Can there ever be a true intersection between art and advertising? One side of the art vs. advertising debate might argue in the absolute affirmative, but these advocates are generally stakeholders in some kind of business. Others may protest vehemently that the act of selling denigrates the purity of artistic expression, and that the two cannot create any kind of harmony.
Sure, many might see the latter argument as elitist and unrealistic, but everyone has a line after which art dissolves into a puff of overly corporate inanity. But where does the line of no return lie? And, more to the point, who gets to decide?
Street Art vs. Advertising Trends
One of the bigger arenas where this argument plays out is in the public space. Consider the British group Brandalism, whose work advocates a creative resistance to the perpetuation of corporate control of public spaces. As a larger pattern, this is nothing new: street art and advertising have long competed for space with the consumer, with the two locked in a visual struggle for viewer’s attention.
The struggle itself becomes fertile ground for artistic inspiration on both sides of the debate: companies are finding new ways to bring street art into their campaigns. Shephard Fairey, perhaps best known for his Barack Obama “Hope” poster, has gone on to sell his work to corporations like Saks Fifth Avenue. Fairey argues that this enables him to keep other artists employed. But does it work as both art and advertising?
Take the legendary England-based artist, Banksy. While, to our knowledge, the notoriously subversive artist has never collaborated with a corporation, he makes a salient point about how artists can get their work out there.
“There’s a whole new audience out there, and it’s never been easier to sell [one’s art],” says Banksy. “You don’t have to go to college, drag ‘round a portfolio, mail off transparencies to snooty galleries or sleep with someone powerful, all you need now is a few ideas and a broadband connection. This is the first time the essentially bourgeois world of art has belonged to the people. We need to make it count.”
Embracing the Gray Area
Banksy is decidedly not talking about brands, advertising or experiential marketing. And yet, this world-as-canvas approach to reaching consumers is being applied by brands. Pandora recently commissioned an interactive street mural of DJ Khaled, painting in the Lower East Side of New York City. The mural, painted by street artist Lexi Bella, also includes a QR code, which when scanned, takes visitors to an online audio-visual experience plus more from their “Sound of Summer” ad campaign. While some might cringe at the concept, others see this as an innovative, beautiful way to reach new customers — in either event, people are sitting up, paying attention and talking about it.
The gray area between art and advertising gets even grayer when art installations are used to promote causes, often with the support of for-profit companies, and downright black when the argument divides the art world. After the artist Anish Kapoor bought the exclusive rights to use the world’s blackest black substance, Vantablack, another artist, Stuart Semple, announced that he is developing an even blacker black and making it available to all artists in the world — all except Anish Kapoor. Now that is some artful advertising.