Coke Cans or Van Goghs? by James Sharpe

Hey guys, Jon here. I’m so happy to feature a short essay from James Sharpe today. James is a philosophy student at the prestigious Wheaton College, and is published in numerous online magazines and blogs. His insight in the world of advertising and communications is especially insightful. Please enjoy:

Maxx Barry wrote a book you’ve probably never heard of. But you might have seen the movie, though. It’s called Syrup. The book was just a stack of words pressed into murdered trees. The movie, on the other hand, had Amber Heard in it. Amber Heard, folks. Have you seen her?

At one point in the book, a film student named Tina says something kind of weird. She says, “Art and marketing can’t coexist… It’s either one or the other.” And of course, the other characters in the book are annoyed and confused by her comment. An argument ensues. I won’t quote the whole dang book for you, but let me trace the argument.

First, they debate whether or not the distinction between art and marketing is the audience. For anyone familiar with the art of Rhetoric, this will seem a pertinent distinction to make. The target audience of a work of art, or a piece of advertising for that matter, does much to shape the piece itself. If I am “speaking” to myself alone, I can be as esoteric as I want, because I understand me. If, however, I want my piece to communicate to someone else, I need to take into consideration their “language.” But this applies to both art and marketing, so it cannot be used to distinguish between them. To argue that art has a certain set of possible audiences while marketing has a separate set is sort of a limp point to make. As soon as you say that, some artist somewhere will prove you wrong, am I right?

The next argument is the most interesting. The question of intent is raised. Supposedly, art has a different intent than marketing. This is Tina’s view. But one of the other characters retorts, “Who cares what the intent was? It’s the result that matters.” Again, anyone familiar with the art of rhetorical criticism will recognize in that sentence an articulation of the golden rule of criticism. Intention doesn’t matter. The question is what does this rhetorical artefact do? On this reading, marketing seems to come out on top. Or, as one character puts it, “A lot more people have seen a Coke can than a van Gogh.” Marketing has a greater effect on society, therefore it is just as powerful as art if not more. But if you noticed, “as powerful as” does not at all mean “identical to.”

At the end of this passage lies a surprising bit of dialogue.

‘“I’ve noticed you corporate people do this,” Tina says. “Confuse popularity with quality.”’

‘“It’s a democratic society, Tina,” 6 says. “Your opinion of what’s quality is no more valid than mine. Popularity is quality. And so marketers are today’s real artists.”’

Because Tina does not respond to this. I think the author, Mr. Barry, is begging for someone to interpret this little passage. Really, I do. And I think what he’s getting at is this: Art asks for you to interpret it; Marketing asks to interpret everything for you. Art is categorically opposed to marketing precisely because it offers itself up for interpretation. Marketing, on the other hand, desperately desires to interpret the entire world for you.

The distinction hinges on a pivotal, almost hairsplitting clarification. Art may ask to be interpreted in this way or that—its message may not always be completely “open,” that is. But Marketing will always have one univocal message behind all of its interpretations: “Buy this.”

So some people are convinced that Marketing is the 21st century’s Art. Some are convinced that they no longer need to constantly interpret the world for themselves because only objective, techno-scientific progress is valuable. All that other stuff… literature, poetry, art… that’s just wasted paper.

“I’d rather watch the movie, where they interpret the book for me.”

“I’d prefer never to exercise my imagination, intellect, and inquiry, because the corporations do such a darn good job of it for me.”

“After all, that one character said it… this is a democratic society, you know. What you book-snobs count as “quality” is just your interpretation of quality. And I prefer my interpretation…” by which they mean the corporation’s.

And trust me… the corporations will tell you… “Marketing is Art.”

Do you buy it?


James Sharpe