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From Collaboration to Theft: What Happens When Art and Advertising Collide

Last week, the Texas Department of Transportation ordered the removal of a new large-scale sculpture designed by contemporary artist Richard Phillips for Playboy Enterprises, on the grounds that Playboy had not solicited a permit for a public advertisement. Titled Playboy Marfa, the work sits along a stretch of US Highway 90 outside of Marfa, Texas, and is comprised of a 1972 Dodge Charger sitting on a plinth next to a giant neon rendering of the Playboy logo.

Since the sculptor Donald Judd first arrived there in the early ’70s, Marfa has been home to a small, exceedingly spirited community of artists and other creative workers. The Lannan Foundation has sponsored a writers-in-residence program, the Crowley Fountation boosts public theatrical productions and workshops, and, in addition to the work and exhibition spaces Judd left behind, the gallery scene is booming. When it was unveiled last month, many local residents thought Playboy Marfa smacked of commercialism, going against the art-for-art’s-sake values that made Marfa great.

It’s unclear what Playboy’s response will be — a PR rep asserted to the El Paso Times that the installation does not violate any laws — but a likely defense is that Phillips’s sculpture is not a work of public advertising, but a work of public art, or at least a happy marriage between the two. Playboy Marfa purports to be much more than a giant billboard, and the message from Phillips and Playboy is that their collaboration will take nothing away from Marfa’s reputation as an arts homestead.

Playboy has always presented itself as art-friendly. In the past, the company has commissioned work by Roy Lichtenstein and Helmut Newton, and their corporate collection of painting and sculpture is huge. Speaking to ARTINFO a few weeks ago, Phillips said he was using the iconography of the Playboy brand as his “palette,” as if to suggest he was applying a unique comment about the adult media company and their aesthetic legacy from within. In other words, he doesn’t think of Playboy Marfa as a piece of advertising, so much as a piece of art about advertising.

Never mind that Phillips is being paid by Playboy to improve the cultural cachet of their brand, which fits the definition of an advertisement comfortably. Like it or hate it, adverising attracts some very talented people. Whoever writes the copy for those Manhattan Mini Storage billboards deserves a friggin’ Nobel prize. Have you seen the commercials Errol Morris made for Miller and Adidas? Beyond brilliant. Drew Magary wrote a brief list for Gawker of advertising vets that included Joseph Heller and Salman Rushdie, and lest we forget, the vast majority of Ridley Scott’s working hours have been devoted to making commercials for TV. In addition to this, the advertising world has co-opted a great many artists who are mainly known for their non-commercial work — both with and without their permission.

Salvador Dalí

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[Image via Phaidon]

Founded by Enric Bernat in 1958, Chupa Chups is credited as the first candy company to sell sweets on a stick, and was among the first companies to broach the idea of marketing candy to children (instead of keeping them on tall shelves, Bernat sought to have the lollipops placed by the cash register). Bernat also sought the services of Salvador Dalí, who created the candy’s logo, still in use, and insisted that it be placed from the top of the candy, rather than the side, for maximum visibility.