A response to a question I received on Tumblr, which was “Isn’t there an argument that advertising is a higher form of art?”
This is a very interesting question! In order to answer it properly, I have to draw on my background as a former art student and my current interest in philosophy and political economy. Having taken three semesters of art history but no formal aesthetics or media studies classes, I must piece together an answer from my basic familiarity with contemporary art and understanding of postmodernism and critical theory. Let me say from the outset that both “high” and “low” art have a lot to tell us about society.
Obviously, when one thinks of advertising and high art, names like Andy Warhol, Richard Hamilton, and Eduardo Paolozzi spring to mind. The innovators in pop art, they made their success by appropriating mass media and bending elements of advertising to support their message. It has been interpreted as both a forerunner and early stage of postmodern art. In the case of artists active in Britain during pop art’s early stages like Paolozzi and Hamilton, we can see their efforts as a celebration of the consumerist ideal:
Richard Hamilton, Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?, 1956
If we interpret this as an early stage of postmodernism we can easily see the critique of the postmodern condition that would later be argued by thinkers like Fredric Jameson and David Harvey: that it arises from the contradictions of capitalist society. Despite my aesthetic appreciation for pop art, I’m inclined to agree. In the case of early artists like Hamilton and Paolozzi, they do little more than celebrate the surface appearance of what Guy Debord called “the society of the spectacle.” It is, quite plainly, commodity fetishism presented as high art.
James Rosenquist, F-111, 1965
In the case of later, American pop artists we see a difference in tone. In this piece Rosenquist observes the dual basis of the capitalist economy: widespread consumerism through mass media and the military-industrial complex. This is a much better piece, in my opinion. Rosenquist makes a serious effort to engage critically with the American society of his time. While he uses the outward appearances of the objects, he juxtaposes them in a direct manner, challenging the viewer to question the assumptions upon which their society relies.
But this is getting a bit tangential to the original question. I believe you were interested in advertising itself, not its appropriation by artists. In that regard, I would say it certainly has been argued by postmodernists (based largely on rejections of objectivity and appeals to particularity) that advertising in contemporary society can and does transcend its origins as a means of selling a consumer product to become high art.
Takashi Murakami, Eye Love Superflat, 2004
I don’t agree with it. Being a part of the capital process, advertising has immense value to the corporate class, and if they can justify its further embedding in society by passing it off as the occasional work of high art, they will certainly do it. It leaves a particularly bad taste in my mouth because culture has been commodified and then the new commodity form is fetishized through its presentation as high art. We can see this above in the celebrated work of Murakami, wherein a commissioned advertisement for Louis Vuitton was presented as an intellectually challenging work.
This isn’t to say we can’t appreciate the aesthetic choices of those who work in advertising or the work of those like Murakami. I think his aesthetic choices wholly support his message, but his work lacks the critical element which I believe to be a necessary condition for high art. We can obviously analyze these works through the lens of critical theory to gain valuable insights into contemporary society, but the possibility for this analysis is not the only precondition for something being considered “a higher form of art.”
Mariko Mori, Play With Me, 1994
Murakami’s contemporary Mori uses similar elements in her work, but does so in pursuit of different ends. She uses popular culure and everyday life to comment on the role of women in Japanese society. It’s this critical element, in my opinion, that sets the two apart- but the critical element need not be a commentary on society. An artist can turn their critical eye towards religious, epistemological, phenomenological, or aesthetic questions just as successfully without engaging directly with larger society. If an artist focuses their creative efforts on the commodity form of advertising, they will never be able to explore these questions at anything more than the most basic level.