Truth in Art (Yeah, I’m Going There)

Towards the end of this semester, I had made up my mind that advertising wasn’t for me. Sure, it’s a viable career path, it’s something I personally feel that I’m good at, and it definitely interests me in a lot of ways. However, when I look at current trends in advertising, I see that a lot of the creativity I love about advertising is beginning to fall away. The basis of advertising, to sell, has always reigned supreme and it is increasingly destroying advertising as an art form and platform for discussion. When I think about my favorite advertisements, there is an element to them aesthetically or story wise that sets them apart as being REAL and HONEST.

I love the scene in Mad Men where they discuss Volkswagen’s Lemon ad because it speaks to this subject so well. The men discuss the flaws of the ad, its humor value, and whether or not it actually “sells” the car, all of which lead Don to conclude that the ad works. Why? Because it leads to discussion. In my mind, that is what good art does. It prompts the viewer to ask questions and participate in debate.

However, at its very basis, advertising is solely about manipulating a target audience. It is the responsibility of a team of advertisers to get into the mind of their consumer and find out their deepest desires, their “wants.” Beyond food and water, there are no biological imperatives to the human body – these are our true needs. Advertising manipulates an audience to tell them that their psychological wants are actually needs. The danger of this mentality is apparent when considering advertising towards children. Kids don’t understand the difference between fact and fiction. Modern children’s advertising is a phantasmagoria of color, movement, and music, all selling a lie.

A temper tantrum ensues as a mother or father tries to reason with their child. But there is no hope for a pleasant outcome because it is the job of the advertiser to turn the child against his or her parents. Therein lies my internal conflict with advertising today. Where is their truth? Where is their sincerity?

Nothing I’ve said here should come as a surprise to anyone. I knew this about advertising before declaring it as my major, but I thought I’d be capable of setting those notions aside in order to “do the work.” Plus, it’s the “safe” thing to do as primarily an arts student. However, it was only through practicing the craft of advertising and critiquing our media within the realm of the classroom did I begin to think about what ways advertising has wheedled its way into our interpersonal interaction.

We as a society are experiencing a landscape where individuals can increasingly feel comfortable displaying a false sense of self. Historian Warren Susman describes this as a movement from the identification of the “self” to an identification with one’s “personality.” Personality is all of the thing about ourselves that we sell to others, putting up a façade to try and make others like us. This is the root of advertising. But, we can also find this theory true for social networks. On an intrinsic level, we are increasingly becoming okay with selling false versions of ourselves with this new form of communication and interaction. I’m sure everyone can attest to this. I sell a different image of myself on my Facebook account compared to my Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, and WordPress. All are true representations of me, but none gives an accurate picture of my “self,” yet we treat them like we do. For example, I have never heard this conversation:

“Hey man, my girlfriend is going to set you up with one of her friends tonight.”

“What’s her name? I want to look her up on Facebook before I walk into a disaster.”

“She is hardly a disaster, I’ll bring up her profile to show you.”

“Man! Look at this, she liked the Twilight movies, not even the books. And look at all of these pictures of her with other guys. Like… there is a LOT of pictures of her with other guys.”

“Well why don’t you wait to meet her before you make any further conclusions about her?”

“Oh, I hadn’t thought about that. That seems reasonable.”

FALSE.

Every single person I know looked up their college roommates on Facebook when they heard about their assignments and then proceeded to judge the hell out of them. It’s the nature of the beast. We’ve adapted to this new paradigm of social interaction.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the subject and I’ve decided that I want to participate in resolving these problems of social interaction, but I find that I can’t do that within advertising. A huge portion of my classes were predicated on critiquing current media forms. I could rant about advertising and the 24 hour news cycle for days, but what good does it do if you don’t cut through to the source of the issue – the ways that humans interact and attempt to relate to one another? That is why I’ve decided to make the jump to a double major in journalism over advertising. I love writing and I’m increasingly loving documentary as a means of telling a story. I realize that all forms of writing and storytelling are manipulation and lies in their own ways, but documentary and journalism seem like such a more up-front, honest approach to this debate.

I recently read a quote from Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers in Muse and Spirit magazine that I’d like to repost here, because it so eloquently sums up how I’ve been feeling about this shift in my majors.

“In all types of art there is a choice. Create what you feel because you believe in it or create what you think will be successful, looked-at, or listened to. The difference between the two is this: with the latter, that which will be “successful” can only “succeed” for a temporary moment with you and your physical state, which is certainly temporary, and so is as worthless as the dirt that your body will decay into when it is underground. But that which is created in sincerity, that which reveals part of your soul without control and plan, will outlive all of us and be generated among men for years and years to come… Your faith, and all you need to feel happiness and security, and love, lies within you. From there, we find the heart that drives the body to love, to be kind, to share and to sacrifice. Art, paintings, songs, movement – these are simply an extension of this and a “voice” for this spirit to speak.”

Anything that is made – not BY you, but FROM you – is done with honesty and sincerity. To me, that is what true art and true beauty is: to be representative of the self. In my belief, this is what people connect to. This is what makes the difference that advertising can’t touch. I have no wish to sell myself to you, nor do I wish to sell you a product. However, I can know myself – my practice, my art, my heart, my soul – and in that knowledge, I can truly connect to you.

Furthermore, I remember having a discussion with my photography teacher about my plans for my independent study in my senior year. I told him that I wanted to create my style, so that someone could look at a film or a picture I made and say, “Mark did that.” He told me that is the completely wrong way of looking at things. Instead, I should be creating, non-stop, in every medium that interested me. Through my work, I will find the things that interest me and their would come a point where I would step back and say, oh, their it is.

That’s where I am now. I’m working, I’m producing, and I’m exploring. But I’m not looking for my style anymore. I’m looking for two things: truth and myself.

I’ll leave you with this series of quotes from a lecture given by film writer/director Charlie Kaufman. The words and the visuals are beautiful.

“The world is very scary now… it always has been, but something grotesque and specific to our time is blanketing us. We need to see that it is not reality, but it is a choice that we are making or allowing others to make for us…

What I have to offer is me. What you have to offer is you.”

Charlie Kaufman

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