Medium as Medium

We spend a lot of time talking about how to adapt sophisticated thought leadership to new media since questions like “How do you elevate the conversation on Twitter” weren’t being asked 15 years ago. And we treat that pace of change as remarkable – a sign we’re living in an age of exceptional ingenuity.

But communicators have been adapting to shifting media landscapes for centuries, trying to meet audiences where they are and take full advantage of the available platforms. If you want to see what I mean, you should visit an art museum.

For Employee Appreciation Day this year, Greentarget threw it back to our school days and took us on a field trip to the Art Institute of Chicago (our colleagues in New York took a similar trip to Cooper Hewitt, the Smithsonian Design Museum). Once we arrived, our friend Howell Malham Jr. introduced us to Gloria Groom, a curator at the Art Institute; together they led us around the European Painting and Sculpture wing, stopping to give us historical perspectives on four particular pieces. Each piece was not only a work of lasting importance in the art world, but also an example of the artists, and subjects, directing the conversations of their time.

The last piece we saw, Model for a Statue of Louis XV (1746-8), struck me the most. Gloria noted that the statue was essentially a solution to a communications problem. King Louis XV of France was perceived as weak and incompetent by the French citizenry. So he did what any resourceful king would have done: commissioned a sculptor to create a massive statue that would portray Louis XV the way he wanted to be seen – as a stirring, dynamic leader who did heroic things with swords.

To depict Louis as a strong leader, capable of leading with wisdom and conviction, the artist Jean Baptiste Lemoyne put a scroll in the king’s outstretched right hand. The sword in his left hand suggests the king was a strong warrior, ready to lead his people to victory. Louis’s relaxed pose conveys a sense of confidence, inviting the French people to trust him, to believe in his prowess as a ruler.

The piece at the Art Institute is not the statue itself, but the model that was to serve as a reference for the monument. The model is a little over two feet tall and made from terracotta, a pliable material that, nearly 300 years later, still bears the artist’s imprint on its surface. The material makes the piece look like it’s still in progress, as if Louis XV could still be imploring the artist to make him a bigger sword.

It’s a far cry from today’s image-making, which leans heavily on social media and made-for-mobile video. But while commissioning statues is no longer the norm, we haven’t entirely abandoned the idea that image can be shaped through art.

Gazing at the miniature statue of Louis XV, I kept thinking about Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of former President Barack Obama, unveiled a few weeks before our field trip. In the painting, Obama leans toward the viewer, hands folded over each other, as if listening intently to whatever we’re saying. It clearly reflects the demeanor Obama projected throughout his presidency: a calm, collected thinker invested in his people – a listener.

Unlike Louis XV’s statue, the Obama portrait is part of a tradition going back to George Washington. But presidential portraits have shifted over the years. Early American presidents were depicted in dark colors, appearing stoic and unwavering. Later POTUS painters have taken a more casual approach, with more colorful surroundings and relaxed poses.

While the medium and images change with the times and technology, some things are timeless. Whether it’s terracotta or Twitter, it’s the message that matters.

Scarlett is an avid reader, consuming whatever material she can get her hands on — breaking news, fashion blogs,  classic novels, you name it.

In her free time, Scarlett reads dystopian novels, writes poetry, and maintains her gold card status at Starbucks.