Jeff Wall is one of my favourite artists and when a retrospective exhibition of his work came to Tate Modern about a year ago I jumped at the chance to see it. His work is photographic, but seeing it in art books doesn't get its point across, as explained in this very good interview and article today in the New York Times Magazine. (A retrospective exhibition opens this week at New York's Museum of Modern Art: worth seeing.)
His work is meant to be viewed as paintings: as massive unique objects, not smaller, reproducible images. Wall's intent is not to capture the perfect moment as photorealism before him had done. Rather he seeks to continue some of the explorations into everyday life that painting was occupied with, until, ironically, photography and photojournalism took away some of its impact.
In the contemporary painter’s crisis, he found an opportunity. He thought photographers could undertake the mission that many painters were neglecting: the depiction of how contemporary people talk, dress, work, quarrel and play. He understood just how strange it would be for an artist with Modernist credentials to resuscitate ambitions that had been largely moribund since the passing of Manet.
Here's one creative person who isn't shy about mucking about in theory. Perhaps as a result, his work is both accessible to the public and adored by critics and other artists (such as Andreas Gursky, whom Wall influenced).
I bring this up because there is a myth that circulates through the ad industry that over-thinking kills great creative work. The myth says that great work requires no explanation and cannot be judged by logic or reason. It follows, incorrectly, that the work itself comes from nowhere, from some hidden creative gut that cannot explain itself.
We in the account planning discipline often feed into this myth. We draw a line between rational and emotional roles in our relationship with creative people. We do the thinking-bit, and they do the emotive-bit. Of course, this is ridiculous.
To believe some planners I've worked with, the typical creative person is a man-child capable of limited reasoning. And sometimes that image is cultivated: the motorcycles, the drinking, the blokiness (and in some cases, the tattoos). But you need to scratch under the surface. Beneath the working class bluster, there's exquisite knowledge and theory.
- Discussing the topic of butter with a creative team led me to introducing them to the art film Big Night by Campbell Scott. Without missing a beat, they offered up Danish art house classic Babette's Feast as a better example of gastronomic lust on film.
- At another agency, my fearsomely-built, motocross-riding creative director would disagree with my e-mails to clients not for their faulty metaphors (which would have be more typical) but for their rhetorical structure. Only later I discovered that he studied classics at university. It's one thing to argue with someone brought up on Bay, Budgen, and Pytka; it's another to argue with someone steeped in Virgil, Horace, and Herodotus.
My point is not that I'm surprised by the knowledge and creative consciousness of creative directors - I'm not. My point is to say that as planners, we can't just fall into familiar roles and let them play dumb. We've got to treat everyone as an expert; we just happened to have brought the research and strategy skills to the table.
In other words, if you treat them like idiots, you're going to get idiots. If you act like you're superior, they'll just hate you and ignore you, and rightfully so. Most importantly, having rational conversations with creative people also avoids our own hubris. I've seen a few planners dismiss creative work outright because they don't understand the creative choices being made. Without the deeper conversations, there are fewer ideas and more dead ends.
The best conversations might be in that uncomfortable gap between our different skill sets. My theory is that great ideas are found precisely there.