Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Consummate Art of Our Age?

I had a curious thought today. When ages come and go the arts they thought of as distinctive and as their consummate forms of art are not always the arts the later ages admire most. As things are happening, people tend not to see how derivative they are, for instance; when an art is living and common we tend to assess them in part by how difficult they are, but the extraordinary work that went into it may be regarded by later generations as the mountains groaning in labor in order to birth a mouse. And certainly most of the arts we think of when we think of our culture, and most of the arts in which we commonly partake, are on closer examination more derivative than innovative, and not very fresh at all.

And the conceit struck me suddenly that there's one exception -- an art at which we uncontroversially excel over prior generations, an art we have made our own, an art at which we get better all the time. It is as ubiquitous to us as air, and that inevitably means a certain amount of genius gets applied to it. We pour vast resources into it and a very good argument can be made that much of that investment is good investment, and results in good quality. And that art is advertisement. It's odd to think of it that way; it reminds one of the clever joke in the movie Demolition Man, where, when people in the future turn their radios to a golden oldies channel to listen to the music of our era, the songs they hear are commercial jingles. (Like "The Land of the Jolly Green Giant".) But if you think of things like the Marlboro Man, the Maytag Repairman, the Energizer Bunny, the Geico Gecko; and if you think of how enthusiastic or critical people get about Superbowl commercials; and if you think of just how large a place these things have in our culture; and if you think about the fact that virtually every single person in the developed world can name advertisements that we would consider really good -- if you think of all these things, perhaps it becomes less strange to think of advertisement as the consummate art of our age. As a society, it is something we are not just good at; it is something we are great at. Every art in every age has its failures, and so does ours. But our successes are genuinely good, and the memorable ones add up. And they are distinctive; they mark periods, identify eras, build up unique traditions.

Perhaps it's all merely a conceit. But I think that the more you think of it, the more you'll find things that at least half-convince you. And I'm not sure it's wholly a bad thing. It's a sort of heraldry, and, minor as the art may be, being great at an art is hardly a thing to mock. It would perhaps be embarrassing to be represented in the angel of history's chapter on excellent art by Tony the Tiger or the Pillsbury Doughboy rather than, say, Gothic cathedrals or Kufic calligraphy or fresco painting; but, you know, it still shows our creativity, and it's about as charming and striking as we get. Advertisement has to face a more daunting and demanding set of critics than anything in any MOMA; it is certainly better funded; and in most cases I'm not really convinced that it exhibits less talent. We really and truly are good at it.

And yet it's difficult to shake the feeling that, if this all-too-plausible conceit of imagination were true, the embarrassment would be warranted.

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