David Stewart - Paid Content

As with most of Stewart’s work a wry sense of humour is never very far way, and that certainly applies to the work before us now. But look closer at Paid Content and see the biting acerbic wit he brings to his subject.

Stewart shows us a world he is intimately familiar with, having worked in advertising for over 35 years. Other commentators have noted a certain Vermeer-like quality in these poised representations of a quietly observed slice of life, showing people going about their daily business. I get that point here, but rather than Vermeer I see William Hogarth in these tableaux scenes with their sardonic portrayal of the marketing game.

In Paid Content admen and adwomen play their individual parts to perfection. ‘Who are all these people?’, you can almost hear Stewart think. Do we really need all these different tribes of professionals to make it all happen? It was not always like this he will tell you. Back in the days before it became all so corporate, so designed, so globalised. Then there were fewer people, they communicated and trusted each other’s skill and judgement.

The advertising world is the archetypal corporate industry, after all it led the way in making all areas of life just another marketing opportunity, just another commodity. Mass media, mass marketing and mass consumption – the algebra of contemporary global capitalism – and round and round it goes until we are all turned into zombies, or the planet violently pushes back to wake us up before it’s all too late. If it was just about the crazy rituals of contemporary ad land, Paid Content would be a timely laxative to this dissociated smug nether world. But as Stewart points out this is about so much more than the marketing business. Or to put it another way, the world and all its various formations look increasingly like ad land. After all this is precisely the meaning of that perhaps over used term – Neo-Liberalism. Namely, the driving down of market values into every crevice and pore of social life.

Look closer at the scenes portrayed in Paid Content, they are redolent of fine detail and precise observation. They are analogue high definition records, courtesy of Stewart’s signature large plate photography. The engineered presentation shows us people busy turning themselves into commodities; as they simultaneously turn the world around them into just another commodified thing.

And so, as Stewart observes, the circle is closed. Like Hogarth, Stewart holds up a mirror to a slice of modern life with the implicit warning that if we fail to see through its follies and vanities then we too are at risk of becoming just another part of the very scene we observe. The corporate types presented in Paid Content sometimes look like mannequins because they are without real creativity and communication. So much of what goes on is a going through the motions over and over again which brings with it a certain deadening affect. What keeps them going, in these sterile suffocating spaces? What stops them from going mad? They would probably tell you that their platinum health club membership and a regular supply of Zoloft certainly helps.

Like Hogarth Stewart chooses his subjects well, not simply to mock and condemn for his own or our entertainment. Rather, he is on a mission to expose something he feels alarmed about, something affecting us all. Having been so long in the belly of this beast you may ask why has Stewart himself not become just another corporate functionary, given its all-pervasive powers of seduction? I don’t have a complete answer to this pertinent question, but perhaps its got something to do with a certain dogged northerness that has given him some protection and the fact that he can remember when it was different, not like this. It could be argued that Stewart’s firm grasp on a time before globalised corporatism is what gives him his distinctive eye on the world.

Oulan Nagardo

Budapest February 2020.