Sunday, June 25

Art vs. Advertising: An epic battle between art dweebs and advertising grunts

Art and advertising frequently intersect, and sometimes it's hard to tell one from the other. Many artists find this trend alarming and call their colleagues who seek a career in advertising "sellouts." But are they? If so, how? What does it mean to sell out?

Under the auspices of the Portland Advertising Federation, I conceived and developed a town hall style debate that sought answers to these questions.

I contacted performance artist/ad professional Andrew Dickson, who was developing a show for the Time-Based Art Festival that would also delve into these issues. Andrew agreed to host the debate and DJ Chris Rhodes put together a pre-event music and slide show that dealt with the uneasy relationship that artists have with advertising. The event took place at Disjecta and received additional exposure via podcast and its own blog so that the discussion could continue after the house lights went down. "Art vs. Advertising" sold out (no pun intended), response was extremely positive, and I was asked by the PAF Board of Directors to organize a series of like debates for the 2006-07 season.

Review in The Oregonian, June 26, 2006:
From 'eBay Power Seller' to the trendy art of selling out
By Brian Libby
Last September, Andrew Dickson's unusual combination of performance art and business seminar, "AC Dickson: eBay Power Seller," was one of the most talked-about works at the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art's Time-Based Art festival.

Dressed in thick glasses and a cheap tie, Dickson played a character named AC, who offered tips on online auctioning via eBay, using a PowerPoint presentation, that ubiquitous tool of bland business presentations. Part fiction, part himself, Dickson created a satirical character study in "Power Seller," but what made Dickson's work particularly fascinating was trying to figure out where Andrew ended and AC began.

On Thursday evening, Dickson was back in command of a PowerPoint projector for an event called "Art vs. Advertising." This time the host was solely Andrew -- AC apparently was taking the night off. Held at the decaying Templeton building, an old warehouse adjacent to the Burnside Bridge terminus that is set to be renovated as home to the budding arts organization Disjecta, the performance was lit by a sunset that shimmered through the warehouse's broken windows onto blemished wood floors and concrete columns, a kind industrial-chic picture postcard.

Sponsored by the Portland Advertising Federation (no doubt attracted to the street cred of the dusty, rusty locale), "Art vs. Advertising" consisted of a brief, quarter-hour lecture about the intersection of creativity and commerce. But Dickson began by describing his own recent crisis of conscience.

Soon after the TBA festival, the artist was approached by local advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy to create a persona similar to AC for use in a Nike commercial. "AC got paid!" Dickson told the audience, prompting a laugh. "For one month's work, I got more than I ever had made in a year -- and more than as an artist I made in 10 years."

Still, he second-guessed the decision. Growing up a punk rock fan in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, Dickson had idolized local rockers Fugazi, who were acclaimed as much for shunning offers from major record labels as for their music. But it's easy to be pious, Dickson ultimately reasoned, when you're selling millions of albums.

After telling his story, Dickson let the audience take over. In a game he called "Sellout or no Sellout?" the faces of famous artists from The Beatles to Blue Man Group appeared onscreen as Dickson invited audience judgment. Was Andy Warhol a sellout? "He turned selling out into an art form," one audience member quipped. Furthermore, Dickson reasoned, "Andy Warhol was also a great brand."

Next up: musician Sting, who licensed his song "Desert Rose" for a Jaguar car commercial (in which he also appeared) after it was ignored by radio stations. The song then became a hit. Was Sting 1) a sellout 2) merely clever, or 3) both? A song by the internationally popular Portland band the Shins played in a McDonald's commercial. "I happen to know," Dickson argued, "that they used that money to build a recording studio they made their next album in. It's a lot about intent."

Toward the end, Art vs. Advertising transitioned from philosophical questions of artistic integrity to a more practical consideration of how artists and advertisers could work together. One almost expected an exchange of business cards.

Dickson continues to succeed by enlivening dreary, familiar office communication methods with self-reflexive wit and a vast reservoir of pop cultural references at his disposal. Thursday's topic also seemed particularly relevant considering Portland's current influx of young creatives, many of whom will face similar quandaries.

"People should get over the taboos of selling out," the artist said wryly. "This is a good time to be a CEO." It's because one senses Dickson will never be completely sure about such a conclusion that his exploration resonates.

Interview with Andrew Dickson, The Portland Mercury, June 22, 2006:
Art vs. Advertising Debate
By John Motley

When the Portland Advertising Federation made plans for a town hall-style discussion between artists and advertisers, they drafted the Portland/LA-based artist Andrew Dickson to host it. It was an obvious choice. Dickson's performances, such as AC Dickson: eBay PowerSeller, skewer corporate culture with mock seminars that often employ PowerPoint presentations. Then again, that performance landed him a gig working on a Wieden+Kennedy ad campaign for Nike. When he plays a "Phil Donahue-like moderator" this Thursday, he'll be incorporating components from his new performance, Sell Out.

What got you thinking about Sell Out?
It really came from thinking about how to balance one's personal ambitions and the reality of adulthood. The reality of how many artists this society is willing to pay for is very miniscule. I began to wonder, "Do artists deserve to make a living?" If so, then the future of arts funding has to be through corporations.

Can corporations really aid in art making?
Look at an organization like the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, which receives a tremendous amount of corporate sponsorship. They simply couldn't do what they do if they refused that support or maintained a DIY approach.

I'm thinking of advertising now. Do you think good art should be overtly manipulative?
Some argue that it has to be. Think of Picasso's "Guernica." It's accessible and emotional to the point of being manipulative. Bad art is that which isn't manipulative, that doesn't have a strong point of view.

Where do you see the lines between art and advertising being blurred in compelling ways?
I see artists straddling that line in modern photography and documentary filmmaking. For example, Errol Morris did a Miller campaign. I think what is ultimately important is that these artists maintain a distinct voice and point of view, whether they're doing a shoot for a magazine or showing photographs in a gallery. In both settings, they're still looking for consumers.