Mad Men does such a wonderful job of challenging our perception of art. Don Draper’s job description features the word creative, but throughout the entire series, from Midge’s beatnik cronies to Megan’s theatre friends, his role as an artist is challenged. He’s told that, because what he creates is made solely to sell products, that his work doesn’t deserve the title ‘art’. But isn’t it? He, Peggy, Stan, Ginsberg – they all use their clever imaginations to create. Stan draws their ideas, they cast & create commercials, Don & Peggy use pretty words to take us to an ideal world. They take a product & make it perfect, make it beautiful, make us want it. They seduce us. They’re tricking us, artists say, making us victims of senseless consumerism, selling their product to/for ‘the man’. But if Megan or one of her friends land a role on television, they are a part of the advertising machine. They’re selling ad space by filling the time in between commercials. If Midge sells a painting, it can be used however its buyer pleases. She doesn’t hold on to the rights of use, she collects money in exchange for art, as does Don.
Don knows what he’s doing though. Don understands that what he creates is being used to sell. Is Don ok with that? It seems so, but he also bristles when challenged. Is it because he’s weary of defending himself, or because he sees some truth in the accusations?
This conflict isn’t unique; the concept of ‘selling out’; the artists’ struggle over ownership; the need to feel as if what you create means something. Does Don’s art mean something because it sells? It works. He has an idea, people respond positively to the idea, and the prove is that the subject/product he presents sells. If we argue that Don isn’t a real artist because he’s fitting a product into his art, can we also argue that once Megan begins to make money in theatre or film, that she’s also no longer a ‘true’ artist? Then are the only ‘true’ artists those who fail or never seek recognition or monetary gain?
Is Don looking at Midge’s painting/watching Megan’s friends’ play with curiosity? Envy? Understanding? Annoyance? Everything merges. A print ad for Jaguar, a heroin addict’s painting, a commercial for Reddi-wip, a guest-spot on Dark Shadows, a spec-script for Star Trek. What combines all these creative endeavours? Are any superior? Most important: does Megan agree with her friends, or with Don?