Jazz Fest Poster—The New Big Mac?

The Jazz Fest poster has been worse. 2004’s Harry Connick, Jr. poster holds that dishonor for being banal and presenting a Connick that looks more like Warren Beatty. But let’s look at this year’s poster:

Art4Now, who does the Jazz Fest posters, went to local broadcaster Garland Robinette for the image, which raises the first question: Why? In a city full of artists, why go to an amateur? In this poster, Robinette’s shortcomings show in basic ways. Both of young Jimmy Buffett’s knees are bent; what’s carrying his weight? And his right leg is bent as if he’s standing on the bundle of newspapers, but with his head and shoulders shifted toward this left leg, the right leg isn’t carrying any weight. Instead, it looks as if he’s holding it up to avoid stepping down on the bundle. The papers show no signs of distress from his weight; in fact, the shadow under the front right corner of the bundle suggests that it’s not resting on the ground, even with his foot on it. Which raises a second question: Why isn’t that bundle resting on the ground?

That shadow and the shadow of the building behind him suggest that the light is coming from the left, but it’s not clear how high it is in the sky. The building suggests the sun’s low, the car in the background suggests its noon-ish, and I’m not sure that the “Will Play for Gumbo” bundle and the bundle it’s resting on are casting shadows at all.

I could further dissect Buffett’s shirt, where Robinette has opted not to deal with the way it hangs, folds and shadows when worn by someone hunched over his guitar, instead letting the floral print obscure those details. But the point is made. At a technical level, the image has some issues, and they wouldn’t matter as much if the overall look Robinette was going for was less representational. But the well-executed building behind Buffett and the street scene depicted show Robinette trying to make the scene look more-or-less like it looks, albeit with a slight blur that I take to be his hand as an artist. In that context, the breaks from the overall style of the piece need to be meaningful to be seen as anything other than technical shortcomings.

The problem with this year’s poster isn’t Robinette’s work, though; it’s Art4Now’s decision to do it in the first place. It’s hard to get around what a cynical choice this is, seemingly made from the simple equation that people like Jimmy Buffett, people like New Orleans and, evidently, people like hair. Combine them and that’s good enough, as long as it’s all recognizable. The poster is reduced to a Big Mac, made no better than it has to be because as mediocre as it is, people buy it.

Discussions of the Jazz Fest poster inevitably bring to mind the work of Komar and Melamid, Russian-born, American graphic artists who have made a project of doing art by polls, asking people specific questions about their preferences in art, then making pieces that catered to those preferences (or, in the case of their “Least Wanted” series, pieces that incorporated the things people liked least.

Komar and Melamid Americas Most Wanted Painting vs Jazz Fest Poster

The original of this, their “America’s Most Wanted” piece, was the size of a dishwasher, determined to be the most popular size of art in America. Other findings: 44 percent of Americans polled prefer art that’s blue; 64 percent prefer traditional art (as opposed to modern art); 88 percent prefer outdoor art; and 60 percent agreed with the statement, “I prefer paintings that are realistic looking; the more they resemble a photograph, the better.”

I didn’t realized until I put Komar and Melamid’s painting in this post that Robinette’s sky is similar to theirs, and they share a slightly romantic soft focus; I brought them up because their painting is a straight-faced comment on art preferences, following them to create a piece that is as lovely as it is absurd, with deer frolicking on the water and George Washington standing alone looking presidential as vacationers walk toward the water. Art4Now’s posters often give us the illogical image without the tongue-in-cheek. For example:

Fats Domino New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Poster

Why is Fats Domino playing in the street? (Because people like French Quarter scenes?) And where is that guitar on the left plugged in?

Allen Toussaint New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Poster

Why is Allen Toussaint playing in the street? (Because Fats did it and lived? And who’s moving all these pianos into the street?)

These make me wonder if Art4Now has its own form of market research. Clearly, the featured artist needs to be centered and in action. To their credit, these posters take a slight chance by featuring an artist—James Michalopoulos—whose work is stylized and not strictly representational. But he and two-time poster artist George Rodrigue have established reputations as artists; perhaps Art4Now’s surveys show that people will tolerate stylized elements such as warped architecture if the artist’s name recognition and perceived market value is sufficient.

In the end, this year’s Jazz Fest poster is like so many Jazz Fest posters; it represents the depressing decision to aim low. Each year, it acknowledges people’s love of New Orleans and the festival, then sells them the equivalent of a Bourbon Street T-shirt.

  • gumbo_1

    My first thought when I saw this was the first thought I have everytime they do one. “eh.”

  • Bookeriii

    Pardon me and my language, but are they fucking kidding me? Is this the fucking Key West Jazz and Heritage Festival? The only thing missing is – well, it would be homophobic of me to say it.

    Jazzfest has the cache it does because we’ve all had such special moments in it that have defined our lives and the character of New Orleans. Each year this cache and specialness gets ruined with generic bad judgement moves like this. Come on!

  • CriticsBlunderBussBustedFree

    Spare us the specious reasoning based on half remembered grade school physics. In this photo, found on the Offbeat site, I guess they must have used photoshop to add two bent knees to the same dancing girl http://www.flickr.com/photos/offbeatmagazine/5321019356/ ..So what’s carrying her weight? And aren’t all of these posters meant to “representational” seeing how they are not abstract…strictly or otherwise. The only amateur here is the one who can’t fathom that the subject is in motion and that a dollarstore book on perspective didn’t learn him all about the types of shadows which can cascade in layers in an urban environment. BTW, the poster was not meant to photo-realistic, it is as “stylized” (it represents the artists style very well for example) as any of the other examples shown. Please stay away from goofy lectures on art and go back to the hack analyses of popular music for which you were destined.

  • gumbotron

    word !

  • martin

    Yeah, poor article here. Jazz Fest posters are certainly a strange, hit-or-miss collectible. But, it is perhaps the most valuable and collected series of souvenir posters in the country, if not the World. That is saying something about the competency of the NOJHF folks and those at art4now. They are more unique than say, a Thomas Kinkade print or a Successories poster you can get at any mall in The U.S. And they represent for collectors, what many of them consider to be the best weekend(s) of their entire year. People from all over the World want to hang these in their homes to remind them of New Orleans. What is wrong with that?

    The folks that come to Jazz Fest from other States obviously prefer catfish almondine to the McRib. If they didn’t, they’d stay at home instead of coming here. Many of them may be middle-aged and not as cool as you. But, to bash Jazz Fest and its attendees’ tastes lazy. I mean, everyone wants a shot at the champ, right? But few step up to do anything better. People like the writer here complain above most anything else, then expect the rest of us to pay attention to their whining. Forget that.

    While I’m not a huge J.Buffet fan, many are. Many will come to Jazz Fest for the first time this year, just to see him. Many will buy the poster, thus introducing the series to a whole new segment of collectors. By definition, it is very accessible, pop-art that looks at home in a crusty dilapidated shotgun or a Garden District mansion.

    The same argument about absurdity could be made for the 2008 poster, done by Douglas Bourgeios that was absolutely adored by critics. Look up the poster and the original painting it was cropped from if you want to see absurd. I mean, how is that lily pad holding up a woman? Why is Irma Thomas performing in a garbage filled swamp and what is that microphone plugged into? Come on w/the whole perspective and physics garbage. This is an iconic series of poster representing a significant, Gulf Coast musician done by a stalwart of local journalism and culture. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it.

  • Anonymous

    That the poster is a successful collectible isn’t disputed, but that doesn’t mean its good art, either. And that characteristic partially undermines arguments about the merits of the image because collectors are notorious for keeping their collections intact, regardless of the quality of each individual element in it. I used to collect comics and I bought bad issues as well as good ones to keep the collection going, and that same impulse means that many who’ll go to the fest this year knew before the poster was ever announced that they’d buy it. I’m not going to guess at what percentage of their sales that represents, but it means that the poster isn’t solely being purchased on its merits.

    There are a host of assumptions in here I wouldn’t make – I don’t assume that if you can’t make art, then you have no place in the conversation; I don’t assume that people with good musical taste also have good taste in art – and the poster isn’t pop art, but a point-by-point hashout is unproductive and will read as more aggressive than I feel about this topic. Instead, I’ll simply deal with the difference between the Buffett poster and Doug Bourgeois’ 2008 poster of Irma Thomas. Robinette’s poster puts Buffett is a setting you once could have expected to find him in – singing on a French Quarter corner. As such, its essentially representational. By placing Irma in a gown in a swamp, Bourgeois is clearly going for something more surreal. That is not a situation you would have ever expected to see her in, and not dressed like that. Bourgeois establishes a tone and then executes his painting consistent with that tone. Robinette goes for realism except in the places where he doesn’t succeed in depicting it, which is a very different thing.

    But the conclusion – “Come on w/ the whole perspective and physics garbage. This is an iconic series of poster representing a significant Gulf Coast musician done by a stalwart of local journalism and culture. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it” – suggests one of the fundamental truths of my initial column. Nothing in that statement defends the piece as art; it defends it on the grounds of who’s in it and who made it, and that is exactly the rationale that art4now seems to rely on. And my issue isn’t that they’re wrong; it’s that making the poster no better than it has to be is cynical and depressing.

  • martin

    Thank you for correcting my use of the term ‘pop-art’. I intended it to mean ‘populist’ or ‘popular’, sort of mass produced, mass consumed art. But, I guess that is not the correct term.

    I’m following you a little better now that I’ve reread the article and your ensuing comments. You and I conceive of this series in completely different ways. They produce tens of thousands of these things and net millions of dollars from their sale each year. To expect the artwork to be cutting edge just seems too demanding to me and I don’t find that cynical or depressing.

    It seems to me that you simply don’t like the series. Was there ever a time when you collected or adored these and then lost interest? Is there one you actually like?

  • Bon Jovi

    Great piece, but I do think you are missing the symbolism of the subject. Putting a non-New Orleanian artist as the subject while so many more locals are worthy, especially when a band like the Rads are playing their final show, seems like an insult. This festival just isn’t about local music anymore. It probably hasn’t been for a while, but the posters caught up to it too.

  • Anonymous

    To be fair, I suspect the decision about this year’s poster was made before the Rads announced their break-up. I think they’d have thought seriously about the Rads had they known early enough in the process, though bands are graphically tough – I can’t think of another band poster other than Francis Pavy’s Neville Brothers poster.

  • Anonymous

    Pop art – I figured as much, but in conversations like this, keeping our language straight really helps.

    In a way, I agree with you. I look back at the early posters as good graphics – well-designed posters that made no pretense toward art. In the early 1990s, the posters seemed to shift toward fine artists with some reputation – John Scott, Michalopoulos, George Rodrigue, Peter Max – and seemingly tried to have the credibility that comes with having the poster done by an artist with the mass appeal of a graphic artist. Before that time, there also seemed to be less concern with having an iconic figure front and center in the poster.

    Personally, I think the more stylized posters reflect elements of the city and/or festival better than the more representative ones – I like 2002’s moody Buddy Bolden, I like the exotic nature of Pavy’s Nevilles poster and the vitality and energy in John Scott’s 1993 poster. But art4now’s efforts to wrap populist art in high art finery invites a host of critiques. Doug MacCash at the Times-Picayune has had a strong, cogent riff along those lines for years: the fest works to present the best in NO/LA music; shouldn’t it also try to present the city’s art community in a similar light? That’s what I’d most like to see too, but an almost-equally desirable result is to have the poster simply be cool, striking graphics like this year’s Congo Square poster.

    By the way, I don’t remember these posters off the top of my head. I’ve been referring to art4now’s website – http://www.art4now.com/cgi/commerce.cgi?display=user1 It raises one last issue I find slightly distressing and that further complicates discussions of the poster. This page is titled “Vintage Poster Values,” and it shows what past posters cost when they were made and what they’re worth now. The suggestion is that the poster isn’t just a poster; it’s an investment. I’m not sure how art4now arrives at that value; is that what these posters fetch on ebay? In print shops in the Quarter? Or is art4now arbitrarily naming the value of past posters? Those inflated prices are what past posters now cost from art4now – whether that’s a reflection of the actual market for them is an interesting question, but the whole valuation question further blurs the line between the poster and fine art and complicates this conversation

  • Bon Jovi

    Perhaps, but there are easy 50 artists that belong on that poster before Buffett. Snooks, Eddie Bo, etc., etc. Every year this festival has less and less to do with local music. The Bon Jovi poster is right around the corner.

  • Anonymous

    I’m interested in this idea that the fest has less to do with local music because the percentage of local music stays in the mid to high-70s (I vaguely recall that “78 percent” has been bandied about, but I might not remember that exactly right). That means the amount of local music changes, but the perception is that JF’s not about local music as much as it once was. I wonder if that’s a function of the problem that art4now faces with the poster: Who local is big enough to close major stage? Who local is big enough to sell a lot of posters?

    Obviously, that’s a two-part question, one having to do with NO musicians, and I’m not sure anyone is that kind of draw right now. The other part of that is how big of a draw the musician has to be, which is a Festival Productions question. Since it’s a for-profit activity (the Foundation is the non-profit; FPI produces the festival for them), the answer depends on how much money FPI wants to make. It has appears to have built a machine that requires a lot of money to keep running, which means it needs some headliners who can bring in Bon Jovi-like numbers. We can debate whether the festival needs to be that big, but unless someone can work out a model by which it’s equally profitable with fewer people, I don’t see that changing. I wonder if that’s what we’re reacting to when we charge that the fest is less about local music – that the locals aren’t as prominent as they once were, Last year with the exception of the final Sunday, none of the headliners at Acura, Gentilly and Congo Square were from New Orleans.

  • gd

    Love that Jimmy’s on the poster. Have watched him up and down the gulf coast for 40 years and at the Jazz Fest too many times to count. He’s been a good friend to this city so all the tiresome discussion of physics and sunlight are just that; tiresome.

  • martin

    You are onto something that a lot of JF poster dealers and collectors have questioned for a long time. Art4now claims their valuations are culled from all of those places you’ve named above: Quarter galleries, eBay, etc…Yet, w/the exception of a few issues, works almost never sell for their ‘book’ value. A good rule of thumb I’ve found is that you can expect to get about 50-75% of the art4now stated price if you decided to sell one of your posters.
    That they control the distribution of the series and seem to arbitrarily change the values year after year is suspect, in my opinion. Values never seem to decrease. I own several of these, including one of the most valuable (by their standards anyway), the 2006 C-Marque edition. It’s book value is stated at $3500 and mine has been professionally framed at a cost of approx. $350. I’ve had it listed for sale on ebay for approx. six months at $2995 and have not sold it nor received any substantial offers. I expect that if I were to put it up for auction, on ebay, it would sell for approx. $2000, maybe less, probably not more.
    It’s interesting to note also that local auction houses (Neal, New Orleans Auction, etc…) won’t handle Jazz Fest posters. I have a lot of experience and some strong opinions about this subject. If you’d care to continue this ocnversation further, feel free to email me at fullcycled@gmail.com

  • ric bat

    Agree with your point.Additionly,why j buffett?? Have we run out of New Orleans or La performers?The Fest poster should be EXCLUSIVELY for our own!

  • Anonymous

    We may want to talk about this in the future. I’m doing a little homework on it right now.

  • Anonymous

    Just saw a 1991 Poster ebay auction be relisted because it didn’t get the $200 minimum. I didn’t see that it got a bid at all. Unfortunately, art4now doesn’t offer 1991 or 1992, so I’m not sure what that says about its poster values. But a 1990 on ebay has a “Buy it Now” price of $99, $200 below art4now’s value.

  • martin

    I think I’m stating all of this correctly: art4now is the website of ProCreations Publishing, the company who has long printed the Jazz Fest poster, among several others in the country, including prints for the Albuquerque International Balloon Festival and the Boston Marathon. JF decided to switch companies in 1991-92 and use a locally based printer. The results were supposedly awful and they switched back to ProCreations in 1993. As a result, art4now does not recognize those issues in their value guide.
    There is a man who once contacted me about a poster I had for sale who claims to have charted the results of every JF poster sold on ebay during the last couple of years. He has a poster from every year and has had the paper on each professionally treated and restored to near perfection if necessary. I can dig up his info. if you’d like him as a source. In addition, there are other folks out there who have taken this issue very seriously for quite a while now. You can’t blame them either, w/some posters valued in the $1000’s.
    Looking at a couple of auctions here and there won’t give you much useful info. unless you are already familiar w/the series and w/ebay. Any number of things could contribute to a non-sale or low value there: poor seller feedback, no photograph, bad photographs, etc…. And, an ebay auction is almost always going to bring the lowest price. Completed ‘Buy it Now’ values are generally higher and a better indication of value for collectibles.
    Also, mysterious quantities of vintage posters will often surface on ebay from time to time.. For instance, there is a ‘Subject Signed’ edition of the 2002 Wynton Marsalis poster that art4now had valued at some ungodly amount last year, around $900 if my memory serves me correctly. And, a seller starting offering them for around $250 last year. People started scarfing them up like mad until it became clear that the poster was no longer rare. art4now adjusted their book value to $235 and the poster can now be had on ebay for approx. $150: type this number into ebay’s earch bar to see for yourself: 270698302324 Where a huge quantity of this ‘rare’ issue came from, I don’t know, nor have I heard anything about it from other collectors around town.
    This is a rich subject and I’d be happy to share any knowledge and experience I have on the subject with you in the future.