Half in love with advertising - but is it art?

REMEMBER summer vacation? For me it used to be poky, back-porch time between graduation and the arrival of sweet corn. That was then; this is now. At many institutions of higher learning, summer vacation has been replaced by the vaguely ominous Summer Research Period, which means that if you're occupying the porch swing, you'd better be thinking about something Significant. If anyone asks, I'm thinking about commodity aesthetics. Come again? Commodity aesthetics, broadly speaking, is the language and imagery of advertising. The occasion is Robert A. Sobieszek's The Art of Persuasion: A History of Advertising Photography (Harry N. Abrams, New York, 208 pp., $40), which is half in love with its subject - just like the rest of us.

But half in love is not full-tilt boogie. Most of us share Sobieszek's suspicion of the beloved's interest in money and are ambivalent about advertising photography's aspiration to be art.

At its best - and worst - advertising imagery makes us uneasy. It gives form to a collective ideal of uncomplicated happiness embarrassing to countenance. I have often suspected that when Vance Packard's ``The Hidden Persuaders'' was banned from libraries in the late 1950s, its racy sections served as a convenient excuse to sequester the book's revelation of advertising's intimate knowledge of mental life.

The average consumer now encounters 1,600 ads per day. However sophisticated we are, that daily stroboscopic bombardment must influence us in some way. But in what way.

Speculation on advertising's effects, once a bit unseemly in academia, is now a respectable component of art and literature courses. Academic study of advertising imagery expanded with advertising itself, during the heady optimistic postwar period. In his seminal work, ``Art and Illusion,'' based on lectures delivered at the National Gallery in Washington in 1956, E.H. Gombrich ingeniously coupled his discussion of Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Constable with an investigation of advertising posters.

Gombrich knew his audience. The hold of high art on the first television generation was seriously weakened. Mass culture became grist for many a mill. TV watchers switched back and forth, from Tolstoy's Prince Andrey and Natasha to Rocky and Bullwinkle. People applauded Andy Warhol's Campell's soup cans. High culture was not overthrown, but it had to share power with Pop. The French critic Roland Barthes began deconstructing fashion and wrestling; he painstakingly unraveled an ad for Panzani pasta and tomato sauce in his 1964 essay, ``Rhetoric of the Image.''

The arts have been less reluctant than academia to come to terms with commodity aesthetics. In 1922, Edmund Wilson wrote that the electric signs on Times Square were more exhilerating and inventive than contemporary Dada art. A few years later, Aldous Huxley penned his short essay titled ``Advertising,'' which ironically acknowledged the strengths of advertising's highly condensed prose. Throughout the 1920s and early '30s, artists of stature on both sides of the Atlantic and in Japan took up the visual problems advertising presents. Even Calvin Coolidge took notice.

The fact that contemporary artists like J.G. Ballard, Victor Burgin, and Barbara Kruger have, for widely varying reasons, chosen to phrase their work in the language of advertising underscores the continuing intellectual appeal of commodity aesthetics.

But is advertising art? The people who make ads have frequently made that claim, only to be told that advertising is too commercial. Yet ever since Giotto drew a perfect circle to garner the patronage of Pope Benedict IX, artists have been making images for a livelihood.

More than 50 years ago, in his eloquent plea for establishing the Film Library at the Museum of Modern Art, cultural historian and movie maven Erwin Panofsky put the case bluntly: ``If commercial art ... [is] defined as all art not primarily produced in order to gratify the creative urge of its maker but primarily intended to meet the requirements of a patron or a buying public, it must be said that non-commercial art is the exception rather than the rule....''

The acceptance of advertising as art involves some tender topics. Does advertising become art when it is effective, or when it is inventive? Who is the author/artist of an ad? If credit for an opera is given principally to the composer, rather than the librettist or the singers, and credit for a film is given principally to the director, not the scriptwriter or the actors, then who should get credit for an ad? The photographer? The copywriter? The creative director?

In his book The Aesthetic Experience: An Anthropologist Looks at the Visual Arts (Yale University Press, New Haven, 272 pp. $17.95, recently published in paperback), Jacques Maquet offers a tantalizing forecast. He proposes that what he calls the aesthetic locus of art, the place where a culture expects to find the aesthetic experience, is shifting in the industrially advanced societies. ``It is the time of the fading out of art,'' he writes, meaning that aesthetic appreciation is moving beyond pure art objects.

Maquet outlines a long-term shift, not an abrupt rupture with tradition. He does not guess where the aesthetic locus will alight. One possibility is that the aesthetic is not so much shifting as broadening to include more functional works and the collaborative efforts of groups. The change would give increased status to architecture, film, and all the design arts. But the engine of such a change, and its main beneficiary, would be advertising.

Mary Warner Marien teaches in the Fine Arts Department at Syracuse University.

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