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  • Halo Everybody, HighlowAdcult and the Collapse of Cultural Hierarchy
  • James B. Twitchell (bio)

Twitchell, James B. (1996), “Halo Everybody, Highlow: Adcult and the Collapse of Cultural Hierarchy,” Adcult USA: The Triumph of Advertising in America, New York: Columbia University Press, 179–227. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

For some time I have been trying new themes far different from those around which you have seen me entwine my verses up to now. I believe that I have found a source of inspiration in prospectuses…catalogues, posters, advertisements of all sorts. Believe me, they contain the poetry of our epoch. I shall make it spring forth.

(Guilliaume Apollinaire, Soirées, 1912)

When playing the opening bars of Mon Piu Andrai to a class of school children the other day I was surprised to find them all smiling their recognition and quietly joining in with words which had no connection with Mozart’s opera. One of the singers explained that this tune, with the new words, is used in an advertisement on television. Such a travesty is surely barbarous, dishonorable and mischievous. Who can undo the debasing effect of attempting to wed noble music to the banal words of an advertisement? And what could be more incongruous during a performance of The Magic Flute than to find oneself thinking irresistibly of some advertised commodity?

(Letter to the Manchester Guardian, February 3, 1958)

Why was there so much art in Tuscan Italy in the late sixteenth century? Why is there so much advertising in the United States in the late twentieth century? The answers, I think, are similar enough to be considered together. If we can forget for a moment what we have been taught since grade school—namely, art = good and advertising = bad—and concentrate instead on the degree of cultural use and saturation, we may be able to see how organized speech, whether in the employ of an ecclesiastical market or a commercial one, responds with exquisite sensitivity to the concerns of its audience.

Although it will always seem that they, be they the Church of Rome or the hucksters of Madison Avenue, are imposing their will on innocent us by bombarding us daily with images of a world view that we really don’t want (and certainly never asked for), what we will see is that is that these two iconic systems are Richter scales forever measuring our most intimate concerns. They are both parts of our nervous system, externalized at different historical times but fundamentally doing the same job. They organize value.

To see low-culture advertising and high-culture art as one and the same is an academic sacrilege. After all, separating them has been the major goal of the modern educational enterprise. So for now let us concentrate only on whatever it was that filled, say, Florence during what we call the Renaissance, and then we’ll take a look at what fills, say, Manhattan, during the late twentieth century.

Oh, Just Charge It, Leonardo

Renaissance stuff, which was only later called art, was everywhere. It covered churches both inside and out. New churches and chapels were being built continuously just to showcase these things. So much of this church stuff existed that soon it was appearing in peoples’ homes, not just the homes of the rich but of the middle class as well. Sometimes even servants had these objects in their rooms. New kinds of furniture had to be constructed in which to keep them—elaborate chests, cabinets, credenzas, and armoires. At the end of the Renaissance it was not unheard of for a family to have hundreds of paintings and religious icons stored away like bric-a-brac, just as we might have stacks of old magazines and souvenirs in the attic today.

If you really wanted to see the glut of objects, however, you had to go inside the churches. Florentine churches were as cluttered with this iconic stuff as commercial television is with interruptions or as newspapers are with messages from Sears. The Holy Roman Catholic Church is quite possibly the most material-oriented religion ever developed, not because the church fathers wanted it but because the parishioners clearly did and...