100 Cans by Andy Warhol
100 Cans by Andy Warhol

So, when Apple uses a Feist song in one of their iPod commercials, does the Feist song stop being art? Or if a movie wins at both Cannes and the Oscars (and is subsequently admitted to the Criterion Collection), but features some subtle product placement (e.g. the protagonist has a Starbucks coffee on their desk), is that movie any less of a piece of art?

Now let’s say that some young, brilliant (and hitherto undiscovered) mind is paying the bills working for an ad agency. And imagine that s/he happens to draft an image that comments on the social condition or emotional state of the modern soul, and then their boss successfully pitches that image to a multinational conglomerate to use in a billboard campaign in a PR blitz that re-brands the multinational as a compassionate or socially responsible entity? Does that image, itself, cease to be art?

Just as there is good art and there’s bad art (I’ll get to that in a minute), there’s good advertising and there’s bad advertising. Whereas the worth of an ad, however, is measured in terms of how well it promulgates a sales message, the worth of an art piece is measured according to how well that artifact fulfills some other function. The question, then, become just what that function is. Whether or not the artist or some third party then uses it to achieve some additional goal (such as sales) is completely beside the point.

I remember reading an article by an academic, Roger Scruton, where he argues classical music is the only music that’s art (i.e. fulfills that function, whatever it is). After drawing on an arbitrary selection of philosophical arguments from throughout history (and disregarding many more) that idealize his own musical taste, Scruton argues that our democratic culture has given way to a musical tradition where music is whatever listeners want it to be. “In matter of aesthetic taste,” he wrote, “no adverse judgment is permitted, save judgment of the adverse judge.”

Anti Smoking Help Line Ad -- by Mercury 360, Bucharest, Romania

Now, as much as I disagree with Scruton about the whole only-classical-music-can-be-art thing, I have to give him this much: there is good music and there is bad music, and there is some way to determine what makes music good or bad. More to the point, however, there’s probably some intersection between what’s good music and what’s art.

One of the ideas that Scruton overlooked in idealizing his own musical taste surfaced about 200 years before he lived and, oddly enough, in an Essay on the Origin of Languages. In that essay, Jean-Jacques Rousseau suggests that the first languages were actually song. Essentially, before humans developed a common vocabulary, they communicated through guttural gestures, and when it came to their emotions, they related their feelings by using voice to mimic the movements of their soul. “Man did not begin by reasoning but by feeling,” he wrote.

The function that music fulfills (as an art form), then, is to mimic the movements of our soul – to sound the way we can and sometimes do feel. In other words, music that is art uses the aesthetic to express emotion.

But this ides can be extended to other mediums: art is the aesthetic expression of emotion. The extent to which an artifact (painting, prose, etc.) uses the aesthetic to express emotion, the closer it is to being art – as opposed to just another doodle, hieroglyph, or transcript.

When it comes to advertising, then, even though an ad might leverage the aesthetic expression of emotion to influence our behavior for some other end, that doesn’t make that expression itself any less artistic. What art is and how it is used, after all, are two separate things. Just consider how regimes, throughout history, have perverted or misrepresented art for their own ends. So is there really any reason that art and advertising can’t co-exist in the same space?

One thought on “Artvertising

  1. I like to think art and advertising exist in the same place… Though you made me wonder if the people at Apple realize the song behind their iPod commercial (the one that goes “Music is my girlfriend..”) is actually called “Music is my Hot Hot Sex” by a Brazilian band called CSS…

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