Though the Brooklyn Museum battle obscures the real issues, one thing's clear: It's great marketing
The wave of British ad professionals who have crossed the Atlantic over the last decade inevitably suffer a little culture shock upon settling in the Land of the Hard Sell. The first surprise is how many Americans are still afflicted, if only subconsciously, with the Hucksters Syndrome: the nagging sense that on Hollywood's home turf, advertising is a second-best creative occupation.
Another shock, following from the first, is the realization that in the U.S., advertising and the people who create it are not considered particularly glamorous. Gossip columnists do not report on their comings and goings, as they do in London, nor do the paparazzi snap their pictures at parties and openings.
This status gap helps explain the American and British reactions to the ousting of the Saatchi brothers from their namesake corporation a few years ago. To the Yanks, the boardroom struggle was just business as usual, by which criterion the Saatchis deserved what they got. To the Brits, it was not only an attack on the integrity of the ad business, but an outrageous show of disrespect for two icons of contemporary British culture.
I've been reminded of the British-ad-guy-as-culture-hero phenomenon over the last few weeks as the mounting controversy over "Sensation," an exhibition of contemporary British art from the collection of Charles Saatchi at the Brooklyn Museum, reached both the U.S. Congress and the presidential campaign trail.
I don't think it's just happenstance that a British ad guy is the patron of a collection that has ƒpater-ed la bourgeoisie in two hemispheres. To create a "sensation" is the highest achievement in the advertising arts, and Saatchi's collection has done it twice--for utterly unrelated reasons. The Madonna with the elephant dung breast that provoked the outrage of New York City's mayor went unnoticed in London, where an iconic portrait of a murderess did a majority of the offending. Here's a collection so daring it offends multiple cultures!
Are we talking edgy, or what?
"Dunga Din," as The New York Post dubbed it, has obscured the observations of art critics, made before Giuliani issued his own review, that "Sensation" no longer pushes the avant-garde envelope. To the contrary, it has dulled around the edges. (I hasten to add that I haven't seen "Sensation," but if that doesn't keep George W. from holding forth on the subject, why should it stop me?)
The London show took place two years ago, and some of its most notorious "shock" pieces--Damien Hirst's farm animal slices, for example--were a decade old. So much time had passed that investment-wise, a few of the pieces in the collection were duds.
But, hey, this is Brooklyn, and for an outer-borough institution seeking big-league attention, the ad guy's art collection, with its controversial pedigree, provides a priceless marketing tool: Extreme Art.
Thus, the R-rated entrance restrictions, the warnings that the exhibit may cause dizziness and nausea and the signs declaring "Danger Art" are at once a promotion and a parody of the show's shock value.
Yet what sensation could be more mainstream, more middlebrow in the Consumer Republic than the lure of the new, the iconoclastic and the taboo-breaking? The target of the Brooklyn Museum's pre-Giuliani marketing effort was the "boobeoisie"--except our version, unlike H.L. Mencken's, is a gaggle of individualists eager for challenging experiences. "Sensation" is a classic case of trickle-down cool, traveling from the alpha consumer--Charles Saatchi himself--to the early, middle and late adapters lining up on Eastern Parkway.
In the course of the collection's travels, some powerful brand names have been created, most notably Hirst, who now has bold-faced status in the gossip columns. Saatchi extended his own brand, having been established as a culture hero/villain in the U.S., too. "Sensation" itself is a badge event.
Indeed, the opposition to the show has given it an array of additional social meanings; it's become the occasion for the taste tribe to come to the defense of the First Amendment, show support for public money for the arts and/or merely express the view that the city's mayor, who hopes to evict the museum for mounting the show, has finally lost his mind.
At a time when Vermeer and Picasso are brands like any other, when you can't tell an art museum from a retail store and the most obscure "alternative" artists find their first audiences among agency creative directors, the line between high and low culture is blurry at best.
The Saatchi collection illustrates the last unique function of high art in consumer culture: to represent the edge of the edge. I cannot say whether "Sensation" represents great art, but I do know great marketing when I see it.