Monday, January 12, 2009

Art & commerce, force-fed

When you live in New York, the ubiquitous, inescapable, non-stop assault of the crud of culture--that is, advertising--is such that you become mostly inured to it. Or at least I have, at least to some extent, over my 26 years in the city. You ignore it as best you can. The subways of course are lined with ads, some eye-catching and clever and as such constituting an occasional slight diversion from the drear of the commute, most of them dreadfully insipid and insulting--to the eye, the intelligence, the spirit. Just lately the MTA has begun lining the outside of the trains as well as the interior with ads, so you can't even stand on the platform and zone out in peace without enduring the visual assault of BUY ME BUY ME BUY ME. (Despite all this ad revenue, and the outrageous $2 fare we pay, and the millions and billions of tax dollars we also pay, we riders are about to be hit with another round of combined fare increases and service cuts. Not to be matched, it can be assumed, with any respite from Madison Avenue's onslaught.)

For someone like me, for whom the hour or so of riding to and from work provides the day's only guaranteed reading time, there are other annoyances, like being pummeled from all sides by the unbelievably loud tinny, bass-thumping blare emerging from the earpieces of every other rider's iPod. Let me not wax on about this, however, lest I lean too far in a grumpy old curmudgeonly direction.

The ads, though. They're everywhere, not just the trains and buses. Giant posters plastered to every wall. TV sets, which are basically ad-dissemination machines, blaring no matter where you go: bank lobby, doctor's office, diner, and now even inside taxi cabs. Ack! Oh please, can I have no peace?

You get my drift. Now picture this. Last night I was heading home after marching for Gaza. I'd taken the 8th Avenue train down to 42nd Street, where I would transfer to the #7 to Queens. Walking that long tunnel eastward from the Port Authority end to the Times Square station. I'd just looked up to see the first sign in what is a real actual instance of pleasing public art--a series of signs in the manner of the old Burma Shave roadside ads (!), only this isn't an ad, it's a sort of a poem, call it the plaint of the every worker; it goes something like 'here I am, trudging to the train, I'm so tired, another day's work, wish I could go home,' only much more clever and poetic. It always makes me smile. Not last night, for just as I was starting to read the poem-sign-series, I noticed a corridor-long, eye-poppingly designed, colorful set of ads for the HBO series "Big Love." Not just any ads, though. These are interactive. They feature a series of photographs of people on the streets with balloons saying "listen to what I'm really thinking" or something like that--and a plug-in post for iPod earphones. Sure enough, many many people, mostly young folks, were being drawn, like zombies to living flesh, to the big glossy pretty talking ads, and plugging in, and listening, and laughing, and pointing, and drawing yet more people to plug in, and listen, and laugh, and point, and draw in more ...

It's not enough that we're force-fed advertising for every useless, overpriced (and offensive, as in the case of "Big Love," a series about those lovable if quirky guys with multiple wives) product everywhere we go. Now we are expected to take action to plug in to the ads. To become consumers not only of the products they advertise but of the ads themselves, as if the ads themselves are a new form of public art. To not only consume, but conspire with the advertisers to lure in other consumers, and on and on. Oh lordy, shoot me now. Then somebody says, ah what the hell, that's capitalism, and we sigh and nod and go on about our lives.