Advertisments as art?

Ad picture for chocolate

Ad for the Ambassador's new favourite

My wikipedia-derived definition of photographs as art says, that they must be the result of deliberately arranging elements, in a way to affect the senses or emotions. How does that sit with advertising shots? Well, most advertising photos are the result of very clever people spending a lot of time and money, arranging everything in such a way as to maximise the impact of the shot. They want the image to speak to our senses (yummie, that chocolate looks sooo good… I must rush out and buy some of it right now!) as well as to our emotions (it’s golden, it’s warm, it makes me happy, and if I give it to someone, it will make them happy, and they will love me, and I’ll be lucky tonight). So going by that definition, ads are definitely works of art.

This sounds counter intuitive, at least to me. Ads are the epitome of commercialism, produced to a very specific brief, and their single raison d’etre is to make money for the manufacturer. How can something so crass be art?

Many of us have this mental image of an artist being someone who lives in a (North facing) loft or studio appartment, spending their time focusing on the quality of the light through the skylight window. They always manage to find money for paint and canvasses, and they’d starve rather than not being able to paint. They feel passionately and at a level we mere mortals don’t understand. If they get upset, they’ll cut off their ear just to spite their face – just see what happened to Vincent!

Puddle of water shaped like a bottle, with a "fancy" label affixed

Ad for bottled water

I think, at least in bygone eras, “becoming an artist” was something you would only do if you really, really (really!) was filled with a burning desire to live only with a paintbrush in your hand (or a violin or a sculptor’s hammer or…) Nowadays, on the other hand, I’m not so sure. With art schools being places even sensible parents send their offspring to get the start of a good career, some of the starving artist image has disappeared and been replaced with the idea of artist being simply a profession. Was it Einstein who said that genuis is 10% inspiration and 90% persperation, and just like you can go to school and learn how to do heart transplants, or plumbing, or burger-flipping, you can also go to school and learn how to be an artist.

Or maybe it’s the image that is wrong. Maybe the sistine chapel would forever had had  a plain, white ceiling if Michelangelo’s dad had managed to hold on to the family business, and get junior started as a banker. Maybe good artists have always been attracted to rich people willing to pay them. Maybe even classical artists sold their skills to the highest bidder.  After all, wasn’t that what patronage was all about?

If we accept that even artists need to eat, and that they therefore have to make money somehow, is there still a conflict between creating a piece of art and creating a commercial ad?

Stained glass mosaics from Canterbury Cathedral

Religious art - an add for the Church?

Is religious art not always an ad for God and the church (or, in general terms, for a deity and an organisation promoting belief in the deity)? Are gold leaf painted domes and sculptures of Jesus dying on the cross not created solely for the purpose of selling religion, either by instilling awe, humility or despair in the viewer?

What about “art for art’s sake”? Is it possible for art to be created without any thought of money? Well, yes. If the artist is wealthy or has other means of income.

Is it possible to create art without any thought of how it affects the viewer? I don’t think so. Even works of art which don’t appeal to the public at large, have been created with an intended impact on senses or emotions of viewers – it’s just that the artist has focused somewhat narrowly on which viewers to affect.

I’m not at all certain on which conclusions to draw from this discussion, but my current thinking is that artists are in the business of impacting senses or emotions, and that ad-makers are simply taking this aim to its natural conclusion. So ads are definitely works of art (even if you maybe wouldn’t hang them in a museum), and the more effective they are at selling, the more effective they are as artworks.

What do you think?

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