It’s not subliminal, it’s sublime: Art as Advertising Part 1

Art and advertising have always shared a close relationship. So why do people still carry notions of a distinction between the two? Perhaps the two most common ways to draw lines between advertising and art are:

1. That ads are made with psychologically malicious intent (i.e. to get us to buy something we don’t want) while art is the pure expression of some starving sod (i.e. it’s art and we love it because–paradoxically–the artist is so profound s/he doesn’t care what we think)*.
2. Similarly, ad people do it ‘selfishly’ for money while artists do it for the ‘goodness’ of self expression.

Reframed, and to show there’s no real class bias at work here, one might also see the two this way:

1. Art is the useless output of decadents who are happy beat one another off and contribute nothing of real value while advertising, though little better, at least attempts to perform the service of selling the products which define our prosperity.
2. Similarly, ad people do it for the ‘goodness’ of money while artists do it ‘selfishly’ for themselves.

To all of which I say BULLSHIT.

From the earliest epics to the Pompeian murals to the Sistine Chapel to Andy Warhol art has always served to sell the artist and those who buy his/her output, and art has almost always been created in the hopes of monetary remuneration. In this four-parter I will explain how the moralists who seek to frame advertising as art’s evil twin often end up with two definitions for the same thing. I will do this by showing how historically all known ‘art’ is really actually advertising before concluding with an argument for why no artist can help being an advertiser.

In the next section I will redefine (or use an alternative paradigm because somebody out there has got to have thought of this first) art and advertising in simple, pragmatic terms so that when people converse about the two they don’t have to snort at either of them.

I don’t doubt the two are still going to cross over, and in my last section I’ll get a bit moralistic myself and look at why this isn’t such a bad thing, demonstrating in the process why it’s a triumph when a piece of work is simultaneously good at being both.

In doing all of this, I hope to set out a basic way by which we can honestly judge the quality of all advertising, thereby making the work of this blog much easier.


One of the world's first commericals.

One of the world's first commericals.



Art likely starts earlier than Gilgamesh, but this is the first occurence of an advertiser as a character. I will also come back to cave paintings later because they have become advertisements. The Epic of Gilgamesh, which describes the eponymous demi-god and king of Uruk’s quest for immortality, ends with the defeated hero carving his story into the walls of his kingdom, knowing that in ages to come words and pictures will be all that is left of him.

In other words, the entire epic is literally an endorsement for advertising. We know that Gilgamesh, were he ever a real person, could never have attained physical immortality, but what he does instead is god-like. Despite his best efforts, Gilgamesh can’t be there to ensure everyone still remembers how great he is so he makes the city walls advertise him: what’s carved into the fortifications embellish his deeds, make him identifiable, and encourage readers to buy into his awesomeness. By ‘creating’ the story on the wall, Gilgamesh is an artist, by having it sell himself he becomes the first ad man.



000Next: I’ll try to tackle the art of the ancients, specifically the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, as well as China and the Americas if I have room and tell you why, for the snobs’ definition of art, the writing is on the wall.


*I lump the Marxist or Religious definitions of art together and will discuss them shortly.


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