The great writer F. Scott Fitz- gerald (or perhaps it was Douglas Adams) once said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” So try these twin thoughts on for size:
Art is endangered.
Art is everywhere.
Every day we hear about another arts institution that finds itself on shaky footing thanks to our collective financial mess. The National Endowment for the Arts is perpetually in the crosshairs of budget-cutting legislators, and the grants that have traditionally supported fine arts and high culture are fading away faster than MySpace’s membership. Simultaneously, everywhere we go today we are surrounded by an infinite array of screens and signs, each bearing a form of visual communication designed to attract the eye and impart a message. The difference is that this art isn’t generated to spread truth and beauty, but to boost a business’s bottom line.
By my entirely unscientific analysis, the average 11-year-old has probably already seen more artwork (in the form of advertisements) than a dedicated museum-goer of the last century could view in his or her lifetime. So what good does it do to dismiss it all as so much commercial crap?
Orlando Museum of Art stepped into that delicate intersection between art and ad with their August 1st Thursdays event, Message and Medium: Graphic Design & Illustration. Maybe you recall my reflections from a couple of weeks ago on July’s 3rd Thursday event at CityArts Factory, in which I wrinkled my nose at the mercenary nature of much of the work on display. Strangely, I had the opposite reaction to this show; perhaps explicitly framing the economic inspiration establishes enough aesthetic distance to make it interesting rather than insidious.
Either way, event co-chairs Victor Davilaand Anna McCambridge-Thomas assembled an eclectic array of artists to illustrate various approaches to illustration. On one wall, a half-dozen different designers displayed their interpretations of the footprint logo employed by local design firm Frecklefoot Creative; I especially liked the cactus foot created by Doug Rhodehameland the Edvard Munch takeoff by Nicki Drumb. Chuck Abraham’s digital paintings of baseball player Satchel Paige and Santa Claus reminded me of vintage Coke ads, while the naturalistic domesticity depicted in Lonnie Knabel’s “Join Us” recalled Norman Rockwell. At the other end of the realism scale, Cindy Hesse’s “A Short Story” combined monochromatic geometry with a comic-like storyboard format, and Brian Demeter turned Transformer Optimus Prime into an abstracted totem pole. Finally, Ruth Schorer designed wax models for casting metal jewelry in one corner of the gallery, as Jason Burrell’s“Illustration Sketches” opened a window on the creative development process at the opposite end.
If, after seeing all this, there was still any mystery behind this misunderstood medium, Beth Marshall Presents was there with an easily digestible primer on the subject. The former Orlando Fringe Festival producer’s troupe of actors offered an edutaining performance: Jennifer Bonner, as a harried museum curator, was handed a stop sign by an irritable delivery man (Brett Carson); when she complained that the object wasn’t art, actors Rob Ward and Arwen Lowbridgeappeared to explain “the history of graphic design in three minutes.” OK, so the dialogue wasn’t Mamet – more like copy-and-paste from Wikipedia – but the sketch wasn’t long enough to wear out its welcome, and we all learned important lessons like “graphic art is everywhere” and “a bill of lading never lies.”
Outside the front gallery, Vegan Crumbs offered complimentary cupcakes (I can vouch for the yummy double-chocolate ones), and the American Institute of Graphic Arts, a professional designers association, gave out free posters proclaiming “I promise not to use Comic Sans or Papyrus,” a pledge every fledgling Photoshopper should be forced to take under penalty of death.
Finally, in the museum’s farthest gallery, I found evidence that the blurred line between fine art and commerce is nothing new. Until Aug. 21, OMA’s Martin and Gracia Andersen Parkview Promenade Gallery hosts American Brilliant Period Engraved and Cut Glass. Crafted between 1876 and 1916, these crystalline containers were both practical and decorative; they were products and symbols of the growing industrialization of American society.
In other words, whether we’re talking about 100 years ago or today, the answer to the question “Art or advertising?” still seems to be “both.”
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