You're at a party surrounded by black-clad arts admin types. You blurt out that art and advertising are the same thing. For the rest of the evening you're treated like a Frenchman at a Greenpeace weenie roast. But not before being accosted with this argument:
"Successful" art and advertising may share, as a characteristic, the achievement of human contact, but it is here that the similarities between the two end.
The difference is in fact so profound that I'll have to recruit some important thinkers to my argument. You probably haven't heard of them, but still …
Essentially what drives the sharpest wedge between art and advertising is motivation. Art moves mind and soul; ads, using many of the same techniques, move product. "Real" art doesn't sully itself with material concerns. Rather it unites us with a transcendent emotion.
James Joyce argued in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man that pity and terror are important components of this transcendent or aesthetic emotion.
Pity he says, is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human suffering and unites it with the human sufferer. Terror is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human suffering and unites it with the secret cause.
By using the word arrest, Joyce means that this kind of emotion is "static": the mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing. Desire urges us to possess, to go to something; loathing urges us to abandon, or go from something. The arts which excite these "kinetic" emotions (the pornographic or didactic, as he puts it), are therefore improper arts. Advertising is then improper art!
Marshall McLuhan, although claiming that advertisements are the single most rewarding source of information about a society, and are "the greatest art form in human history," clearly supports my sharp distinction between true art, which, he says, enhances human perception and reveals the essential features of the contemporary environment, and advertising, which merely merges "individual and environment to intensify and repeat the hypnotic of that environment." In other words, advertising is great only in the resourcefulness with which it induces certain states of mind.
And another thing, advertising is conventional. While true art rejects, or at least lives outside, all convention, advertising writ large is the quintessential expression of capitalist convention. While advertisements, relative to each other, do of course strive for unconventionality, no matter how clutter-cutting they may be, they're still within the "kinetic" emotional envelop.
So there! Go sit in the corner you uni-dimensional philistine. '
What to say, aside from "oh yea?" Try this:
Not content with inspiring simply one "emotion," today's leading advertisers are this century's true artists. They are the true experimenters, the true envelop pushers. They've come closest to wedding the "un-wedable": eliciting a bona fide, isolated, static emotional response, while at the same time setting off long-fused kinetic fireworks. Benetton's work offers a great example.
It's full of energy, contradiction and confusion. It mixes sullied and unsullied motives; suffering and commerce; journalism, art and advertising; reportage and fashion; and static and kinetic emotions; Now that's exciting, creative and unconventional. So what if it makes money for its "patron". True artists don't have to be like you, mired in misery, poverty, and self-absorption.
Of course advertising is art. One can gaze as literary historian Leo Spitzer observed, "with disinterested enjoyment" at an ad, without believing a word it says. In fact, many ads are more successful aesthetically than they are commercially.
And by the way, guess what Leopold Bloom (who, no less of an authority than biographer Richard Ellmann claims, is a depiction of James Joyce himself) the protagonist in Ulysses, does for a living? He's an advertising salesman.