Advertising and Art

Is advertising art? Whatever it is, it’s the nearest thing under capitalism to creative adornment of public spaces, even if it reflects capitalism’s buying and selling ethos.

Advertising “is” pornography. When we say that advertising is pornography we are not in any way making a moral point. We’re making a point about the etymology of the word.

According to the Oxford Concise Dictionary, the word “pornography” derives from the Greek word pornographos, itself deriving from the words porne and grapho, “prostitute” and “write” respectively. Prostituted writing. Or, as it is often colloquially translated (and so generalising it a little more), “whore art”. As the word is most commonly used, pornography obviously relates the notion of prostitution to sexuality. But it could also be interpreted as simply denoting the sale or hiring out of a person’s body (including, of course, the brain), by themselves, “willingly” for material reward. Under this definition, any worker could be described as a prostitute and the prostitute becomes just another kind of worker. It is, in fact, only for historical reasons, both ideological and material, that a special, moralistic, case is made of sexuality and therefore that prostitutes receive special (or any) approbation.

Hired writers
Artists are also, of course, workers (at least until, if they’re very lucky, they amass enough wealth so as to be able to work just for their own pleasure), as are “creatives” in advertising firms. This is quite an important point as regards the question of differences and similarities between advertising and art. The artist does not “create” from nothing, and nor does he or she proceed from some “divine” inspiration, as much of the dominant ideology of art would continue to have us believe. The artist is rather a worker producing art out of various raw materials, including previously existing systems of meaning, and in specific historical and social, which is to say material, conditions. It might also be said that artists are experimenters in the general area of culture and concepts, akin to philosophers and scientists. This is not to say that the artist doesn’t have special abilities, honed over a long period, that it would be difficult or impossible for the rest of us to mimic; but then so does a surgeon, an engineer or a skilled plasterer. And, most pertinently in this context, so most certainly does an advertising creative. But what is also important for our context, and for differentiating art from advertising, is the analogy between art and science, the concept of art as an experimental process, that requires the exercise of the imagination to transcend the simple given fact of the pre-existing materials.

It seems possible to argue that advertising, in the context of contemporary capitalism, actually is art, and a very popular art at that. Our cities might well “look pretty dead” if all adverts were to be suddenly removed. Many adverts are clever, amusing, even at times beautiful. The Marlboro adverts of a couple of years ago, for example, featuring black and white photographs of American landscapes and cityscapes, splashed with a touch of red to signify the brand (when allied to the health warning across the base of the image, utilised to signify the product), were considered by many to have a certain beauty that we might call “artistic”. Adverts also quite often make use of the most sophisticated techniques of modernist art, both in still images and in television or cinema advertising; this is, of course, quite interesting in itself given the popular comprehension, and even hostility, that they are often subject to when they are labelled “art”. This is connected to a certain ideological élitism, and an ideological reverence, that continues to surround artistic appreciation, tending to incite an anti-art backlash from those who are, culturally or educationally, largely excluded (supposedly) from such appreciation.

There are, in fact, those working in advertising, such as Tony Kaye, who produced the surrealist television adverts for Pirelli tyres, who have explicitly claimed artistic status for their work. There are also people working in fields that are recognised as “authentic” art who have previously worked in advertising. Salman Rushdie, for example, worked as writer for an advertising agency and came up with the cream cake slogan “naughty but nice”, while Alan Parker, who has directed films such as The Commitments and Mississippi Burning, recently said in an interview with Jeremy Isaacs that he always considered advertising to be a “new art form” when he worked in the industry. Even when advertising was less sophisticated than at present there were well known instances of “cross-over” between art and advertising, such as W.H. Auden’s writing and reciting the text for the Post Office’s Night Mail advert in the 1930s, or further back, the art-nouveau posters of the late nineteenth century, the most celebrated of which were Toulose-Lautrec’s posters for Parisian nightclubs such as the Moulin Rouge. On the other hand art, in its turn, often makes use of materials and forms more usually associated with advertising, the Pop Art produced by Andy Warhol and others being the most obvious example.

So it seems advertising may have a certain aesthetic interest or artistic value; what then, if any, are the differences between art and advertising?


Caught up in the market
Both advertising and art are caught up in capitalist markets to some extent. This is an obvious fact given the fact that we are all necessarily caught up in the capitalist system whether we like it or not. But given this, and for all that the boundaries between art and advertising are blurred or semi-erased, there are at least two important differences.


Firstly, advertising is always and necessarily produced for the sake of the market, while art is, at least on occasion if not for the most part (the extent is debatable), produced before the explicit intervention of the market.


Secondly, advertising sets in place an ossification of concepts, promoting clichés of thought, perception and even aesthetics that are essentially ideologically (and so politically) conservative. It is even used, in fact, to implicitly encourage and promote commodity fetishism.


We are now approaching the sense in which advertising can be said to be pornography; the second difference outlined above is in a sense a consequence of the first. Where art is produced and then (the artist hopes) sold, advertising is sold and then produced, an important point since it means that the advert must conform to capitalist requirements in itself. Art, on the other hand, is not necessarily affected by such requirements, even though the individual artist may be tempted for the sake of relative financial security to tailor his or her work to them. If they do so, though, the work produced may often be the poorer for it, as the many examples of great art that has been unappreciated by the markets of its time (such as the work of Van Gogh or Stravinsky) would seem to indicate. What would have been the results if they had simply churned out what the markets were demanding?


Turning briefly to the cultural and aesthetic policies of Stalinism, we can see that the so-called “Socialist Realism” (which was neither socialist or particularly realistic, in that such works primarily presented fantasies of the Stalinist “utopia”) produced according to state diktat largely amounted to simple advertising for the state (the same applies to Fascist art) and its ideologies. We can see in this context how Leninist state capitalism is precisely that, with the state not only acting as the principal market (though a market nonetheless) for art but also dictating, on pain of the destruction of work and texts or even the imposition of judicial penalties on artists, exactly what that art must be, in both form and content.


In a truly socialist world, the freedom of the artist would be promoted rather than diminished by the abolition of both the market and the state. Not only would those who would in any case work in the areas of art find their freedom increased, but the absolute redundancy of the entire advertising industry would release the enormous wealth of talent currently tied up there. As for whether or not advertising “adds to the action” in our cities, there seems little doubt that it does—but in a socialist society advertising could be replaced by art of the highest standards, with local people deciding democratically which art is placed in which public spaces. On the other hand, galleries could continue to provide space for those works that might be unappreciated by the majority in their own time but which are of possible long-term historical, aesthetic and cultural worth. As in perhaps every other area of human existence, the end of the reign of capital and the capitalists would see the beginning of the reign of freedom and the consequent burgeoning of invention, imagination and creativity.


Jonathan Clay