an examination of the ethics of contemporary art and advertising

By Tazetta

As painful as real art
In the most glamorous district of Milan, floating above stick-thin nymphets decked out in Gucci and Prada, a naked, emaciated woman stares out from a billboard. “No Anorexia,” the billboard declares, its text framing her sallow head. Beside the woman’s skeletal feet, in shocking pink scrawl, glares the name of the Italian fashion brand funding this advertisement: No.l.ita. Oliviero Toscani, the Italian photographer and enfant terrible of the ad industry, was hired to shoot the campaign in 2007. Immediately after the image’s September release, a tsunami of criticism hit Toscani and No.l.ita. Critics called the ad shamefully manipulative, mere shock tactics and exploitative. How dare Toscani use the pain of this woman (the severely anorexic Isabelle Caro) for commercial profit? Finally, the ad’s most egregious offense seems to be the apparent hypocrisy of criticizing the fashion industry from an insider’s position. All of these arguments are true: Toscani is manipulative; his ad is somewhat exploitative and is not free of hypocrisy. However, he is no guiltier of this than most contemporary artists. Although his work has been morally condemned, Toscani’s campaign uses the same techniques, perhaps more ethically, as most contemporary art that is comparatively immune to criticism.

While it is tempting to write this image off as yet another crass advertisement, Toscani’s photograph should be analyzed as a work of contemporary art. Jean Baudrillard describes high art and advertising as participants in a frenzied “orgy,” and the two worlds have long been involved in a deeply incestuous relationship, one that is now more visible than ever. Art historian Julian Stallabrass suggests that mass media and contemporary art have “moved together;” that art has begun to “[tie] itself more closely to the consumerist world,” while advertising now seeks to appear more “like a work of art,” that is, insightful, provocative and morally instructive. While Dove shows viewers what “Real Women” look like, contemporary artist Damien Hirst collaborates with the Olsen twins to design a $55,000 backpack. For Stallabrass, advertising and contemporary art operate in similar ways: they both rely on publicity, brand recognition and sales.

Back to School?

Toscani’s “No Anorexia” campaign deliberately seeks attention in a way that has become a standard practice in much contemporary art. The advertisement is shocking and intentionally so: Toscani grabs the viewer’s attention in order to highlight the fashion brand No.l.ita. The ad’s gallery is the city billboard in major fashion cities, high-end fashion magazines and the ever-ubiquitous Internet. Whatever the situation, Toscani’s “starving Caro” is always well placed to draw in and shock the viewer—in fact, its draw is shock. When strolling in Milan, Paris or any major fashion hub, we are accustomed to seeing an endless parade of thin, pouty, tall and exceptionally glamorous women. When you are accosted by Caro’s nude, skeletal figure popping out against a black and white background, it is a sudden and ugly glimpse of reality. She looks impossibly thin, her ribs and spine protruding from her back, her eyes bulging out of her gaunt skull, tendons sticking out of her legs and an odd patch of white on her bottom where her skin is especially thin. And if that is not enough, her thinness is emphasized by Toscani’s reference to voluptuous and sensual Odalisques. The photographer has placed Caro in a pose that echoes Jean-Dominique Ingres’s La Grande Odalisque. It is an awful contrast.

She's not dying
One of the fascinating aspects of Toscani’s ad is how meaning is not delayed, but fast and direct: “Anorexia” is spelled out next to the word “No,” making it clear that Caro’s plight is not political or economic, but cultural. Caro, a French public figure, weighed about sixty pounds at the time. She had been anorexic since the age of thirteen and ultimately died of anorexia-induced health complications in 2010. For a viewer who is routinely saturated with stunning images of tall women in haute couture, the near-dead Caro challenges this surrounding illusion of an effortlessly glamorous fashion world. What is shocking is that anorexia actually takes a kind of hard and dedicated work and isn’t effortless at all. Toscani understands this and plays on our understanding of fashion advertisements. He means to shock, which only makes his work all the more effective, as advertising and art.

Yet, this type of spectacular attention grabbing is hardly unique to the world of advertising. The movement of “Young British Artists” has also sought to destabilize viewers through the use of shocking subject matter. No artist exemplifies this better than Damien Hirst. Hirst’s A Thousand Years, like Toscani’s photograph of Caro, relies on shock and its ability to make us remember it long after experiencing it. It’s close to Julia Kristeva’s notion of the “abject,” where horror is imagined as coming face-to-face with death. Hirst’s A Thousand Years is a virtual case study. We’re confronted with two glass cases: in one case we see larvae become flies, which buzz to the other case to feed on a rotting cow’s head, then fly away to be zapped by a hanging insect-o-cutor. While Hirst would have us believe that this work reveals the “reality” of life and death, this meaning is secondary to its first one: to shock the viewer with actual death. It is difficult to process the installation’s possible meanings amidst the incessant sound of buzzing flies, the smell of rotting flesh and the continuous zap of crisped insects. Like Toscani’s advertisement, Hirst’s A Thousand Years throws the viewer into an agitated state.
Do you really want to look?
This is certainly not the first time that Hirst or Toscani has created a media frenzy. Hirst’s shocking provocations closely resemble tactics of brand recognition. We don’t remember a brand because we like or admire its values. Anger is often better for brand recognition than a good feeling. If a viewer feels annoyed towards a brand, she or he is more likely to remember that brand and to appreciate it for seemingly taking “risks.” It seems as though the same is true for Hirst: the more severely he is hated or praised, the more publicity he garners and the more valuable his works become. Many activists and critics were outraged by A Thousand Years, which, they argued, had no real “meaning,” but killed animals for pure excitement and sport. But thanks in part to these denouncements, the ticket prices to Hirst’s exhibit skyrocketed and he found more buyers than ever. Controversy, in other words, is good for business.

Like Hirst and his cohorts, Toscani’s advertisements have been stirring up controversy to gain profits for a long time. As the former creative force behind the United Colors of Benetton brand, Toscani made controversial images in order to successfully market the company to young cosmopolitans. Benetton’s global marketing strategy featured campaigns that deliberately engaged in “social discourse.” These ranged from a black woman breastfeeding a white baby to portraits of inmates on death row. Comparable in effect to the “No Anorexia” campaign, Toscani’s Pietà is an appropriated photograph of AIDS victim David Kirby dying in bed with his family surrounding him, his face photo-shopped to look like Jesus Christ. Critics took Toscani to task for “taking advantage” of the pain of a diseased person and used the same type of arguments later on in the “No Anorexia” campaign. Scholar Annamaria de Rosa conducted a study on Toscani’s work for the Benetton brand and concluded that no matter what the public response was to his campaigns, the brand was almost always regarded favorably for the edginess of its advertisements.

A truly moving ad
Visually, Hirst and Toscani’s work also use similarly democratic aesthetic strategies. That is, both artists employ easily understood or easily recognizable referents from mass culture. Stallabrass calls this “accessible packaging;” contemporary art, like advertising, portrays graphic and eye-catching objects that are readable to a greater public and not just accessible to a lofty art world elite. Toscani’s campaign is visually obvious: it presents the viewer with an anorexic woman and an accompanying line of text that affirms this fact. For those viewers who know of her already, Caro is easy to recognize from her highly emaciated frame, red hair and bulging blue eyes. For those who are not familiar with Caro, the ad quite simply reveals who she is: a woman with anorexia. As the advertisement states, the purpose of the image is to indicate No.l.ita’s stance against anorexia nervosa, particularly in the fashion industry. Equally as important is the brand name “No.l.ita,” which is written in the same large pink scrawl as the word “No.”

Hirst's work is similarly accessible. None of his installations or paintings contains highbrow references found in art history textbooks. Rather, they are easily recognizable and aesthetically striking objects: a shark in a tank, a cow cut in half and a medicine cabinet full of pills. Hirst’s objects are as direct and understandable as Caro’s anorexic figure, if not more. A Thousand Years is composed of a transparent box, a white box, a fly zapper, flies and a cow’s head. Maggots turn into flies, flies feed on the cow’s head and then the flies are zapped and meet their death. Despite the work’s slightly misleading cerebral title, it is clear that it is designed to represent a circle of life and it conveys this in a visually direct way.

Furthermore, this leads to the most glaring parallel: whether their patron is a fashion company or Charles Saatchi, Toscani and Hirst are both sales-driven. In both men’s work, social meaning is often eclipsed by the desire to make a profit and there is no effort to hide this. The brand name “No.l.ita” is the most striking word on the poster, making it clear that the primary purpose of the ad is not, in fact, to combat anorexia, but rather to attract young women to buy clothes. Likewise, Hirst’s exorbitant sales and participation in a pricey consumer world literally define his art practice. In 2011, the artist allegedly sold a diamond-encrusted platinum skull, entitled For the Love of God, for one hundred million dollars. Although Hirst characterized the piece as “ethereal” and “timeless,” art critics were more accurate in their descriptions of it as “headline-grabbing,” its attempt at critique “eclipsed by the dazzle” of its diamonds’ price. Interesting mainly for its monetary value, the piece not only participates to an excessive degree in consumer culture, but also shapes and defines it. Hirst used a staggering 8,601 high-quality diamonds for the skull, which, he did not deny, were most likely acquired by immoral means. A journalist posits that Hirst will go down in the Guinness Book of World Records not as a great creator of prophetic meaning, but as the world’s “most extravagant artist.”

As Howard Becker explains, the “art worlds” --in this case, advertising and contemporary art-- are often contiguous, performing the same activities for similar ends. Yet, if Toscani’s advertisement and Hirst’s so-called “high art” perform more or less the same activity, why is Toscani’s work so often condemned as immoral and “exploitative” whereas Hirst, using the same tactics, is graced with such rambling praises as “he makes you ponder mortality” and he “encapsulate[s] the dialectical oppositions and tensions of social relations; of mind and body, of reproductive cycles and death throes, of being in and out of love.” We still reside in a world that has certain misconceptions about the artist, namely that he or she is necessarily violating certain taboos for the greater good, to teach us something about morality. In short, high art like Hirst’s claims to take a moral high ground. Yet it is Toscani’s advertisement, if anything, which is a more ethical, honest and ultimately instructive work of art.

Hirst's work is unashamedly corrupt and exudes a cruel, mocking exploitation of most things he touches. In his Mother and Child, Divided, Hirst bisects a cow and a calf, then separates the two halves and cows from each other. There is a cold ridicule of the animals in Hirst’s work, as the artist separates them not only from their own bodies, but also separates them as a family. The viewer is revolted by the mirrored poses—slit open, their guts eerily exposed and bathed in the sterile blue glow of formaldehyde. Furthermore, a space is left in between the halves of the cows’ bodies through which a person can walk, sandwiched by innards. Hirst’s installation makes a gory joke at the expense of these two dead animals, something that no science museum has done in any dissection. Mother and Child encourages a view of animals not as sentient or impressive beings, but as objects to be dissected to satisfy artistic curiosity and dark humor. In spite of its glaring immorality, many theorists such as Kieran Cashell have argued that Hirst’s transgression of morality has a fundamental “ethical value,” to make the viewer realize the brutality and “primacy” of life.

Is Hirst’s brand of abuse capable of having such a profoundly enlightening effect on the viewer? This is doubtful, as the artist’s installations often induce “trauma,” a sentiment that Roland Barthes identifies in certain photographs as a “breakdown of language and signification.” Truly traumatic images depict death and gore much like Hirst’s bisected cow and calf, and are often so distressing that they block meaning and any hope of learning. In short, Hirst’s work inhibits any consideration of its greater metaphor. The viewer’s disgust, shock and horror overshadow the work’s possible implications. Hirst’s traumatically immoral works are likely unable to teach the viewer anything at all.

Who has ever wished to walk between a bisected cow?
In contrast, Toscani’s work employs a voyeurism that does not cruelly present people as objects, but that offers them some degree of empathy. Rather than feeling repulsed by his advertisements of the dying, the viewer often feels pain on their behalf, whether it be Caro or Kirby and his family. In “No Anorexia,” Caro’s figure encourages a closer viewing: from a distance, we question whether or not she is human because of her impossibly thin frame. Upon closer inspection, we discover that she is, in fact, a human being, and that she is clearly ill. Sometimes, we feel guilty for looking closer, ashamed by our voyeuristic curiosity. Toscani’s gaze is not as disinterested or as exploitative as Hirst’s. Rather, he is engaged with his subjects, more sensitive to their concerns. Unlike Hirst, who is either responsible for the deaths of his installations’ animals or who makes a mockery of their corpses, Toscani asks for permission. While Kirby’s family was eager to publicize the reality of AIDS, Caro sought to do the same for anorexia nervosa. Interestingly, one might argue that it is Caro who is most responsible for her own exploitation: first, as a model, next as a self-made media sensation, and later when she wrote her bestselling autobiography entitled The Little Girl Who Didn’t Want to Get Fat.

Furthermore, this image, unlike Hirst’s installations and much of the work of the yBas, could be described, as in Anthony Julius’ terms, as “disturbing-captivating” rather than “disturbing-repelling.” As it presents a provocative image with little to no description, the ad encourages the viewer to do some research, perhaps on Caro or on anorexia nervosa. The image leaves many of the viewer’s questions unanswered: it does not identify Caro, does not tell her story and gives very little information about anorexia. The campaign encourages learning because it does not traumatize its viewer completely, and motivates them to learn something on their own terms. After the campaign came out in September 2007, Google search results for both “Isabelle Caro” and “anorexia” skyrocketed. Surprisingly, results for the brand “No.l.ita” made a sharp spike, then in 2008, the brand dropped completely off of Google’s radar. Maybe the moral goal of raising long-term awareness about anorexia signaled the limit of No.l.ita’s share of the market. That’s a mystery that will probably go unsolved.

It is interesting that Toscani’s critically instructive images are met with so much hostility. Meanwhile, contemporary artists like Hirst, using the same techniques, produce work that is more morally dubious and gets by with relatively little criticism. Although high art and advertising are now more synonymous than ever, advertisers are the ones held morally accountable while artists get a free pass. Perhaps we should rethink both what has led to this state of affairs and why it is still true.

Is there a difference?
©The CCA Arts Review & Tazetta
This article was developed in Matteo Bittanti's class


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