November 29, 2011
The latest flap over a Benetton ad campaign is far from the first in that notoriously tasteless company’s history. Obama is shown kissing the President of China, French chief of State Nicolas Sarkozy liplocks with German Kanzlerin Angela Merkel, and the pope swaps spit with some imam (though the latter image was dropped after legal threats—one wonders whether Netanyahu and, say, the President of Iran were considered, but never mind). Each couple is accompanied by the word “unhate”—which my Microsoft Word program keeps redlining.
Benneton’s Mad Men are no strangers to annoying or disturbing images. The fact that such stuff continues to sell rags says as much about the purchasers as the purveyors. Whenever I see these sorts of images, I begin to speculate as to what might shock the modern sensibilities—as I do when contemplating offerings such as Piss Christ. A picture of Anne Frank smeared with dung? A photo of a grinning smoker in a cancer ward surrounded by the dying? A stuffed baby harp seal? It is hard to figure, because without a sense of the sacred in a society, it is difficult to drop below merely disgusting to blasphemous.
Except, perhaps, in one area, which this latest campaign perhaps unconsciously touches: the “democratic” political process itself. Tellingly, Oliviero Toscani, the photog responsible for most of Benetton’s grosser ad pictures, is displeased with the company’s current campaign. For him, it is “pathetic and the product of a beginner’s art class.” Having been subjected to Sig. Toscani’s work, I might say that it takes one to know one. Both the campaign and the furious reaction to it suggest that a modern sacred icon has been desecrated. One may attack this or that political figure, but the campaign’s subliminal message—politicians are all the same—is surely the closest this age can come to its own brand of blasphemy.
The truth is that for many in the West the act of voting is a sacramental act. While with one side of our brain (and in so much of our humor) we recognize that the political class consists mostly of jackals, the other still clothes them with the holy mantle of “representatives of the people.” The ritual of electoral politics consumes an incredible amount of money, and the citizen is expected to give over his heart to one or another party, as Byzantines once did for the Blues and Greens in the circus of Constantinople.