I was reading an essay by David Foster Wallace for my Creative Nonfiction Writing class recently, and I came across a passage in which he argued that advertisements could not be passed off as art. "An ad that pretends to be art is--at best--like somebody who smiles at you only because he wants something from you," says Wallace*.
Now here's the part where I disagree. I think Mr. Wallace's generalization is a bit hasty. I know I've seen plenty of ads that struck me as artistic, regardless of their motives. According to Google, the definition of 'art' is "the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture." I don't know why, but I expected it to be trickier than that. In classes I've been in before, the teacher is always like blahblahblahblahit'shardtodefinewhatartactuallyisblahblah... But trust Google to give it to you plain and simple. (By the way, happy birthday, Google. 14 years old today.)
Anyway, according to that definition, it doesn't matter what the intent of the piece is, as long it is creative expression. I don't know about you, but when I see an artistic advertisement, I'm relieved--not insulted--that not all commercials look like Insight Cable. You know what I mean?
Granted, Wallace was talking more about an essay he read that was really just a sell-out endorsement of a cruise line. But if it's well-written and entertaining, does it really matter that it's trying to get you to spend your money on a luxury cruise?
Here are some examples of ads that I consider artistic, regardless of intent:
1. These billboards/signs. http://designyoutrust.com/2011/11/creative-billboard-advertisements-of-2011/ I especially like the one at the beach, although I'm not sure what it's advertising. Also, the Denver Water billboard is not only advertising a company and looking pretty, it is also making a statement about living within your means.
2. The Coke ad that restores your faith in humanity. I'm sure you've all seen it. But really, do you think this is just "smiling at you because it wants something?" I think it's doing something a bit more noble than that.
Anyway, the point of this post isn't to slam down David Foster Wallace's point, by any means. There are circumstances in which people are just sell-outs. But there are also circumstances in which a one-minute commercial can be more artistic than a two-hour movie. It's all just a matter of how you look at things.
So what do you guys think? Can advertisements be considered art? What are some of your favorite artistic ads? How do you define art, and does it even matter? Let me know in the comments!
*"Shipping Out," Harper's Magazine, January 1996, p. 43