Monday, May 25, 2009

Che's Brand

I read this review of Michael Casey's book Che's Afterlife, the Legacy of an Image. Here's the image in question. It shows revolutionary leader Che Guevara. This is apparently the most reproduced picture in history:

Che Guevara t-shirt graphic from Korda photo
I decided to read the whole book because of a bit of fluffy advertising copy quoted in the review. It's for an Australian ice cream flavor called Cherry Guevara:
The revolutionary struggle of the cherries was squashed as they were trapped between two layers of chocolate. May their memory live on in your mouth!
Silly! But together with a picture of a violent long-dead Communist these words apparently have the power to sell sweet frozen dairy fat to hungry Aussies. Maybe that's because this picture is an icon, an icon that can be called to the service of either socialism or capitalism.

Cherry Guevara Ice Cream wrapper

This picture has been used on bottles of beer, condoms, bikinis, bubble bath and countless t-shirts. It has been part of Smirnoff vodka ads and fake Andy Warhol prints (which Andy claimed to be his own work anyway). The picture has been used by leftist politicians in Latin America and right-wing religious fundamentalists in the Middle East. In parts of Miami this is a picture of the devil himself.

Here's the original photo as taken by Cuban photographer Alberto Korda in 1960.

Guerrillero Heroico - Che Guevara picture by Alberto KordaThe facts of Guevara's life provide only a starting point for explaining the picture. After becoming famous in the Cuban revolution Che pretty much bounced from job to job failing to make good as a bank president, a prison commander or a guerrilla revolutionary. He tried the last gig both in Africa and South America finally getting martyred for his trouble. Today, in parts of Bolivia, he is known as "San Ernesto"

Casey quotes Jorge Castaneda:
If ever there was an illustration of the anguish evoked in sensitive and reasonable, but far from exceptional, individuals, at being affluent and comfortable islands in a sea of destitution, it was Guevara. He will endure as a symbol, not of revolution or guerrilla warfare, but of the extreme difficulty, if not the impossibility, of indifference.
Hasta la Victoria Siempre - neon Che Guevara
Che's Afterlife
shows how the picture has avoided contradicting itself into meaninglessness. Explaining what it does mean is no easy task.

Casey writes:
We have invested so many competing ideas and meanings into the concept "Che Guevara" that we can't collectively conceive of what it actually represents with anything near homogeneity
Later he seems to contradict himself:
It functions as the universal symbol for the act of following one's convictions.
Until Cuba joined the international agreement on copyrights the image was public domain. Now Che himself is licensed commercially just like Marilyn Monroe or Albert Einstein or any living or dead celebrity.

Che beer

Branding is a trendy buzzword right now. People are trying to apply this marketing concept everywhere and anywhere they can. Che's Afterlife wastes no effort discussing brand concepts.

Che Guevara has become a brand and Korda's picture is its logo. Nike is a brand with a swoosh as logo; McDonalds has golden arches. The guardians of these brands - Korda's and Che's descendants together with the Cuban government on one hand, corporate executives on the other - try to preserve its value and focus its meaning by controlling where their brand appears. They decide which contexts, products or events should be associated with their brand and which should not.

Here's a picture of Che Guevara bubble bath.

Che bubble bath
The very pose of Che in the Korda photograph - a somber man, looking slightly up and off into the distance, imagining a better future (or maybe dreaming of a soak in the tub) - is reminiscent of an important graphic from recent U.S. politics, Shepard Fairey's Hope poster. Here it is slightly modified.

Shepard Fairey's Obama Hope psoter - reversed
With the recent change in the U.S. government many people are hoping for a change in the brand image of United States of America. There's no doubt that intelligent, thoughtful pedantic people are bending Barack Obama's ears with suggestions on how to portray America now that the dark ages are ending. You can read some suggestions for Re-Branding America here. This picture comes from that page.

Obama wears t-shirt showing Che Guevara wearing an Obama Hope t-shirt
I found the Obama-Guevara-Obama t-shirt picture and the Hasta la Victoria Siempre picture (the neon Che) at This Isn't Happiness.

The photo of the Cherry Guevara ice cream wrapper (and many other Che-ish graphics) can be seen here.

A Wikipedia entry which documents Che Guevara in Popular Culture

The Che beer picture came from here. The Che bubble bath picture came from here.

Here's a documentary about the life of Che Guevara.

Che Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Friday, May 15, 2009

Our culture overvalues the wrong things.

The first time I saw David Hockney's painting Beverly Hills Housewife I scratched my head. "That's not very well done." I thought.

I didn't say anything out loud, of course, because the picture was hung in the home of the late Betty Freeman, LA's one-of-a-kind music patron, who is supposed to be the person in the painting. She had asked me to her Musicales for the very first time and I wanted to be invited back.

Hockney Beverly Hills Housewife Betty Freeman
Today I read this LA Times article that the painting has just been sold for $7,900,000. Seven point nine million dollars! I'm scratching my head again. If Hockney's intention in painting this picture was to keep me confused, he is indeed a very great artist.

He couldn't have been out to prove what a fine painter he was. Technique seems to be the least of his concerns. Maybe he was trying to point out the banality of Beverly Hills life, picking subjects that the wealthiest buyers of art could relate to.

Most likely he was focused on marketing himself as a painter. I guess he was developing his brand. Branding adds value to a low value object and, given this outrageous price for a not terribly decorative object, Hockney must be quite the master at adding value. His real art seems to be selling himself. Actual painting? Not so important.

And I wonder who is wealthy enough to spend nearly $8 million on a wall covering. Obviously someone with lots of income. Check out this New York Times report on the highest earning hedge fund managers in 2008. Go ahead, take a guess what the top salary was. (The sickeningly large answer is below.)

Do I sound bitter? I am. I sense that the value of art results more from the importance of the artist than from the artwork itself. And I sense that the a person's salary has more to do with manipulating the system than with creating a useful product.

Our culture can be such a great disappointment to me.

I've ragged on David Hockney before - on the subject of music.

Here's an Art Talk by Edward Goldman (a bit of borderline-pretentious KCRW filler) on the subject of Betty and this picture.

Read a note Betty Freeman sent me here. (Music critic Mark Swed questioned the authenticity of the letter because Betty said she enjoyed my piece based on the music of Johannes Brahms.)

Value Tags: . . . . . .

[According to the NY Times article "John Paulson, made $3.7 billion last year." That's Billion with a B. I wouldn't feel so bad if he had to pay about 90% of that in Federal income tax, but he doesn't. Sigh. That's a rant for another time.]

Saturday, May 09, 2009

In Partial Fulfillment of Something Or Other

My friend Scott Fessler has been scanning and publishing his collection of posters from his student days at CalArts Those were the days we called "the seventies". (I wonder why.)

One poster he scanned was for my own clarinet recital on Febrary 19, 1976. Thanks for scanning it, Scott. Now I can share it with my other two readers.

It's about 10 inches wide and four feet long. It can be viewed either horizontally or vertically. I designed and executed the beast myself using dry transfer letters and my newly acquired set of rapidograph pens. These graphic techniques turned out to be far more important to my career as a musician than the clarinet ever would. It was reproduced on the now obsolete ozalid machine.

David Ocker clarinetist recital poster February 19 1976
Click the picture for enlargement. Better yet, download a copy here. I suggest that you look at it up close to see lots of little text items and musical visual jokes. Go here to read a searchable text file of the poster.

The music, which floats on twisting curvy staves, quotes the various pieces on the recital. (Read the full program.) The guy with a clarinet coming out of his nose was obviously traced from Hieronymus Bosch and the skull playing the piano came from somewhere, Dali maybe? Does the poster remind you of my doodles?

Peppered throughout, in tiny stenciled letters, are 20th century musical events which also happened on February 19. These are quotes from the massive Music Since 1900 by Nicolas Slonimsky, which I, bafflingly, found time to read from cover to cover while I was a graduate student simultaneously studying clarinet and composition.

The beauty of Music Since 1900 is that you can learn just how much music gets written and performed that no one evers hears again. This one revelation has enriched and clouded my entire adult life.

At the bottom of the poster, inside a large mannered half notehead, are the words Sesquipedelian Macropolysyllabification, a Slonimskian term. A link to Slonimsky's definition can be found here.

Yes, I really did call my graduate recital "In Partial Fulfillment of Something or Other". I didn't think much of my CalArts degree even before they gave it to me.

Partially Fulfilled Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .