Jarrod Thalheimer: The Art of the Word
Absolute Vodka recently dropped their famous twenty-five year old "bottle" ad campaign in favour of a new series that seeks to imagine life in an "Absolut world." Apparently, one of the planned examples of such an Absolut world will be an ad in which New York's Times Square is imagined without advertising, instead displaying art for the masses.
Somehow, it would seem Absolut has managed to miss the point of the very advertising they seek to create.
When buying a ticket to an art gallery, an exhibition or a show we subconsciously prepare ourselves to see "art." Walking the display halls we work hard trying to make sense or understand the many pictures or installations that normally wouldn't warrant a second look were they plastered on a street corner. It is only because they, and we, are here that we even make an effort in the first place. We feel almost obligated to open up that part of our soul and make a conscious effort to understand and appreciate such presentations, nodding thoughtfully and looking as intelligent and contemplative as we can pull off. All in all we do our best but as soon as the old bladder is full of Evian or the stomach starts howling for a cheeseburger we make a beeline for the door and quickly extinguish any remaining intention to interpret, or understand art, leaving the building, and the art, far behind.
You see Absolut created over 1500 pieces of word art over the years. Their works were designed to communicate, to inform and to move a viewer to action - something good art is obligated to do. Its only crime was being blatantly commercial and in a magazine versus a gallery.
Open your eyes. We are surrounded by such art each and every day of our lives. It is the art of words. Street signs, traffic signals, store names, park names, building monikers, and so on. All of these items present an intellectual challenge for each of us to look deeper, and to really see what we can see. I have a great idea for a business. It's a hot dog stand. The store would be called "Fink's" and that name would be printed in huge, fat, neon letters and all coloured in a bright, flamingo pink. The dogs would all come packaged in hot pink labeled wrappers and identified by name. The Big Fink, The Baby Fink, The Super Fink, Foot Long Fink and Double Fink. The staff would wear hot pink pork pie hats and wear bright pink aprons with "Fink's" emblazoned across them. There would be T-shirts for sale and key chains too. This particular business, in my mind, is fully formed and rabidly successful, yet it exists solely due to one word and one color. "Fink" and pink.
Is this a dumb idea? I know nothing about food service, business costs or the practical management of a restaurant. I don't even know if I can make a profit selling hot dogs at all. But I can almost guarantee that most of you reading about "Fink's" think that it's not such a bad idea, and maybe even pretty good. At least two of you thought "I'd eat there."
How is that even possible? You've never seen the store or eaten the food. You know nothing about the place except what I've told you. All you know is the "art" of the word - Fink's. The name jumped out and pulled you inside the concept. "Fink's" has no more to do with hot dogs than Starbucks does with coffee. But I'm betting if you walked down the street and saw my big, pink and obnoxious sign for the first time that while you might not think too much about hot dogs you would be wondering what was up. The art of my word, my image, is communicating with you and drawing you in (or not). Whatever move you make I'm betting you might just think a little differently after you saw my sign. In my opinion, that's what good art can and must do.
Look at the signs up and down Bernard or cruising along the highway. Kelsey's, Blockbuster, Ten Thousand Villages, Pizza Hut, Re/Max, Mr. Lube, Toadstool Pond, Prospera, Sugar Make Up Lounge, Orchard Park, Kelly O'Bryan's, The Paramount. I could go on forever. Each of these names contain a depth of purpose no less detailed or convoluted or interesting or flawed or bizarrely curious as any piece hanging inside the art gallery downtown. Sometimes more, sometimes less but the effort inside cannot be denied.
When you see "Ed's Repair Shop" you can easily claim artistic disappointment. "Jeez Ed, you couldn't come up with a better idea than that? You repair cars and your name is Ed. Way to go buddy." Now, stick that same thought process inside an art gallery and imagine you are standing next to a curator explaining the simplicity, and pop cultural genius of Andy Warhol's Soup Can. Warhol realized he was deconstructing something by painting as he did. Maybe Ed knew something about deconstruction and simplicity too, just in a different and more down to earth way.
The point is that the art of the word is out there to be appreciated all day, every day. One needs only to ensure they are open to trying to see what rests beneath the surface of that which seeks to communicate. Instead of waiting to prime your intellectual pump at the door to the Art Ark, try doing the same thing before you hit the street every day. You might be amazed at what you'll experience.
That street sign announcing "Pandosy Street" is way more than just a name to keep one road looking different from another. Pandosy, as any local school child knows, references Kelowna's beginnings. He was the first missionary to come through and lay the groundwork for a lot of what we enjoy today. He was a man, a priest and a famous part of our city's history. Or he's just a sign on the street. You are free to decide on the level of your interaction with this "piece" of local word art.
Just as the gallery patron more interested in stuffing his face with crab cakes during the open house made a choice so to can you each and every day. I would suggest your intellect over your stomach. Check out those "share the road" street signs. We see the famous yin and yang symbol intermixed with bikes and cars and pedestrians. Can you even believe it? A street sign imploring courtesy, sharing, even balance and then wrapping it all up inside a very specific symbol of Eastern philosophy. Can anyone deny the efforts and discussions and thought that most certainly went into creating that gem? Yet we speed past it thinking more about picking up the dry cleaning than the very real display of thoughtful, civic art being presented.
These signs, these call outs from the edge of the road are talking to us and telling us things. They are attempting to communicate with you and me. That is what art does best when it works. And considering the lack of professional training behind most folks the amount of connection and creativity is mind boggling. Phillup McCartridge? I mean wow! Granted, some do this better than others. "Pizza Slice $2" may not exemplify the level of depth or contemplation I'm suggesting should be employed but not every gallery piece hits the mark either.
Can anyone plausibly argue that the man years of effort put into the design of the Coca-Cola logo are not worthy of appreciation? I have no doubt the Coca-Cola Company has employed philosophers and designers and writers and thinkers and painters all tasked with imbuing their logo, their word of art, with meaning and depth. The cumulative brain power spent on the creation and yearly maintenance of that logo ensure its value as a form of high art. And most of us already know this as I am willing to bet more than a few cupboards contain Coke branded glasses, or plates or tins. Only you know why you bought them but it was usually because they brought something out in you. Memories, feelings or possibly you just thought they looked cool. Well, that my friends is a connection of the highest level.
One of the most influential art movements of the 20th century was pop art. Pop art itself was a sort of reaction against abstract expressionism. Now, using terms like that can draw one away from what was actually going on and make it a sort of high handed, or confusing discussion. Such debates are usually designed to make those ignorant of it feel stupid. I intend neither. So, in a nut shell, abstract expressionism or the types of paintings Jackson Pollack, Robert Motherwell, Lee Krasner and others did were more or less about the act of painting versus than the final result. The event was the creation of the work and qualities exemplified by the paint.
Pop art, as practiced by Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jaspar Johns, David Hockney and others took the art of real life (eg: the simplicity of the Campbell Soup can), hauled it inside the art gallery and propped it up on an easel. In doing this they made clear just how much they were interested in and how very successful they were at, showing us how much art truly existed way out in the wilds of the real world. In that vein, what I'm trying to say is forget the easel in the art gallery. You don't need it everyday. Get up, wash your face, leave your home and seek to appreciate the inherent art that exists around you. You need only open your eyes to see the beauty and the depth mixed with the crass and the comical. Study it, decipher it and question it. Don't view it passively, or even dismissively. See what makes you angry, or sad, or happy or excited. See what moves you to curiosity or confusion and learn more about yourself and your entire world that way.
And if you can do this I can think of no better way to appropriately appreciate the local art of the word, except maybe buying a hot dog at Fink's.