Damien Hirst divides the art world. No one thinks him a good artist, of course. But there are those who despise him for his commercialism, and those who recognise the ingenuity of the man and his innate sense of self-promotion and salesmanship. The apotheosis of this was undoubtedly Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, the infamous Sotheby’s auction held on the eve of the global recession. The diamond skull that was the centrepiece of the auction was described as a “vulgar publicity stunt” by The Economist. In the auction’s aftermath, the market for his works “bottomed out”; sales performed poorly versus the contemporary art market as a whole (see chart below). Despite such schadenfreunde, it was satisfying to read a positive review for the artist’s new retrospective, “Relics”, which opened last month in Doha. The exhibition is part of a major push by Qatar to make itself culturally relevant abroad. Indeed, the physical context in which the pieces are set do apparently allow the viewer to judge them anew, without all the tabloid baggage the artist’s works usually bring with them. But concessions have had to be made too:
“In a country where Muslim clerics hold sway, the titles of these works, many of which feature the word “God”, have not been translated into Arabic. Mr Hirst sees the sense in this, admitting that he wants his art to be “provocative in the right way”. Nudes are also virtually banned from public view.”
In an increasingly homogenised culture – by which we simply mean one where content from one nation is easily accessible and ultimately transferable to another – what does being “provocative in the right way” mean?
In New York, such questions were similarly asked in recent months, in particular at the city’s two opera houses. One, the New York City Opera, recently filed for bankruptcy. The house has long been suffering from financial difficulties, and despite a last-minute Kickstarter campaign that raised $300,000+ in a short space of time, the curtain will fall on this institution. Its strategy seemed sound – to not be, rather than to beat, the competition, in this case the Metropolitan Opera. In pursuing this end, they often used American singers and often produced avant-garde works, the most recent and famous of which was undoubtedly Anna Nicole, about a Playboy model who captured the hearts of America’s flyover states before meeting her tragic end. Such courage should be commended, and in a just world, rewarded, but sadly it was not to be. Indeed, the City Opera lost its biggest donor entirely because of this production.
The other of New York’s opera houses, The Metropolitan Opera, a stalwart of tradition, is battling with political ramifications that are happening thousands of miles away. In June this year, in another blow to any sense of fledgling democracy in Russia, President Putin signed into law an act that restricted discussion or promotion of homosexual acts, labelling such things “propaganda”. The New York Times cites one Anton Krasovsky, “a television anchor who was immediately fired from his job at the government-controlled KontrTV network in January after he announced during a live broadcast that he is gay, saying he was fed up with lying about his life and offended by the legislation”. Such news quickly became internationally relevant when mixed messages came from the Kremlin as to whether openly gay athletes would be welcomed at the Sochi Olympic Games next year. Boycotts are being considered. Just as there are openly gay people in sports, so in the arts. The controversy settled on the Metropolitan Opera as it prepared to launch its new season with Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. The new law, the almost universally acknowledged fact that the composer was homosexual, as well as the presence of talent (soprano Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev) that were known Putin sympathisers, served to create a perfect storm. It was not long before opera fans were pleading with the Met to dedicate its opening night performance in support of homosexuals. Gergiev, an indisputably great conductor, as well as being a “close Putin ally”, according to the Financial Times, has long been dogged by rumours of political favours from the President, and protesters are becoming increasingly vocal. His claim on his Facebook page that the law targeted pedophiles, not homosexuals, pleased few. The stubbornness was mirrored by the Met. Writing an article for Bloomberg, Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Met, attempted to clarify why the house wouldn’t “bow to protest”. Gelb conceded he personally deplored the new law, as much as he deplored the 76 countries that go even further than Russia currently by completely outlawing homosexuality. He went on,
“But as an arts institution, the Met is not the appropriate vehicle for waging nightly battles against the social injustices of the world.”
Clearly, Gelb is declaring that such a mention before the performance would not have been – to return to Hirst’s words – “provocative in the right way”. But just as we have called it a perfect storm of political and cultural affiliations, was this not also the perfect opportunity for such a tremendously important institution to take a stand for those people who do not have such a prominent pulpit? Gelb asserts that the house has never dedicated a single performance to a political or social cause. Progressive thinking and innovation rarely develops from such thinking. Moreover, the Met has stood up for the rights of the marginalised in the past when it refused to play in front of black/white segregated audiences. So a precedent exists, which arguably is not being lived up to.
It would be naive to avoid acknowledging the pitfalls in the knee-jerk use of the arts to constantly promote change and stand against discrimination. In some cases, such calls to action can fall on deaf ears, or worse, provoke outrage that costs the institution and earns it an unfortunate reputation. Such damage to a reputation can be financially devastating (the New York City Opera is to an extent an example of this), which apart from anything else rules out any future opportunities to make such important statements. These organisations are, whether for profit or no, ultimately businesses that cannot afford to support every cause, no matter how relevant. Arts organisations have the rare distinction of often being at the intersection of culture, politics and money (which can often make for a murky combination). Perhaps what is needed is an entirely new fundraising model. Monied interests will usually be conservative in their tastes (why would someone want to change the status quo that allowed them to get where they are?). Increased use of crowdfunding, such as the City Opera briefly used with Kickstarter, will surely play a far greater role in the years to come. Such efforts could go some way to negating the worry of avoiding a few vested interests. What an organisation should or should not publicly speak out on must always rest with the individual situation, as well as how any statement is phrased, which does not necessarily need to condemn a party. As Andrew Rudin, the composer who started the petition to ask the Met to make a statement, implored, “I’m not asking them to be against anybody. I’m asking them to be for somebody”.
“I woke up as the sun was reddening… I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel…”
– Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Taking a page from the Beats, brandchannel reported earlier this week on one man’s attempt to hitchhike through Europe relying solely on the good nature of those behind the wheels of Mercedes-Benz vehicles. Found on tramp-a-benz.com, it’s a lovely idea that apparently the brand didn’t instigate and isn’t sponsoring, but has mentioned it on its Facebook page, with almost 3,000 “likes”. (What they are doing is courting Twitter users to race some of their cars in order to win a C-class). It’s a great story that most brands would be extremely envious of; unadulterated, unsolicited brand advocacy and evangalism. The wonderful NotCot site also pointed Zeitgeist to the brand’s Yuletide message, which seems to be exclusively online:
Not too long ago, Zeitgeist was wandering home in the wee hours when he had his magnificent watch – a graduation present – stolen from him. The damage was minimal as Zeitgeist was quite blindingly drunk as he staggered by Hyde Park at 4am. Others however do not escape such thefts as unscathed.
As reported by Luxuo, on 25th November, Formula 1 CEO Bernie ‘Hitler was alright, democracy ain’t great’ Ecclestone was mugged. His watch, a Hublot, was stolen from his wrist. The octogenarian sent a picture of himself, severely disfigured by the affair, to fellow CEO Jean-Claude Biver of Hublot, writing “See what people will do for a Hublot”. It wasn’t long before it was agreed that the incident could be turned to the benefit of the company, and on the 8th and 9th of December, print ads appeared in the FT and International Herald Tribune, featuring the undoctored photo and Ecclestone’s quip.
It’s a somewhat tasteless ploy that Hublot, by literally advertising it, are implicitly condoning. In December they also tastelessly illuminated and branded the legendary column of Paris’ Place Vendome. But it also shows an innovative and creative spark in a sector of the ad industry known for its otherwise wholly uninspiring ads.
Today the problem lies not in acquiring information, but in how to apply it effectively and efficiently in order to solve the problem at hand. The impact of the increasingly easy access we have to information was scrutinised recently by President Obama at Hampton University, “With iPods and iPads and Xboxes [sic] and PlayStations—none of which I know how to work—information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment”. As Le Monde details, the speech as a whole was really geared toward warning people of the dangers of excessive use of technology; about making sure it is the parents rather than the X-box that tucks the child into bed at night.
The statement in of itself though, is strange, given the person saying it. It is generally agreed that Obama won the election with his revolutionary form of fundraising. It meant he raised more money than fellow Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who stuck to her old-school guns by going to uber donors in their sizable Upper East Side and Malibu residences. Not only that, but the way he went about it – a truly grassroots system of peer advocacy; viral awareness through social networks to encourage micropayment upon micropayment – showed he was intuitively in touch with the electorate, and with a new way of doing things. To hear these Luddite words from Obama, complaining about the X-box, is odd coming from someone whose campaign advertisements appeared on in-game billboards on the X-box’s Burnout Paradise, moreover from someone who is a self-confessed Blackberry addict. His self-deprecating manner is patronising and unnecessary; people elected him because he is elite, which should not be seen as a bad thing, as Jon Stewart points out, “The Navy Seals are an elite squad… why must the President be a dumbass?” Bill Maher has more: no longer has more because this content has been removed by HBO, sorry. It was pretty funny though.
The information we all now have access to over the Internet is truly staggering. YouTube now receives 2bn hits daily (though not without repercussions), which rivals that of this blog. However that is no reason for condemnation, as long as whatever it is (text, audio, video; i.e. content) can be accessed efficiently. The problem at the moment is that this is not the case. ‘Convergence’ has been a buzzword for what seems like a lifetime in the world of digital. It is happening, but only in fits and starts, and to some extent it is being hampered by conglomerates whose corporate interest (quite understandably) in the bottom line does not exactly dovetail with what convergence is really about – open source.
The constantly stimulating blog Only Dead Fish featured a very well-written and thought-provoking article on convergence. Having studied the matter as part of its Master’s degree, Zeitgeist thought it knew all there was to know about such matters. This article challenged any existing, simplistic preconceptions. The author quotes Grant McCracken, who says, of the iPad as a converged device,
“The iPad critics can’t see this third space because they work from a utilitarian point of view. For them, iPad will create economic value only if it solves practical problems. But Apple has always seen the economic proposition as a cultural one, as an opportunity to speak to the entire consumer in all of his or her complexity, not just the problem solver.”
The author goes on to reference Henry Jenkins’ ‘Black box’ fallacy, “sooner or later all media content will flow through a single black box”. This is indeed one interpretation of the idea of convergence, and it is not necessarily wrong. However, what Zeitgeist believes convergence means for the consumer is not about a black box; we enjoy being able to access content through our myriad devices. What it does mean then is seamless interaction between these devices, i.e. being able to watch my TV show on the commute from work, returning home to dock the device in my TV and have it immediately start playing there, etc.
Conversations over social networks will play an increasing role as these platforms converge (and privacy continues to erode). However, the question remains on everyone’s lips about how to monetise all these goings on. One colleague of Zeitgeist’s suggested a provider like Sky might end up providing an offering where consumers can pick a package that includes The Guardian, some music (Sky has a lacklustre service for this already) and the Cookery Channel, believing that people would be more willing to pay for content in packages rather than in small, one-off payments. Of course, News Corporation could, with little difficulty provide a similar service, whereby they provide access to The Times, The Sun, Sky Sports events, Sky Songs and new films released by 20th Century Fox as packages.
The American humourist Frank Clark wrote that “If you can find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere”. Convergence as a term could easily turn out to be one of those unobtainable zeniths, along the lines of world peace; an abstract term. The possibilities though of seamless connectivity of content between platforms is an extremely attractive one, both for consumer and advertiser.
Louis Vuitton, like everyone else, is keenly aware that the World Cup is approaching. Zeitgeist has a habit – recently pointed out by a colleague over lunch – of rarely making statements that would encompass what the whole of Zeitgeist would think about a certain subject; much like the Holy Trinity, though we are many, we are one. E pluribus, unum. In this instance, the worlds of Zeitgeist have collided together.
Ogilvy Paris started the “Journeys” campaign for Louis Vuitton in 2007, and since then, brand ambassadors like Gorbachev, Sean Connery and tennis legends Andre Agassi and Steffi Graff have been featured. In it’s latest inception, three football phenoms – Maradona, Zidane and Pelé – are caught in an empty café playing table football together, while to the side sits monogrammed Vuitton luggage. In the spot below, Maradona introduces the clash of the titans between Zidane and Pelé. Vogue has more. To vote for who you think will win, click here. It’s a timely piece, one that fits nicely into the rest of the campaign, and the interactive feature is a nice touch. Could they have done more though? There’s nothing on Vuitton’s Twitter or YouTube accounts about these new ads yet.
The company’s holding group, LVMH, meanwhile, have launched a new website “that allows luxury brands to showcase high-quality branded film content against a more sophisticated design aesthetic and insider editorial voice that luxury-goods consumers have come to expect”. PSFK has more. If you’d like to do your own little bit for LVMH and tell them about your perceptions of luxury brands as well as your Twitter use, click here.
A sad day for Zeitgeist today as car manufacturer Daimler announced the beginning of the end for the luxury brand Maybach (courtesy of the excellent Luxuo blog). The Maybach is an incredibly expensive, incredibly indulgent, ridiculously large and ridiculously powerful car. It’s exclusivity is second to none, to the extent that actually too few of them are being sold. Despite risqué attempts at brand activation with cutting edge artists like David LaChapelle and despite manufacturing only a hundred cars for some lines, the dream is over. How does luxury struggle onwards as the world crawls out of the recession?
The pleasure of Zeitgeist’s company was requested for ‘Artisan’ afternoon tea at Christian Dior on London’s Sloane Street this week. Luxury was front and centre. More than playing on the bling nature of the brand name, the idea was to present the fantastic workmanship that went on behind closed doors.
At the event, with the help of an Italian translator, Zeitgeist was able to speak to one of the aforementioned artisans, who was responsible for making handbags. The Florentine, wearing an immaculate white labcoat with the Dior logo above the breast pocket, said he had no quota for how many bags to produce per day or week, that Dior demanded absolute perfection instead in every bag, no matter the time taken. Though each person will have his or her own speciality, they will work across both the Dior and the Dior Homme brand. Elsewhere in the store, people worked meticulously on Dior jewellery and watches with incredible patience. The work pace of those in the jewellery and timepiece department was similarly dedicated to quality over quantity. From a branding perspective, not only does this ensure a higher rate of product satisfaction, at the same time it also helps to enforce scarcity.
While all this was occurring, waiters roamed the boutique with tripled tiered treats, ranging from caramel pastries and petites tartes aux framboises to mini cupcakes with swirls of icing. The whole affair felt very similar to that of the recent Miss Dior Cherie campaign, directed by Sofia Coppola, who coincidentally directed a very similar scene in Marie Antoinette. Dior definitely had its thinking cap when it came to integrating retail environment and through-the-line campaigns. The event next goes to Tokyo.
Elsewhere in the fashion sector, Louis Vuitton streamed its Paris Fashion Week collection over Facebook (again), and Burberry’s collection in London was broadcast in 3D. And what of luxury in general, how will it manage in a world of frozen credit? Zeitgeist recently listened in on a Datamonitor webinar called “Recovery from Recession”, (definite articles clearly not being a trend for this year according to Datamonitor). Consumption has slowed holistically because people no longer have the money, or access to borrowed money, that would allow them to make those purchases they otherwise would have done. This economic realignment – some might call it sanity – will hopefully be a relatively short-term affair. There is a worry for luxury brands however that these more frugal tendencies will become deeply ingrained in the buying habits of their potential or erstwhile consumers.
As such, there has been a trend by some brands to open up further to the masses. This has its advantages in that it can persuade people to trade up, especially concerning “everyday luxury items and treats” which are “a treat, rather than a representation of lifestyle”. “It is important that the long term image of the product is not hindered through aggressive discounting policies.” For Datamonitor, Grey Goose is a fine example of this, as it sells below retail price in the duty-free sector to great success. The fact that it is not discounted at a supermarket – where a shopper might see it every week rather than on infrequent trips to the airport – means the brand retains its premium image despite price cutting in some choice locations. Value added services, in this case a cocktail guide, also help. For those that are able to keep up their pre-recession spending uninterrupted, the trend is toward more arcane brands, such as Loro Piana. Shops like Escada, cognisant of consumer fears over reckless spending, have provided unbranded paper bags of late.
With the rather large hiccup of the recession seemingly over, luxury brands can certainly breathe a very small sigh of relief. Just how much people will want to spend on arguably frivolous products in the years to come, and, importantly, how discreet they will wish to be about it, will be a very important factor.