Of Art and Advertisements, Grafitti and Greed

In October, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art will mount a retrospective of Japanese Pop artist Takashi Murakami’s work – including a functioning Louis Vuitton boutique that will sell the brand’s popular handbags, emblazoned with Murakami’s lively cherries or flowers. According to the officials at MOCA, the exhibition “symbolizes the interweaving of high art, mass culture and commerce that has become essential to Murakami’s philosophy.”

But what happens when the interweaving of high art and commerce isn’t essential to an artist’s philosophy – or when such a fusion actually contradicts an artist’s supposed manifesto? This summer, the New York media seized on the story of “the Splasher” – a guerilla street artist (or artists) who threw paint on the murals and graffiti of street artists who had begun to design for commercial brands. Among other charges leveled by the Splasher, he derided the current state of street art as “a bourgeoisie-sponsored rebellion” that helped pave the way for gentrification, and called it “utterly impotent politically and fantastically lucrative for everyone involved.”

All of this high-minded idealism resonates in theory, but may be difficult in practice. Is it defensible that artists “need” to work for commercial causes to continue making their art? The photographer Howard Schatz thinks so: “The only way we can pay for all of this is through advertising jobs. I need to do one big advertising job every two or three weeks. I don’t want to do more than that. I don’t want to accumulate money. I want to spend all this money that we make through my work” (LensWork, No. 64, May-June 2006, p. 63).

Schatz has shot for everyone from Pepsi to McDonalds, many times maintaining (even, in the case of his Brizo faucet ads, at far right, duplicating identically) the unique fluid style that he characterize his fine art photographs, such as the one below. What are the implications of an artist lending his craft to commercial causes? How is the art compromised – or is it at all?

I am torn between denigrating artists like Schatz, and acknowledging the fact that everyone has a mortgage to pay. Perhaps I should be more sympathetic – after all, Toulouse-Lautrec made spectacular posters advertising the bars and dance halls of Paris to pay the rent in late nineteenth-century Paris when his pastels of world-weary prostitutes weren’t bringing home the bacon. I suppose that at the end of the day I just have a hard time equating the corporate spirit of a McDonalds with the Bohemian ethos of the fin de siècle Moulin Rouge.

Author: Contributors

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