A month doesn’t go by without me seeing my therapist. I need regular relief from the mind-sapping double whammy of the digital and material worlds. My nature demands that I stop the world for a few hours to reflect, recuperate and reconnect (with myself, others and the environment). So I’ve been going to the same place for treatment and healing since I was a junior copywriter back in the 1980s. That place (or more to the point, sanctuary) is the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV).
For me, art has always been a therapeutic balm for a spent brain (adland drains every drop of creative juice from a creative’s mind). Gazing at an artwork is so renewing in itself; colours, textures and movements can express a million other possibilities, liberating me from the limits of my own imagination. But when I read the copy on artwork labels (also known as wall text) giving stylistic analyses and biographical information about the artist, I am left feeling underwhelmed at best, and inadequate at worst. For all its noble intentions, wall text has a habit of perpetuating the notion that the high status of art is a mysterious thing, fathomable only to the initiated few. Most of the time, I try to avoid this blurb, and just let the art speak to me, even if I don’t get it.
So here I am, wandering aimlessly through the NGV, seeking the healing powers of an artwork to draw me in and reveal its fascination. With more than 68,000 artworks spanning thousands of years to choose from, where do I begin today?
Then, from the corner of my eye, I spot a small circle on the wall emanating a vibrant tangerine hue. I turn my head to take a closer view. I see that it is a round sticker below Pierre Bonnard’s La Siesta. It sparks my curiosity and I make a direct detour to the painting. As I approach it, the white on tangerine words come into clearer focus —
Now that’s a headline that hits me where I live. It is a classic feature (art) benefit (therapy) headline that talks directly to the target audience desire for reconnecting with self, others and the environment (according to social researcher Hugh Mackay’s Ten Desires That Drive Us).
But this copywriting smarts is only the beginning of it. And the selections from the Art as Therapy series shown here are masterclasses in great copywriting for all, from the seasoned to the neophyte.
As I read the wall text expanding on the headline, I am hooked in from the very first word to the final full stop — not just for the elegant writing but also the resonating proposition that it makes. My immediate thought: I must share this with my students and subscribers. It proves everything I believed about the craft of copywriting. While popular belief has it that copywriting is purely a selling tool, a dark art (Madmen style) used solely for the purpose of making people buy stuff, there is another side of copywriting. And it’s right bang in the middle of its two cousins, poetry and speech writing.
I’ve worked on enough commercial and non-commercial projects to know that the craft of copywriting is a powerful light-art (for storytelling conservation, education, social housing and climate justice) as it is a trusty old dark-art. And here I stand in the NGV where Alain de Botton (The School of Life) and John Armstrong (University of Melbourne), demonstrate my point perfectly in their project, Art as Therapy. They also demonstrate a clear communication strategy, which I have translated into the following Communication Brief:
Back to where I’m standing — before Pierre Bonnard’s La Siesta — my first encounter with the total genius of copywriting that is Art As Therapy. The image tells half the story (a naked woman resting on the bed) and its accompanying (and provocative) headline tells the other half of the story. In a salacious mind, the story could easily go off into sexual fantasy land. But no, the writer is in full control of his craft, directing the reader exactly where he wants them to go.
Work, work, work. The body copy expands on this headline with concrete images that we can all relate to, and possibly wish for as a break from the daily grind (in her case, report writing). And what could be a nicer way to relax than with a little sex, followed by a well-earned rest? The copy releases us from the weight of our day’s labour as it transports us dreamily into the realms of desire. The mind is emptied with only one thought remaining — what a lovely and sensible way to take a break between work, work, work. Then comes a strong conclusion that leaves us with a last impression that is lasting long after we exit the story — a good frame of mind.
Like all great copywriting — from David Abbott to Sonia Simone — this copy makes me instantly relate to the story as if it’s my very own story. It understands me. It wants to help me be better, feel better, live better. I’m totally sold! I want another serving of Art as Therapy.
So I look for the now familiar tangerine stickers, technically known as the brand logo. I look around. There’s one! Below a glass encased collection of Egyptian Ushabti and overseer figures. I don’t usually go for Egyptian art, but there’s an Art as Therapy logo next to it, and being a bit of a brand loyalist, I think, “if it’s Art as Therapy, it must be great”. I head straight to that glass encased display of what to me is a band of mummies.
As I said, I’m not all that enamored with Egyptian art. But that changes the moment I reach the display and read the headline below it: I can’t bear to think about death. Now that’s another headline that hits me exactly where I live. Those words instantly suspend my disinterest, arresting my attention with that ever-present feeling we all quietly share about death. In one neat headline, I begin to see these figures in a whole new light. They hold a secret, and I need to know what that could be.
And so like all great headlines do, I am compelled to read the body copy. It hooks me in with something interesting — an alternative, more beneficial, attitude about death. That’s an inspiring proposition, and I must read on to see why. The copy continues on by replacing the idea of death-as-morbid with the proposition of it being a kindly reminder of the preciousness of our given lifespans. What a timely reminder! I can be cantankerous, whinging about life’s trials and tribulations, and taking for granted the riches that surround me. Then comes a conclusion that completes my transformation — that final, telling sentence leaves me walking away with a much more cheerful attitude about death; one that is more compassionate. As I walk on to look for the next inspiring installment of Art as Therapy, I also carry within me a new appreciation of Egyptian art.
As I walk into the adjoining gallery space, I see another Art as Therapy logo calling me over to view Picasso’s painting, Weeping Woman. The accompanying headline reads: A Short Memory. The opening sentences of the copy fill in the blank with description (anguish), curiosity (what caused it) and reasons I can immediately relate to — disappointment in a relationship, frustration at work, or a response to a tragedy. The copy chooses to develop the relationship angle. The substantiating sentences bring this issue right into my own home. And it does so by turning the tables on me. I am made to see how a lack of consideration for the other can cause suffering. The copy has re-imagined Picasso’s painting as a powerful reminder to be more thoughtful of others, and to never take my own loved ones for granted.
As I stroll out of the NGV and onto St Kilda Road where I’m greeted by the soft afternoon light, nothing is as it was. I feel glad, not guilty, for taking time off work to enjoy my life. I feel more positive about the idea of death. And I feel more determined than ever to be always mindful of, and sensitive to, the people in my life. In short, the wall text written by Alain De Botton and John Armstrong transformed me into a better version of myself.
What a difference a day of great copywriting makes.
To see the rest of this exhibition for yourself, you can get a copy of Art As Therapy at the NGV store here.