Art is not to decorate apartments: it is an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy." - Pablo Picasso

This article focuses on the balance in power between the decorative and conceptual aspects of visual art and it's exploitation. Visual art was used to decorate spaces, and, as the time went by, became an object of prestige, only affordable to the elite. Invention of photography made art more wide-spread, photography was not only used to document the reality, but to create visual art.

"Art, argues the distinguished theoretician Boris Groys, is hardly a powerless commodity subject to the art market’s fiats of inclusion and exclusion. In Art Power, Groys examines modern and contemporary art according to its ideological function. Art, Groys writes, is produced and brought before the public in two ways—as a commodity and as a tool of political propaganda. In the contemporary art scene, very little attention is paid to the latter function. "

Photography is a bright example of how art is being exploited, and presented as a commodity. The world of contemporary advertising relies on it, usually, to present a product in the most realistic and the most appealing way possible. There are certain expectations of how an advertising of a specific type of product can look like. If the advertisement is for food, we expect to see it on a plate. If the advertisement is for clothes, we want to see it on a beautiful, happy model. There is no hidden message, there is only a desire to present a beautiful picture and impress the consumer. But is it always the case? Is it how it should always be?

'Because publicity pretends to interpret the world around us, and to explain everything in its own terms, publicity adds up to a kind of philosophical system. The things which publicity sells,are in themselves neutral, just objects and so they have to be made glamorous, by being inserted into contexts, which are exotic enough to be arresting, but not close enough to offer a threat. A machine gun can support shoes. Revolution can be wrapped around anything.' (John Berger, 'Ways of seeing', episode 4, 1972)

No matter how beautiful, exotic and picturesque the fashion magazine editorials are, no matter if they have multi-layered concepts, or storylines, the main aim is to sell. The stylists use high-end designer clothes to create an ultimate dream image. And in the end, you can not help but want to become a part of that dream. The art of photography is constantly being exploited by consumeristic society, and the question is: is the narrative of photography enabled to overpower it's initial aim - to sell?
Сontemporary photographer Terry Richardson, whose controversial image in the media does not stand in the way of him shooting celebrities like Madonna, Beyonce, and Rihanna, knows how to sell.

'He works for luxury brands Valentino and YSL, and mass-market brands Target and H&M, at a reported day rate of $160,000. His portraits have an unmistakable style—shot head-on with a bright flash against a white wall—and an illusion of spontaneity. He excels at something increasingly rare in fashion photography: what the designer Tom Ford calls capturing a very real moment.” (

The controversy behind the Richardson's practice comes from his 'style of working', particularly the way he treats his models. He has been accused of rape and sexual harassment multiple times, by his assistants and models, including minors. His photography is quite simple: bright flash, sexy young bodies, plain background. His advertisements for American apparel have caused an uproar in liberal-feminist community: American Apparel online-shop features young girls showing off socks in an unnecessarily provocative manner versus fully-clothed male models in classic catalogue poses. In the picture below, we see a young woman laying on the bed. On the right, she is wearing a bodysuit and thigh-high socks. Instead of choosing a simple pose to give a viewer a better understanding of material, the fit and other parameters of an item, she is laying on the bed with her legs spread in multiple shots. The customer does not even see the full bodysuit. All there is - a sexy image.

 Overall, Richardson's photography is primitive, and purely commercial, created under the eternal motto: 'sex sells'. And it apparently does: in the upcoming auction 'The paddle pad', curated by Lou Proud, the starting price of Richardson's photograph of Kate Moss (1997) is 2,800 euros. In the picture the model is seen laying in the street on the mattress, hugging a teddy bear. Richardson gained most of his popularity by shooting popular models, celebrities and entertainers.

However, not every advertising photographer works in this style. Some artists chose to step out of the boundaries of commerciality and explore what is beyond.

'United colors of Benetton' gained worldwide attention for its advertising, inspired by its art director Oliviero Toscani. He started with multicultural themes, tied together under the campaign "United Colors of Benetton".

In 1991 Oliviero Toscani's campaign for 'United colors of Benetton' prompted 800 complaints to the British Advertising Standard Authority and was featured in the reference book Guinness World Record 2000 as 'Most Controversial Campaign'.

In these series of advertisements, photographer Oliviero Toscani raised social and political issues. His shots were very popular, and fresh, for the world of advertising at that time.

"Responsible for Benetton's infamous campaigns throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Toscani's fusion of social commentary and commerce prompted the world to re-consider the power and purpose of advertising.
Never far from controversy, the acclaimed photographer shot to notoriety with his use of shock images for a series of campaigns that featured subjects ranging from dying AIDS patients to death row inmates."

What is interesting: even when it is an advertisement for a fashion brand - there is barely any of their products in the shots. The photographs do not feature any of brand's clothing, but they made a brand's name a subject of an intense debate and social interest. In his works, Toscani addresses topics of racism, war conflicts, religion, diseases and many more. Toscani's work is not always pleasant to look at, it is not meant to be pleasant. It is something to be taken as a wake-up-call. On one of the advertisements, we see three, very realistic, human hearts. The words 'white', 'black' and 'yellow' are written on top of each one. Toscani addresses the issue of racism, showing that on the inside we are all human, no matter the race, we are all the same.

Another one shows two children, seemingly the same age, one black, another one white. The white child smiles, their hair is styled in the similar manner as we can see on the Renaissance paintings of cherubs. The black child appears not to be as happy, and on their head we can see two small horns. We can assume, that this photograph addresses another racial issue: the demonization of black people, creating a negative image for an entire race of people. This picture is very straight-forward, it may have various interpretations, but that is exactly the aim - to deliver a message while leaving some space for reflection.

In the series of short-films 'Ways of seeing' (episode number 4), John Berger takes a look at a magazine 'Sunday Times'. The reality we live in: third-world issues, war, socio-economical difficulties; is paired with unreality of glamorous advertising offering us goods and products. The disconnection between these two 'worlds' seems unreal. But Toscani combines them together in his work, and it changes the entire framework. What we expect to see in the magazine article, we suddenly see on the advertising page. And it inevitably draws attention.

"...There isn't such a thing as a shocking picture," he continues, "there is shocking reality that is being reproduced through photography to the people who aren't there." - Oliviero Toscani in his interview to CNN, 19 august, 2010

The only thing that lets the viewer understand that these are advertisements, is a small green rectangle with the name of brand on it. The narrative of a photograph, the idea behind it, seems to overpower the consumeristic intentions of classic fashion advertisements. Instead of just selling, it creates an image of a brand, it's reputation as a company that is conscious and aware of the world they exist in. This is art that is used as a weapon, to raise social awareness.

"I asked him if he believes advertising is art, and he didn't miss a beat: "Sometimes advertising is art," he said. "But art is always advertising." - Oliviero Toscani in his interview to adageglobal, august 2001

On the contrary, Richardson's photographs and fashion editorial depict sexy, young women, looking beautiful, and simply enjoying themselves. Or just items he shoots in a very simple manner, like the Valentino campaign in 2015, where he shot accessories holding them in his own hands.

There is no special narrative, no particularly interesting idea: they are just beautiful pictures of luxurious items. Purely to be an 'eye-candy', to be decorative, to be put on big billboards and glamorous magazines' pages.

There is a bright contrast between Toscani's shots and classical fashion photography, which depicts garments as objects of desire, a 'must-have', an unreachable dream.
Picasso's statement suggests that art does not exist to be decorative, but to have a higher purpose and affect the viewer deeper, than just bringing aesthetic pleasure. Photography as an art form has been exploited in advertisement, used for just presenting the product. But sometimes the narrative, the idea behind the photograph, overpowers commercial intent. As an example, this essay presented two photographers working in the field of fashion advertisement in two different manners. Terry Richardson creates commercials that are simple in composition, and lighting, lacking the narrative or any kind of hidden message. He creates an impression of spontaneity, his images are sexy and joyful, but conceptually empty. On the contrary, the Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani, who shot the advertisements for 'United colors of Benetton' put a lot of thought into his work. It depicts situations and people, rather than product, making the viewer think. Richardson has gained popularity over years, producing several photobooks and working with many magazines to develop his personal style and aesthetic. A part of his fame is based on lawsuits and negative reviews on the internet. Oliviero Toscani gained popularity and made himself a name only with that one campaign. Returning to the Picasso's statement, I think we can agree that it is true.  In the modern reality, art does not only exist for decoration. It is used as a weapon of propaganda, it is used to provoke people on thoughts and emotions, and it is a powerful tool if it is in the right hands.


1.      Groys, B. (2008) Art Power. Available at: (Accessed: 2 December 2016).

2. tw19751 (2012) John Berger / ways of seeing , episode 4 (1972). Available at:

3. Leigh, J. (2014) STATE OF THE UNION: It’s A man’s world. Available at:

4. Terry Richardson, Kate Moss, 1997 (1997) Available at:

5. Lyman, E.J. (2001) AdAge global: The true colors of Oliviero Toscani. Available at:

6. SHOCKvertising, united colors of Benetton (no date) Available at: (Accessed: 2 December 2016).

Illustration source:

1. Mavrody, N. (2014) 14 fashion and beauty ads that were banned in the UK (besides Rihanna’s perfume ad). Available at: (Accessed: 2 December 2016).

2. Terry Richardson, Kate Moss, 1997 (1997) Available at:

3. tebogomapine (2011) United colors of Benetton. Available at: (Accessed: 2 December 2016).

4.Blickwink (2016) Top 10 controversial united colors of Benetton ads. Available at: (Accessed: 2 December 2016).

5. Terry Richardson bags Valentino campaign (2013) Available at: (Accessed: 2 December 2016).

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