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June 01, 2004

Media Bliss vs. White Borders

I treated myself to a computer break over the long weekend because I've found that ambitious, day-after-day computer use can cause brainstrain. My mind was feeling like a heap of burnt-out cinders.

Why should this be? When I first noticed the phenomenon of computer burn-out, I thought it must be a function of staring at awful CRT computer screens. But even though they've been replaced by higher-quality LCD screens, my brain cells still get fried. Does this have to do with the weightlessness of cyberlife? With its disconnectedness from the physical world? With the way computer space is so vast, and seems to consist of right angles, tree-structures, and databases?

I wonder sometimes about the consequences of digital efficiency. Does it really enable us to get that much more out of ourselves? Perhaps what it really does is to encourage us to burn up what we have to offer more quickly than we otherwise would. Hence the feeling of having a headful of cinders.

Or perhaps this is all just a rant about the way electronics affect l'il ol' me?

Thanks to my break I'm feeling refreshed and ready for further blogging. A little stumped with this posting, frankly. I had a good time collecting the ads I present here -- I'm pleased to have noticed the minitrends I've noticed. But I'm not sure what to make of them. I toyed for a few minutes with the idea of using these trendlets to illustrate Camille Paglia's contention that the history of Western art is best understood as a quarrel between the Dionysian impulse and the Apollonian impulse -- it's the Romantic thing vs. the Classic thing, over and over again.

Paglia made a good, basic, and necessary point, and I for one am happy thinking that people who quarrel with it just don't get Western art. If the two ad-trends I point out here don't illustrate her argument, I don't know what use they are. At the very least, in the spirit of good blogging citizenship, I was hoping to turn up info about when the second volume of Paglia's book "Sexual Personae" will be published.

Alas, no such luck. She's been working on the book forever, and (as far as I can tell) several times has even announced that she's on the verge of finishing it. But I see nothing online confirming that she's in fact completed the book. I did think this Wikipedia entry on Paglia here was awfully good, though.

So apologies for a substance-free posting, and here's hoping you'll enjoy the eye candy.

On to the pix. What I've noticed is the amusing coexistence of two different styles. First up is the cyber-Dionysian.

Looking at these images and layouts, the voices in my brain mutter something like this: "Photoshop is the new crack! Whee: I'm happy, or I am so long as the goodies keep on showering down on me. Psychedelia! Black-light posters! Tiny ideas wildly overproduced! Overstuffed colors, and objects and lettering so full of pumpiness that they just have to spill over, if not actually burst, the frame. Shazaam! Let's wallow in flashy trash, and let's not even mention the impact of Camp. It's exaggerated fwoofiness for the 'In your face and feeling hot' generation. Swoosh. Twinkle. It's an explosion in a tinsel factory. It's all about the experience of narcissistic media bliss."

This Tinkerbelle-is-passing-by thing seems to illustrate a shift I see in many of the new arts; namely that the artists are determined to use their chosen medium to portray an effect, rather than (as is traditional) to use the means of communication to create an effect. (Hey, a Larger Reflection!) The effect isn't made to happen inside you, in other words. Instead, it's happening on the page, while your participation (and response) largely seems meant to consist of going, "Whoa!" You're along for someone else's ride. For all the joyous-seeming ediginess of this kind of work, what it represents is a theme-park approach to art and culture.

Is anyone else as struck as I am by the position the new media often put us in? Spinning graphics; dancing and colored text; imagery that stuns us into twinkly preverbal bliss ... I can't help picturing the following scenario: a cradle; the audience as a tantrum-prone baby; and the media, our anxious parents, standing over us, twirling and dangling all kinds of shiney trinkets, hoping thereby to pacify us.

On to the cyber-Apollonian.

These four ads all have white borders, as well as compositions that are cooled-down and Classic. To me these layouts say: "Ordered. Calm. Well-behaved. Tranquil. Zen. Frames around artworks and precious objects. Poised. Balanced. Centered."

(BTW, dig the cross that appears behind the model's neck in the black and white ad. I wonder what the 666 crowd makes of it.)

These are ads that play -- rather ostentatiously -- by the rules. They may sport little touches of attitude. Look at the way the top of the Cher-like model's hairdo and elbow have been saucily cropped-off. Check out the molten-metal flesh and the "T-2" shades in the Calvin ad. The swoopy hammock and the green Quark windowshade in the otherwise dorky Mandarin Oriental hotel ad provide some visual jazz. But these are all just touches, ways of sprucing the Classic thing up a bit. What we have here are stay-between-the-lines ads.

So the cyber-Dionysian is countered by the cyber-Apollonian ... I wonder if it's fair to conclude that the anything's-possible ethos of the computer age has generated its own opposite.

In any case, I've also noticed a related sub-trend. It seems that even those designers who are playing with a Classic approach can get jiggy. For instance, I find the following ads expressive and even bizarre while remaining Classic.

Here, Banana Republic is saying (to me, anyway): "Classic, but up-to-date and provocative too, and not so retro as to use a four-sided white border. Instead, we use an asymetrical top/bottom composition. This ad is to be understood as a media thing, and not as an imitation picture-to-be-hung-on-a-wall. And take a closer look at the photo itself. Conventional, yes: but also intimate, dewy and sensual, in a discreet way. Radical bit of picture-cropping too, no?" The ad is saying, "The Banana Republic girl may wear chinos, but underneath she wears a thong. She's a girl who is a paragon of good breeding, yet who carries around a headful of lusciously naughty thoughts." Grace Kelly gone a little trampy, but in a way that only enhances her yumminess and social standing.

The Redken ad hits me much less pleasingly. I look at it and hear Dolby swoosh-thunk crashes -- grinding-metal and splintering-glass sounds made unreally clear. That slash in the upper right ("New!"), those rude and bright horizontal white bars, and that cosmetics bottle popping off the page all scream, "Shiney! Silvery! Loud! Digital!" The ad is selling a Lara Croft-y, smack-you-around, hyperdynamic videogame esthetic. Hmmm. Why do I suddenly feel brainsprain coming on?

These two ingenious ads are my faves.

The Kohl ad is saying: "We're doing the prim-white-border thing, yes! But check it out: we're playing with the convention! We're mid-American and nice, yes! But we're also loads of fun -- and even a little offbeat!" The model is, I guess, imagining being photographed -- cute! I find the ad's determination to be both kicky and sweetly inoffensive kind of touching.

The Cardin ad hits me like a poetic French film. Using a black border instead of a white one -- sly! Chopping most of the girl's head off -- daring! And turning the orange sweater into an abstract swoosh set off by white -- tres chic! I am amused. I pause, and I savor.

Apollonian white frames are everywhere these days, and are about as visible as cyber-Dionysian media-bliss imagery is. What to make of this?

posted by Michael at June 1, 2004


It seems to me that your preferred examples are, in fact, cross-breeds. The frame which invades the composition of the Kohl's ad suggests possibilities of endless regression, and thus undercuts the notion of Apollonian individuation. The Cardin ad pits cool Apollonian individuation against a hot orange garment. Maybe both reflect the notion that style attempts to simultaneously individuate us while also integrating us into the fashionable continuum.

At what point, by the way, did we slip back into the Dionysiac Sixties? And why?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 2, 2004 07:21 PM

Occasionally, in a waiting room, I'll pick up a woman's magazine. I'm always struck by the visual overkill. It feels like an assault: no sense of the need for any empty space; no place for the eye to rest; every square inch crammed with images overlapping images that overlap still more images. I have to restrain the impulse to thow the thing away from me.
I know it's a cliche but maybe it's a cliche because it's true: the male brain has almost a physical need for visual/spacial clarity, which seems not to be the case for the female brain. The obverse is the obvious verbal superiority or virtuousity of the female brain.
It follows from the above that I find the first three ads (visual overkill, no particular spacial sense, or rather, the obliteration of space) to be the least memorable/most annoying.
The man in the hammock and the woman in front of a cross (I didn't read it as a cross, just a clear vertical/horizontal slicing of the space of the ad) both stick in the mind's eye. They both "pattern" their space in a simple clear way that stamps itself on the brain.
I agree that the Cardin is best of all. Classic. Beautiful. Clearly, whoever conceived it was referencing ancient Greek statues of Aphrodite.

Posted by: ricpic on June 3, 2004 09:22 AM

Everything's in warp speed, clash and flash, colors that bounce off our eyeballs half unseen because we've learned to scan the world and all that's in it.

I yearn for black and white and shades of grey that make you want to look deeper, instead of turning away.

Posted by: susan on June 3, 2004 09:44 AM

Ditto on Susan's comment re. b/w. An out-of-left-field-er..that's why Jim Jarmusch's "Coffee and Cigarettes" was so effective for me. The blacks, whites, and shimmering grays were easy on the eye, allowing for concentration on the dialogue and the ever-changing facial expressions. Just can't understand the plethora of lousy reviews it got; possibly due to lack of special effects?

Posted by: DarkoV on June 3, 2004 11:25 AM

FvB -- I knew a visual posting would lure you back. You're right about it being the '60s all over again in some respects. I'm feeling the urge to dig out my old paisley shirts.

Ricpic -- That cluttery thing so many women's mags do is really something, isn't it? My favorite trope is the party page, the one that looks like a bunch of snapshots have simply been tossed onto a tabletop. I've learned to be respectful and cautious about how to phrase this taste, though. I once ventured to my (very successful) sister that I thought men are better at organization women are. She gave me a friendly glare and said that she'd always thought of it as being a matter of women being better at coping with chaos than men are.

Susan -- I'm with you, and that's really nicely evoked. The hecticness and over-pumpiness of so much new media really makes me want to go somewhere quiet and monochromatic.

DarkoV -- I'm eager to see the Jarmusch, and have talked Turbokitty, who loved the film, into gabbing about it some. Will be posting it in a day or two, and hope you check it out.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 3, 2004 07:24 PM

Neat post. And I'm glad to see FvB commenting. What to make of old Dionysius and Apollo? Camille Paglia said it all in Sexual Personae.

Posted by: Alan Sullivan on June 4, 2004 09:09 AM

Does this have to do with the weightlessness of cyberlife?

Yes. For example -- seeing an abstract swoosh when it's naught but a woman's torso in a pretty ugly sweater in an extraordinarily hideous color. Man. You artistes.

Either lay off, or lay on, the booze, sir.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on June 4, 2004 10:01 PM

That BR ad looks vaguely cyber-Apollonian, while that Redken thing just looks blah. I'm all for the minimalism.

Posted by: Robert Detman on June 6, 2004 02:50 AM

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