The legacy of the ‘ace caff’

Image of Peter Aspden

Gazing absent-mindedly at a series of posters at my local London Underground station, I come across a striking image. It is of a young woman, glamorously dressed, stretched lazily across an antique chaise-longue. She has kicked off her shoes, which happen to be ballet pointes. Her limbs are long and lean. She is in some kind of backstage area, flanked by a carefully coiled rope, and the kind of sturdy spotlight that went out with searching the skies for Stukas during the second world war. An eerie green lighting effect, straight out of The X-Files, completes the mood of languid eroticism. A slogan teases us further. “Looks Like a Doll. Dances Like a Demon.” Look out – the English National Ballet is in town.

Further along the platform, another poster catches my eye. By comparison, the image is unremarkable. But the message is short, sharp and to the point. “See Art. Love Art. Buy Art.” It is a poster advertising the inaugural edition of Art13 London, the city’s latest art fair, which takes place this weekend.

I thought about these two different versions of promoting the arts. The first takes an unashamedly romantic approach. It relies on the superficial allure of ballet, which is watching beautiful people who can move beautifully. But the doll is also a devil. Beneath the icy charm, there is fire. We look to her art, not only for aesthetic satisfaction, but for something more profound, and possibly disturbing.

The poster is part of a rebrand for the ballet company, dressed by Vivienne Westwood, which makes explicit its ambitions. “We leap and grasp for the new,” says a section called “Our Story”. “We are for everyone. Watch ballet and you are not rich or poor. Cultured or barbarian. Brain or brawn. You are human. Full of lust and adventure. We are yours and we are you.”

At Art13 London, there is a very different impulse at play: the lust to possess. Those simple exhortations – see, love, buy – are more straightforward, and more theoretically attainable, than what the ENB is offering. The dance company’s twilight zone titillation prepares us for a bumpy ride in the underground chambers of the psyche. The art fair invites us to choose something for the sitting room.

Both of these ways of enjoying the arts are legitimate. Culture owes its progress to the acquisitive drive of patrons as surely as to the insistence of artists on making transcendent statements.

What I loved about both posters is how succinctly they underscored their respective senses of mission. Using just a few words and a couple of telling images, they enable us immediately to grasp what both of these institutions are trying to do, and also the differences between them. They stand proudly among the infernally clever advertisements for trivial objects that surround them.

That has not always been the case. I don’t know if we are living in a golden age of the arts. Ask me again, pace Zhou Enlai and the French Revolution, in a millennium or two. But we can surely say with some certainty that we find ourselves in a golden age of arts branding.

Like it or not, part of the vibrancy of London’s art scene is due to the efforts of marketeers, public relations teams and great coffee shops. This last factor was once considered a controversial issue. The Victoria and Albert Museum’s infamous campaign from the 1980s, “An ace caff with quite a nice museum attached”, was slaughtered in highbrow circles for its flip ironic jokes (“Where else do they give you £100,000,000 worth of objets d’art free with every egg salad?”) and general lack of reverence.

With hindsight, that advertising campaign can be considered ahead of its time. We all knew about the prized collections of London’s museums. What was needed was a buzz, a sense of excitement, to help draw younger and more diverse crowds. As this imperative became the mantra of cultural institutions, the branding and marketing gurus came into their own.

Today, the arts are, almost without exception, beautifully packaged, presented and promoted. I have before me the catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Roy Lichtenstein exhibition – no, not the current show at Tate Modern, but the 1968 show that did so much to cement the artist’s reputation in the UK. It is a paltry affair, thin and poorly produced. The catalogue for the present retrospective is by contrast a thing of beauty. Many of us can at least afford to See Art, Love Art, Buy Catalogue.

The danger in indulging in imaginative posters, lavish catalogues and cream cakes in the café is that these meta-cultural treats distract us from the main event. Marketing can act as camouflage. Is the art actually any good? But then that is part of a broader problem that afflicts our age: can content hold its own, when the way it is transmitted has become so slick, so beautiful?

That is for posterity to decide. In the meantime, I notice that the Art13 London fair has no fewer than 19 media partners, and an official champagne partner to boot. Everyone, it seems, wants to dance with the devil.

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