New York Photo Review
Volume 4 Issue 25 June 4 to 10, 2013

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

The Billboard Esthetic:
The Triumph of the Big

Photo by Barbara Confino . Source:
Barbara Confino, "Karnak, Egypt" 2007.

Grandeur was always the province of kings. Looking up at the columns of Karnak, in Egypt— perhaps the most majestic site I have ever experienced in a lifetime of considerable travel— I did not feel immersed, but dominated by its splendor. If anything the difference between myself and my surroundings was dramatically emphasized. As with imperial architecture from time immemorial, the intention was to subjugate and overawe, certainly not to merge with anyone. I for one was considerably overawed and visited the site repeatedly during my stay at Luxor.

Size demonstrates power: and so it is easy to see why this is the model propaganda and later advertising, (which is propaganda for goods) based itself on. Combined with the preeminence of film– the immersive media par excellence––billboard advertisements, building wraparounds, and humongous video screens are the most dramatic visual experiences of our time.

America, the home of the skyscraper and the Big Mac, has embraced this esthetic for its own. Taking their cue from propaganda, Madison Avenue instinctively understood Large, and excelled at making all other media suddenly seem small. If photographers are competing with painters, painters, consciously or not, have been competing with advertising, something Andy Warhol very clearly understood. Artists, too, want to dominate the environment, to loom large and swallow their viewers whole. How could easel painting -––never mind poor little photography–– compete? The answer is they couldn’t.

So it is not by chance that Abstract Expressionism, whose painters defiantly rejected easel painting in favor of the billboard esthetic pioneered by advertising, was largely an American movement. One had to paint Large, or be considered effete, a label American artists in particular have long dreaded. Think of Hemingway and his life long striving to be mister macho man.

Photo by Unknown . Source:
Unknown, "Aldo and Fashion Billboard

New, York ".

The billboard esthetic is the quintessential contemporary model from which so much art, perhaps unconsciously, has been taking its lead. With gigantic egos everywhere on display narcissism combines with scale. Look at Robert Longo. He is not riffing on fashion photography; he reaching for its effect, its ability to grab attention. Though he pretends to mock advertising in truth he competes with it. People like his work for the same reason they like certain kinds of ads: his work is big and flashy and packs a punch. Stockbrokers who buy art can readily understand it.

Photo by Unknown . Source:
Unknown, "Robert Longo".

No, this is not satire, however much apologists would like to insist; and appropriation, that fancy word which covers a multitude of sins, is merely stealing someone else’s moves. Even so brilliant an artist as Cindy Sherman is guilty of it. Her images are billboards now, plastered over the side of buildings in New York, competing for attention with a Seagram’s, or perhaps a Volkswagen Ad.

Photo by Unknown . Source:
Unknown, "Cindy Sherman Billboard,

New York".

In photography, even more so than in painting, the line between art and commerce is frequently blurred, especially since some wonderful photographs have been made specifically for ads. Just as photography became the medium of choice for Madison Avenue, it eventually became the medium of choice for the art world. It is really only a half step away.

This merging of art and commerce could not be more aptly demonstrated than by that bastion of art, the Museum of Modern Art, who did the aforementioned plastering.

The very vocabulary of contemporary critical approbation is revealing: good art is powerful, edgy, cutting edge. (Should art be a razor to your throat? ) And take the unrestrained approval of breaking taboos. Has it occurred to no one that some taboos are there because they ought to be there? (example raping children, mutilating people, incest, etc.) And that these taboos are evidence of our hard won, oh so easily lost, emergence from barbarism?

The mindless propagation of such criteria in critical and academic circles goes on ad nausea, rendering the appreciation of smaller, more subtle, contemplative work moot. If it is neither gigantic, nor gory nor grotesque, it is weak.

Ironically, when it comes to immersion there is nothing like a book. Whether it contains texts or images, it swallows me whole. Perhaps 5 by 10 inches in size, the book invites me in and I quietly surrender to it. Yet when I look at one these gigantic pictures, I step back. Theirs is not an embrace but an assault. Or at the very least an attempt to impress. But unlike the effect of a good book, its impression is so easily forgotten.

The Billboard Esthetic:
The Triumph of the Big
by Barbara Confino

Barbara Confino is an artist and writer whose work is housed in such collections as The Bibliotheque Nationale de France and the British Museum. Her graphic history, The Genetic Wars, can be viewed at Her writings on art and culture have been published in ArtsCanada and The Village Voice among other publications. She is currently associate editor for The New York Photo Review.

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