Ogilvy & Inspire

I’m a great believer that the highest form of creativity that we have in our culture is known as art. I also want to argue that advertising, when it’s going well, absolutely deserves to be counted as an art form. But that only leads us to another question, which is, “What is art?” What’s it about? What should it be doing? Why does it matter so much? We pay it a huge amount of respect. But we sometimes have difficulty coming to a clear conclusion on the question of what it’s for. There are two rather unhelpful ideas out there in the ether that confuse us when it comes to understanding what art is about.

Firstly, there’s the notion which came in the 19th century that the point of art is to be for art’s sake. You know that expression, “art for art’s sake.” In other words, that art shouldn’t be in the middle of our lives. It shouldn’t be prey to commercial or political pressures, or religious pressures. It should exist in that rather private, privileged realm called the art world. So that’s one idea that we have out there in the ether. There’s another idea which suggests that you can tell that a work of art is great when you don’t quite understand what it means. There’s a terrific veneration in the art world of obscurity. You know that feeling you get when you go to a contemporary art gallery and you think, well, I don’t really know what this is about. But you think, well, it must be my fault. Somehow you think, because you’re nice people, you think, well, the problem must lie with me. In other words, there’s a veneration of obscurity. The more obscure a work of art is, perhaps the greater it will be. Museum captions don’t help. They just tell you what the thing was painted on, the width. Catalogs often seem like they’re badly translated from the German. In other words, mystery reigns over the question of art.

Now, I want to make things a little bit simpler, and try and define what I think that art, and therefore creativity, and therefore advertising, could be about. I think that art is the most forceful, intelligent, beautiful, complex medium that we have in order to understand those things that are most important to us as people, and as a society. Art is a reminder of what our values are and what we should live for, and die for. It is the principal way in which we communicate what matters.

This could sound terribly high, so let me bring it right back to earth. You’re driving along the motorway, Paul McCartney starts singing. He’s halfway through “Hey Jude,” and you suddenly remember what love is about. We all know that love is important, don’t we? Love is important. We need to forgive and be kind, et cetera. But all these sorts of ideas have a tendency to go dead until we meet with a successful work of art which brings a cliché to life. That is what “Hey Jude” is doing, so that by the end of “Hey Jude,” you’re clapping along the motorway. You’re waving to passing lorry drivers, and you’ve remembered what love is.

Or, take another art form. You go to a cinema. You’re seeing some, you know, obscure Danish film. You come out of it, into the chilly night air, and suddenly you think, yes! I don’t want to waste any more time being bitter or resentful about my family. Or, I want to move on and learn to forgive. Or, whatever it is, you make a resolution on the back of a work of art which has reminded you of something that you believe in, in theory, but have forgotten about in practice.

Why do we need this kind of reminder? Why do we need to be reminded of the things that matter to us? Well, we suffer from what the Greek philosophers beautifully termed akrasia. What is akrasia? Well, in Greek philosophy, akrasia means weakness of will. The Greek philosophers were obsessed by the thought that there are lots of things that we believe in, in theory, but don’t do anything about in practice, because at the key moment we suffer from what they call weakness of will.

So you do believe in love, and fellowship, and forgiveness, and kindness, but actually day to day, do you practice those things? No, you don’t. Because your will is fatally weakened. And it’s because of this that the philosophers and others have argued that we need art. Art is the most forceful, visceral way of reinspiring us to do and act according to the ways that we theoretically believe in, but don’t actually tend to do anything about.

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