Whenever I see graffiti used in advertising, like in a recent Coca-Cola ad, it makes me laugh. Graffiti is supposed to be worthless, or maybe even less than worthless as far as people who think it brings down property values are concerned. And then advertising comes along and uses graffiti to make money, and presto, it’s worth something, at least as long as it’s being used to push a product. If it’s advertising of course it’s not technically graffiti, it’s just advertising that’s made to look like graffiti. It’s masquerading as graffiti, but to me the lines there get kind of blurry. Is advertising any less of an art form than art? Let’s consider that from a few different perspectives, starting with Bill Hicks, the ultimate artistic purist who famously said, “Do a commercial, you’re off the artistic roll call.” And there’s long been criticism of product placement in movies. A 2016 post over at Assholes Watching Movies considered the myriad forms that’s taken, and if you want to go even further back the June 11, 1990 issue of Time had a backpage essay by y called “These Foolish Things Remind Me Of Diet Coke” that imagined product placement in everything from Shakespeare to the Bible, and also the Eric Maschwitz and music by Jack Strachey standard that’s been covered by everyone from Billie Holiday to Bryan Ferry, but that’s another story.
At the other end of the spectrum artists have been singing for their suppers probably as long as there’s been art. Going way back the Greek poet Pindar (c.522–c.443 BC) would write lyric celebrations of anyone who paid him. The more money you gave him the longer your poem would be, and yet now he’s regarded as a great artist and his poems are hated by students of the classics because his Greek is so damn hard to translate.
And more recently selling out isn’t necessarily seen as a bad thing. Artists have gotta make a living after all. Some artists have even raised seeking fame and fortune to an art form in itself, primarily Andy Warhol, who the critic Robert Hughes said, “went after publicity with the voracious singlemindedness of a feeding bluefish”, a sharp contrast to earlier artists who were usually surprised to find themselves the subject of any public attention. And to quote another comedian, Steve Martin said,
I love money. I love everything about it. I bought some pretty good stuff. Got me a $300 pair of socks. Got a fur sink. An electric dog polisher. A gasoline powered turtleneck sweater. And, of course, I bought some dumb stuff, too.
In fact it’s a fairly recent notion, traceable to the Romantic period, that artists are beholden only to themselves and their principles. Where did this idea come from? Probably at least in part due to the rise of advertising. Art is a refuge from a world that wants us to consume, or is it? I’m not talking about the price of a painting or even a song download. I’m talking about something much more abstract. If you buy into the idea that art–any art–means something, that it conveys an idea, a message, then it is trying to sell you something. The difference is that good art isn’t going to push a specific principle or idea. Instead of telling you what to think good art gives you a range of perspectives and treats an idea with enough ambiguity that you’re left to make up your own mind.
At least that’s my opinion, for what it’s worth.