Arts in Hard Times

If you had missed the brassy big band syncopation of Pearl & Dean’s Asteroid theme, it was sometimes easy to mistake a cinema ad for the feature. With the increasingly daring adventures of the man in black driven to deliver a box of chocolates to an absent lover, advertising shorts helped jumpstart the careers of many. In the case of Cadbury’s 35 year long Milk Tray campaign, this included Adrian Lyne, later director of 9 1/2 Weeks and Fatal Attraction. Before every cyclist’s pinup Victoria Pendleton brought her peerless form to the Hovis TV adverts, Ridley Scott – of Thelma & Louise and Gladiator fame – directed its classics in 1973.

Generations earlier, posters and magazine ads had given gainful employment to the likes of Alfons Mucha, Toulouse-Lautrec, Norman Rockwell, Jan Sawka, and the great John Gilroy, responsible for so much of Guinness’s brilliant artwork. Sometimes established artists have been propelled to fame when their work became product branding, as happened to Sir John Millais’ painting of Bubbles (1885-6) for Pears soap, and Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen (1851) for Dewar’s whisky.

Now that public funding of the arts remains victim to the swing of the Chancellor’s scythe, we need to augment the work of charities like the Art Fund. Ironically advertising revenues have also supported the opposite end of the art market, in the rich collection of Charles Saatchi, of which a modest residue has been generously given to the Nation. But fuelling inflated prices for contemporary art of dubious merit, and more obviously appreciated works of those long dead, does little to help those down to their last squeeze of Ultramarine Blue.

Curiously the iPad’s gorgeous rendering of colour images offers a small ray of hope for some. Print publishers facing declining physical circulations might find their advertisers more prepared to invest in quality and quantity in electronic editions, assuming that Apple can make up its mind whether to promote Newsstand or kill it. In general though the rise of online advertising has stripped the art from ads, making search engine optimisation and cost per click count more than creativity.

Much of these new advertising revenues flow into the coffers of Google, owner of over 30% of the online market. Unlike its predecessors in the Industrial Revolution, art and cultural aspects of society figure as little in its ethos as they do in online advertising. Its philanthropic offspring Google.org has committed a meagre $100 million, less than 1% of Google’s annual profits. In 2014, this pauper’s pot went towards applying technology to help those with disabilities, fighting trafficking and child abuse, tackling Ebola, and improving science education: commendable goals in themselves, but a limited investment for future generations.

By comparison, the far more generous grants of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation put several billion dollars each year to tackle primarily health, education, and third world development, including $50 million to help fight Ebola – still no significant sums into the arts.

Whilst Apple has long provided assistance to educational organisations, neither it nor the late Steve Jobs had much overt philanthropic commitment. Back in March 2015, Tim Cook announced that he intends giving nearly $800 million for philanthropic projects in the future. With its ever-growing profits, and prodigious cash reserve, Apple corporate currently does little more than match the charitable donations of its employees, amounting to less than $20 million per year.

Allow me to suggest a worthy cause, given that Apple survived in its leaner years largely on its sales to creatives and other artists: match Google.org’s modest if not miserly $100 million per year in grants split evenly between academic computing (an understandable soft spot for Apple and, in its day, NeXT), and seedcorn initiatives to foster the arts.

Updated from the original, which was first published in MacUser volume 26 issue 19, 2010. Although Tim Cook’s enthusiasm for philanthropy in the future is commendable, the arts need funding now.