What is advertising, what is art?

The significance of music is not in the music, nor in the fan, but in a framing social system or structure.

– Lawrence Grossberg, paraphrased in Goth: Undead subculture

I’m a fan of Nick Cave’s music. I buy a lot of music from local artists and I was all set to buy the next thing Nick Cave put out. But I’m having some conflicted thoughts about that today. (See: On Loving The Art Of A Problematic Artist from Rumpus.)

This is all because I’m not a fan of the album art.

First, a brief history of Nick Cave album covers, courtesy of today’s screen capture from iTunes:nick-cave-albums

As you can probably tell from a glance, there’s nothing especially controversial in the artwork, even though some of his album titles aim for somewhat of a shock value. Take for instance Murder Ballads, which is accompanied by a shot of a house in the woods. The rest of the album covers are mostly images of the artist, some trees, a rose. So as a fan of Nick Cave, I had no reason to expect anything shocking from here on in.

Since I have professed my love for Nick Cave songs on Facebook, I do get any updates through my stream.

I feel like I should announce a trigger warning or something because this single image has been bugging me all day. When I saw the following image I felt my stomach lurch, then got rid of it as soon as possible. For the sake of this argument though, here it is again.

I’m not alone in my response.

As one woman commented on Facebook, this image is problematic because it depicts a naked woman opposite a fully-clothed man (in a suit, no less). The woman looks upset or humiliated because her face is covered and Nick Cave looks as if he’s ordering her to go to her room (i.e. he is treating her like a child).

What I would add to that comment is that the woman, judging by her youthful body, is much younger than Nick Cave. Nick Cave is currently 55 years old. That female body looks under 30. So the power is with Nick Cave in every possible respect.

The responses to that Facebook comment were as one might expect for the Internet. The phrase ‘uptight cunts’ was used by one man in reference to the woman who posted these concerns, and was presumably directed at the (relatively low proportion of) people who upvoted her comment. (I prefer ‘upvoted’ over ‘liked’, for obvious reasons.)

This isn’t unusual for the Internet in general, but Facebook is a slightly different case, because whenever someone makes a comment on a public page, the comment comes through the feed of that person’s Facebook community, so if you’re going to call someone an ‘uptight cunt’ on Facebook, that generally means you’re pretty darn sure about that.

Naturally, the people commenting on a Nick Cave Facebook thread are the most avid of his fans, who like me have professed their love on Facebook and who will by-and-large stick by any of his decisions. To sum up the comments I read, most of them spewed out a version of, ‘Calm down you hysterical prudes. This is ART.’

When team-Nick-Cave make the decision to release an album cover like this one, I’m not sure what they’re intending, but they should be aware that it will upset a lot of people, and it is likely to upset a lot of women in particular, because the statistics on violence and rape and everything between rape and unwanted sex are truly horrifying. I don’t need to go there again, because we’ve just had White Ribbon Day, a worldwide campaign to raise awareness about violence of all kinds, with an emphasis where it is most needed — on male-to-female domestic violence. By the way, this isn’t a denial of male-on-male violence, adult-on-child violence and female-on-male violence; all these forms of violence exist in tandem. White Ribbon Day campaigners acknowledge that male-on-female domestic violence has a long, long history, is still a worldwide problem and deserves special attention in recognition of a differential in physical strength. To me, the image on this new album cover depicts male-to-female violence of some kind. Without any context this is my inevitable reaction.

So I examine my own response, because art is as much about the reactions of the viewer as it is about the pixels on the screen. I start to wonder if I really have turned into an ‘uptight cunt’ after my self-education, learning about the lives of many women in certain countries, and in certain homes inside our very own.

As a mental exercises, in cases such as these I take out ‘woman’ and insert ‘black skinned’. If I then feel a ‘racism’ ping, then my charge of ‘sexism’ is still justified. If the naked young woman in that photo were replaced with a young black man I would hope like hell that the lyrics within are tackling the issue of racism.

See: Sexism must be treated like racism. (About the USA military.)

And I sure hope the lyrics within this new album, due to be released Feb 2013, address the issue of violence against women. I can’t possibly know that it does yet, and that’s part of my problem.

Here’s why the album cover is still problematic, no matter what Nick Cave is saying about violence in his lyrics.

The INCREASED Visibility Of The Album Cover

An album cover isn’t JUST art. It’s always been a form of advertising. The difference is, people now see album covers ‘on the ether’, whether they know anything about Nick Cave’s music or not.

Also, the album cover isn’t JUST the album cover. Turns out this image is being used for general promotional advertising.

[EDIT: Sure enough, I keep seeing this album cover everywhere, on other blogs I read like here, on Pitchfork.]

I feel the same way about this album artwork as I feel about rape jokes. When comedians make rape jokes in public venues I wonder if they understand the fact that a large proportion of their audience will have had first-hand experience of rape. Likewise, a large proportion of the people looking at this album cover will have either had some direct experience of humiliation emotional violence/physical violence, or will have learned enough about the world for this to be a trigger regardless of firsthand experience. I’m going to put it out there that ANYONE who has a real handle on the violence in the world will be triggered at least a little bit by that cover.

Art standards pretty much end at sexual abuse images of children and animals — almost anything else goes here in Australia — but there are advertising standards. So even though all sorts of misogynist ideas get bandied about under the name of art, and although we’re on a slippery slope once we start making rules about what’s allowed and what’s not, I feel that when art = advertising, the same standards of decorum need to be applied as to anything else produced for a wide audience. (Wide audience = potential fans as well as long term and current fans.) I am arguing that an album cover is not just art when it’s being used to sell music.

This is a modern conflation. Back in pre-internet days, controversial albums with matching controversial artwork were kept well away from a general audience. Certain fans have always been attracted to the shocking, and those fans had to set foot in a bricks-and-mortar record store, then they had to deliberately seek those albums out.

I’m not a fan of censorship as in ‘This stuff should not be allowed to exist in the world.’ I am a big fan of appropriate context, thoughtful and kind curation, and the right for members of the public to avoid looking at images of abuse.

Perhaps this very same image would be less shocking elsewhere. If I go ahead and buy this album, unless I disable all cover views in my iPod settings, then I’ll be triggered again and again by this album cover whenever I play the music. Assuming this photograph really is an appropriate accompaniment to the lyrics within, the image would have been far better packaged within the insert, alongside the lyrics to which it belongs. That way, the shock value would be assuaged somewhat by context.

But in the end, to quote Reel Girl, ‘these posters– and ads– are their own media.’

MORE ON Appropriate Context

An excellent case study is the Bill Henson controversy. Bill Henson is an Australian photographer. His photographs are exhibited in the most important places.

On 22 May 2008, the opening night of Bill Henson’s 2007–2008 exhibition at the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Paddington, Sydney, was cancelled after eight individual complaints were made to Police voicing concerns about an email invitation from the Gallery to a “Private View” that depicted photographs of a nude 13-year old girl.


I listened to a very thoughtful response to this controversy on Radio New Zealand from David Marr, who wrote a book about the whole thing. (Podcast here, and highly recommended.) David Marr respects the rights of artists to do their thing, and points out that the very role of artists is to challenge the boundaries of what a society will accept. Via the Bill Henson photographs of a topless 13 year old girl we learnt that it’s not currently acceptable to a reasonable member of the Australian general public to show budding breasts in a public forum. Fully-matured female breasts can be seen everywhere, all over the place, but displaying a 13-year-old girl’s naked body as art had not been adequately tested until that point. Australians learnt something about our own cultural limits.

David Marr points out in the interview that part of the problem people had with the exhibition — a large part — was that the photograph of budding breasts was the very image used as promotional material. I agree that it’s one thing to go to an art gallery reasonably informed, surrounded by context and an arty atmosphere, and it’s another thing entirely to somehow end up with a photograph of a naked minor on your computer which came as part of an email invitation, even if it is said by its creator to be ‘art’ and not a child-abuse image.

“When people deem an image obscene, often it’s not just because it shows someone naked, but because it shows someone who is empowered.”

— Wolfgang Tillmans. [I wonder what Wolfgang Tillmans would say about images which seem only to be able to depict empowerment by disempowering the historically disempowered. I know what I call it: lazy art.]

Sometimes we choose to be challenged. Other times we do not. We’re going about our daily business, and then we are reminded of something we hadn’t prepared ourselves for.

I feel exactly the same way about the Nick Cave album cover as I do about the photograph of the 13-year-old breast-buds.

I respect its right to exist in the world, but I don’t want any part of it.


I hope everyone noticed that I haven’t complained about the pubic hair. I’m not the type to be shocked by nudity. When I was asked by a random man on the street to take a picture of his penis and I didn’t bat an eyelid. Nudity is not in-and-of-itself shocking. We live in a hyper-sexualised culture, in which women are consistently displaying more flesh than men. This even applies to the evening news, in which women wear low-cut tops while their male counterparts wear suits and ties, buttoned to the chin. This observation speaks not to any prudery but instead to a culture in which women are primarily decorative while men dress like a boss.

None of this is new.

That’s why, even when treated as art, the photograph on the front of the forthcoming Nick Cave album is not even very good art. It’s not saying the slightest original thing about interpersonal dynamics.

It has all been done before.


BBC news: Five Things About Women, with a mural that says a lot in a single glance about how women and men in media are dressed. (Hint: the woman part of the mural is flesh coloured.)

Nick Cave And The Mainstreaming Of Sexism, an article by Anwyn Crawford in Overland Journal, which I haven’t read because I don’t subscribe to Overland, but I’m more and more inclined to. The excerpt alone says  a lot about Australian culture, as well as the comments below.

I hadn’t realised that one of the covers of Nick Cave’s novel The Death Of Bunny Munro is almost equally offensive, because I hadn’t seen it. I guess I’d only seen milder versions like this one:

But apparently Nick Cave personally selected the offensive one. (Clementine Ford’s blog is worth putting aside an afternoon if you aren’t already a regular reader.)

This makes me wonder about book cover art and censorship, and how this whole thing works. Because on the one hand, a person should be able to go into a bookstore and not be confronted with something misogynistic or racist or similar, but on the other hand, the buyer of that book should know what to expect. I haven’t read Nick Cave’s novel — and don’t intend to — but I’ve got a sneaky suspicion it’s not about stuffed toy rabbits. So the cover art chosen by the author is probably most representative of the words within.

Feminist Frequency’s video on retro sexism in modern advertising sums up perfectly what I think this is all about: advertisers (including singers, I mean) seem to think  that by being waaay over the top sexist then they are being ironically sexist (also known as hipster sexist) and that makes it okay, since we’re all meant to be ‘in on it’.

There must be something in the air this week because Manboobz has posted a thought-provoking article: American Women And Stupid Girls — Misogynist Lyrics As Faux-Social Critique. ‘Faux social critique’ is an excellent description for the Nick Cave album photograph. Also, I think the Rolling Stones have been ruined for me now. I’m not a noticer of lyrics and I think I was happier that way…

I’m not inclined to delve any further into the following: Watch Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Explicit “Jubilee Street” Video, Directed by John Hillcoat from Pitchfork, but here’s the link anyway.

This continues. Everywhere.

a, feminist, takedown, of, robin, thicke,, and, anyone, who, thinks, theres, something, "blurry", about, sexism,

4 thoughts on “What is advertising, what is art?

  1. Pingback: Clothed men, naked women: a retropsective | Reel Girl

  2. Pingback: Do Slogans Have Power? | Lynley Stace

  3. Three points that may or may not change your view of the image: The woman on the cover is Cave’s wife and the photo was taken in their own bedroom — and he’s not gesturing “get out” or “go” — he is opening the shutter to illuminate her.

    • The first two points only make this image more concerning.
      As for your third point, I hoped that would be the case, and I take it you know this because you’ve listened to the lyrics of the album.
      My own original point — that this image is offensive because it appears as advertising material without context — stands.

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