side of us. "What is life without art?" embarks upon the meaning of the ad. It states the importance of art and thus, if no one attends art school, their right brains will no longer be in use or even worse, will "cool-off."


Hoffman's Lester Bangs character, while welcoming William to the ranks of professional rock critics, revealed that he's arrived too late. Lock music is finito. "You got here just in time for the death rattle," Bangs said. William responded the way any of us would have responded at his age and in his position: "Well, at least I'm here for that."

The great secession has occurred also on Madison Avenue. Some of the advertising and websites passing as real "art" makes people look plastic and dehumanized. Who hasn't seen the company web-site that has people sitting at desks, working on a computer or answering the phone as "happy?" Or perhaps they're all standing around a person working on a computer, all of them mesmerized on the screen, seemingly doing a brainstorming session on working together to solve a client's (or who knows, the world's problems?) Are they kidding?

Taking this to the highest level of outrageousness, check out The Huh-Corporation web site, people appearing as if they were working in corporate offices, but on a site that is hilarious. It's a "must see!" Even if these clearly bogus images were true, they all illuminate the left-brain, overpowering the right brain; the mind of creativity and imagination.

How many ad campaigns are alarming and revolutionary and can be understood by everyone, peppered with layers of information, where the ad stands on its merit as an art in itself?


The greater impact of the ad campaign she proposes is to subconsciously communicate to the general public how important art in their lives should be. Art schools today often shoot only as high as to train their students to create "cool" work. Yet the creation of artistic work should strive to reach higher; to give life, color and invite people out of this ever so "Great Secession" we live in today.

One could make the case that ads should exploit a certain type of fear in people, the fear of a life that stops striving once it hits "cool." An ad that gets past the building and mental security system. Like a message that inspires people to save our society from continuing to live in this culture of perpetual "hey it's not my responsibility,"... secession.

"Do you have to be depressed to write a sad song?" William solemnly asked Russell the lead guitarist in one of his myriad attempts to get an interview going. We all saw the humor in this, the absurdity, the death rattle of rock music, which once inspired a generation.

What she's really getting at is that "Artist University" is a state of mind; that we on Madison Avenue should enroll in. And upon doing so, make sure we never graduate from.

After "Almost Famous" was released (which actually included a cameo of Rolling Stone founder, Jon Wenner) Robert Draper, a real rock critic said of the film that it "embodied all the traits of mid-'70s American rock...amiable, inoffensive and enormously successful."

Does this picture sound much like the plastic characters on left brain web-sites and/or of the people not seen, sitting upstairs intentionally or not resisting from picking up their phone to let their appointment in? Secession has its safety. It's safe, but it also makes your coffee taste like cardboard. It's also depressing.


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