Socialist Worker

Advertising and the working artist today

Beatrice Leal looks at the contradictions of commercial art in the first column of our new series

Issue No. 2035

Alfons Mucha: art or advert?

Alfons Mucha: art or advert?


If an alien wandered down an ordinary British shopping street – just pretend for a second – they would get the impression that this is an amazingly artistic country. Every phone box, bus stop and wall has got pictures on it – adverts.

It's impossible to escape adverts – there are 284,986 outdoor ads in Britain.

The British advertising industry is the fourth largest in the world, employing over 15,700 people and raking in a total of £19 billion in revenues last year.

So ads are definitely a part of our 'culture' in one sense. But are they art? The instinctive answer is no.

Art is positive, creative, expressive etc, and adverts are negative – multinational companies constantly trying to brainwash us into spending more money.

So it's easy to divide images into two hostile camps, with 'pure' art on one side and commercial adverts on the other.

But which camp does the French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec belong in? His late 19th century adverts for Paris bars are definitely counted as art.

Or consider the Czech painter Alfons Mucha, who started the 'art nouveau style' in the 1890s – one of his most famous posters was a beer ad.

Maybe those adverts were art because they were done by 'Artists'. But then who decides who is an Artist and who isn't?

The list of Artists-with-a-capital-A has traditionally excluded collaborative art, workers who use art as part of their job. They get called craftsmen instead, as do women and non-Western artists.

But there is no reason why we should go along with this. The people who create adverts are likely to define themselves as artists.

A recent survey of art graduates found that 70 percent had worked in full-time jobs since graduating. Some 20 percent were working freelance, sometimes in addition to a full-time job, and 10 percent were unemployed.

The majority find work that involves art in some way, in the media, product design or advertising. The survey also found that almost all art graduates described themselves as artists, even if working for a company.

So why don't we take their word for it?

Artist is one of the few job titles that is also seen as a personality description – 'artistic'.

You don't hear people described as 'bus driver-istic' or 'waiter-istic'. It's accepted that the jobs most of us have are what we do to make enough money to live, not what we are.

But artists are meant to be different from the rest of us – more true to themselves and less part of the system in some way.

So the fact that adverts are so much a part of the system – made to order to suit a company's interests rather than the artist's inspiration – does seem to make them different from 'proper' art.

There's a wider issue here. How artists earn a living, including their choice of subject matter, has always been determined by the society that they live in.

Karl Marx once said that the dominant ideas in any society are the ideas of the ruling class – because they control the media, education, church and every other institution.

Moreover, since only the rich get to buy and commission art, even if the artist doesn't personally see things their way, the work of art will still have to be acceptable to them.

Kings and rulers since class society began have commissioned art to glorify themselves, celebrate their victories and decorate their palaces.

The Marxist art critic John Berger wrote in his classic book Ways Of Seeing about how the style of oil painting during the rise of capitalism was connected to the importance of objects as commodities.

Owning a painting symbolised owning the objects painted, he wrote: 'Rich Italian merchants looked upon painters as agents, who allowed them to confirm their possession of all that was beautiful and desirable in the world.'

The subjects for paintings were set by what the owner wanted to see – expensive food and luxury objects, grand buildings, mythical scenes that fitted their values (with plenty of decorative naked women).

So if Richard Branson had been born a few hundred years ago he would have commissioned flattering oil paintings of himself.

Today, we are instead bombarded by glossy photos of his products – but the lack of freedom for the artist involved is pretty much the same.

Artists who work for advertisers are just the latest in a long tradition of workers who have had to sell their talent in order to make a living.

The amazing thing is how much good original art has been and is still created, despite all the restrictions.


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