Can something as commercial as advertising be considered art?

In this guest posting, Peter Biggs wonders whether the Nike swoosh belongs in the Louvre.

Advertising and art are subjective worlds: what is beautiful to one is ugly to another, or what’s genius on the one hand is stupidity on the other. I mean, the Mona Lisa isn’t exactly a hottie, is she? And the idea of a clown and a petty thief endorsing fast food seems ludicrous, right?

But are these worlds actually more closely linked than we believe they are? That’s the aim behind the Youngbloods’ Great Debate – to discuss the question: “Can something as commercial as advertising be considered art?”

Does the Nike swoosh and ‘Just do it’ belong in the Louvre, as a work of art? Are you sure there’s no commercial puppeteer behind Andy Warhol’s famous painting of Campbell’s soup?

As the adjudicator of the debate, I’ve somehow got to keep some of the most well-respected and intelligent minds honest and on-point. Shameless cheap shots, mudslinging and good ol’ fashioned argy bargy, should remain at the door… well, mostly.

David Ponce de Leon, Dave Callan and Ken Taylor are arguing in the affirmative. Is their argument that brands are artists too? Art is diverse. A painting, a sculpture, a piece of music, a play – all of these you could consider works of art. The common thread is they’re all born from an artist’s desire to express themselves, to show who they are as a person. If people like it, they might buy it, or just appreciate it – be a fan.

Who’s to say the ‘artist’ can’t be a brand and their ‘works’ be the communications they produce? After all, isn’t this brand just expressing who they are? ‘The crazy ones’ TV spot from Apple in 1997 is poetry and was as profound as it was obvious – a work of art.

Let’s not forget that advertising posters from the 1950s and 60s are now becoming staples in cafes, bars, homes and businesses. They’re not hanging to sell product, but to create a mood and atmosphere. Or, you could argue, as art.

But Sean Cummins, Fysh Rutherford and Erin Gallagher will argue completely the opposite.  Is the difference that advertising has an agenda, a clear reason for being – to sell something to someone? So much thought is meticulously crafted around where to place it, what you say, how you say it, who says it – all to seduce or convince someone to buy their product. Art is pure, the thoughts and feelings of a man or woman displayed for others to appreciate on their own terms. Sure some gets sold. But you buy part of someone, not a Whirlpool 7lt washing machine.

They could argue if you’re interested in art, you’ll make a conscious decision to go and see it for yourself. Head to a gallery, go and see a show, a concert or a movie. It’s your choice. Advertising tries to find ways to infiltrate all of those pure forms of art, desperately trying to distract you from what you’re actually wanting to do with free cans of Monster energy drink, hair regrowth treatments or the latest European styled/Korean built car. How do they belong in the same breath?

Or is art now as commercial as advertising, it’s just more subtle about it?

Well, we’re about to find out. As an advertising guy, who is also a passionate supporter of the arts, I’m looking forward to tomorrow night’s The Great Debate at the Gipps Street Gallery in Melbourne.

Peter Biggs is CEO of Clemenger BBDO and Clemenger Proximity Melbourne and adjudicator of the Youngbloods’ Great Debate


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