Can advertising be art?

Don Draper seems to think so. If you’re familiar with TV’s “Mad Men” — the second half of its final season begins airing in April — you know that one of the central conceits of the show’s plot is sparked when Don, the protagonist, has his artistic integrity challenged or questioned by uninitiated, small-minded clients. With a little foresight you can ask this question, about ads and art, and see another, larger one looming behind it: What Is Art? It’s a question that has been known to cause the skin of critics and plebeians alike to crawl. It doesn’t have a correct answer, because it isn’t possible to speak objectively about a subjective concept. And yet we all feel pretty comfortable with the notion that some things are art and some things are not. It’s just that, for the most part, we’d rather let someone else make the call.

But let’s, if only this once, make a decision. Let’s settle the question right here and now: Can advertising be art?

For starters, Dwayne W. Waite, Jr. at talentzoo makes a compelling case that, no, it can’t be.

Waite’s argument is based on a handful of basic elements which he argues are limited by the nature of advertising. They are expression, purpose, persuasion, and interpretation. Because of the way advertising limits these principles (for instance interpretation is limited in advertising-related artwork because its core function is convincing people to buy products), Waite says that advertising can’t truly be artwork; it simply isn’t free to do or be or say the things that art can.

And yet, there are numerous counter-examples. You’d be hard-pressed to find an art historian who doesn’t consider Henri de Toulouse Lautrec’s work art, and yet one of his most famous pieces was a flier for Jane Avril, a cabaret dancer in Montmartre.

Given this example we are faced with two questions: does authorial intent affect whether a thing is art or not? And, more answer-ably, can the passing of time transmute an advertisement into art?

The first question is the subject of unending debate in critical theory.

People can and have written books on the subject. Where advertising is concerned, the question is a bit more specific. In his argument, Waite asserts that part of what precludes advertising from being art is the way it limits the artist’s expression, and that it is created with the sole purpose of moving units in mind. So Lautrec’s artwork actually presents an interesting case study, because the subjects and aesthetics of his proper art were not significantly different from the pictures he made for advertisements. All in all, the man seems to have been very keen on drawing and painting entertainers in Paris’s old red-light district, and the fact that the subjects of some of his paintings paralleled his fliers provides some evidence that his expression wasn’t limited by the medium of advertising.

Of course, there are some logistical constraints that must be taken into consideration, such as the typography and information that was necessary to include on the fliers (after all, Lautrec couldn’t very well just post one of his paintings and expect people to draw their own conclusions about the details of the event it was advertising). But at the very least it seems like there are cases in which the artist is not asked to limit his or her own self-expression just because they are producing an ad. It seems that if the product being advertised is something the artist has a passionate interest in to begin with, the doorway cracks open just a little way to let in some artistic light.

As to the question of time passing and making what was once mundane or grotesque into something of artistic value: the answer seems to clearly be yes.

Otherwise, why would suits of armor and (relatively) run-of-the-mill Grecian urns be kept in the Louvre? Of course, the detail and craftsmanship on each is fascinating, and artifacts like these give us insight into the societies they were created in. But certainly neither suits of armor nor urns were considered high art in their day. At best, they could be considered applied art, notable mainly for their high level of craftsmanship. This is how many choose to view advertising. Certainly ads can be aesthetically striking, emotionally moving, or otherwise significant in ways similar to art. But does their nature really limit them from ever crossing the threshold?

With advertising, again, there are special circumstances to consider.

After a certain amount of years go by, the product they are seeking to advertise becomes removed from the question, so that an observer can be more objective about the quality of the art itself. That is, since none of us will ever have a chance to attend the parties Lautrec’s fliers advertise, it almost doesn’t matter that they are event fliers. We are able to examine them solely as works of art, because the thing they were meant to promote has long since passed out of existence, and the flier survives only because it has been deemed of some quality or importance.

Of course, most advertising doesn’t even aspire to be art. The typical ad employs overtly persuasive tactics in order to directly convert the viewer into a consumer. What does that tell us about ads that do feel more artistic? Are we just witnessing the muted expression of the artistically-stunted creatives who made it? Or is something more sinister at work? Are advertisers attempting to play a more deeply psychological game by appealing to our subliminal aesthetic tastes? By attempting to achieve the same level resonance that art is able to, perhaps advertisers feel they can create a more deeply embedded connection between consumer and product.

Personally, I tend to agree with Waite’s assessment. All ads are indelibly tethered to their basic purpose, and that fact pervades the object at every level, not ceasing even with the passage of time because, ultimately, it would not have been created except as a means of promotion. What’s more, most ads must be approved and agreed upon by a client, or someone who makes decisions on behalf of the product’s brand. It is less a question of authorial intent and more a question of the object’s origin. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing when ads buffet up against the threshold of artwork. I would still rather watch a beautiful ad than a boring one. And frankly I’m more likely to support a company with interesting, well-made ads. So I suppose the trick is working on me.

But that’s just my opinion. I’m more interested in what you think. Meet me in the comments and let’s settle this question once and for all.

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