Thursday, June 09, 2005

The Art of Product Placement

Art Newspaper reports that the apparently cash-starved Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) has extended the lease of paintings by Manet, Sisley, Pissarro, Renoir, and Cézanne to Paperball, a company run by Pace-Wildenstein that "operates a pocket-sized exhibition space in the Bellagio casino in Las Vegas." I've seen the exhibition space in the Bellagio, and "pocket-sized" is a euphemism. And while I want to retch when I think about the context, at least the Bellagio admits its raison d'etre is entertainment.

In lieu of getting to see its Impressionist paintings, however, the MFA is offering its viewers an exhibition of cars. That's right, if Krens can offer Guggy viewers motorcycles, why can't MFA offer its patrons cars? Ah, but wait, these are no ordinary cars...this exhibition comes complete with built-in cross-promotional opportunities. Behold: "Speed, Style, and Beauty: Cars from the Ralph Lauren Collection." And, of course, it's worse than you think:

The vintage Mercedes, Bugattis and Ferraris are undeniably beautiful design objects, but unless the museum treats them as it does other categories of fine and decorative arts, the institution blurs its mission with those of commercial and entertainment venues. For the Ralph Lauren show, the MFA leans heavily in that direction, with Mr Lauren’s voice on the audio guide, and a catalogue interview that allows him to discuss how his cars relate to his merchandise, not to mention his company’s ad campaigns. (emphasis mine)

Of course, the museum will argue that design has its place in their program and that ticket sales prove they're just giving the public what it wants, but stunts like this eventually make the MFA, like the Guggenheim, a bit of a joke. As Mark Kostabi noted recently, when it comes to art, often "what you see is where you see it." In this case, Lauren may benefit from having his collection seen in the context of a museum that has a certain prestige, but unfortunately that transaction doesn't work in reverse. Lauren has no serious art-world-valued prestige to offer the museum, and neither do his cars, beautiful as they may be.

16 Comments:

Anonymous Macallan said...

You are right…

…and you are wrong.

Where you are right is in your emphasized quote: a catalogue interview that allows him to discuss how his cars relate to his merchandise, not to mention his company’s ad campaigns. How this relates to his wares has nothing whatsoever to do with the cars. The cars predate little Ralph Lifshitz' career; this would be like Alice Walton relating how Kindred Spirits relates to Walmart's merchandise and ad campaigns. It is in a word – bullshit.

Where I disagree is implication that these cars are somehow not exhibit worthy. They are remarkable works of art and I'd go to the show if I were anywhere near Boston. Ironically, the transaction would work to the benefit of both RL and MFA if the focus were on the cars rather than Faux Old Money Inc. aka Ralph Lauren. Imagine if the exhibit were called something like Art in Speed, Style and Motion or some such. Imagine further that the only mention of Mr. Lauren were in a tiny footnote and on a tiny tasteful plaque below each of his cars. From a branding point of view that does more to add to the cache of his crap than the way this is being promoted. From MFA's point of view they sell tickets instead of selling out. Would have been a win/win.

6/09/2005 02:27:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Where I disagree is implication that these cars are somehow not exhibit worthy. They are remarkable works of art and I'd go to the show if I were anywhere near Boston.

I didn't suggest they're not exhibit worthy...I just think there's a difference between fine art (which the museum proports to exhibit) and design. These cars may be "works of art" in the general sense that they're of the highest quality and represent aesthetic achievments, but they are not works of "Art." They are useful objects. "Art" cannot be (and I know I've gone rounds on that argument in blogs you read, but I sincerely believe that's an important demarcation).

6/09/2005 02:39:00 PM  
Anonymous crionna said...

OK, I'll buy that cars aren't Fine Art.

I'll bet that the museum thought that the Lauren name would bring in more visitors.

Then again, maybe Ralph's having his garage remodeled and needed some storage space...

6/09/2005 03:28:00 PM  
Anonymous Macallan said...

I just think there's a difference between fine art and design.

Agreed.

They are useful objects. "Art" cannot be

That distinction is far too arbitrary for me. I think it is a good yardstick that would apply well in most cases, but I think Art can be found nearly anywhere or in anything, though rarely is. Since MFA has had a musical instruments collection since 1917 would it seem that distinction is too arbitrary for them as well?

6/09/2005 03:50:00 PM  
Anonymous la artist said...

Arnold the Governor here recently held a press conference and there were corporate props around. One suggestion as a result was that campaigns be paid for by "endorsements" - the candidate could wear nikes, drink pepsi, etc. during debates or in public.

So after the shows at the Met, the motorcycles and cars, it would seem that politicians are simply following the path museums are taking and sports stadiums took before them.

I'm so tired of the banality of capitalism.

6/09/2005 04:04:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Since MFA has had a musical instruments collection since 1917 would it seem that distinction is too arbitrary for them as well?

Very good point. Let me figure out a reason that shouldn't change my mind here. ;p

One suggestion as a result was that campaigns be paid for by "endorsements" - the candidate could wear nikes, drink pepsi, etc. during debates or in public.

Truth in campaigning, eh? At least we'll know who's bought our leaders before their scandals break.

6/09/2005 04:36:00 PM  
Anonymous crionna said...

following the path museums are taking and sports stadiums took before them.

I'm a SF Giants season ticket holder and I actually wrote to SBC that the one way they could guarantee my business for a long time was to use the stadium name to honor veterans or something like that. No Dice.

6/09/2005 04:42:00 PM  
Anonymous la artist said...

Crionna, Good for you. It's not like sports is indigent. They make a good profit. Why also have to name a stadium after a business? My current hissy fit is the realization that I pay the cable company to watch ads. I assiduously avoid clothing with ads on it but cannot wiggle my way around this. Without cable I can't watch baseball!!! But back to art, I suspect museums are doing this not so much for money as to increase celebrity. If you can make money and increase your celebrity quotient, that's pretty close to heaven.

6/09/2005 05:46:00 PM  
Anonymous crionna said...

la artist, I think you have a point about celebrity. Celebrity seems to be what's driving nearly all of popular culture. Used to be that a designer could sell his/her wares to the mass market based on their appeal to the "elite". Now it seems celbrities have pre-empted that by desiging for themselves.

In a way it makes some sense in that what they buy now seems to drive popular purchasing. Saavy companies worked this angle hard. I remember attending a conference on selling to teens and one of the main speakers was a guy from Ford in charge of getting Focuses into the hands of hiphop artists. It was a key part of their launch strategy. You can still see this today with the Scion ads.

Was Liz the first actress to create a perfume? Now, it seems half of all scents are celebrity driven no?

6/09/2005 06:31:00 PM  
Anonymous henry said...

Interesting discussion. I attended the MFA's exhibit of cars during a recent trip to Boston, and thought the cars were beautiful and very much worth seeing. The MFA is probably suffering financially because it's a mediocre museum in all other respects. (Its contemporary and modern holdings are utterly pathetic, its historical holdings are "not all that," with the exception of its unequivocally brilliant Impressionism room, its Asian holdings are sparse, can I stop now?)

I'm visiting Philly now. There is a remarkable room of Jasper Johns works that span his entire career, and right next to it is a room of about 15 chairs, from cardboard chairs to recycled-plastic chairs, all built with what I guess is being called here an aesthetic of """design""" rather than """art""". I found the room fascinating and wonderful.

I would look very unkindly upon anyone that called the Philly museum mediocre. I enjoyed the Johns room, I enjoyed the chair room, and I even enjoyed the rebuilt French Chateau rooms in the other wings. I don't understand the need to bring ideology into this. At the risk of turning people away with a crude tautology, that worth seeing in a refined, edifying and pedagogical fashion is worth seeing in a refined, edifying and pedagogical fashion.

I hope no one would suggest the Chicago Institute and NY's Modern should burn their """design""" collections as well.

6/11/2005 09:58:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I don't understand the need to bring ideology into this.

Is this your first visit to a blog? Ideology is more or less the rasion d'etre for 95% of blogs. ;-)

At the risk of turning people away with a crude tautology, that worth seeing in a refined, edifying and pedagogical fashion is worth seeing in a refined, edifying and pedagogical fashion.

Well, to get even more crude about it: MFA can show anything they choose. In response, I can think less of them for it if I choose. It's really no more complicated than that. I've outlined my reasoning...to suggest there's no room for such reasoning, again, suggests you're new to this medium.

6/11/2005 06:55:00 PM  
Anonymous henry said...

Edward,

You made me chuckle. I've used the Internet and its precursors daily since 1986 or so. Maybe it's not that I'm new to the medium, but that I've had so much (and enough) of it. Life's like a mountain range. Those who've come down after having seen a peak are often indistinguishable from those who've not yet climbed it.

Do you think less of the Philly museum for placing a room of designer chairs next to a room of Jasper Johns works, the Brooklyn Museum for having a department full of decorative objects, or the Met Museum for having not only musical instruments -- like macallan astutely pointed out about the MFA -- but also for having decorative arts and costumes?

I hope museums aren't churches. One Pope and Grand Inquisitor is enough for me. Or perhaps the better comparison is to Puritanism.

Perhaps others have seen their fair share of exemplary cars at such automotive events as, I dunno, monster truck rallies and NASCAR cookouts, but since I've not been sufficiently fulfilled by those experiences, the MFA exhibit was a pleasure.

The real problem with the MFA isn't car exhibits, but a mediocre and staid permanent collection.

6/14/2005 06:45:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

You made me chuckle.

Happy to help.

I've used the Internet and its precursors daily since 1986 or so. Maybe it's not that I'm new to the medium, but that I've had so much (and enough) of it.

The "Internet" covers a lot of ground. Blogs, on the other hand, being a newer and evolving medium, are specifically for offering opinion. My comment was directly in response to your statement: "I don't understand the need to bring ideology into this." Ideology (in as much as that means "opinion") is the cornerstone of the medium. Not understanding the need to include the cornerstone of the medium struck me as humorous.

I hope museums aren't churches. One Pope and Grand Inquisitor is enough for me. Or perhaps the better comparison is to Puritanism.

MFA, and every other musuem, continues to tell us how seriously to take it with each new major exhibition it opens. If you can see it sell out to Ralph Lauren and still take it seriously, that's entirely up to you. If you can see it exhibit cars and still take it seriously, again, up to you.

If I can't take it quite as seriously after such a blatant sell out, well, with all due respect, that's up to me. You can disagree, but I don't understand your inability to understand why I feel that's important enough to note.

6/15/2005 09:47:00 AM  
Anonymous henry said...

I understand why you feel this is important to discuss. I however do not understand what distinction you see between an exhibit on cars -- whether they're owned by Ralph Lauren or the International Red Cross -- and the departments of design, musical instruments and costumes held by the most prestigious museums on earth. (The Vic & Al also comes to mind.)

An exhibit on cars, in and of itself, is meaningless. A well-run museum should be able to exhibit just about anything in a thoughtful manner without compromising its integrity. The MFA's integrity in my mind is more compromised by their poor holdings and curatorial habits than their choice of a single exhibit. You bring their history of exhibits into it, which I can't speak to. The last exhibits before the cars I recall at the MFA were large retrospectives on Goya and also on Monet, both many years ago.

You also introduce the term "sell out," which means you're concerned about money. May I take it that you are disappointed that all those years you've given so much of your own money to the MFA did not result in the museum becoming more financially secure? May I assume you think the MFA would be justified in starting to sell off some of its holdings, as they are of course so difficult to keep in storage, and lock up capital they could use for other purposes?

In fact I hope it's not unfair to say I wonder if you would not be first in line if Amnesty International displayed its collection of videos there in an effort to raise money for awareness of Guantanamo Bay, or if George Soros displayed his "historic numismatic collection" of international currency to raise money for MoveOn.org. Forgive me, but I begin to suspect it's not so much cars and "selling out" we're discussing here as it is Ralph Lauren.

P.S. I hope you're not trying to distinguish between the Internet and blogs with someone who has a masters degree in computer science, has been programming on the internet since 1992, has been involved in on-line discussion groups -- even ideological ones -- since the late 1980s, is currently a VP at an Internet company, and even helped a friend write their site's custom blogging software a couple of years ago. I'd find it more naive to insist that online discussion was invented with the advent of the blog. Sorry to give advice, but I hope you can stick to playing the ball, not the man.

I was only trying to say I've gotten tired of ideology, and find it neither attractive vis-a-vis blogging, nor conducive to debate. The fact that it exists in greater or lesser amount is unimportant. Its quantity does not determine or excuse its quality. As you are someone whose profile appears on the tacitus blog, I thought you would be familiar with thoughtful discourse in general.

The Gerhard Richter exhibit at MoMA a few years ago made a big impression on me, especially the wall text which described his distaste for all ideology. Whether he was sincere or not I don't know, but after years of internal debate, I've come to the same conclusion. You might be surprised at how many decent non-ideological blogs there are out there. Frankly it gets old after a while, trying to read about a subject and having people throw kitchen sinks at you, trying to control what you think, or hurt you for thinking "wrong."

6/15/2005 03:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Macallan said...

As you are someone whose profile appears on the tacitus blog, I thought you would be familiar with thoughtful discourse in general.

I can vouch for Edward's thoughtful discourse creds.

6/15/2005 03:24:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Thanks Mac.

You're a bit all over the place Henry, but I'll address the points you raise that interest me and ignore the ones that don't (see how that works...it means I don't have to lecture you on ideology or any such tiresome topic):

P.S. I hope you're not trying to distinguish between the Internet and blogs with someone who has a masters degree in computer science,

[snark]Normally I'd assume that's unnecessary,[/snark] but if I continue along those lines, I'll be entering Snarkville and that was never my intent with regards to responding to your original statement.

When you said it made you "chuckle" I was pleased...my response was meant to be light hearted in suggesting you're not familiar with the medium (it was a self-depricating retort on my part...think about it).

FTR, though, I actually don't mind lecturing even someone with Masters in Computer Science on Mass Communications, given that's my area of expertise...in other words, there is a difference between the technology and the way it's used.

Despite the handful of non-ideological blogs I'm sure you can point to, overwhelmingly Web Logs are used as journals...personal opinions on subjects that folks are interested in.

You're smart Henry, so I hope you'll stick around, but you're a bit condescending...and whereas I normally respond to such 'tude on Tacitus with snark, I'd rather not let this site lean that way too much. In other words, if you disagree with my opinion, say so, but please stop short of lecturing folks with personal web logs on what approach their posts should take.

With regards to the issue at hand.

In fact I hope it's not unfair to say I wonder if you would not be first in line if Amnesty International displayed its collection of videos there in an effort to raise money for awareness of Guantanamo Bay, or if George Soros displayed his "historic numismatic collection" of international currency to raise money for MoveOn.org.

"Unfair" doesn't come into it. I'd run from either exhibition. Ick.

You were close with your "puritan" comment above. I'm a purist about art (I've stated so frequently).

Other quick point:

* V&A's mission includes design, so that's not the best example.
* The musical instruments in MFA would be a good example if they had ever offered an exhibition of equal profile to the cars one...they haven't to my knowledge.
* A well-run museum should be able to exhibit just about anything in a thoughtful manner without compromising its integrity. ...only if it's the Museum of Just About Anything...MFA is the museum of "Fine Art"...those words are not synonymous with "Just About Anything"
* I was only trying to say I've gotten tired of ideology, and find it neither attractive vis-a-vis blogging, nor conducive to debate. Fair enough...and good way to introduce yourself. But it's still not a license to tell me not to introduce ideology when I see the call for it.
* Frankly it gets old after a while, trying to read about a subject and having people throw kitchen sinks at you, trying to control what you think, or hurt you for thinking "wrong." Not at all sure how you got that from my insistence that "If you can see it exhibit cars and still take it seriously, again, up to you." but I'll make a note that you're ideology-alleric. ;p

6/15/2005 04:08:00 PM  

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