The Myth of High Art

I’m often asked how my English major and Marketing minor work together. Sometimes the question is meant to ask how they complement each other in the job market, but when I’m asked this in an academic sense, the question seems to really be how I can study both “high” art and “low” art. 

The distinction between the two goes back to the pretentiousness about the arts developed during the Reformation; I can picture Alexander Pope and his contemporaries making sure there was a distinction between their poetry and the chicken scratch of the common man. There is much debate over whether these terms should apply in academia today, especially in literature and film (think Stephen King and Steven Spielberg), where a lot of “popular” art (the new term for “low”) has gained artistic acceptance. Yet, there is no such redemptive acceptance for the lowest of the low art: advertising.

Advertising is considered a “low” form of art for more reasons than something like a Tarantino movie is considered “low.” Defining art is a fool’s errand, but a generally accepted component of art is that it doesn’t have the primary goal of selling a good or service to the public. Praising capitalism already means rejecting “high” art status. When Madison Avenue made advertising into the behemoth we know it as today, with catchy jingles and celebrity endorsements, it left behind any façade at artistic goals. Advertising is considered “art” only by dictionary definition; it is an intricate part of the soulless machine artists have rejected for centuries.

All of that is said implicitly when people ask me why I would combine the study of literature with the study of how to get products between The Man and the masses. Most marketing professors I’ve known would defend the job, saying there is artistic advertising copy (note the emotionally- and politically-charged ads that ran during this year’s Super Bowl). My professors would say artistic ads justify the advertisers’ artistic credential—and the existence of their souls. I have to disagree with this argument, regardless of the quality of some of those ads. The Budweisers and Apples of the world run those ads because they don’t always need to get information about their product out to the public; they already have all the public awareness they could ask for. Other companies have to try to get us to buy their stuff, and not everyone is going to respond to an art director’s attempts at avant-garde ads that don’t even show the product in question.

Rather, I see advertising’s redemption as a necessary evil (not the business as a whole—I could write a book on the sexism and stereotyping the industry indulges in...) that allows creative minds to find outlets in which to share their work. We continually romanticize the starving artist—the college grad working for minimum wage while finishing the next Great American Novel that will catapult him to fame and literary fortune. But we—we being actual starving college art students—know that such an idealistic dream doesn’t really exist. In order for an artist to take his or her art to a point of real success—whether the art is poetry or painting or whatever—he or she has to approach the sale of art as a business.

We all know from Hollywood that the public sale of art is a competitive business. While I’m an artist—a writer—and I would like as much as the next college artist to fund my everyday life by the sale of my art, I know that with the competition as fierce as it is, I need a leg up. My advertising major is that leg up. And deeply intertwined with advertising is editing. It isn’t enough—anymore at least—to write creative books and make a living at it. With a knowledge of advertising and the editing skills I have learned in the SC Publications class, I feel confident to graduate and find my place the competitive world of public-sale art.

--Jake Van Baale, '17