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How America Learned to Love Modern Art

Published: November 10, 2012

1930 Campbell's Ad

1930 Campbell's Ad

Learning Art from Advertising

Published just a few months after the MoMA opened, “Art, Or You Don’t Know What You Like” is still a well-written introduction to modern art.

In it, Ueland claimed that Americans were developing a taste for more abstract, expressive art because of advertising. Modern retailers were using contemporary art styles in their print advertising, and the ubiquity of these styles had slowly worn off the shock value.

The trend had begun before World War I, she said, when Parisian designers had hired young artists to illustrate their new fashions. Soon, manufacturers and retailers were copying the new style in their ads. As the writer explains:

“American fashion magazines … had formerly been lugubrious dressmakers’ manuals, full of … (old-fashioned) pictures of wasp-waisted ladies carrying parasols. (Now) fashion artists became sophisticated—modern. Not that there was anything particularly artistically valuable because ladies’ necks were now drawn two feet long and their slippered feet became two-pronged forks. But there was respect at last for originality and freedom.

“The artists began to get some real money for it. The movement spread from fashions to—automobiles, cigarettes, glass, silver, radios, grand pianos, furniture, bathrooms, and so on.”

The retail industry saw modern art as a way to give their products an up-to-date feel. They believed consumers would associate avant-garde design in advertisements with sophistication, youth, and innovation, whether the product was an automobile or a furniture polish.

Over the years, magazine readers received a continuing education in the changing schools of art as advertising experimented with symbolism, modernism, art deco, and abstract art. The connection between modern art and advertising was so well established that Americans were less startled by Andy Warhol’s soup can art than art critics were. After all, we had learned to regard an advertisement as both a sales pitch and an artistic statement.

Advertising Follows Art Trends

The ads below, all from the Post, reflect the influence of modern art in advertising. The first group shows the limits imposed by a traditional style of illustration. The second group, all taken from the issue that included Ueland’s “Art, Or You Don’t Know What You Like” article, show how modernism affected the colors, illustration style, and layout in advertisements.

Early 1900s—Ads Trapped in Realism

1930s—Ads Show Influence of Modern Art

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  • Ima Ryma

    32 cans of Campbell Soup,
    Andy Warhol bought at a store,
    To knock the art world for a loop.
    Painted on canvas, each can bore
    The exactness as in still life.
    What was the motivation here?
    Is this true art? Questions were rife.
    Are things really what they appear?
    All Andy said was his Mom would
    For years fix him the soups for lunch.
    ‘Twas for him a memory good.
    He loved all 32 a bunch.

    Inspired by Mom, the Soups today
    Are all at MoMA on display.