Last semester, I took a classed called “The Art of the Other” (“Black and Latino Art”). Our teacher, Vilna Bashi Treitler, introduced us to two books, “Ways of Seeing” and “Believing is Seeing: Creating the Culture of Art,” and a number of articles from which we had to question “What Is Art,” “What is Black Art,” “What is Latino Art,” “What is Women/Feminist Art,” and on and on. One of the first things we learned is that the idea of art and art culture is a modern phenomenon. Before 400 years ago, art that we we now consider art, was not art because its functionally use was not for the sake of art; it would be used for a religious function, a spiritual function, a tool function, etc. However, that changed when capitalism, commerce, colonialism and slavery came into the picture. Now, those things had a monetary value and function; it became something to be sold as art for the higher classes. However, art at that time was meant for the higher classes to show how much material wealth they had, which led to the beginning of “activist art” from oppressed groups in reaction to dominant classes when revolutions began around the world from the late 18th century to the 20th century.
The first picture is a painting by Marie Guillemine-Benoist, a French female painter who tended to do historical paintings. She painted the “Portrait D’une Negresse” in 1800, six years after slavery was abolished in France. The painting supposedly became a symbol of women’s emancipation and black people’s rights. Then, we have the photograph on the left. Part of the latest Louboutin Fall 2011 lookbook, the ad, as well as the others, use older art works to sell shoes. And this complicated relationship art has now to commerce. Since the mid-1800s, the ability to reproduce and reconstruct an image, because of the invention of the camera, became easier. In the last chapter of John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing,” he writes of how today’s publicity often refers to the past and speaks to the future, but never the present. It is using the past to sell to the future. Unlike the first picture above, it reflects a different kind of freedom: freedom of the choice of the purchaser” (Berger, 131). Today, we see that this freedom is given more weight than other freedoms. Our 20th century and 21st century, post-Warhol, pop culture world is that of manufacturing enviable glamour. The “Portrait D’une Negresse” appears to focus on the beauty of a black woman by herself, but the ad implies that you can only be beautiful like her if you buy the shoes (she does it with a purposeful sexually seductive look on her face to suggest desirability). Understand the difference? Instead of implying an essence that is already had, it suggests something out of reach or having a cost to reach it; the viewer feels unfulfilled.
According to Berger, older artworks give these advertisements status and authority because they are signs of wealth, similar to the period when wealthy classes used art to enhance their status. Today, original artworks sell for millions of dollars and hang in museums because it is meant to give lower classes a sense of exclusion from the upper class. In our world where images can easily be reproduced and altered to our liking, higher classes rely heavier on the concept of “originality” because it gives the sense of rarity or exclusiveness, which is one reason why our culture is so obsessed with it.
Publicity relies on the cultural value associated with the monetary value placed on these older artworks to create envy from lower classes, so they buy the goods that the companies are selling. Also, by doing this, advertisements present a contradiction in itself of appearing deep by introducing a historical and cultural image to a newer audience while at the same time, selling for a profit. As Berger said, it is alluding to the beginning of modern times where art was used to justify the higher classes’ wealth and power, but today it is used by them to increase their wealth and power by putting the idea in consumer’s mind that having these goods will make them appear wealthier and more powerful (even though they become poorer in the process). Both periods send the message of “you are what you have” (Berger, 139), so I guess we have come full circle again. So, is this advertisement art? Yes, technically it is, but what kind of art it is depends on the message it is sending.