Monday, June 13, 2011

Learning the Difference Between Ads and Art from David Foster Wallace

The following quote from David Foster Wallace -- with the point I'm highlighting found, predictably, in a footnote aside, here denoted by an asterisk -- jumped out at me this week as a particularly clear and helpful articulation of a point I've long struggled to put into words:
Whether it honors them well or not, an essay's fundamental obligations are supposed to be to the reader. The reader, on however unconscious a level, understands this, and thus tends to approach an essay with a relatively high level of openness and credulity. But a commercial is a very different animal. Advertisements have certain formal, legal obligations to truthfulness, but these are broad enough to allow for a great deal of rhetorical maneuvering in the fulfillment of an advertisement's primary obligation, which is to serve the financial interests of its sponsor. Whatever attempts an advertisement makes to interest and appeal to its readers are not, finally, for the reader's benefit. And the reader of an ad knows all this, too -- that an ad's appeal is by its very nature calculated -- and this is part of why our state of receptivity is different, more guarded, when we get ready to read an ad.*

*This is the reason why even a really beautiful, ingenious, powerful ad (of which there are a lot) can never be any kind of real art: an ad has no status as gift, i.e. it's never really for the person it's directed at.

(A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments [New York: Back Bay Books, 1997], 288-89, 89n.38)
This seems to me exactly right. It is, on the one hand, an important point for those of us who find ourselves worried by -- and yet also concerned that said worry might by overly critical or moralistic -- the weirdly unreflective enjoyment of commercial advertisements by friends and family (and society in general). On the other hand, it is a sharp reminder for artists who dip their toes -- or more -- into the marketing world that there actually is something at stake in the crossing of that threshold. I am thinking especially of Christians who go into marketing, and of Christian artists involved in the creation and production of ads.

This is not even to mention the sad state (which is only to say the continued existence) of "Christian" as well as church advertising. DFW's indictment should land most squarely here: How can the gospel be artful -- be, as it in fact is and therefore should be presented as, a gift -- if "it's never really for the person it's directed at"? I'm not the first person to say this, but it's high time churches in America rethink their strategies of "getting the word out."

Update: Check out this pertinent exchange from a hitherto unpublished interview with DFW, in today's The New York Review of Books:
OK: Can pure art free of any commercial or propaganda value exist in your opinion?

DFW: I’m suspicious of the word “pure.” It’s a very, very high standard to attach to a word like “art,” given that the basic situation is a continuum. Let me give you an example: my wife is a fantastic artist and painter but she doesn’t attempt to sell her work for a great deal of money. She hasn’t made any attempts to get a lot of galleries or museums to buy her work. She’s had shows and she can sell stuff when she wants, but mainly she makes them as gifts for people. It’s very interesting for me to watch her work. There’s a whole art world in America, where you develop a name and a reputation and your art becomes more and more valuable, and you can end up very wealthy. She’s afraid of that whole process because she believes it will take something out of the art that will make it less fun for her to do. And for her it’s the most important thing of her life.

So she is for me—I’ve only been married two years—watching her work and then going into the garage where I work, and trying to do my work and trying not to think about, “Oh, what does this reviewer from The New York Times say,” to find myself preoccupied and distracted by all kinds of what are really petty and immature and vain distractions is very educational. It may be that the only way in America to produce pure art would be to remove oneself from the public sphere and produce that art only as gifts, where there’s no money involved and no attempt at publicity or publication involved. The problem is that if everyone does that, then there is no public arts here. So it all becomes really a paradox that I’ve spent a lot of the last years thinking about, and I don’t have an answer.

The rest of the interview is worth reading as well.

2 comments:

  1. I wonder if this criticism might also fall upon that sort of "high art" that exists "for its own sake", or for the sake of the artist. It is perhaps self-indulgent rather than manipulative, but all the same it is no more a gift than an advertisement.

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  2. You mentioned church advertising and I think you are rightly concerned with that phenomenon. Pushing that further, I think this is why Christian art in general tends to fail. We are always trying to sell something, namely the Gospel. I think of the "art" you see in a Mardel's or Family Christian bookstore. Almost all of the paintings include a scriptural reference that are obviously intended to interpret the art for us. Instead of marveling at the rare grace of seeing a wild eagle in flight, we are told to see ourselves "on wings like eagles." This move points, I think, towards the Christian anxiety over interpretation. Interpretation is dangerous work because it entails the risk that we might see something other than the "truth." However, it is precisely this risk that enlivens art. Every good teacher knows that pounding information into students' skulls does little. In education, you must help students discover knowledge for themselves. I think the same holds true for art, to deny us the discovery of meaning is to deny us the heart-quickening, neuron-snapping, soul-moving experience that real change always entails. That's the ironic thing to me, for our obsession with change, whether it be change in spending habits or praying habits, to simply advertise avoids the powerful creative potential within us. Sadly, I suspect that's the point.

    And don't get me started on what this all means for preaching...

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