Art in the Attention Economy

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Art in the Attention Economy

LOS ANGELES — There’s a disquieting moment in the middle of Objects of Desire: Photography and the Language of Advertising at LACMA. A series of black and white fashion photos feature supermodels with their supposed names: Dragica Končar, Ljubica Gerovac, Nera Šafarić. Look closer at the fine print, usually reserved for the disclaimers and details that lawyers require advertisers to share in print ads, and you’ll see these are not names of models at all but of women convicted, tortured, and executed. 

Končar, for instance, was “Charged with anti-fascist activities. Tortured and executed in Zagreb in 1942. Age at the time of death: 27.” The images are part of a series called GEN XX, produced between 1997 and 2001 by Yugoslavian feminist artist Sonja Iveković, who suggests with her piece that female resistance fighters ought to be as famous as supermodels. In this age of protest, in which activists like Maria Ressa, Malala Yousfazai, and Masha Amina make headlines and grace magazine covers, some activists arguably have more name recognition than models, who, by design, are often relegated to anonymity.

Drawn from LACMA’s collections, Objects of Desire takes us through the contemporary influence of commercial photography on fine art photography, a line that has steadily become more blurred over the years. Using thematic lenses like product photography, humor, and stock photography, the show brings together works including Elad Lassry’s “Persian Cucumbers, Shun Hakarmel,” a charming blend of still life and product shot of, well, Persian cucumbers, and the edgy, highly influential work of Adbusters magazine, which famously uses the language of advertising to hack attention toward radical social causes.

The show features monumental works such as “Untitled (Cowboy)” (2016) by Richard Prince, famous for his practice of “rephotographing” images from advertisements, and Urs Fischer’s “Fritz Lang/Shorty” (2010), a space-dominating set of mirrored boxes, printed with cute ducklings and less cute shopping carts, that capture the reflections of museum visitors as they walk by. 

Installation view of Objects of Desire: Photography and the Language of Advertising at LACMA. Pictured: Urs Fischer, “Fritz Lang/Shorty” (2010). Back wall: Barbara Kruger, “Untitled (You substantiate our horror)” (1985)

But the show’s smaller works reveal how advertising can have outsize influence on society while being not much larger than a standard sheet of paper. Sherrie Levine’s “President Profile I” (1979, printed 1993), for instance, superimposes a fashion editorial on a 1932 cutout profile of President George Washington by sculptor John Flanagan. Victor Burgin’s series US77 (1977) uses magazine-style spreads to critique gender roles. As one caption in Burgin’s spreads reads, the feminine image of “homemaker” is “an image to which advertisers hypocritically refer as if it were the ringmaster in their circus of commodities, and not one of their clowns.”

While the exhibition presents a thoughtful historical perspective, one missed opportunity in this city of advertising is an exploration of how advertising and art are increasingly a two-way street, shaping and influencing each other’s evolution over time. Barbara Kruger, whose work is in the show, and who famously aims to critique advertising and marketing culture, recently worked with lifestyle brand Volcom in a thinly veiled commentary on the much larger lifestyle company Supreme and the similarity of its branding to her work. Designers study pop art for inspiration, and Beyoncé, a brand all her own, famously cribs from fine art history to construct her image (though sometimes the connection is overblown). Not to mention the role of advertising for art — an economy that supports the business model of art world publications such as this one, helps bring in audiences for major shows like those at LACMA, helps draw attention to LACMA’s remodeling plans, and generally keeps art and the art world in the public eye.

Cheap Thrills and Forbidden Pleasures (1993), a set of dye destruction prints by Jo Ann Callis in the show, blends pastries, product photography, and yonic and phallic innuendo to remind us that food, sex, products, and photography are all part of the story of advertising. In an attention economy, advertising is inseparable not just from art, but from life itself, shaping the things we buy, the things we read, the things we eat, the way we spend our time, and even the way we think. If there is an object you have ever desired in your life, rest assured that someone in the advertising industry made money convincing you of exactly that.

Installation view of Jo Ann Callis, Cheap Thrills and Forbidden Pleasures (1993)
David Buchan, “Modern Fashion Suite #9 ‘Take Her Breath Away’” (1979)
Asha Schechter, “Junk Drawer (New Taste … New Smell!)” (2020)
Victor Burgin, from the series US77 (1977)

Objects of Desire: Photography and the Language of Advertising continues at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Mid-Wilshire, Los Angeles, California) through December 18. The exhibition was curated by Rebecca Morse, Curator, Wallis Annenberg Photography Department, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

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