Inviting in the Angels: Art, Advertising, And The Transformation Of The Ordinary

Inviting in the angels

The art critic, novelist, painter and author John Berger argued in his book Ways Of Seeing that “every image embodies a sway of seeing” - that is that every man-made image offers up an altered and transformed version of our objective reality.

According to the American landscape photographer Robert  Adams, we judge art: “By whether it reveals to us important Form that we ourselves have experienced but to which we have not paid adequate attention.”


Similarly for Picasso the purpose of art was the “washing of the dust of daily life off our souls.” War never looked like this before... 


And writing in the Times Literary Supplement in 1950, Anthony Powell described the work of the poet Jules Supervielle as transfiguring everyday reality without going beyond reality: “It extracts the exceptional from the ordinary and never thrusts up towards the angels but rather... invites the angels down to sit at our plain human tables.”

Turner argued (in defending why his painted ships had no portholes) that “ ... my job is to draw what I see, not what I know.”


According to the theater director Peter Sellars,  "The purpose of art is to find a way to wake people up who are going through their lives sleepwalking and say: 'Stop it. You can't walk past this. This is your life.'"

For author Tom Robbins the function of the artist is “to call attention to what life does not.”

The photographer Mitch Epstein has spoken of wanting to use the urban populace and architecture of New York to serve serve as a "stage set" for his photographs of trees - the last things we probably notice in that environment.


Lucien Freud has gone so far as to argue that “The task of the artist is to make the human being uncomfortable.” His paintings certainly don’t romanticize the naked, human form.  We look upon our fleshy selves with new and unflinching eyes.


And here is Simon Schama on how Bernini’s magnificent Ecstacy of St. Theresa makes us consider through new eyes the human experience of bliss.


One could go on, assembling the array of expert witnesses. But you get the picture. 

It’s a consistent theme running through much of the the thinking of both practising artists, as well as critics and theorists. The idea that the art’s purpose is to give us a new perspective on the familiar.

So what does this have to do with advertising?

The creation of mental presence

Contrary to the theory of brand positioning, there is a good amount of empirical evidence that suggests that people don't have to think of a brand as being different to come to buy it. They just have to think of it at all. I've talked about here. And here.

Where this gets us to is valuing the creation of salience or ‘mental presence’ - that is, the degree to which a given brand comes to consumers’ minds in the context of a particular purchase occasion or consumption occasion - over the creation of difference. 

Ehrenberg et al suggested that one of the primary means by which advertising worked to create mental presence was to present the brand in some creatively memorable, yet often fairly meaningless way.  Neither mints with holes nor meerkats are relevant or useful in making a purchase decision. But in the quest for salience, they do publicize, magnify and make interesting and memorable a truth about the brand or product (it’s got a hole in it, or it sort of rhymes with ‘market’).

The common purpose

Now if the task for communications is not so much differentiating our brands or heaven forbid, communicating ‘messages’ about them, but to make them interesting and memorable, then perhaps the impulse of the artist is not that far removed from the task of the adperson. 

All of which is a rather long winded way of stating the blinding unoriginal and obvious - that both art and advertising are engaged in the act of making the familiar - the stuff of human experience - interesting. 

Both strive to make the commonplace and familiar fresh, noteworthy, and compelling.

Obvious, really.

But given that there are still plenty of voices that either insist our task is the communication of a differentiating message, or that the exercise of magic and transformation is altogether redundant and dead, perhaps stating the obvious isn't entirely pointless.

Not least of all because it rather suggests that if we want to prepare and feed our minds and imaginations, then we might be better off immersing ourselves in the world of the artist, rather than obsessing over the output of Adghanistan.