Elias Tezapsidis last wrote about Prince.
I. QUITTING EVERYTHING
One of the first things I bought with my own money after working as an intern for a bank in college was my MacBook Air. I loved it, it was amazing and it is still the object I am using to type this piece, even though I acquired it the first day it came out. I have taken meticulous care of it, inside and out; I probably did not even watch porn on it. For an extended period of time, the desktop image I had carefully selected to grace this object I was so fond of was an Esquire cover of Andy Warhol. I found it brilliant to have the satirical power to feature Warhol on a cover in 1969, simultaneously declaring things in art are heading towards a dark direction while celebrating this in its inevitability. It was cynical and funny, and the editor, Harold Hayes, was pushing his readership to ask for more from its media. He was letting the audience in on the joke: it is what it is, we might as well make fun of it because we cannot avoid it.
As time passed, I spent more time in offices full of computers, surrounded people who I thought didn’t get my sense of humor, or, worse, didn’t care for it. The despair of inevitability I felt when considering the current art and culture status quo was never a popular topic by the coffee machine, and it seemed shrewder to focus on more inclusive subjects, such as the weather and overpriced restaurants. Eventually, I could not consider the possibility of another such dialogue, and I stopped being in offices. But I needed money, so I started working for a Greek restaurateur and soon ascended to the host-stand. It was very glamorous.
One of the VIP-adjacent people I encountered in this capacity was George Lois, who I discovered to be the person behind the most impressive Esquire covers from the 1970s as well as the “I want my MTV” campaign of the 1980s. The woman I worked for was his niece, and I was ecstatic to meet him and discuss how much I admired his work. Unfortunately, he seemed not to care that I had opinions about said work. The most empowering element of taking on menial jobs is the wisdom it gives people in understanding what it is like to be viewed as a person: not the person that you are, but rather a projection of what others want to see in you.
In the middle of November of 2013, a cool creative person (designer and poet) I know from the Internet tweeted about a George Lois event, and I expressed interest in it. My interest was further solidified when I found out it was one of the events that provide free snacks and wine; the unanimously-acknowledged ultimate draw to any event for people who care about things a little too much and can’t stay in offices. It would be the ideal environment to reconsider George Lois, having moved on from my reign as a male hostess, or at least having left it.
(Yes, this was the flyer that reminded potential attendees of the event via email.)
II. RECONSIDERING GEORGE LOIS
I was ten minutes late and missed the introduction, but arrived to see the familiar figure of Lois approaching the podium. A projector created an image on a screen reading: ‘Creativity can solve almost any problem—the creative act, the defeat of habit by originality, overcomes everything.’ This slogan served as the cover of the PowerPoint presentation both at the start and the end, a seemingly stubborn assertion underlining Lois’ obsession with innovative originality.
From the beginning of his speech it became clear that the provocation itself was the point of his work. He frequently brought up a dialogue he kept having with the editor of Esquire, Hayes, about the anticipated audience’s response to his work. The editor would always come back with a line implying: “Oh, boy, this one will really piss off America!”
In reality, the commercial terms of how America was “pissed off” were functioning in favor of the work, Lois explains. The casual manner in which Lois brings up a difference in circulation that is immense beyond logic makes me uncertain in its seriousness: he noted that the magazine’s circulation when he started was flailing at 350,000 and that he then managed to get it up to 12 million subscribers.
In 1962, he called a major boxing fight (Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston) by placing the less likely athlete in the winning position, Sonny Liston. In an interview for Vice, Lois explained the logic and strategic planning behind his choice to Hayes: “Look at it this way: There’s a 50-50 chance I’m right. If I’m right, you’re a genius. Everyone’s going to look at you and say, ‘Wow. What an editor.’” Years later I found out that everyone—including the publishers—told him he was nuts and that there was no way he could run it. But he told them he’d quit if they didn’t run it.”
Luckily, the unlikely pugilistic result came about: Liston won. The victory yielded the positive attention Lois expected. In addition, this led to increasing the creative freedom he could exercise: his ideas could get larger. “I make ideas, not designs,” he seriously declares and fully means it. Ideas, as abstractions, are conceptual and give grander artistic virtuosity to their producers.
Lois’ focus in producing successful advertisements was figuring out how to make them memorable, usually combining a visual with a verbal element but always maintaining simplicity. The “I Want My MTV” campaign serves as a paradigmatic specimen of his creative vision. Straightforward, repetitive and memorable, it became a catalyst in establishing MTV, despite the skepticism of the music industry. The repetition of the slogan was not even a tool Lois was using for the first time: he had previously utilized it to advertise Maypo, using prominent athletes—such as Mickey Mantle, Wilt Chamberlain and Johnny Unitas—and making them playfully weep to the camera: “I want my Maypo!”
In a similar fashion, to shape public opinion in garnering support for MTV, Lois managed to get Mick Jagger to begin the “I want my MTV” campaign, which invited watchers to call their cable operator and demand “their” MTV. Jagger enhanced the credibility of the musicians partaking in the campaign; when he was recording his video he brought Peter Townsend and Pat Benatar with him, and they made clips for “I want my MTV” as well.
Lois’ mannerisms of speech convey an individual with confidence, who knows and expects the audience to engage with him in a set manner. He doesn’t hesitate nor question himself; he knows and we, the audience, are lucky he is sharing his knowledge with us.
In this Braniff Air TV commercial Lois plays with representation, exaggerating the identities of his subjects to maximize a comedic effect and subtly provoke viewers. But did the ad truly challenge social norms? Closing with a playful “When you got it, flaunt it,” from Andy Warhol, the narrator of the commercial had previously stated: “They like our girls, they like our food, they like our style.”
The emphasis in the Braniff ad is—once again—placed on the celebrity status of the protagonists: if these two utterly different individuals (one an outspoken artist, the other a quiet boxier) both consider Braniff the best airline, it has to be the case. If two anonymous actors were to replace Warhol and Liston, the ad would lose its appeal: its success is based on the public personas of this idiosyncratic duo.
Here lies Lois’ most significant contribution to pop culture and iconography of advertising: rather than having individuals acting out saccharine scenarios or plots for his ads, he added a layer of consciousness for the media consumers to realize and interpret. The subjects of his ads could be sarcastic, dishonest and/or manufactured; the power was derived from the driest of wits.
III. THE INCREASINGLY ELUSIVE NATURE OF AUTHENTICITY
In a provocative piece for Harper’s entitled “Damage Control,” Ben Lerner argues that the contemporary art world is so deeply consumed by its commodification that the line separating creative work from acts of vandalism is exceptionally blurry.
Marcel Duchamp brought “ideas” to the epicentre of the creative front in the art world, much like George Lois did in advertising. Using shock, deconstruction, and questions of authorship, a new artistic movement was slowly being formed. Lerner brings attention to modern artists who “claim to be vandals, attacking the notion that art is property and are ridiculing canons of taste,” alluding to his skepticism in regards to art that focuses on destruction/deconstruction or demolition.
The most intriguing aspect of Lerner’s analysis is the theoretical dichotomy he frames for what comprises vandalism and what does not. Drawing examples from recent history—such as the 2012 Umanets’ vandalism of a Rothko painting at Tate Modern—Lerner concludes that the term vandalism should be utilized when the destruction of the art does not increase its nominal value.
To fully prove his definition of vandalism, the writer proceeds to show the reason why vandalism linked to the increase of the nominal value of an artwork doesn’t constitute vandalism. Using an anecdote from 1964, Lerner explains how Dorothy Podber literally shot a stack of Warhol’s paintings, with a pistol, in Warhol’s presence. Warhol—who had assumed Podber was implying she would photograph his work—proceeded by asking her to not shoot his work again, and renamed his works by adding the word “Shot” before their original titles. The artist’s manipulation of this vandalism took away its destructive properties.
In the context of contemporary art, it becomes clear that an “idea” derives its power and meaningfulness from the authority that came up with it. Lois insightfully noticed this correlation before others did in advertising, using recognizable figures in ads to sell brands. At some point, he managed to create his own brand too, a brand based on ideas that were provocative in a past time, and that is the brand he sells when he is giving a presentation to aspiring designers. Or, even more so when he signs copies of his book Damn Good Advice (For People with Talent!): How To Unleash Your Creative Potential by America’s Master Communicator, George Lois.
The more conscientious we become as media consumers the more hesitant we are in believing in the authenticity of the experiences we have daily, including our own self-realization. The defense mechanisms we use to navigate the modern world, our accoutrement of irony, smarm and/ or tears, might become an “idea.” Then we could be a brand! And then, FREE THINGS!
Suddenly, vandalism no longer appears like such an alien resort.