Art Everywhere: the power of advertising versus the power of art

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An abridged version of this article was published by The Guardian on 6th September

Adverts are everywhere. They have crept into each crevice of our daily lives. It is estimated that you will see as many as 3,500 marketing messages today alone. Art Everywhere is an ambitious project that has attempted to reclaim some of our public spaces that have been so mercilessly invaded by advertising, replacing more than 22,000 posters and billboards with great works of art, selected by the public.

The relentless bombardment of advertising does not go unnoticed. As a recent study by YouGov found, 66% of UK and US adults feel that they are exposed to too much, so it would appear that this move by Art Everywhere is a welcome one.

But the project is about engaging people with art, not combating advertising, with the organisers claiming as much as 90% of the population will be reached by the campaign. This is a commendable aim, and certainly something one of the project’s major backers, the Tate, should be trying to achieve, given that only 11% of its visitors are from ‘lower social classes’. Taking artworks out of the cloistered confines of the gallery certainly seems an effective way to demystify art and improve accessibility.

However, whether the project can be considered a success is questionable. “It just blends in,” one viewer tells the BBC about a David Hockney piece. And he’s right; I didn’t notice a single piece of work that was part of the project until this week, after it was supposed to have finished. I wonder how many pieces I had inadvertently seen without noticing?

The problem here is that the sheer proliferation of adverts has conditioned us to notice some things and filter others out, using so-called ad-avoidance strategies. It is something that brands are aware of, and consequently spend millions trying to combat with ever more creative, aggressive and intrusive forms of advertising. The subtle intricacies of Hockney’s style, even with his trademark bright palette, are not designed to compete with slickly marketed adverts in this context. As a result, the Art Everywhere prints were drowned out in a torrent of bold text, catchy slogans and in-your-face images.

The positioning of the prints in city centres and transport links meant that most people were probably only able to catch a fleeting glimpse of the art. This made the art feel disposable and not worthy of prolonged attention, just like the adverts it was replacing. Indeed, rather than the art subverting the advertising, it felt as though the art was appropriated by the adverts, swallowed up mercilessly and spat out.

If art institutions are serious about increasing the reach and relevance of art, they need to recognise the competition for attention in a landscape saturated by marketing images. I’m all for repurposing existing artworks in new contexts, but perhaps the organisers should have commissioned new works, or even adapted existing ones which used the format of an advert as an advantage not a weakness.

Street art, which has been taking art out of the gallery since its inception, does this very well. It is acutely aware that it is competing for attention in the urban environment, and it exploits that setting to catch the eye. By appropriating the imagery of brands and advertising, street art subverts the power of advertising as a form of satire and critique.

Due to its position as a marginalised practice, street art doesn’t just assume you will pay it attention; it actively fights for it. By contrast, the large art institutions behind Art Everywhere perhaps complacently expected everyone to be awestruck by the selected works because of their privileged position. The organisers should no doubt be applauded for their bold efforts, but perhaps they should have taken a leaf out of street art’s book, because with a bit of thought and creativity, art can overcome the power of advertising in the battle for the peoples’ attention in our public spaces.

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