Oliviero Toscanis confrontational art direction hijacks reality to provoke a variety of gut reactions and critiques.
The parental warning that momentarily stoped visitors about to enter the central eight-sided domed hall of Maastricht's Bonnefanten Museum may have come to late. Climbing the stairs to this focus of the building, one saw its contents from afar - through the open doors shimmered the rosy fleshtones of a wide selection of genitals, brightly photographed against a pure white background. The eight walls of the solemn hall were covered floor to domed ceiling with enlarged close-ups of crotches, mail and female, young and old. The hall has the accoustics of a cathedral, and visitors lowered their voices while wandering around, smiling. There was no tagline anywhere in this room - it wasn't needed. This must have been the apex of Oliviero Toscani's ambitions, this chapel of the United Colors of Benetton. Here - we were in Holland after all - it was not so much a provocation as well as a celebration of unity in diversity. Rejoyce, ye people of good will!
An exhibition of advertising posters in a serious museum of art may at first have seemed incongruous, but it had the merit of bringing out an often overlooked - or, if acknowledged, ridiculed - aspect of Toscani's campaigns for Benetton; their religious zeal and their art-historical references. It has been said before that the famous poster with the dying aids victim resembled a classic Deposition or Lamentation (with the father as mourning disciple and the two women as Mother Mary and Mary Magdalen). Other posters look like votive paintings or scenes from a Saint's life. If Toscani maintains that "images are the new reality", than this reality has deep roots in two millennia of Christian iconography.
In addition to this, the Maastricht exhibition also showed the thematic links and juxtapositions within what may now well be called the body of work that the posters amount to. In several rooms of the museum no more than two or three billboards were hanging alongside or opposite each other in a way that closely resembled the pairing of paintings in Renaissance or Baroque votive chappels. Compare for instance Caravaggio's paintings of St.Paul's epiphany and St.Peter's crucifixtion, hanging opposite each other in a chapel in Rome to the room where Toscani juxtaposes his billboard with the newborn baby to the poster with a Bosnian war victim's blooddrenched clothes... Life and death, beginning and end, consacration and sacriledge - this is hard-core symbolism, not just an advertising rebel's appropriation of topical images. Seen in this light, Oliviero Toscani's and Luciano Benetton's project goes well beyond pampering the media prone Colors generation with images they can comfortably worry about. It symbolically addresses existential moral problems in much the same way religious art has endeavoured to do since the Middle Ages; by transforming scenes from everyday life into metaphores or parabels that each suggest a moral issue and together conjure up a vision of mankind torn between God and the devil.
It would be too cynical to say that in the United Colors campaigns Benetton is God and Toscani his profet. More accurately they resemble the classic patron-artist combination, in which the sinfull conscience of the one is redeemed by the works of beauty and moral purity he commisiones from the other. In the end, it is all about image. But it would be grosly simplifying the matter if one would hold that the bottom line in Benetton's case is just to sell jumpers. Whether or not Toscani's billboards amount to great art is of less consequence here than the idea that Luciano Benetton's motives may be as genuine and complex as those of the Medici who rarely have been accused of promoting their textile and banking businesses under the guise of the likes of Michelangelo. The United Colors campaign is programmatic in that it embraces all of human endeavour - positive and negative. To me the often criticised contrast in the 'Colors' campaigns between the rosy images of healthy kids from all races and the gruesome pictures of crime victims and boat refugees underlines this programme: it is religious in that it needs both Paradise and Hell to tell its complete story of an irresolute humankind that needs to be reminded of their potential for both good and bad.
Whether one is charmed by Benetton's gospel or not, one has to admit that Toscani succeeded in provoking a debate about the pervasiveness and effectiveness of images through mass media of a scope that went well beyond academic discussion. The importance of this lies not in the development of new styles or forms - formally, Toscani's images and designs are rather conservative than revolutionary. What is new is that Benetton and Toscani have sought to open up a medium considered to be shallow and definitively 'low-culture' to content that is traditionally reserved for the highest regions of art and intellectual discourse. What is frustrating to quite a few high priests of the discourse is that the effectiveness of Benetton's campaigns in raising the general population's awareness about for instance AIDS may well be far greater than any government or charity funded artistic awareness programme.
The great effect Benetton's campaigns have had both in professional communities and in society at large, stresses the importance of the project. It goes well beyond the limits of advertising into the realm that was once the exclusive terrain of religious art. With only slight exageration one might say that Benetton's images, in their programmatic symbolism, resemble the iconographic programs in mediaeval cathedrals: the visual bible for the masses.