An ad that pretends to be art is — at absolute best — like somebody who smiles warmly at you only because he wants something from you. David Foster Wallace
I recently watched the documentary Eames: The Architect & the Painter. While I had been intrigued by the overwhelming influence of the Eames’ design empire, I didn’t realize the extent to which they were involved in the creation of objects used to influence public opinion – be it through American propaganda to the Soviet Union or the creation of collateral that we now recognize as marketing initiatives (whereas at that time they were considered to be artistic creation and innovation more than anything else).
While Ray and Charles created design and art that would forever change the ideal of an American aesthetic, they were also involved in complex relationships with corporations to produce advertising. While their epic film made for IBM, Powers of Ten, is the most recognizable and most oft cited version of this, their work with the corporate world was much more entrenched than most of us Dwell-crazed millennials realize.
What I took away most from the film was not the great work that this couple created, nor the complexities of their relationship (including the power dynamics associated with 1950s gender roles), but the way in which they artistically advanced advertising in an era that was ripe for being sold to. Marketing, of course, has become more prevalent in society since their time. And, while I would like to blame our consumerist culture on the well-researched manipulations of the creative branding industry, the desire to have what we do not currently possess is a result of a human nature which struggles to find contentment. Likewise, if we are honest with ourselves, the product is oftentimes personal. We sell our education, personalities, abilities. As graduate students we blog, submit to conferences, and create personal websites as means of personal promotion. We sell just as much as we consume.
Ultimately, the subject of the aesthetic value of advertising is far too complex to be fully discussed in this realm, suffice it to say that I find it implausible that art is exempt from the whims that cause us to buy and sell. The product may be an idea but a message is inherently being promoted. Advertising that masquerades as a purely creative endeavor is dishonest, perhaps, but if I had the choice, I’d opt for attractive ads.
Lead image from Creative Commons Flickr user Ergonomik