July 6, 2013

I Don't Have Time for Art (Pt. 1)

In the 8th episode of the current season of Mad Men (“The Crash”) the advertising agency brings in a doctor who administers shots of an “energy serum” to the staff so they can work through the weekend on the Chevy account. Said serum was composed of a “complex vitamin super-dose of B vitamins,” plus “a mild stimulant” which one might fairly assume was amphetamine-based owing to the 1968 time-frame.(1) During the ensuing frenzy of “work,” replete with tap-dancing, bloodshed and coitus, Donald Draper, the firm’s acknowledged Idea Man, calls Peggy and Ginsberg to his office and announces that he’s “got it” and “it’s way bigger than a car.” Ginsberg replies with a practical query: “You wanna get someone in here who can draw?” To which Don says, “No – I don’t have time for art.”

This scene was analyzed by some as being reflective of the way television writers and directors work, that they, “like low-budget filmmakers, television writers and directors can’t sweat getting it perfect when they’re mainly concerned with getting it done.”(2) Thus, Don’s lack of interest in “art” is based on his determination to “get it done” regardless of “how.”

Perhaps that is one point of view, but I strongly disagree. Having watched Mad Men for six seasons (and dreading next year’s Final Season) I was keenly attracted to the show’s depictions of the way Madison Avenue worked and immediately became aware of and began to note that the myriad “pitches,” slogans and photo-text work in the Advertising World are analogous to the Art World. To put it succinctly, certain aspects of working with concepts to “sell” a product can be perceived as revealing how ideation becomes visual, and language is the root structure of that ideation.

In my view, Don Draper’s “pitches” – his “selling” of the ad campaigns to clients – are the most intellectually satisfying moments of those episodes where he is scripted to work his “magic.” Not coincidentally, Don’s “genius” for the sales pitch and his “gift” at mesmerizing clients and winning their commitment to Sterling, Cooper, et al., is suitably admired and revered as well among the fictional firm’s partners and staff. Don’s talent for verbalizing both the concept and the visual, to encapsulate that winning combination of word, image and meaning, speaks both to the naked desire of Capitalism to “move product,” as well as to the reductive core values of Art.

So it was a cathartic moment for me when Don said, “I don’t have time for art.” Let’s briefly ignore the fact that this brilliant revelation was apparently fueled by a weekend “speed” jag – I will address that issue in a bit – and simply consider an alternative theory of what his statement might mean if viewed through the Art World analogy.

If we can imagine Donald Draper as a conceptual artist – and this isn’t hard to do, given that his “creativity” consists of concepts, often merged with text, that convey meanings – we can see that his focus has always been the idea. Thus, when the “Eureka” moment occurs, and Ginsberg asks if they should “draw” or illustrate his concept, Don can’t be bothered with the actualization of the idea; the artist’s role is to conceptualize.

This preference for ideation over actualization has precedence and substantial documentation in conceptual art history. Furthermore, we don’t have to read the art theorists, either. In 1967, Sol Lewitt said, “The idea itself, even if not made visual, is as much a work of art as any finished product.”(3) And Lawrence Weiner later stated, “the artist may construct the work” but, most importantly, “the work need not be built.”(4)

Don Draper’s mercurial vision, scripted in a fictionalized 1968 episode, can be seen to mirror the speed in which these artists of the late 1960’s dispatched with the object; this would be represented as dematerialization of the object by theorist Lucy Lippard. Moreover, placing the source of Don's vision as his amphetamine-stoked bender might then symbolize the quickening pace of the originary conceptualists in ridding themselves of objects and their traditional role in visual art.

We can also cite artist, and theorist, Victor Burgin’s essay, “Situational Aesthetics,” as recognition that “recent art” (1969) was taking “its essential form in message rather than in materials.” Burgin defines it even more precisely in a footnote:

“It may no longer be assumed that art, in some mysterious way, resides in materials. Attempts to determine the necessary and sufficient conditions of aesthetic structure have failed from an emphasis upon the object rather than upon the perceiver. The implications of a redirection of attention, from object to perceiver, are extensive. It may now be said that an object becomes, or fails to become, a work of art in direct response to the inclination of the perceiver to assume an appreciative role.”(5)         

Taking my cue from Don’s epiphany that he doesn’t “have time for art,” I would propose that this comprehension that the message of art exists in its concept might be extended further to justify the transcendence of the object. That these concepts, like Don’s pitches, are substantively linguistic would also demonstrate that language is indeed the “primary information” in the apprehension of art.(6)

What I want to say is that our addictive allegiance to making objects and imbuing them with meaning has come to a long ignored crisis. The ease with which we “communicate” now through digitized information is quickly erasing the idea of a “hard copy” of anything. Just as obvious is the fact that the continual accumulation of objects as capital has disassociated these products from an “art” context; the archive as inventory.

We can thank Don Draper for his blunt assessment that the idea – the concept – is the essence of the message and any attempt to “draw” that message is secondary to the apprehension of the idea itself. True, within his world of capitalist production and consumption the Idea Man needs the seductive image with which to pair his concept and make the “sale.” But in our world, the Art World, this isn’t or shouldn’t be the point.

[To be continued]

1. Moaba, Alex. “‘Mad Men’ Speed Serum Makes ‘The Crash’ Another Trippy Episode,” huffingtonpost.com, 05/20/13. [The doctor may have been based on Max Jacobson, “the original ‘Dr. Feelgood.’ Jacobson was a New York physician who treated clients including John F. Kennedy, Mickey Mantle and Truman Capote.”

2. Seitz, Matt Zoller. “Mad Men Recap: You’re Pretentious, You Know That?” Vulture.com, 05/20/13/ 

3. Lewitt, Sol. “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art;” Artforum; 5, No. 10; June, 1967; 79.

4. Weiner, Lawrence. “Untitled Statement (1970)”, re-printed in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, (K. Stiles and P. Selz, eds.), Berkeley, 1996, 839.

5. Burgin, Victor. “Situational Aesthetics;” Studio International; Vol. 178, No. 915; October, 1969; 121.

6. “In his own model of Conceptual art, [Seth] Siegelaub distinguishes between ‘primary information’ (content: the signified) and ‘secondary information’ (the means of its presentation: the signifier) From “Double or nothing: John Miller on the art of Douglas Huebler,” Artforum International, April 2006.