Archive for April, 2012

Replace public advertising with art.

Imagine if all of the advertisements on billboards, in metro stations, on buses, inside buses, on walls, and on the sides of buildings were replaced with art. Imagine that as you stand on the train or drive on the freeway, instead of vapid images intended to manipulate and dehumanize you, you were shown art intended to inspire, challenge, entertain and enrich you.

Suppose that these artworks came from the same variety of sources and rotated with the same frequency as do advertisements. Many of the same graphic designers and photographers could be employed in this new enterprise. The billboard, as an artistic medium, would still lend itself to bold imagery that can be quickly absorbed, something former advertising employees would know how to make. Metro posters, on the other hand, can be studied for cumulative hours by commuters, who currently see the same ones daily for months. This medium lends itself to the complexity of more traditional visual fine arts.

You may object that it would be impossible to select art that everyone would like. True enough. We could use various voting-based selection processes but we might end up with the billboard equivalent of a lot of Thomas Kincaid. Likely, we would want to do some selections by committee, and have some element of competition among the artists. But more importantly, consider the status quo: the images currently displayed make people and neighborhoods worse off; as evidence, virtually everyone would prefer no advertisements if given the choice. It would not be difficult to do better than the current selection of images when freed from the profit motive driving them.

You may next ask, who pays for it? But of course, you are already paying. And not merely with your money, but with your free will and individuality, by buying things you don’t want and wanting things you wouldn’t have cared about. What I am suggesting is that rather than launder our money through corporations, we spend it directly and in our own collective interest. So the new enterprise would be publicly funded. One can imagine variations based on the public radio model or locally-minded foundations, but ultimately the citizens benefit and the citizens ought to pay.

How could this start? A city could do it. Transit agencies have great leeway to determine images in and on their property. Billboard restrictions remain legally contentious, but 4 states have long-standing bans, Los Angeles’ and New York’s restrictions have been upheld in court, and New York’s even distinguishes between commercial and non-commercial signage. The long-term benefits in population growth and tourism might very well outweigh the lost revenue from advertising on public property. Some local businesses might be hurt, but others would benefit from less attention being diverted to national brands.

No doubt, a transformation of our urban landscape from advertising to art would meet with challenges from vested interests. Yet, imagine a visual culture than inspires rather than manipulates. Isn’t it worth trying?

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