Friday, February 23, 2007

Addams, Laocoön

How to tell this story as succinctly as possible? Start with marketer/author Robin Landa. She recently asked a question in one of my discussion groups: I submit to you that any art director worth his or her salt should be able to discuss Picasso’s work intelligently. That art director should be well read and versed in the arts. This should be a given. How can anyone who aspires to design or communicate through a visual medium not be interested in all things visual and the related arts, such as, painting, literature and film? That said: Please list the essential films, books, and/or art works that any art director should know.

A number of members pitched in (me and my big mouth included). We suggested a variety of materials, plus what some of us felt ought to be “driving forces” behind every creative person’s education. Generally we thought it should be quite broad.

Yesterday, taking a break from writing direct mailers for point-of-sale terminals, I looked through an old cartoon book from my collection: Favorite Haunts by Charles Addams. The cartoon above appears on Page 42. It struck me that this, in part, is an extreme example of what Landa was asking about.

This cartoon is at least 30 years old, maybe more. Addams was extremely popular in those years. His sense of the humorously macabre showed up in cartoons everywhere, from The New Yorker to Playboy. He invented “The Addams Family,” after all, fabled in TV and film. When I worked at BBDO, we even commissioned an Addams cartoon for a Honeywell ad in the wee ’80s. (Addams died in 1988 after a very long career.)

Charles Addams presumed that quite of lot of people, particularly those who read The New Yorker, would recognize his visual play.

Those with a “classical” education, or spent way too many years reading Greek and Roman myths, would. It’s the cartoonist’s take on the statue of Laocoön and His Sons. Also called the Laocoön Group, this is a monumental marble sculpture that’s now in the Vatican Museums in Rome.

Thought to have been created in the 1st or 2nd Century BC, it shows Laocoön and his sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus being strangled by sea serpents. Why? Because Laocoön attempted to expose the ruse of the Trojan Horse. According to Virgil’s Aeneid, the god Poseidon (who was on the Greeks’ side), sent the sea serpents along to get these doubting Trojans out of the way.

Addams replicated the scene using sausages in place of sea serpents – which is amusing to look at, and reasonably funny if you get the in-joke. Now it’s 30 or more years later? Do you recognize the cultural reference? How about your buddies in design, art direction, advertising or what-have-you?

Creative people should have curiosity bumps the size of Stone Mountain. We trade in metaphors and allusions (when we’re lucky) and we should be in touch with enough history and art to give us some extra horsepower when it’s time to create memorable messages.

On the other hand, the Addams cartoon’s pretty extreme (perhaps there was a copy of the statue on display in a New York museum), but especially today. Cultural references shift from decade to decade, even year to year. Go too far outside the cultural mainstream – a stream that’s gotten shallower but broader in the last generation or two – and you’ll lose your audience.

Don’t let that stop you from knowing, though. The more you stuff into your mental attic, the more likely you’ll find a good answer to a tricky challenge…like man-devouring sea serpents.

In addition to serving as a Distinguished Professor in the Kean University Department of Design and running her own branding firm, Landa is the author of ten published books on creativity and design, including Graphic Design Solutions. Her articles have been featured in HOW, Print and Icograda magazines. Favorite Haunts © 1976, Charles Addams. Thanks to Stacy Allen for the technical assistance.


Robin Landa said...

Hi Richard: Thanks very much for the mention on your blog and for the wonderful example of a visual communicator whose work and wit was enhanced by his art education. Kudos!

And thanks so much for your response to my blog entry. I'm attempting to pull together a list of essential films (chosen for their style, 'look and feel', lighting, color, graphic impact, etc.) that an aspiring art director or graphic designer should know and be able to reference; this list is for college and university students.
Thanks again! Cheers, Robin.

Leigh Lerner said...

Laocoön, as you are well aware, is not a Chinese animal that raids garbage cans while wearing a fur mask. I hadn’t seen the blessed statue since Sasha (and I) had to know everything about it for one of her art history courses. This is probably not the column to send to Northrup Grumman to interest them in your work, but I really enjoyed it. Thanks.