Artistic license

Agency life used to facilitate outside artistic projects, but now there’s hardly time to sketch, let alone write that novel

In mid-January a new show opened at the Riflemaker Gallery in London (CR Feb 14). The work walked a line between figurative painting and abstract photography – anthropomorphic patterns seen in cracked plaster and blistered paint had been photographed and printed on to white marble. The artful, not to mention expensive, production seemed to have been designed to demonstrate the seriousness of the work, as did the titles: Pink Mao, Green Rembrandt etc.

According to press reports a smattering of celebs were present, along with an extraordinary number of middle-aged men in Paul Smith scarves – the de facto winter uniform of senior ad creatives. For the artist in question was none other than Graham Fink, former enfant terrible, now chief creative officer of Ogilvy and Mather China. The press photos show Fink looking relaxed. “I’m excited to follow in Warhol’s footsteps,” he said, “in crossing over from art to advertising.” I don’t know Fink personally, but my impression is he’s never lost for an apposite soundbite. In this instance he’s being disingenuous, Warhol was only briefly an art director before becoming an artist. Fink’s career is the mirror image. The same could be said for David Abbott (the A in AMV) who published his debut novel The Upright Piano Player, to mixed reviews, in 2011.

Of course, the path from advertising to art is, or at least was, a well-trodden one. Some of the greatest living novelists (Rushdie, Carey, Roth) have served their time in the salt-mines. The difference is that they all got out in their 30s. So why have Fink and Abbott waited so long to reveal this superabundance of creativity? Were they plucking up the courage? Or did they just not have the time?

Because if you have artistic ambitions, advertising might just be the world’s best-paid form of procrastination. What was once a pretty stable second-string has become such an all-consuming, emotionally-needy, downright professional profession that outside projects often end up seeming completely impossible. I can think of four copywriters I know who are working on novels and only one (Ben Kay) who has published one. And this is sad, because if the industry could cut artists some slack, maybe offer them reasonable terms of employment, they might find that they became grateful and willing employees. Especially since the things that artists (writers in particular) used to do to make money: working in shops, writing reviews for newspapers and selling actual books, have all been killed off by Amazon.

If late bloomers like Abbott and Fink prove anything, it’s that there’s never a ‘good time’ to change track. The trouble is, if you wait till retirement, or until you’re senior enough to do what you like, you won’t have youth to excuse your inexperience. It’s very brave of these highly-powered industry people to step out from behind the curtain, because the general public treat them just like any other newcomer. The Amazon troll who called Abbott’s writing “heavy-handed” knows nothing about his D&AD pencils for copy. And if there’s one thing more tragic than peaking too early as an artist, it’s peaking too late.

‘Gordon Comstock’ is a creative director based in London. See @notvoodoo


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