Monday, September 16, 2013

Commercial art no longer a crime

A guest post by Peter Alsop

In 1951, artist Denis K. Turner was fined 10 shillings, plus another 10 for costs, for painting on a Sunday. The crime wasn’t art; it was commercial art. It was illegal for a ‘tradesperson’ (as distinct from a ‘professional’) to work within view of a public place on a Sunday and, much to Turner’s dismay, the judge deemed his mural for a Karangahape Road motorcycle shop ‘an advertisement rather than valuable as a work of art’.

Dennis Turner's History of Transport mural

While the Turner example is at the extreme, commercial art has long been in the arts gutter; frowned upon as tainted with trade, a sell-out to capitalism or a last gasp for B-grade artists struggling to sell landscapes at the local art fair. Even highly accomplished artists avoided signing commercial work, keen on a ‘cheque’ but trying to avoid reputation loss from the tainted trade.

Billboard design (original artwork), Hillman Hunter, Railways Studios, c.1968, Collection of Peter Alsop

Such adverse perspectives on commercial art come mostly, of course, from those well-skilled in putting art in different boxes with different labels, some apparently automatically finer than others. But is it really a surprise that an art fraternity, founded upon historical definitions of ‘good taste’, would degrade commercial art – unsuited to exhibition slots and glossy catalogues – and instead direct its hyperbole on a ‘sophisticated’ audience elsewhere? Clean white walls. A modernist teak desk. Great jacket – Crane Brothers? Spotlights – just tilt that one a little to the left please … that’s it. Provenance. Oil on canvas. A signature work. Did you see the review? What about the Les and Milly Paris Collection?

The Public Art Gallery and invitation-only dealer gallery are a far cry from the unpredictable, distracted ambience within which commercial art often goes to work. Amongst poles and wires and other viewing limitations, posters and billboards must quickly engage and impress, and turn a split-second glance into something meaningful … and absorbable. And as if that wasn’t hard enough, being sufficiently persuasive and memorable to later finish the job. Is it any wonder that early advertisers trumpeted the ‘spirit of the poster’?

Spirit of the poster, Chandler & Co, c.1930, Auckland Libraries 7-C1802

Of course, things changed in the mid-late 1950s with the emergence of Pop art – a celebration of art and advertising; art confessing it was an advert or at least embracing advertising as prime content. Pop art would quickly become some of the most revered art in the world and, both at the time and since, in New Zealand as well. However, while Pop art did commercial art some favours, it also underscored that context is (apparently) everything. It is not an artwork itself that determines value, but who approves of it and in what setting – an art gallery versus a local run-down dairy; canvas or paper; or framed for exhibition or in a comic book or magazine. It is not enough to be a great artist; one has to be a great artist at the right time in the right place, comments from the ‘right’ commentators, the ‘right’ critics and the ‘best’ galleries. Pop art made it acceptable for an art gallery to receive, measure and approve of such work, even though its fundamental existence was often owed to a large number of unheralded artists working in a different genre. (Lichtenstein’s use of comic images by other artists being a well-documented example.)

Outside the gallery, art historian Warren Feeney has argued that
a more generous consideration of the history of New Zealand art would acknowledge that, although its purpose may differ, commercial art has played an important role in the country’s cultural development, even anticipating radical advances in the fine arts or, at the very least, reflecting shifts in contemporary art in the popular media. The fine arts have been fortunate to share a reciprocal relationship with commercial art – an arts practice that exists beyond the confines of the space of the gallery, readily and eagerly finding its way into the wider community, and growing potential audiences for the fine arts. [1]
That Feeney’s perspective is revisionist is surprising – to put it kindly – and it reflects poorly on the scope, generosity and accuracy of New Zealand’s present art history. The visual arts clearly have had, and will always have, a far wider influence on us than just the clean white space of the gallery. The interplay of fine and commercial art has also been much more extensive than typically acknowledged.

At the top of the pile, Colin McCahon was (in his own words) clearly influenced by commercial art during his early years in Dunedin:
The hairdresser had his window painted with HAIRDRESSER AND TOBACCONIST. Painted in gold and black on a stippled red ground, the lettering large and bold, with shadows, and a feeling of being projected right through the glass and across the pavement. I watched the work being done and fell in love with signwriting. The grace of the lettering as it arched across the window in gleaming gold, suspended on its dull red field but leaping free from its own black shadow, pointed to a new and magnificent world of painting. … I suppose my present glad acceptance of Pop Art is in some way related to this experience. [2]
(McCahon was also reportedly [3] influenced by a Rinso packet for The King of the Jews (1947). His mural designs for oil-giant Caltex are further commercially-influenced works. [4])

Rinso, Unknown artist, c.1950, Collection of Windmill Books

Rita Angus (then Cook) was also not immune from commercial influence (quite aside from her own graphic bookplate and cartoons). Christchurch Art Gallery note that ‘[Louise] Henderson and Angus developed a strikingly similar style, most obviously in their use of defined shapes, blocks of strong colour and a clear pervading light’ [5] – a familiar sounding style to this story. And as for potential commercial influences on her celebrated self-portrait of sophisticated independence, there were likely many. It hasn’t, though, been fashionable to celebrate such commercial foreplay, particularly not with an artist as fine as Rita Angus.

ATM Cigarettes, Gilbert Meadows, c.1933, Collection of Ron Meadows

William McCahon also recalls [6] his father’s like of Disney’s Donald Duck cartoonist, Carl Barks, and his combination of words and images – who would have thought? And, furthermore, that his father stated that Six Days in Nelson and Canterbury (1959) evolved out of the comic book format (often regarded as a form of commercial art). And then there is scale: McCahon’s 1959 Northland Panels, panelled like a comic strip, breaking free from the small scale of New Zealand painting up until that time [7]… except that is for the large hand-painted billboards that had graced the streets and countryside of New Zealand for many decades (even if ignored as serious art works).

Painting billboards, Railways Studios, c.1958, Collection of Alan Love

Billboards weren’t, however, ignored altogether. Almost as soon as giant posters and hoardings appeared, complaints arose regarding their visual pollution. A surprise defender – including interestingly of their artistic merit – was the Prince of Wales:
I do not for a moment believe industrial and artistic development are necessarily antagonistic. ... Our Hoardings might now be called without exaggeration the art galleries of the great public. [8]
The Duke of York would also speak of ‘the prestige of poster advertising’. [9]

While a number of companies produced hand-painted advertisements – recognising of course the limitations of printing technology at the time – for around 70 years the design studio of the Government’s Railways Department dominated outdoor advertising in New Zealand; a fact that takes many by surprise. Some of the stories of the Railways Studios are recounted in Promoting Prosperity (my own essay, ‘Pulling Power: Railways Advertising’). In an interview for the book, Ross Ritchie – now a respected post-Modern painter – started his apprenticeship at 15 and, despite feeling in prison at times, was
very, very glad for the experience. It whet my appetite about painting … It ingrained the skills. But it was broad enough and unstyled enough to not interfere once I got into the serious thing of making art. [10]
Even (former) commercial artists, it seems, create their own distinctions.

Outdoor Advertising, Railways Studios, 1936-37, Railways Magazine, Collection of Peter Alsop

However one might draw the definitional lines, arts commentators Jim Barr and Mary Barr say it all while saying a little:
Advertising and promotion have produced some of New Zealand's most dynamic and entertaining imagery but our art history has mostly ignored it as a source of either insight or information. 
It's high time that changed.

1. Warren Feeney, ‘High Art: The Fine Art of Commercial Art’ in Peter Alsop, Gary Stewart and Dave Bamford, Selling the Dream: The Art of Early New Zealand Tourism, Craig Potton Publishing, Nelson, 2012, p. 73.
2. Marja Bloem and Martin Browne, Colin McCahon: A Question of Faith, first published by Craig Potton Publishing and the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 2002, p. 160. Available at
6. Personal communication with Warren Feeney, February 2013, related to his research for Gruesome! The Influence of Comics on Contemporary New Zealand Artists, 1999, p. 6. Published by McDougall Art Annex, feature essay Born Under a Bad Sign by Warren Feeney. Source reference for William McCahon’s comments: Wham, bam: striking a blow for art by Micheal Hewitson, The New Zealand Herald, 7 September 1995, Section 4, p. 1.
7. Gordon H. Brown, New Zealand Painting 1940–1960 Conformity and Dissension. Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council, Wellington, 1981.
10. Endorsement of Promoting Prosperity, printed in the book.

Cover image: Edward Cole, c.1930, Alexander Turnbull Library C-151-001

This blog is dedicated to the late Ian Scott – 1945-2013. Comfortable himself with commercial art as both influence and subject matter, Scott painted a large number of commercially-inspired works, two of my favourites below (with permission from Scott's family, and with acknowledgement of Warwick Brown's 1997 book, Ian Scott (Marsden Press)).
Ian Scott, 1978, John Daley (from Warwick Brown’s 1997 book Ian Scott, Marsden Press)

Hairdresser and Tobacconist, Ian Scott, 1988, Acrylic and enamel on canvas, 1830x4260m, Collection of James Wallace Arts Trust

The Drink Drive Painting, Ian Scott, 1993, Acrylic and silkscreen on canvas, 1980x3960m

A little note from me, seeing as this is the first guest post I’ve run. Peter is the co-author, along with designer Gary Stewart, of Promoting Prosperity, a book on the significance of early commercial art in New Zealand art and social history. Their previous title, Selling the Dream: The Art of Early New Zealand Tourism, was – for reasons that should be entirely obvious to readers of this blog – one of my favourite books of last year . You can read another of Peter’s essays and view a gallery of images from Selling the Dream at Public Address, where he’s also written about the new book.
Promoting Prosperity is launching next month and is also available from the book’s website (with a 10% discount, and free shipping within New Zealand.) Go buy it.


George D said...

Brilliant. But where should we put it?

Susan Sontag asserts that "images that idealize are... aggressive" in manipulating reality. By creating a perspective, and layering it with aesthetics, they reshape the lives of the viewers. That they are used to convince New Zealanders to cut their hair, smoke branded cigarettes, or drive particular cars isn't in itself a terrible thing. Messages must be communicated - that is the logic of capitalism and its alternatives. More concerning is their antagonistic relation with art that communicates its aesthetics directly. This distinction is the one made above; between a 'tradesperson' and a 'professional'. That is to say, a waged worker whose output is designed to be consumed by all and a patronage-based worker whose work is held in private spaces as a signifier for the owner. It's a distinction which still holds.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I'm not sure I get this antagonistic relation though. Another phrase for "images that idealize" is "the Italian Renaissance", in relation to which we still puzzle the exact difference between a tradesperson and an artist.

Peter Alsop said...

(Conflict acknowledged as the blog author) Enjoyed reflecting on your comment George D. Create a distinction based on audience size and/or degree of viewership (or extent of viewer exclusiveness)? They seem hard thresholds to sustain (the fit of public art galleries, for example). Tradesperson v professsional - mmmm, what about (for example) when a 'professional' is commissioned? Dick Frizzell, reflecting last week on both his own art and advertising (Radio NZ:, at about 6 mins (but don't think you can scroll)), emphasised how critical it is to appeal and connect with the Zeitgeist. Creating some audience connection is surely the name of the game. I'm not suggesting a bigger audience is better than a smaller one (or more 'exclusive' one (however you subjectively define that)) - nor vice versa ... and that's kinda the point about artificial boundaries being, well, artificial.

Scott Hamilton said...

I agree - I don't, frankly, now anyone who wouldn't agree - that commercial art can be both beautiful and an important indicator of a society's values and preoccupations, but I can't help but detect, in both this guest post and the advertisement at Public Address which Giovanni links to, a pretty mindless attitude towards both art and New Zealand history.

When he discusses New Zealand history Peter Alsop is so breathlessly glib that he might be an advertising copywriter trying to sell us soap or hairspray.

New Zealand is a complex and interesting society whose history has both depressing and cheering aspects, but anybody who can use phrases like the 'Paradise of the Pacific' without the slightest trace of irony (how about 'Empire the Pacific'?), or who can talk about 'celebrating New Zealand economic and social foundations' as though such a celebration was self-evidently appropriate (capitalism was built here on the ruins of a successful Maori economy, and at the price of the bloody suppression of strikes), or who witlessly claim that New Zealand's part in the World Wars was motivated by a desire to preserve the freedom of its people (what about the freedom of Archibald Baxter or Rua Kenana or Ian Hamilton?), is at best culpably naïve.

I also find Peter's attempts to present himself as some sort fearless pioneer, venturing into the despised realm of lowbrow culture and rescuing the neglected creatures found there, as rather peculiar.

It's fifty years since Raymond Williams made the study of popular culture academically respectable, thirty years since Roger Horrocks was analysing comic book art in the highbrow art journal And, and a decade since Te Papa paired a McCahon canvas with a fridge. In an era when universities, museums, and art galleries seek constantly to prove their 'relevance' and street cred, with sometimes interesting and sometimes unfortunate results, I'd argue that it is self-consciously high-falutin' art which is increasingly neglected (cf

I hope some of the other contributors to the book Peter has put together can get past his clichés, because the pictures he's collected are fascinating, and deserve thoughtful - that is, critical - treatment.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Whilst there’s a reason I ran this piece and not those, I think you’re being a little unfair. I haven’t seen the new book yet, but Promoting Prosperity is a wonderful collection of images that did in fact need recovering. As such it also offers a lot of primary materials for people who might be more inclined to critique some of those narratives (as I did in my ‘Lion and the Kiwi’ post, or the ones in the ‘About New Zealand’ series), although this is not to say that high art does not commerce in its own questionable mythologies. I expect Selling the Dream to serve the same function and offer the same pleasures.

Funny you should say that about McCahon and the Kelvinator: how long did that last? How quickly was that project shot down? I you go to Te Papa nowadays you’ll find the distinctions between high, low and commercial art as rigidly enforced as they’ve ever been. There are currently some posters by commercial artists in the Toi Te Papa section, but they’re very much not there to stay and it’s made evident in the display. Elsewhere products, design and style are employed to narrate social history. Then there is Art. It’s demoralising for those who remember the museum’s original design.

Some years ago Te Papa hosted a wonderful exhibition of works by Bernard Roundhill (this one) but bafflingly they didn’t bother to make a catalogue for it. This is why we need works like Peter’s.

Giovanni Tiso said...

(I should point out that Promoting Prosperity does have a critical apparatus, although I would agree that with a couple of exceptions it’s more interested in making the case for the imagery than against.)

Scott Hamilton said...

I understand what you're saying, Giovanni, but I think that a book which looks uncritically at images designed to advertise products and state policies from another era is likely to fail in its job of rescuing those images from neglect.

An uncritical attitude is usually a contemporary attitude, and Peter's comments here and on A Public Address suggest he's viewing the images he's collected through the preoccupations of the present, and thus failing to understand and explain them.

Let me use, as an example, Peter's implicit claim of a continuity between the ethos of traditional Maori culture and the ethos of Kiwi capitalism in the twentieth century.

Peter takes a cheesy slogan used by Winstones Ltd at face value, and then relates it to an old Maori saying. He seems to want to say that both pre-conquest Maori society and those good old hard working entrepeneurial Kiwis at Winstones believed in the importance of balancing the present and the future, and making sensible use of resources.

Obviously any attempt to equate pre-conquest Maori economics and the capitalism of twentieth century New Zealand is silly, and the way that Winstones ripped into confiscated Maori land in search of stone shows what a bicultural organisation they were.

The real point, though, is not so much that Peter is wrong to make Winstones into a paragon of biculturalism, but that by making this link he has imposed a twenty-first century idea on twentieth century New Zealand.

Since the Treaty process began in the mid-'80s a discourse about 'Maori capitalism' and 'Maori entrepeneurship' has developed in parts of the media and in the political and corporate worlds. We have Kai Tahu CEOs describing themselves as 'corporate warriors', and talking about how traditional Maori culture is inherently entrepeneurial, and we have National Party politicians and their supporters in the Maori Party courting Maori voters by claiming that what's good for business has always been good for Maori.

For almost all of the twentieth century, though, the notion of a continuity between pre-conquest Maori culture and the ethos of modern capitalist New Zealand would have been considered nonsensical.

Both popular and academic narratives of New Zealand history claimed that a profound break separated pre-conquest Maori societies from the settler colony which was built on their ruins. The failure of too many Maoris to break with their old communal land-ownership patterns and living arrangements was lamented in newspapers.

A part and parcel of the discourse of modernity in New Zealand was a sense of having made a new and dramatic historical departure.

This concept of a qualitative difference was shared by most members of the Nga Tamatoa generation - people like Donna Awatere simply applied different value judgments to the same schema, by claiming that the old society was superior to the new.

By imposing a twenty-first century view onto images made in the twentieth century, then, Peter fundamentally misunderstands and mischaracterises the artefacts he wants to rescue from neglect. He may have found an attractive old advertisement by Winstones, but he can't see that advertisement clearly.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"I understand what you're saying, Giovanni, but I think that a book which looks uncritically at images designed to advertise products and state policies from another era is likely to fail in its job of rescuing those images from neglect."

Yes, and no. I mean the Roundhill exhibition really wasn't very critical at all. It's still one of the best things I've seen at Te Papa. Likewise, although a couple of the essays acknowledge some of the issues you raise here, Promoting Prosperity is primarily a book about the images and the working practice of the artists who created them. These things are of value in themselves. I don't see them as foreclosing criticism at all.

Peter Alsop said...

Scott, thx for the comments, and I look fwd to hearing your thoughts on the book when you see it.

I'm a bit surprised about how much coverage & gravitas you seem to expect from a single blog ... my expectations of your "Kiwi kulcha" musings are now very high! And, as a new author, I'm the first to acknowledge I've got much to learn from people like yourself.

Gary and I weren't aiming to be fearless pioneers ... we just couldn't find another book that presented a broad range of early commercial art for interested people to enjoy (despite all the 'major' developments you point to decades ago). Even putting the research essays aside, pulling together a significant image collection for others to view/enjoy/critique seemed like a pretty good leap forward - and was the major objective of the book (and earlier of Selling the Dream).

I don't think the degree of critical image appraisal is the mark of success or failure of the book (or any other comparable book) - there are many other ways a book can have positive and lasting impact (even if not to some). As with 'Selling the Dream', if the book prompts others to deepen the debate, in myriad ways, on individual images or commercial art then it would have done its job. In that regard, I (mostly!) enjoyed your comments, thanks for taking the time to provide comments and feedback.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Just realising I switched Promoting Prosperity and Selling the Dream in my comments... duh.