15 January 2012

Billboards and Modern Art

Buyways by Catherine Gudis, 2004, Excerpts

As motoring speeds increased, from 35 mph in the mid 1920s, to 45 mph and 55 mph in the 1930s, just how to communicate with moving audiences became a pressing question. Just as the text-heavy billboard of the nineteenth century had slowly given way to pictorially based posters in the twentieth century, so did the complicated and ornate scenes that featured panoramic landscapes, history, and pastoralism progressively give way to more simplified, abstract, and streamlined means of representing and selling the lessons of mobility.

To accomplish this, an aesthetics of speed was required that could deliver messages yielding unblinking recognition. This set of aesthetic practices, which incorporated what we today consider logos. Advertisers wished to make superficial correspondences graspable without requiring focus, without calling upon the conscious reasoning powers of their audiences. An image, a logo, and few words were the ideal forms of communicating to mobile audiences in a state of distraction.

By flattening and reducing the number of forms employed in the advertisement, these techniques offered ways in which meaning might be left open. With the logo as the tool of communication, greater numbers of products and advertisements can be distributed without loss in legibility. As time wears on, readership may recognize with greater speed the even slighter variations, especially notable when viewed with less time and attention. These aesthetics of speed and powers of pictualization were strategies by which outdoor advertisers could both represent and induce mobility.

Not everyone agreed that advertising and mass culture were suitable subjects for an art that would express the essence of the American character. Critics Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, and Paul Rosenfeld, along with Alfred Stieglitz and the circle of artists gathered around him, were among those cultural nationalists who believed art should be an antidote to, and not a celebrant of, the unremitting materialism, spiritual torpor, and political conservatism of the machine age. Art, it was felt, should transcend base material existence and restore a humanism eviscerated by soulless technocracy and the controlling hands of efficiency engineers and time clocks.

Figure of 5 in Gold - 1928: Artist Charles Demuth 1883-1935

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