PRINT February 1987


birthday suits for different parties.

THE MOST ARTLIKE PRINT ADVERTISEMENTS seem to be those appearing in smallish, upscale, arts-oriented magazines like Interview and Details. These publications are the totems of an advantaged minority community, one that is bonded by a shared image language. Art is the grammar and rhetoric of this language; advertising and fashion are its vernacular and dialects.

But in advertising directed at an art-worldly mobile community, frequently all that separates the advertisement from editorial art is the barest signifier of intention. A small logo in the corner of a photo may be all that removes it from an art context. The advertising may reflect art intentions as well as commercial intentions. In these magazines it is almost a custom for photographers whose work is exhibited as art to do virtually the same work for advertisements.

In our classless society we are obsessed with class, and we create our own through structures of encoded meaning. Our artificial classes are based on artifice. You know us by our magazines. The parameters that define our sense of class have to do with what we perceive as beautiful, what we perceive as shocking (or shocking to them, not to us), and what we perceive as funny. In the May 1986 issue of Interview:

—an ad for the Marc II Gallery of Los Angeles, which specializes in “Sacred Arts of Asia,” announced in huge type: WE SELL USED GODS.
—a New York restaurant called Restaurant declared, “We accept foodstamps. . . but no credit cards.”
—Kenneth Cole, a fashionable shoe store, ran an ad with a quote from Kenneth Cole himself: ”Imelda Marcos bought 2,700 pairs of shoes. She could of at least had the courtesy to buy a pair of ours.”

These taboo-tickling ads speak to those independent thinkers whose sensibilities transcend orthodox creed, political dogma, and, in the case of the Kenneth Cole ad, ordinary grammar. It was just a few years ago that Harper’s Bazaar lost advertisers and quite a few subscribers by showing a woman facing the camera nude from the waist up. But today the nude is a commonplace in rad fashion advertising. Calvin Klein’s no-pajama-party Obsession for Men ad is everywhere and it would seem, from its ubiquity, that no one finds it shocking—even with the werewolflike scratches that etch its surface. The apparent success of Calvin Klein’s soft-core sell seems to have launched a new wave of nudish advertising.

The December 1986 issue of Interview carried ads featuring seminudes, including a four-and-a-half-page ad for the Jane Fonda film The Morning After. Although these ads would seem to be based on shock appeal, they are in fact based on our immunity to the shock of skin. We’re all artists here, or friends of artists. We think it’s pretty. Our beaches are nude beaches. We don’t think twice; it’s all right. Actually the nakedness in the Interview ads was generally rather pleasant and innocent (although I’m not quite sure who is supposed to appeal to whom in the Calvin Klein Sport ad of a nude girl sandwiched between two clothed men). But Interview recently had a problem with an advertisement featuring nudity. The complaint came from a national bookstore chain, which objected to an ad for the fashionable New York restaurant Café Luxembourg and warned Interview to refrain from accepting ads of that nature. This ad depicted three nude (not counting heels and baubles) women, their backs to the camera, standing at an antique cocktail bar. Oddly, the daguerreotype feeling of this ad was meant to evoke an air of fin de siècle naughtiness and could scarcely be construed as an attempt to arouse anyone. Its only unusual feature was that the models were all quite plump. So why was this ad singled out? Perhaps nudity was not the actual issue in this instance as much as community standards of beauty (and realism). Twiggy-like derrières may well have been invisible in their flawlessness. Dimpled butts are just too real, too accessible.

Other communities’ standards are the problem; we know our own community. It’s so hip it’s harmless. But we have to keep looking over our shoulders at those other communities who may misinterpret our in-crowd advertisements and suddenly decide that these are subliminally inducing their citizens to embark on interstate sprees of rape and plunder. Beauty today is in the eye of the beholder corporation.

The rock group the Dead Kennedys found themselves behind bars recently for featuring a drawing by H. R Giger on the inner sleeve of a record album. The drawing, which includes a rather stylized depiction of reproductive organs, has been exhibited in museums and reproduced in art publications. But this time, unprotected by its previous fine-arts context, it was found in the possession of a minor, to whose delinquency the group was charged with contributing.

That’s the problem with visual language. It’s not literal. Beyond the eyes of the community where it’s in common use it sometimes doesn’t translate. In a classless, borderless society this random traffic of visual languages can sometimes be hazardous.

Your magazine may be the toast of Oz, but watch out for those subscribers who don’t follow the yellow brick road.

Glenn O’Brien is a writer who lives in Brooklyn. His column on advertising appears monthly in Artforum.