Advertising and the Archetypal Function of Art — An Example of Transitional Absurdity

Adapted from “The future of Art” in Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future (With An Introduction to the Ideas of Creative Systems Theory)

The concept of Transitional Absurdity (a formal notion within Creative Systems Theory) describes how, when Modern Age sensibilities and assumptions are taken beyond their timeliness, they can become not just unhelpful, but, in effect, ludicrous. For a long time, I rarely used the notion publicly out of concern for how easily, when misinterpreted, it can feed into liberal cynicism. But when effectively understood, it provides essential insight for making sense of important current circumstances.

We encounter a Transition Absurdity of particular importance at the intersection between art and advertising. Modern advertising turns the archetypal function of art on its head. That it does is of no small significance—and raises essential questions as we look to the future.

To make sense of this circumstance, we need to start by examining art’s creative role in culture. Art would still be of importance if its purpose were simply to create things of beauty. But culturally mature perspective suggests that its significance is deeper—and in ways with particular pertinence to culture’s emerging tasks. Art’s deeper contribution follows from the fact that art takes expression from the most germinal of intelligences—the body, the imaginal, and the more internal aspects of the emotional.

That deeper contribution has a couple of parts. First, art functions as an “advocate” for, and reminder of, the more germinal realms and values tapped by the artistic endeavor. It provides us with a collective ongoing link with left-hand sensibilities. The second kind of contribution is less obvious, but is related and has particular importance for these reflections. Art fulfills a visionary function. It connects us with new possibilities. Rainer Maria Rilke counseled the artist: “Fear not the strangeness you feel. The future must enter you before it happens.” This visionary function is a product not of exceptional capacity on the part of artists (though exceptional art requires exceptional capacities), but rather of the creatively germinal intelligences that predominate in the artistic personality.

We find the most familiar example of this visionary function in how the art of the Renaissance anticipated advances in science and government that we did not see until centuries later. When we call something art, we claim that in some way it gives voice to truths just peeking over the horizon. Good or great art is art that serves this anticipatory function in especially powerful ways—in the psyche of the individual, but also, and particularly, for the “psyche of culture.”

How does advertising relate to this picture of art and its contribution?
We reasonably ask what art’s dominant form is today. The answer: If we define “art” in terms of the sensibilities expression draws on, and define “dominant” in terms of dollars spent, then, hands down, today’s dominant art form is advertising. (Advertising’s power derives from its use of the trusted and largely invisible grammar of art—metaphor, image, movement, sound, and feeling. This power can be amplified today by how distanced the average person has become from these languages—and thus both unconscious of their workings and often hungry for their sustenance.)

This answer—at once obvious and unsettling—presents an essential quandary. If art’s purpose is to presage, to aesthetically lead, then advertising’s ultimate effect is precisely the opposite of art, at least as defined by art’s historical mandate. Advertising promotes extreme material values that can no longer serve us. And its purpose, rather than to provide insight and guidance, is to mislead, making it hardly a solution to today’s crisis of purpose.

Put bluntly, advertising is a form of lying. Classes on advertising teach that one should never say anything logical in an advertisement—for the simple reason that doing so would encourage people to think and question (and then likely not buy the product). Instead, advertising juxtaposes images of what a person is supposed to buy with images of fulfillment: “Salems are springtime fresh” (this from when tobacco companies were well aware of smoking’s health effects); “Coke is it” (as obesity becomes more and more an epidemic). Ultimately, advertising promotes our time’s most dangerous lie: that consumption in and of itself brings fulfillment.

Advertising’s hold on the modern psyche represents a particularly consequential kind of Transitional Absurdity. We know we are being misled, but this does not seem to diminish advertising’s effect.This contradictory picture confronts us with an important follow-up leadership question: What, if we value art—and our well-being more generally—do we best do with advertising’s lock on the artistic?

A person might appropriately argue that the correct answer to the follow-up “what do we do” question should be to do nothing. If the purpose of art is to mirror what most defines culture, then advertising, given these highly material times, is just art doing its job. But if art’s purpose is not just to mirror, but to presage, then advertising fundamentally fails at art’s task. And it ultimately fails us in a deeper way. What ultimately makes an act moral is the degree it supports and furthers life. Art in its dominant guise today not only fails as art, it fails the test of morality.

I am a strong advocate for media literacy curriculum in schools. The importance of having a more conscious relationship to advertising’s influence is a major reason why. Advertising’s capacity to inform remains an essential element in the workings of a free market and will continue to be in the future. But becoming more conscious of advertising’s effects—and, when necessary, reigning in its excesses—will be essential to a psychologically and spiritually healthy future. If, with Cultural Maturity’s changes, we can become more conscious of and facile with the languages of aesthetic expression, we should become more capable of such creative management (both with regard to advertising and to the media more generally).


Fill out the form below to receive monthly articles and updates from Charles Johnston, M.D.