When Whitman Sells Denim

Sorry for the recent scarcity of posts — the semester is winding down, and spare writing time will be pretty slim until mid-December. But in the meantime, I couldn’t pass up this opportunity…

In the 1930s, German cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote an essay called “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”  In it, he talks about the loss of “aura” (authenticity, uniqueness) when art is reproduced and distributed en masse, appropriated by what fellow critic Theodore Adorno would call “the culture industry” for political or economic purposes, rather than aesthetic ones.

When that happens, has it ceased to be art (or literature)?

Bringing this debate up to the present, I recently came across an interesting discussion posted by Alexander Russo at This Week in Education: Poetry in Ads: Can We Live With It? and the related Levi’s Uses Rare Walt Whitman Recording To Sell Jeans. See video.

So does poetry lose its aura once it has been inculcated with a message for consumers?  I think there are several possible answers. On one hand, the advertisers are attempting to raise their product to the level of something artistic, powerfully American, and poetic. On the other hand, they are forging another link in the minds of consumers between art and consumption.

On one hand, they are acknowledging the power of the spoken word; on the other, they are, one could argue, debasing that power by employing a great poet to sell a pair of jeans. But then again, is this any different than hiring talented writers to inscribe Hallmark cards and magazine ads?

It’s worth considering. And to re-quote Seth Stevenson of Slate Magazine: “At least it’s not all about sex.”


4 Responses to When Whitman Sells Denim

  1. Evan Nelson says:

    God forbid that people hear poetry without first receiving their I-Can-Now-Appreciate-Poetry license (often shortened to M.A. in English).

    I love poetry. I’m what one might call a lit crit person. Annd there’s no reason why what I study/love can’t be used in some way that it wasn’t orignally intended for.

    Especially with Whitman, who, truth be told, would probably to love to know that his poetry was linked to denim jeans and broadcast to millions of Americans.

  2. jenecrit says:

    Unfortunately for me, I don’t think my M.A. will be lengthen-able to an I-Can-Now-Appreciate-Poetry license, but you make a good point. 🙂

    I agree that poetry can be used in ways for which it wasn’t originally intended, and some loss of “aura” is a good thing in making poetry more accessible to more people.

    I’m skeptical of using the emotional tug of poetry to convince people to buy a certain product. The idea, or at the least the consequence for me, is that the next time I read or hear that poem, I’ll have denim jeans running through my head…

    Thanks for your comment!

  3. Evan Nelson says:

    Poetry was used to heroify war, from the Illiad to the Light Brigade. They aren’t concepts I’m particularly fond of. But the poems are good poems. That’s my point, I guess.

    Keep up the nice writing. I like your take.

  4. jenecrit says:


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