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Saturday, March 30, 2013

Ad Art

Four Freedoms, 1943, Norman Rockwell
One of the things that rankles me most is that some of the best art created, now and especially in the past, is thought to be not art at all. The reason? Because it is (literally) designed to sell. Art has many purposes. That's just one of them. Think where we'd be without buying and selling. Insofar as my pet peeves are concerned, the denigration of "ad art" is right up there with the related penchant those in the "fine" art world have of looking down on the artists skilled at creating ad art as "merely" illustrators. Such aesthetic snobs use the term with the same distaste usually reserved for lawyers, politicians, and used car salesmen. Of course, there are hundreds of excellent artists who have suffered under the curse of being relegated to this second class citizenship but the unfortunate poster boy for such disrespect is Norman Rockwell. Yet, his Four Freedoms series (above) alone puts him near the top of anyone's list of great American artists. Moreover, his work often brings at auction, prices in excess of many so-called "fine" artists.
By the 1920s, stereoscopic card viewers may have been on the way out,
but newspaper and magazine ad art was in its ascendancy.
Historically speaking, leaving aside propaganda art designed to "sell" ideas or sell the image of ancient rulers(probably the earliest form of ad art), the art of sign painting stands out. Of course, such art usually had more to do with words than pictures and has remained that way for hundreds of years (at least until the advent of billboards). The real impetus for artist-drawn pictures designed to sell a product came with the technological refinements of the printer's art. To oversimplify somewhat, the proverbial "thousand words" of pictures took up less valuable space on paper and could be more quickly and easily digested that their equivalency in words.

Ad art circa 1876. What is it selling? Would you believe, a watch winder.
among other, less identifiable, items. Notice the mention of the number of "cuts"
 referring to images created from woodcuts. (Love the guy on the goat.)
From time-consuming wood blocks to lithography and hand-etched plates, artists and artisans by the thousands took up various creative and technical positions in producing this highly efficient ad art. But just as surely as the technology moved forward, so did the sophistication of the art itself. By the year 1900, technological advances, combined with developments in marketing and distribution (weekly national news magazines), demanded and lured highly accomplished painters to the highly lucrative field of ad art. However those who succumbed to this seductive lure were figuratively seen as akin to male prostitutes. I suppose female artists should consider themselves fortunate that early creators of ad art were mostly male.
An early 20th century portrait? No, ad art to sell Arrow shirts, J.C. Leyendecker.
Besides Rockwell, the top names in ad art from the past century include Howard Chandler Christy, Charles Dana Gibson, James Montgomery Flagg, Winslow Homer, J.C. Leyendecker, Maxfield Parrish, Howard Pyle, Ben Shawn, and N.C. Wyeth. There are dozens of others, those are just the ones I've written about. Moreover, those are also the ones who mostly transcended the derogatory label of "illustrator." Ironically, the majority of the ones listed above are actually more famous than their "fine" art counterparts. I suppose this, "rankles" those in the fine art world writing and promoting artists such as Joan Miro, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jean Dubuffet, Rene Magritte, Mark Tanguy, Lucien Freud, and Freda Kahlo, all of whom I've also written about but whom most people have never heard of. By the way, the list of artists from which I drew the last group had only one name from the first group. Want to guess which one?
Today the Internet absolutely devours ad art. What are they selling here? Who cares?
It's art that captures quite effectively the intense angst of modern day travel.
(If you really care what the ad is selling, scroll down.)

Did you guess right? Did you have a clue?

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