General Butt Naked was a wonderfully named, but completely horrific war criminal who, during Liberia’s obscene civil war in the early 2000s, would fight wearing only his shoes and a machine gun. Around him, his forcibly conscripted, forcibly drug addicted child soldiers would rape and murder, the little boys dressed in tattered wedding and prom dresses, colourful wigs, sometimes even dainty purses and feather boas. The fur and horned hat, Hawaiiian shirt bedecked rioters at the Capitol this month called to mind the lunatic warlords of Liberia, people who really knew the power of iconic imagery to cause an immediate, albeit fear-driven, reaction, and watching the cartoonish domestic terrorists of the US this month causing panic, distress and major stock market movements I couldn’t help but think that this had uncomfortable echoes of my day job.
The intentional causing of action by image is almost a definition of advertising, and generations of propagandists have used the skills of our industry to their own ends, but in a world where the finely honed message can reach a huge proportion of the world’s population instantly, the power that rests in the hands of people who make good ads is potentially terrifying. Long story short, I’ve been thinking about what art can show us about different ways of thinking about the responsibility we have for what we incite.
Western art has its roots in ritual and religion; it was a powerful communication tool in a pre-literate society, alongside the spoken word, music and movement. This has resulted in the view of art as a tool for social impact, often referred to as the utility value of art; an idea that would have direct implications for the responsibility of the artist for the impact of the work. It’s an idea often challenged in the modern era, with some people insisting on the artist as a free-thinking creative spirit unconstrained by social norms and by default, not responsible for what occurs as a result of an audience experiencing their work.
Some artists have used their practice to highlight this dichotomy; Marcel Duchamp, the French American instigator of the Dada movement who used ‘Readymades
’ to challenge the idea of the role of the artist as a creator led in some ways to Eduardo Paolozzi
, the Scottish artist whose repurposing of advertisements in collage form presaged Pop Art, and then to the Pop Artists themselves, Richard Hamilton
and Roy Lichtenstein
most notably playing with ideas of creation and the effectiveness of commercial imagery in driving responses.
More recently, we have see this conversation play out in the controversy around the 2014 show by artist Richard Prince
of selected, unamended images of other people’s Instagram posts, leading to questions of appropriation, authorship and rights exploitation, while unlocking a larger discussion around what constitutes a commercial ‘readymade’ in the age of influencers, and who bears responsibility for the impact of an image once it has been recreated for another purpose.
Other artists, however, have embraced the potential of imagery to effect massive changes in attitudes, one of the most powerful non-photographic examples being Picasso’s Guernica
, which brought attention to war crimes being enacted against civilian populations, and which continues to act as a beacon for the rights of civilian populations with a tapestry copy even hanging in the United Nations. After the republican government that commissioned it in Spain was overthrown by Franco’s fascist forces, the work was denounced as propaganda, a challenge that artists who take on social issues often face.
From Ai Weiwei
’s ongoing practice challenging Chinese government narratives to Shepard Fairey’s Obama Hope artwork
those artists whose work addresses urgent concerns are often branded by aggrieved parties as propagandists, the focus the artists have placed on the utility of their work resulting them being held more accountable for the impact of their work on viewers than they would be had they positioned it as serving only the purpose of creative expression.
If like me, you daily encounter reporting on the success of social purpose-led brands and the rising consumer insistence on corporate responsibility in communications as in all other areas of operation you may also be wondering whether this leaves the creative spirits who make these communications responsible for the emotions and actions that their work bestirs beyond their commercial goals. The questions only spiral from there.... If your client’s goal is a societal change, does that make your creative team propagandists? If Picasso, not his client, the former republican government of Spain, is held morally responsible for the impact of Guernica, is your creative team morally responsible for the attitudes they generate with their athleisure ad? Or, do you follow the Spider-Man doctrine, meaning that great responsibility only comes with great power, so is it only award winners who are responsible?
I certainly don’t know the answers, but I would like to know what you think; please do drop me a line and let me know how you’re navigating this new world.