Billed as the summer of great American art, and promoted as “the largest outdoor art show ever conceived.” The Art Everywhere US campaign was comprised of 58 artworks, reproduced to a total of 50,000 times, and seen from coast-to-coast throughout August 2014. However ambitious the project was, it failed to break through the visual noise of the city (where we at POVarts saw it). Instead, it either makes the case against painting and photographic art in the public realm, or makes the case for the deep abiding need to support galleries and museums as the primary place to see art.
Much like orchestral music choking in the face of rock ‘n’ roll, these fine paintings and photographs whisper valiantly, but without success in the face of their brash commercial graphic relatives. The worst part of the campaign is that it is a foil to great advertising, as almost everything about the formal layout of the campaign fails. Let’s start with the questionable relationship between the original scale of the artworks, and their enlarged reproductions for the billboard format. And then there’s a tangle of words aligned at the bottom corner accompanied by a colored dot with white numbers. The dot doesn’t say anything more that that. It doesn’t tell you that this is 24 out of 58 works. It’s just a numbered dot. The words spell out the artist’s name, the name of the artwork, and the relevant museum collection. At the top of the frame is the hashtag #ArtEverywhereUS. Whereas #ArtEverwhereUs might have been slightly more intriguing, suggesting that in fact we are all the Art, and we are Everywhere. Next, there’s the white frame around the reproduced artwork. Perhaps it is meant to suggest the museum galleries’ white walls, but the effect is a strange off-centeredness of the image in an ad space. The visual noise of the city creeps in, and its cacophony ultimately swallows the reproduced artworks. The city suffers no weakness, and here art feels listless, gaunt and anemic.
Walter Benjamin anticipated art’s loss of aura through mechanical reproduction, and here we see his notions materialize. Instead of showcasing art for the masses to see, these works are literally flattened out, losing their specific presence in time and space. While these great artworks may be liberated from a kind of ritual viewing that is part of their being seeing in a museum setting, they enter into a new kind of ritual space, one of desire and consumption. There is an irony that these literally priceless (or very pricey) art objects fill the frame of signage space usually reserved for advertising things to people, to consume, but cannot afford. (Or perhaps in this case, cannot afford to see in person.)
We have to wonder about why this public space wasn’t opened up for contemporary and/or emerging artists who don’t have their work hanging in the galleries in haloed museums? For some great examples of billboard space used for contemporary and context specific art see the work done by the Billboard Art Project.
Next to the vibrancy of the street graffiti, #ArtEverywhereUS might even make the case for the aerosol kings who roam the streets after dark showing us what art everywhere might actually look like. In the end, here’s our suggestion – put on great museum shows, and advertise them with the verve and gusto that is the billboard’s common language. Let people know that they’ll be awed and surprised in their local museums, for a short time only, and on some days it’s buy one ticket, get one free.
Written by Chuck Frank (POVarts West Coast Editor) and Kit Franco (East Coast Editor)