Art as the Servant of Commerce

“… every Beatles song ever recorded is going to be advertising women’s underwear and sausages… It’s one thing you’re dead, but we’re still around! They don’t have any respect for the fact that we wrote and recorded those songs, and it was our lives.” – George Harrison, 1987.

“To have great poets, there must be great audiences.” – Walt Whitman

The Levi’s jeans company is currently running a new advertising campaign featuring Walt Whitman’s poems “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” and “America.” What sets the ads apart is the use of Thomas Edison’s 1890 recordings of Whitman himself reading the poems as images of 21st century heroin chic models clad in Levis cavort in scenes designed, one supposes, to suggest the new American realities – including as some in the blogosphere have noted, a scene in which a woman offers what can be interpreted as a Nazi style salute – but might simply be a dumbass mimicking a statue….

But I digress…

Over 20 years ago Apple Corps., representing McCartney, Harrison, Starr and Yoko Ono Lennon, won a legal decision preventing advertisers from using actual recordings by The Beatles as background music for commercials (this was precipitated by the infamous Nike “Revolution” ad). Beatle songs may be used in commercials, but only if they are performed by other artists. That explains Blackberry using “All You Need is Love” or Target using “Hello Goodbye” with other artists performing those Beatles classics.

Both Whitman and Harrison are dead. So if George was right, maybe having Whitman read his poetry to help a company that has offshored its plants and put thousands of Americans out of work to increase profits for stockholders and bonuses for its top executives while helping drive down wages for American workers is okay. And maybe using George’s song “Something” to sell Chrysler LeBarons for a company that was bailed out of bankruptcy by American taxpayer dollars (twice!) was okay because George wasn’t singing it.

But I digress again….

Art as Commerce?

Art has had a long history of depending on the kindness of strangers. Whether from royalty, religious institutions, or the wealthy, artists relied on patronage and commissions to support them and allow them to create their works. This made them vulnerable to patrons meddling – and perhaps to the enticement to compromise their art to guarantee they received support. The great “liberation” of artists that some claim occurred during the Romantic Period (two great examples being Beethoven and Byron who could command large fees from orchestras and publishers respectively because their work filled concert halls and sold books) is really a shift in support – from dependence on the support of wealthy elites, artists could look to the marketplace for livelihood. To achieve this end, however, required that artists consider how their works functioned as product in the marketplace. So again rises that issue of compromise (popularly seen as damaging to artistic integrity – and, indeed, to creativity).

Not all artists have accepted this view of work as product that must meet marketplace expectations, of course, and Whitman is an example – he worked variously as a journalist, teacher, clerk, and nurse to support himself because – well, initially his poetry didn’t sell. His poetry, far out of step with the verse of his time (which was highly formal in rhyme and meter) only gained acceptance slowly – and his reputation (and sales) have enlarged much more since his death than they did during his life. Even as art and commerce were merging (and audiences were turning from poetry to prose), Whitman made his poetry his life’s work – apparently without serious thought of recompense. And his reputation as America’s greatest poet grows with every passing year as audiences have come to appreciate his seriousness of purpose and artistic vision. (Think what

Harrison, on the surface, would seem the exemplar of the artist fully accepting his art as product. The staggering success of The Beatles music, based on its promotion and distribution as if it were “women’s underwear [or] sausages,” seems the triumph of commercial concerns over artistic ones. Yet the evolution of Harrison’s/The Beatles’ music from the simplicity that musicologist Wilfrid Mellers terms “Edenic” to the later problematic complexity that challenged, educated, and enriched audiences exploded the (once) popular conception of rock music as disposable and indeed raised rock musicians’ and audiences’ expectations of that music as an art form. As Harrison and The Beatles treated their music ever more seriously, their audience mirrored the artists’ seriousness by becoming serious listeners. As the art became greater, the audience became greater also.

So, it would seem from the examples of Whitman and Harrison/The Beatles, artists will find ways of expressing their art with integrity and creativity despite whatever temptations or rewards the material world may/may not offer. And audiences will recognize and appreciate this.


Art enriches human experience. It lifts us, changes us, takes us out of ourselves. It inspires us to think more, to feel more, to live life more fully.

The above claims are true, I suspect most of us would contend, but they can also be (and often are) attacked as truisms, as platitudes, as wishful thinking.

Making money, on the other hand, is, at least in one proven way, rewarding. Money will get us things – things like cars, video games, jeans.

And things – as we are constantly told by advertising – things will make us happy.

The above claim is untrue, I suspect most of us would contend, though advertising tries relentlessly to convince us otherwise.

And this is why advertising repeatedly attaches its claim to the claims of art. By associating buying jeans with great poetry or buying cars with a great song, advertising hopes that its audience will associate (or confuse, perhaps) the rewards of art with “getting and spending,”as Wordsworth put it.

But the public outrage that greeted the use of The Beatles’ work to sell sneakers two decades ago and that greets the use of Walt Whitman’s poetry to sell jeans today must give us hope that we are about more than things.

2 replies »

  1. Damn, we’ve been swamped with posts. And I was swamped with other stuff, so I didn’t get my two cents in here.

    While I agree with you completely, for me the WORST part of this is that you shouldn’t have your image or your words or your art used to sell a product (or a cause) without your permission. Period. Fuck public domain rights. That’s just wrong. It’s like digging up the grave, stringing up the corpse and making it dance. It’s an abomination.

    I take this so far that I get made when I see commercials where George Washington’s image is used to sell mattresses during the BIG PRESIDENT’S DAY EVENT!!!! You know, Washington may have hated that fucking mattress, and if he isn’t around to voice his opinion I’m offended.

    Maybe I’m extreme on this point, but I guess I’m saying that not only are you right, you don’t even take it far enough to suit me.

  2. I guess I looked at it from a different perspective. I just about never go out and buy something just because I saw a commercial about it. When I first saw these ads, I just thought it was totally cool. I would guess that 99% of the population watching TV had never even heard of Whitman and they certainly wouldn’t think about picking up a book of poetry. I didn’t look at it as an ad for jeans so much as an ad for Whitman. Those are pretty damned powerful words. I wonder if Amazon saw a bump in poetry sales once this ad hit the air.