by Heather A. Fraser.
I don't care for debates. The ancient Greeks found debating a source
of high-minded entertainment, as do many people today. In a war of wit and
rhetoric, each debater is determined to beat the other into intellectual
pulp: Kennedy vs. Nixon; Bouchard vs. Chretien. Inevitably, however, this
excellent exchange and defense of ideas ends in some messy mud slinging:
SPLATT, you're a bald faced liar; GUSHH, you've got a soft head on top of
your skinny red neck. For me, it is easier to watch George Kastanza constantly
break the rules of accepted social conduct and get caught (and he always
gets caught) than it is to experience a debate.
So, when I was recently challenged to take a side in a debate over whether advertising is or is not art, I was not greatly thrilled. After some consideration, however, I agreed to debate a few points over the phone with a faceless opponent for this live CBC TV program. At least, if the debate became really unpleasant I could hang up and get back to work relatively unscathed.
So, I asked myself, is advertising art? Yes, I concluded, I believe that our "modern" advertising is art for two main reasons: 1) the line separating art from advertising has already been broken -- by Pop Art; and 2) denegrating advertising by calling it non-art or low art simply smacks of fear which suggests to me that defenders of high art have more at stake than upholding purity.
At the heart of Pop Art was the transformation of mass culture, including advertising, into high art: soup can paintings by Andy Warhol; magazine ad collages by Richard Hamilton; comic strip paintings by Roy Lichtenstein. And yet, the line separating fine art from advertising continues to be drawn. For example, Andy Warhol's place in art history is contested. Barbara Rose called Warhol the Mary Magdalene of art history. She suggested in a 1970 review, that his art was trash and that he had sold himself to the public for fame and money. On the other hand, many critics contend that Warhol actually expanded the definition of what art could be.
At the centre of the question "is advertising art?", it seems to me, is the ever tiresome high art vs. low art debate. As the debate goes, low art belongs to mass culture and it consists largely (but not wholly) of advertising: music videos; reproductions of high art (Impressionist paintings) to advertising carpet or allergy pills; Mona Lisa's smile to advertise toothpaste. Even portraiture is considered a form of advertising -- of the power and status of the sitter. We might call this ubiquitous low art, advertising, or any symbolic image/object that appeals to the tastes of the general public, "mass art". High art, on the other hand, is considered the unique domain of the visual artist and other intellectual, elite people.
This debate over whether art is high or low, for the intellectual or for the rabble, has had a strangely paralysing effect on many Canadian artists today -- more specifically, on their ability to earn a living from their art.
A good example of this paralysing effect: Canadian abstract painter Ron Bloore said in a recent interview with Art Business that he could make good money if he produced portraits but he would not consider it because it would be "dishonest". He would rather not make money at art than paint portraits.
Many artists avoid producing anything that appeals to the average Joe. It is a familiar dilemma which an artist may face: if his artwork sells too well, he will be accused by his peers of catering to the masses, of selling out (whether he thinks he has or not). Picasso and Monet (see the Bank for Monet's story) both had this experience.
Why do we defend high art and denegrate mass art and advertising? For those who defend the line between the two, there is a lot at stake: careers; power; money for art museums, art service organisations, granting agencies, etc. Artists, on the other hand have very little to gain by defending high art. In fact, I think they lose out, big time.
By accepting that advertising is art, I can see an improvement in economic conditions in the visual arts. It opens doors not only on what art can be (considering Warhol) but also, it opens doors on a new enormous market, the mass market. Accepting that advertising is art, however, causes us to rethink the role of the artist in society as well as the concept of the original -- which is another discussion entirely and one that begins with the origins of the intellectual status of the visual arts 600 years ago in Renaissance Italy.
But, I was running out of time, the debate was only a couple of hours away. In preparation for the 12 noon phone call from the producer of the CBC show, I pondered my notes, anticipated what might be said in the debate including how I would respond to being called a cultural barbarian. By 11:55 am, I was ready for battle. Not too much coffee, water at the ready for a dry throat, kleenex just in case, pen in hand. 12:15 pm, and the phone still had not rung. By 12:30, I was just ticked off. At 1:05 , I phoned the producer: he had left my number in his office and was unable to leave while the show was on air.
Perhaps I should call Jerry Seinfeld and see if I have the makings of another episode: George and Newman square off over whether Warhol's paintings are fine art or adverising but George gets trapped in a long line-up at the A&P while attempting to borrow a shopping cart full of soup cans to prove his point.