Ever-decreasing circles

Billboards are fine examples of contemporary art, neatly encapsulating the styles of a period. But Hugh Pearman thinks they’re becoming self-reverential and uninspired.

It has long been accepted that the best billboard advertising is art, but right now there is no escaping from posters, wherever you turn. Suddenly they are inside the art galleries and art books as well as on every street corner in the world outside.

The Victoria & Albert Museum’s Power of the Poster exhibition has been a slow-burn show, gradually garnering critical acclaim. The V&A has also run an astute billboard campaign of its own to promote the show, and when I went this seemed to have worked: the punters were crowding in.

Now there’s a new book from Yale covering poster art in the Twenties and Thirties, Graphic Design In The Mechanical Age, which draws on the private collection of one Merrill C Berman. Her collection is particularly strong on political propaganda posters, while the V&A’s goes more broadly into product and event advertising as well.

“Power” is the right word for the V&A to use: people respond instinctively to the graphic strength of these fragments of one-liner design. But I have a problem with the very familiarity of the images involved. From the moustached Lord Kitchener pointing his finger and telling you your country needs you, to the big red clever-clever ads for The Economist, we are familiar with all these sales aids and think we are aware of many more – but they merely turn out to be in roughly the same style. For advertising feeds off itself far more than any other “creative” trade.

Sometimes an ad makes a knowing reference to another ad, but more usually it just brazenly copies the idea. Such as the current TV ads for the “silent” Ford Fiesta, with the zany individual cavorting around a neutral set. Remember the Guinness ads that did much the same kind of thing for a somewhat different product?

It scarcely matters whether this is the work of the same agency or a rip-off: the point is that ads define a period better than anything else, and this, seen in retrospect, is both their strength and their weakness.

Those London Transport ads of the Thirties had a homogeneity to them despite the variety of artists who pumped them out – which was fine for London Transport’s corporate image, but not so good for the artists. Ditto the heroic Soviet propaganda posters, ditto the British wartime “dig for victory”-style ads, ditto the Fifties labour-saving gadgets ads, and so on.

Then came the time when, as with fashion designers, graphic designers stopped merely copying each other’s ideas and began ransacking the ideas of the graphic designers of the past as well. And then the ransacked ideas were themselves ransacked by others thinking this was a really neat gimmick. The circle grows ever smaller, like a dog chasing its tail.

History, as in so many other areas of design and architecture, comes ever closer to the present. Just as buildings are now listed as historically important only a few short years after they are built, so certain ad campaigns are deemed to be instant “classics”. Some are, some aren’t. With The Economist ads, for instance, the clever thing is just that big expanse of red: the copy seems insufferably smug now, and will seem childishly so in a few years’ time.

It’s just the same when the most successful “creatives” go on to make Hollywood films – invariably they are all lush camerawork handicapped by wooden storylines. As for “real” art – well, we’ve seen what the Saatchis have done for the market value of one-liner conceptualists. Luckily, there are some good conceptualists out there too.

A lot of the appeal of old posters comes from an admiration for the craftsmanship of the pre-computer age, and the realisation that much of the most interesting work is by anonymous hands. One retired poster and exhibition designer, now in his mid-70s, is quite clear about the difference between then and now: he and his kind considered themselves to be “commercial artists”, as distinct from fine artists or typographers. He expected to draw his own lettering as an intrinsic part of the poster, rather than importing an existing typeface. And he did this with the absolute conviction that his work was ephemeral and would be forgotten tomorrow. To be in an art gallery or a book amuses him as an idea, but no more than that.

Posters merely reveal most clearly what is a disease running across the whole design business today: self-consciousness. The past may be a source of inspiration, but it also serves to hamper originality. We are never going to recapture the prelapsarian naivety we now so admire – more’s the pity.

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