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When the ad world abuses the art world

David with a gun
David with a gun
Photograph: Franco Visintainer/ANSA

An ad from an Illinois gun maker showing Michelangelo’s statue of “David” wielding an AR-50A1 rifle instead of a slingshot is making some in Italy mad. Me, too.

To sell guns, the ad turns the meaning of the work – the courage of a bare-skinned boy facing an armored giant – into something antithetical. This is a little like dressing the Lincoln Memorial in a Ku Klux Klan white robe, mask and conical hat.

Culture Councillor for the city of Florence Sergio Givone, calls the gun ad “an act of violence towards the sculpture, like taking a hammer to it.”

Disagreeing is Philippe Daverio, an art critic in Italy who said, "Certain cultural icons belong to everyone and no one; to humanity in general."

If “David” belongs to humanity, abusing community property is not good caretaking.
Not that ads abusing art is new.

There was Whistler's mother urging seniors to get on the Internet. The celebrated portrait by James Abbot McNeill Whistler boosting the idea of computer literacy for retirees. What you saw was Mrs. Whistler sitting, staring straight ahead of her, and a personal computer projected onto the painting, which gave the impression the screen was the object of her attention.

Time magazine once ran Da Vinci's "Mona Lisa'' with a ``Breathe Right'' strip across the subject's nose.

The French also have used Mona Lisa to exhort people to give blood. ("I, too, am priceless. Give blood today.”) Even in its Italian birthplace, the painting has been used to sell hairpins.

Then there's the Merchants of Vincent, the ones who put out a Christmas card showing Van Gogh wearing a Santa hat. As if that didn't ill-treat the artist enough, a rubber ear wrapped in plastic came with the card.

And who can forget the Vincent Fine Wines and Gourmet Society's 1990 Vincent Extra Brut Cava - so named "to honor our famous compatriot, grandiose impressionist and true lover of the spiritual liquid''?

No wonder the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. felt free to mount an advertising campaign portraying the cartoon character Snoopy napping atop his doghouse without a care, with Van Gogh's painting "Starry Night'' in the background.

Imagine using a suicide's vision to sell life insurance. When I saw “Starry Night '' used as a backdrop to convey the idea of serenity and stability, all I could think of was a wildly agitated Vincent shooting himself in a field and walking back to his room to die.

Another stupid use of a painting: Some years ago, a local frame and print shop sold a print that was a dead ringer for a painting by early 20th-century great Edward Hopper - down to the title, "Nighthawks.''

The print shows four isolated figures avoiding each other’s eyes in an all-night diner. But far from anonymous, the faces are those of James Dean, Elvis Presley, Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe. The whole point of Hopper's pictures is the disquieting namelessness of big-city life - the very antithesis of celebrity.

OK, so using Whistler's picture of his mother in the computer photo illustration isn't stupid like that. Actually, it was quite clever. But Whistler would have hated it. Big on art for art's sake, the artist wrote that "Art should be independent of all clap-trap - should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear . . . That is why I insist on calling my works `arrangements' and `harmonies.' ''

The problem with using famous art in ads is made obvious in a Charlie Brown cartoon in which Charlie yells to Lucy, "Joe DiMaggio never complained about playing on a hot day.'' She yells back, "Who was Joe DiMaggio?''

"One of the greatest outfielders who ever lived, that's who!''

"I thought he just drank coffee.''

See what I mean?

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