Is Advertising Art?

‘I’ve got a Brillo box and I say it’s art
It’s the same one you can buy at any supermarket’

—Lou Reed and John Cale, ‘Style it Takes‘ from Songs for Drella

By John Hopkins –

The relationship between art and advertising has been tense at times.

Victorian painter John Everett Millais was infuriated when he discovered that his painting ‘Bubbles’ was being used in an ad campaign for Pears soap. William Powell Frith felt similarly dismayed when Lever’s used his ‘The New Frock’ to promote Sunlight Soap. With no control over copyright, these men were sad to see their work used and (in their view) abused by advertisers.

But art and advertising have not always been at each other’s necks.

In the 1960s, Andy Warhol was infuriating art critics with his provocative ‘pop art’ that seemed to suggest advertising had aesthetic value in its own right. Warhol had himself started out as a draughtsman, creating fashion illustrations for Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and the New Yorker. And he was successful too, receiving awards for his work in this arena. Warhol thus entered the world of fine art with a love for the artistic qualities of ads that set him apart from the rest. His pop art was a bold move, coming at a time when abstract expressionism was the vogue in the art world.

Among his controversial works was a 1964 exhibition at New York’s Stable Gallery that focused on commercial packaging. Warhol had enlisted the members of his ‘Factory’ collective to craft exact plywood replicas of the cardboard boxes that stored a number of well-known supermarket goods such as Brillo soap pads and Heinz ketchup. While some visitors to the show were positively disgusted by Warhol’s insinuation, others were delighted. Among them was the Reverend Gail Ransom, who found the work revelatory:

“In all my years of scrubbing with sponges, mops, steel wool, I have rarely stopped to notice the packaging. I just ripped the boxes open and started my work. But these elevated Brillo Boxes show me that we are surrounded by art. It lines the aisles of our supermarkets. It decorates our homes. It festoons our trash bins: pungent red, flashing yellow, telltale white.

My pantry is now a gallery and my chores interactive art.”

By placing these seemingly mundane icons of consumerism in a gallery space, Warhol encouraged visitors to reflect on the boxes as genuine aesthetic objects—to see the art hitherto hidden all around them. Warhol believed art should be a part of the fabric of everyday life rather than a specialist pursuit.

More than selling retro wall art, we at Vintage Advertising Art are committed to the artistic relevance of advertising. Indeed, many of the illustrators whose work we sell were artists in their own right, though their work was primarily commercial. Vintage Advertising Art documents a lost world of fashion illustration and commercial art in the 1940s and 1950s advertisements we sell; the ascent of photography in advertising during the 1960s all but wiped out the techniques and styles associated with it. With photography, ad agencies doubtless gained a valuable new means of attracting consumers; and yet it is difficult not to see the decline of commercial illustration as a loss for both art and advertising. Fortunately vintage ads remain popular and companies such as ours are committed to preserving that heritage.

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