The illustrator’s star is ascendant. His last moment of prominence was back in the late 70s when there were no computers and everything looked horrible. In those days if you wanted to show, for instance, the hand of God reaching down from the clouds to pick up a van full of Planter’s incredibly tempting peanuts, you had to draw it. And if you wanted a picture of something really fanciful, like a succulent corn on the cob or an attractive person, an illustrator was the only option. With the advent of Photoshop all that changed, and using anything but seriously retouched photography began to look dated. I love all those high finish ads from Parisian and Brazilian agencies that filled annuals in the mid-nineties, I love their dark Matrix-y aesthetic. Yes, they are nice aren’t they? And virtually interchangeable.
In harmony with consuming
This is just one of the advantages of the modern illustrator: he (or she) comes with a fashionable courier bag full of personality. His hand is freer than his forebear’s. If he likes to draw weirdly- shaped hamburger-people, he is allowed, nay, encouraged to do so. Ian Stevenson and David Shrigley opened the door on this style, which art historians probably won’t ever call the Knowingly Naive school. Its prominence is part of a deeper trend in advertising, which is the movement from representation to expression. The point of adverts used to be to show the consumer what the product was and what it did. The purpose of advertising now is to show how brands behave when given the opportunity to produce advertising.
I believe that when we describe what a brand is ‘like’ we’re deploying the same parts of our brain that read human personality. I haven’t got any evidence for this, apart from the fact that people describe Google as ‘friendly’, rather than merely ‘helpful’. You can develop a brand through the fascistic enforcement of brand guidelines, which makes for a ‘neat’ brand, say, American Express, or the Nazis. Or you can display the permissiveness of that brand’s culture. MTV was the original permissive brand. What could be more relaxed than allowing a nice bloke with a beard to doodle all over your logo?
In Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom, the jaded alt-rocker Richard Katz finds himself the only 40 year-old at a gig full of 20 year-olds. They aren’t so angry as the crowds he remembers from his youth, having found a way of being “more in harmony with consuming”. The modern illustrator represents the first generation of artist to grow up native to these conditions, outmanoeuvred by consumerism. No one would accuse them of selling out to advertising, because they couldn’t exist in their current form without it.
The illustrator, particularly the fixie-riding Shoreditch breed, lends the brand the personality du jour: the outsider with nowhere left to run. It’s a perfect symbiosis. So he’s locked himself in the toilet and is drawing on the back of the door. But it’s OK, we let him do that. Actually we just paid him about ten grand.
‘Gordon Comstock’ is a creative at a London-based advertising agency and blogs at notvoodoo.blogspot.com