When Whitman Sells Denim

November 22, 2009

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.”