Art has been boxed in, framed by narrow constraints set to satisfy a forgotten aristocratic imperative. Though we have lost touch with the origins of our convictions about what is and is not art, we still suffer from a continuing compulsion to confer that name upon a small subset of human artifacts: to elevate them, isolate them, and, in the process, blind ourselves to the art in the ordinary, everyday, and accessible. It’s a poisonous ideology, one that demeans and belittles to preserve the rights of a class that thinks itself superior.
The aftermath of the culture wars of the late twentieth century left most of us uncomfortable with terms like ‘the canon’ in literature, yet we remain in thrall to the belief system that set up a similarly interested set of ‘masterpieces’ in art. Still, it is no radical thing to suggest that the great works of the art world function to shore up the interests of class, race, and gender—by analogy to literature or music, most intellectuals today would probably accept that premise. It is another thing altogether to argue that advertising could ever be art. Except, of course, to allow for the condescending way some critics admit advertising as ‘capitalist realism’ or ‘the art of capitalism’—which is the same as saying it is no kind of art at all.
I will try in this essay to open up the possibility that advertising is an art form in the full sense—not just some mutant form of capitalist realism. I will do this by questioning the wisdom of ‘proverbs of art’ that have underpinned this hierarchy of forms for more than 100 years—and by pointing to the interests they have served.
Ten Proverbs About Advertising and Art
Art is above commerce. Advertising is commerce’s handmaiden.
There is art. Then there is craft.
Art is created for its own sake.
A work of art is one of a kind.
Appreciating art requires sophistication; advertising demands no learning.
Only philistines require realism from art. Advertising should be realistic.
Advertising serves the interests of power; art serves no one.
Artists are special people.
Art is the ultimate statement of Meaning. Advertising expropriates art—and makes it meaningless.
Art is sacred. Advertising is profane.
Let me caution that I am writing primarily from a base in American history, which is an area of expertise for me. I feel it’s justified to begin this inquiry by looking at that particular experience because advertising is still perceived as a phenomenon that springs from and flourishes most in the United States. Furthermore, the aspects of the experience I outline here have broad parallels, if different particulars, in the other nations of the postindustrial world.
Art is above commerce. Advertising is commerce’s handmaiden
Before the advent of democracy, industrialization, and popular media, the United States had a class structure based in agriculture and monarchy. The aristocracy was differentiated from the commonfolk specifically by exemption from work—they were literally a ‘leisure class.’ Gentry owned the land and productive equipment; thereby, they commanded the labor force necessary to produce what they needed to live. In contrast, ordinary people usually had only some of the equipment needed to produce for their daily needs and were limited to the strength and skill of their own hands for labor. Commonfolk solved their material limitations by trading among themselves and with other communities. For instance, one family might be able produce the thread for cloth, but not be able to weave it because they had no loom. So, they would trade with another family, thread for woven textiles. Because specie was in short supply, other finished goods would be obtained from a dry goods merchant through exchange of some home product, whether produce or a craft item. The myth of self-sufficiency applied only to the aristocrat and, even then, only by ideological sleight of hand because the gentry relied on the labor of others to survive.
Most people in the American colonies were common, not noble. So, the entire economy ran on a complex interlock of...