Abe and the Beaver – On the aesthetics of drug campaigns

It is never too late to start blogging. A dear friend, josephkugelmass (wordpress blogger), recently convinced me of this. And, a blog must begin somewhere. This one begins in Philadelphia’s 30th street station.

The Indulgences of Fascism

In her 1975 essay, “Fascinating Fascism,” Susan Sontag cites as an example of the 1930s Art Deco-centered “fascist aesthetic” that statue which looms so large above the main hall of Philadelphia’s 30th St. Station that it often goes unnoticed by rushed commuters, “The same aesthetic responsible for the bronze colossi of Arno Breker—Hitler’s (and, briefly, Cocteau’s) favorite sculptor—and of Josef Thorak also produced the muscle_bound Atlas in front of Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center and the faintly lewd monument to the fallen doughboys, of World War I in Philadelphia’s Thirtieth Street railroad station.” (http://www.anti-rev.org/textes/Sontag74a/index.html). Sontag’s essay was written as a preface to Leni Riefenstahl’s photographic album, The Last of the Nuba, a book that could be seen as a long footnote and tribute to those moments of her unabashed fixation with Jesse Owens in Olympia. For Sontag, Riefenstahl’s work shows us that National Socialism did not merely stand for “brutishness and terror,” but was equally invested in conceiving life as art, “the cult of beauty,” and the “dissolution of alienation in ecstatic feelings of community.” The appeal of Nazi art for Germans, argues Sontag, was that it was emotional, simple and figurative, in sharp contrast with the intellectual demands of modernist art. Of course, for Sontag, Riefenstahl’s work is notable for its “aesthetic excess,” and it is here that I would like to begin.

We can appreciate Reifenstahl’s work because, setting aside for a moment our consciousness of the aegeus under which it was crafted, much of it is beautiful. What makes it so? I will stick here to The Last of the Nuba and Olympia for it is in these works that we find her fixated upon the body, primarily the Black, masculine body, and it is this feature of her work on the Nuba that makes Sontag’s contribution so interesting. It is also Riefenstahl’s excessive devotion (some might call her a fetishist) to a subject at which her work indulges our desire to look again and again, she gives us shameless excess. This is a similar excess to what we find to a more conservative extent in Liebovitz’s album. If we compare “Fascinating Fascism” to Sontag’s introduction to Annie Liebovitz’s Women, also dedicated to the bodies of a single gender, we find the trust that Liebovitz’s work is not deceiving us into complicity with fascist, racist or otherwise undemocratic ideals which we would expect from Sontag. Let’s suspend our consciousness that Liebovitz was not a Nazi and for all purposes told to us in writing, mostly Sontag’s, that she is also not a Fascist, and compare the photographic work of Liebovitz to Riefenstahl, image to image, rather than descriptive (and, I would argue proscriptive) word to word. But first, Sontag on Liebovitz’s project; “One of the tasks of photography is to disclose, and shape our sense of, the variety of the world. It is not to present ideals. There is no agenda except diversity and interestingness. There are no judgments, which of course is itself a judgment.” Is Sontag’s description of what photography should do an ideal incommensurate with the very character of its medium? Film is a different matter entirely, and here’s why; a photograph doesn’t move, the pose of the body it contains stays the same, it is more uncannily locked within and outside of time than a film clip could ever imagine becoming. Photographs are by nature iconic, for they have the power to repeat which is inscribed in their very presence, they compel us to look, and to look again, this is particularly the case with “good” photographs. They are mesmerizing and singular. Their presence is the receipt of the variety Sontag describes, they can only suggest by proxy those variations of a world fixed within them, a world negotiated foremostly and irreversibly through the eye and presence of the photographer. Liebovitz’s world of women is not the world of most, it is comprised of New York poets, actresses, politicians, CEOs (for many of whom Liebovitz has most likely served as official personal and family photographer – I think here of her sole honor of proving to the world the previously doubted existence of Tom Cruise and Katie Holme’s new baby “Suri” in a recent Vanity Fair), and then there are coal miners and Southern debutantes, bull riders and Houston elite, and these, these are the photographs that compare to Riefenstahl’s collection of the Nuba, for it is these that most wear the mark of the “other” – they are far from the crowd of Liebovitz’s usual suspects and she can only enter their world, it seems, through the remote language of her own, through the explicit markers of props that leave no question in identifying their subject – the debutante ball gowns, the cowboy hats, the perfectly manicured ensemble of upper crust Southern ladies at tea – if it weren’t for these locations, these costumes, these metanymic reminders of what we are looking at, how else would we, her complicit audience, know who they are? As if coalminers never put on dresses, or debutantes don’t play soccer – this is not the variety, it turns out, Liebovitz’s work can afford and so, for social variety, her photographs have in many instances compromised individual variety.

Back to 30th St. Station – Abe and the Beaver miss you

I wanted this discussion to in some way investigate how photography, when it is good, carries a special privilege, a privilege defined by the circumstances of its medium and how that medium negotiates an image between its author, spectator and time, to compel, iconize and mesmerize. The ultimate extension of Sontag’s discussion of the mechanics of Nazi art, Art Deco and what became “pop art,” the subtle and less subtle (but always simple) tools of propaganda, as she demonstrates, has been and continues to be advertising. Here, I want to juxtapose in discussion what is already in physical juxtaposition in the great hall of Philadelphia’s 30th St. Station, Thorak’s “fascist” monument and two enormous banners depicting Abe Lincoln and a beaver which flank it on both sides. The company behind this campaign (a company whose name appears unprominantly) has bought out every billboard and space for a billboard in the entire station and placed one of three or four photographs in each possible place, (Lincoln and beaver on see-saw, in attic playing chess, carrying a jump-rope, etc). The relentless repetition of the images is annoying (particularly for commuters that enjoy getting to the station a little early) and the inescapable nature of the images cannot help but make one intimately aware of the eye’s persistent search, in passing or while waiting, for some fixed image upon which to gaze – to pass the time in meditation upon that which is not passing. Hence the power of the photographic image, good or bad. Each image of Abe and the beaver carries the title “theymissyou.com,” and for a non-tv watching subject such as myself, it has been a baffling project (as I resist giving-in and going straight to the website for clarification) to guess what Abe and the beaver are trying to sell me. I had them pegged for anti-depressant spokescharacters, cures for bipolarity or other medically described forms of occasional madness. Finally, my friend Aaron Moscowitz who runs The Biomedical Research Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to uncovering and undoing the self-interested work drug companies have put into medicine (http://www.brefnet.org/news ), explained that Abe and Beaver want to sell me sleeping pills. But, why Lincoln and a beaver? Random is random is random, but wait, Mr. Moscovitz has read his Freud, and the answer is; the “beaver” and “Abe Lincoln” are both slang ways of referring to the vagina. I was shocked. But, no, I thought, it can’t be so obvious. But, yes, there must be some reason for choosing these characters and kitchen.jpg

not smurfs (copyright purposes not withstanding) or little red riding hood, or Elvis. The indirect nature of this art-image and its implications are anything but simple, what is simple in the way that Sontag’s “fascist aesthetic” might accept as its own, are the images themselves, and their repetition, a facet of their overwhelmingly ubiquitous presence at 30th St. (at the time I am writing this, there is no other advertisement in the entire station), which underlines the simplicity of the images (there is not a new image for every billboard, and on the suburban rail tracks there are two images distributed dozens of times, side by side) to the point of making them absurd. To be sure, the absurd nature of the photographic subjects (Abe and the beaver) matches the distribution of the images; both are in excess of the childish simplicity of the compositions themselves. Certainly, repetition was an aspect of the very simplicity of Riefenstahl’s work for Sontag; that which aligned it well with the political agenda of fascists. At the same time though, the repetition of subject matter – yet another Nuban man in The Last of the Nuba, yet another diver in Olympia, yet another rally in Triumph of the Will, repetition that gave a peculiarly atemporal character to the content, the meantime, of otherwise scatological narratives, accounts for its excesses, and excess is always unwieldy material for propaganda because its meaning, like the meaning of so much “absurd” avant-gardism, is difficult to fix, to control. Vertov, a lesser acclaimed early 20th century documentary film-maker, experienced the consequences of this realization when, under Stalin, his compelling, yet collage-like film-work, could find no endorsement from the Soviet Union.
To return to Abe and the beaver, we find the excesses of this image, excesses that would afford its reception an exit from the simple message which is “buy our product,” also already determined. It is ugly to look at because it has caught-up with our most lewd thoughts, it has caught us making sense in this taboo way, it has tempted us to stop and contemplate its content by promising us the refreshingly marvelous absurd and its message is uncompromisingly clear in breaking this promise – we are acting under the auspices of its omnipresent gaze, just as Abe and the beaver have us surrounded at the heart of our freedom to come and go, looking at us as we enter, as we wait and again as we leave, they not only see us in the bedroom, they see our dirty thoughts which take place in the bedroom, dirty thoughts about what transpires in bedrooms and beyond them. Like Slavoj Zizek’s description of the ideological saturation of our jouissance (of which, as he prefers to claim, chocolate laxatives are most fittingly emblematic), the most insidious mechanism of capitalism is its conquering of our enjoyment, that our escape is also always already determined. Modern advertising exemplified by Abe and the Beaver proves false Josef Goebbel’s claim regarding the nature of propaganda that “Propaganda ceases to function once it is recognized as such,” with the overwhelming reality that today’s ideology allays simplicity with an imperializing claim over the fecundity of still images, the image’s new power is to provoke in the subject a submission that is most akin to Freud’s fetishist, “Je sais bien, mais comme meme.” [“I know very well, but all the same.”]. Perhaps beyond this is the collision of affects most commonly experienced in train stations and inherent to the “problem” Abe and the beaver’s product promises to fix, that, what is more, and perhaps more frightening, “I don’t have time to know this,” for, “I don’t even have time to sleep.”




Filed under (Pop) Aesthetics, Aesthetics

13 responses to “Abe and the Beaver – On the aesthetics of drug campaigns

  1. Rebecca, this was fascinating. I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of the ad — one thinks of the relief implicitly promised to the consumer who restores the balance of the advertising-saturated world by finding out that — thank God — this is an ad for something, and not a truly inexplicable event. It is the same method as the iSheep ads (which were for another music player) and “whatisthematrix.com.” It was even theorized by Baudrillard, who predicted that you could hang signs around a city that said “GARAP,” to make everyone speculate excitedly about what, exactly, GARAP was.

    In addition to the colonizing of the (somewhat speculative) Freudian unconscious by a series of sexual symbols that refer to sleeping pills, there is the double bind of work/enjoyment to which you refer at the end: the commuter, who is traveling to meet her obligation to produce, is reminded that, in doing so, she is failing to meet her obligations to enjoy and take care of herself (by sleeping and dreaming). The work ethic and the pleasure ethic undermine each other in the name of another purchase.

    The best symbol of this failing is that, in addition to the beaver and the dead President, there is the “you” of the ad: the schlubby guy on the other side of the chessboard. We are such stuff as dreams make us: he is clearly intended to look a little like Lincoln (with the goatee and sideburns), and a little like a beaver (brown hair, chubby face and body). Actually, if he’s turning into those things, whose meaning is so blatant, this ad may be the best argument against dreaming I’ve ever seen.

    As for Leibowitz, I agree that her work is full of problems. In particular, she mistakes one thing (celebrity and all its satisfactions) for another (feminist empowerment). What about replacing Sontag with Barthes? His favorite photographs are ones that harbor a monstrous or incongruous element that prevent them from becoming smoothly and falsely present to us. He explicitly contrasts the mesmeric, pornographic smoothness of bad photography, with images that convey an ecstasy (not merely in the sense of delight) — because the moment is fled. In other words, that in additon to “iconic” photography there could exist a kind of photography that admits preservation is an illusion.

    In The Fragile Absolute, Zizek theorizes that the totalitarian leader promises to fulfill the desires of the citizenry, whether or not they at first recognize those desires in themselves. So what makes propaganda desirable when it is recognized as such? Our ironic pretense of superiority to it: we enjoy propaganda more than real challenge, because we can yield to it while pretending to yawn in indifference to its demands. In today’s economy, we are told it is propaganda which condescends least, just as it is now melodrama that is never accused of being sentimental.

  2. Joe, Thanks for reading! (and rereading) and for your eloquent response.
    I agree, Barthes is preferable on photography (I engaged Sontag in keeping with the irony of the situation at 30th st.)- still, I would hesitate to so sharply distinguish the effects of “pornographic” images (“bad photos”) from those of “good” ones – perhaps we could be more precise by discussing the common effects of photographs which occupy both extremes – that each are mesmerizing because they make us want to look again. The difference being that the “best” photos confront us with the profound realization that “preservation is an illusion” (you) while the worst and most pornographic ones catch us suspending ourselves in time, taking moments to be mesmerized, but giving us no real consciousness about what that state of our repeated gaze is all about or what it desires.
    And I like your pointing to Zizek’s Fragile Absolute in particular, it adds another dimension to the intentionality of the ideology problem.

  3. keith

    Can you explain to me why the hell “Abe Lincoln” is slang for the vagina?

  4. It has to do with his beard – atrocious, I know. But, if I have to justify the comparison with an explanation, I would point you to Almodovar’s “Matador,” the scene I have in mind features a bull-fighter, a sexy lawyer, and a rose between the teeth.

  5. Mel

    I still don’t get this ad. If you see Lincoln and the beaver, do you take it? Or do you take it if you WANT to see Lincoln and the beaver? Oh, what, sleeping pills? (ho-hum.) That’s a pretty soporific idea right there.

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