Monday, August 21, 2006

Muthaf***in' Ads in My Muthaf***in' Art

We saw the phenomenon (that the Times reports actually wasn't quite such) that is Snakes on a Plane (SoaP) this past weekend. In case you've missed the buzz, it represents a new effort, if not exactly new achievement, in the Internet marketing of a film. From Wikipedia:

The film's title and premise generated a lot of pre-release interest on the Internet. One journalist even wrote that Snakes on a Plane is "perhaps the most internet-hyped [sic] film of all time."[5] Much of the initial publicity came from a blog entry made by screenwriter Josh Friedman, who had been offered a chance to work on the script.[6] The casting of popular actor Samuel L. Jackson further increased anticipation. At one point, the film's working title was altered to Pacific Air Flight 121. In August 2005, a perturbed Samuel L. Jackson told an interviewer, "We're totally changing that back. That's the only reason I took the job: I read the title."[7] In another interview in early 2006, Jackson claimed that once he learned about the movie title being changed he said: "What are you doing here? It's not Gone with the Wind. It's not On the Waterfront. It's Snakes on a Plane!"[8] On March 2, 2006, the studio reverted the title to Snakes on a Plane.

In recognition of the unprecedented Internet buzz for what had been a minor movie in their 2006 line-up, New Line Cinema ordered five days of additional shooting in early March 2006[3] (principal photography had wrapped in September 2005). While re-shoots normally imply problems with a film, the producers opted to add new scenes to the film to take the movie from PG-13 into R-rated territory and bring the movie in line with growing fan expectations. Among the additions is a line that originated as an Internet parody of Samuel L. Jackson's traditional movie persona: "Enough is enough! I have had it with these muthafuckin' snakes on this muthafuckin' plane!".[3]
As perhaps evidence of the notion that it pays* to give the people what they want, that parody-turned-tagline drew the loudest applause (among much) from the audience when we saw it. (*Despite noting that the studio was disappointed with the total box-office take for the film, the Times article still acknowledges that it was the #1 film this past weekend.)

Now I have to admit to having gone from incipient disgust to begrudging respect for the evolution of this film and particularly its marketing. Embodied by Jackson's very clear sense of what the film was, and what it wasn't, the whole approach here seems rather sophisticated, if not exactly emulating-worthy. Later, over margaritas and quesadillas, our friend "Wilfred" noted how it was further evidence that we're in the Golden Age of "Art as Advertising." In the very first scene of SoaP, a character chugs a carefully held can of Red Bull that is later thrown down onto a table, landing ever-so-just-so that the audience couldn't help but laugh. And while that seems revolting on one level, if you're aware of it, then it's hard to pinpoint exactly why it's so wrong. The previous weekend, for example, we had seen the absolutely brilliant
Talladega Nights (truly, this is one of the smartest comedies out there, folks, skewering Bush's America with a razor sharp wit), which managed to make fun of product placement even as it clearly capitalized on it.

But mulling all this over, I recalled what
paulraphael had noted on our previous thread about the debatable line between "fine art" and "popular culture":

I think the whole "art" vs. "mass culture" thing is a false dichotomy. "art" describes something's functional role in a culture; "mass culture" describes its popularity and broad influence. So it's easy to imagine something being one, the other, neither, or both.

I just saw "Pulp Fiction" again, and it provided a great example. This winner at Cannes fits all my standards for a fine example of Art with a capital A. It also became a centerpiece of pop culture (as it celebrated pop culture, and used pop culture as a mine for its raw material ... but that's perhaps another story).

So it happened to be shown more in mulitplexes than in art houses ... so it wasn't in Italian with subtitles ... so it had a narrative structure. These superficial markers might suggest to some people that it belongs to the mass culture camp and not the art camp, but ultimately they don't mean anything.

I'm sure anyone here can find other examples of works that comfortably straddle both descriptions. And works the fit one and clearly not the other. And works that probably fit neither. The pancakes I made for breakfast today were delicious, but I submit that few would consider them either the stuff of art or mass culture.

So where's the competition? Is there any substance to it at all?
And so I began to think that if "Art" and "Mass Culture" are interchangable, then can product placement in "fine art" be far behind? I mean, I assume we're not eliminating a film like "Pulp Fiction" from the "fine art" category just because, despite Tarantino's general aversion to product placment, "Vincent Vega rolls his own cigarettes using Drum, a real brand of tobacco." And, although it's debatable as to whether it really constitutes "product placment" in it's purest form, there's no forgetting the lengthy discusison about McDonalds and Burger King in the film.

Does one instance of product placement make a film or other mass culture effort ineligible for the "fine art" category? That seems silly. But if it is silly, then why shouldn't "fine art" include product placement intentionally? It could provide much needed funding for starving artists, and, so long as it's done with a wink and a nudge, as it is in Talladega Nights, what's the problem?

Products are already placed in art. From the Coke bottles in
Rauschenberg's combine to virtually any subject in the works by Pop artists, what's really the difference between using mass culture as subject and endorsing the product anyway? I mean if Cambells Soup Company can embrace Andy Warhol's critique (they actually use it to tout their legendary status [pdf file]), then isn't artistic integrity subject to the whims of chronology anyhow? Wouldn't it make more sense to get out ahead of Madison Avenue?

OK, so yes, I'm being a bit facetious, but after spending some serious time thinking about whether such efforts exist already, I've come to the conclusion that it's only a matter of time before the product-buying audience art reaches will lead to us to this sooner or later. Anyone know of any cases where it does already?


Blogger AFC said...

I tend blog as though Art and Mass Culture are interchangeable, even though my official position is not yet. If product placement were an inevitable reality in art, I’m sure Jeff Koons would already be capitalizing on it.

That said, that guy is on the old side for those whom are Internet savvy, so I think if we are to speculate on whether product placement is inevitable in the fine art world, we have to consider how effectively things move off the Internet. I think it is still very unclear if products can make this transition. Snakes on a Plane, did well in the box office, but this is one of many pictures this year, where the press was not given the opportunity to screen before it hit the box office. A movie that makes all its money in the first week, and then falls into obscurity is not really a giant win for the nerdocracy. I don’t think we can say yet that Internet Culture can survive outside the web, which to my mind means product placement in art is by no means inevitable.

8/21/2006 10:31:00 AM  
Blogger AFC said...

PS Can you believe there is a book on the Internet phenomenon of Snakes on a Plane? Who reads a book on how to surf the Internet?

8/21/2006 10:43:00 AM  
Anonymous paul said...

Films have product placement is because they usually cost millions of dollars to make. It's accepted because it's often necessary to fund it. And you almost always have to have product props anyway, so changing the brand name on a prop typically has minimal impact on the movie.

I think that there already is art with product placement, and it's the advertising industry. There are some awesome, smart, and beautiful ads out there, why don't you show them in your gallery and make some fat benjamins? ;o)

8/21/2006 11:18:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

Product placement is something companies pay for to position their products. It's a form of advertising. I don't think Warhol's and Rauschenberg's uses of commercial products really qualify, since they weren't (as far as I know) paid to put them in their work. The fact that they were later embraced by the manufacturers is a different issue. The business that seems like they should have benefitted most from RR's work is taxidermists :)

8/21/2006 11:37:00 AM  
Blogger Joseph Barbaccia said...

I once tried to get Crayola Crayons to help me produce a self-protrait built from thheir crayons. (see it here: I received some interest but eventually they decided that the piece didn't mesh with their target market demographics' age. I even offered to leave the wrappers on the crayons. I eventually removed them before I built the piece.

8/21/2006 02:23:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Product placement is something companies pay for to position their products. It's a form of advertising. I don't think Warhol's and Rauschenberg's uses of commercial products really qualify, since they weren't (as far as I know) paid to put them in their work.

I'm sorry if it reads as though I thought they do qualify. I simply meant to say that, as an art-making media/ingredient, commercial products have a precedent.

Then, my thinking becomes somewhat nonlinear here though.

If, for example, an artist knows that by putting a product in a work the maker of that product is likely to endorse the work and, oh say, use it in their annual report which will go out to all their stockholders who will essentially be introduced to this artist's work via a vehicle they're prone to associate trust and profit with (and which may increase their interest in purchasing work by said artist), then in a not-too-indirect way, that artist is profiting from the use of that product in their work. So why wait...why not cut a deal with the company and get on with it? (well, ok, so Joseph's experience suggests it isn't as easy as all that, but you see what I mean).

Films have product placement is because they usually cost millions of dollars to make.

Not all of them. Some raise that money the old fashioned way (yes, they still whore themselves out) but they keep that off the screen.

8/21/2006 03:10:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

What about vodka at openings. That is the fine art equivalent of product placement. Sad part is they don't pay much, just a free drink, and ask an awful lot, control of the event to the extent they can inject their spokesmodels.

One of our greatest and most wonderful collectors in LA is the man (and his wife) behind all that product placement, Gary Mezzatesta. So the product placement money does find it's way into the artworld, but the right way round. What do you know!

8/21/2006 03:52:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

If, for example, an artist knows that by putting a product in a work the maker of that product is likely to endorse the work and, oh say, use it in their annual report which will go out to all their stockholders who will essentially be introduced to this artist's work via a vehicle they're prone to associate trust and profit with (and which may increase their interest in purchasing work by said artist)...

Any idea where I can get a bunch of Rolls Royce hood ornaments?

8/21/2006 04:07:00 PM  
Anonymous eleventh hour said...

its funny how art and film operate at opposing ends of the cultural spectrum. painters are strangely dependent on ironic cultural references, while film makers are shamelessly involved in the problem of popular culture. as artists we latch on to movies like 'taledega nights' and 'snakes on a plane' and directors like q tarentino because we think we are learning something from them, we wink at each other as if there were some kind of sociological message buried in the rubble of cliches. as artists we will never yield to product placement simply because we have positioned ourselves within the culture at a place that makes us feel superior, and that place is so fuckin fragile.

8/21/2006 11:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Product placement is an issue of case by case.

It really depends on the specific product presented, how it is being presented, and how it contributes, contravenes or rests inoffensive
regarding the intention of the artist.

I think the last Cai Guo-Qiang masterpiece Inopportune had a product placement as if I'm not mistaken the car company was sponsoring the event (Ford Tausurus), but really that fact wasn't permeating much to the understanding of the work, and actually the cars looked pretty bland as they were all white
(when you do art of this scale you probably need a little sponsoring).

On the other hand take Gilles Mihalcean, canadian sculptor who had his retro at Montreal's MAC
a while back, and also participated in a public art event called Artcite from same museum. He did a "sculpture" with a "Saab" car because they were sponsoring the event, but it did very little to the car itself, which was flamboyantly shining and set up
with few details around some wheel, the driver's seat, the front lights, etc... It was a sculpture but it looked somehow too much like a commercial command, a reason or pretext to sell a car in the context of contemporary arts. So to my mind that work wasn't an interesting encounter, it failed, but mostly perhaps because the artist respected the original car way too much and lend it the center of attention.

In cases of critics like Warhol I find it hardly possible that it could've been sponsored by Campbell. They are ethics that can function like iron walls. Christo are pretty aware of them judging from their site's manifesto.

But looking at how pop art was received as mere fun nowaday I am not surprised that it is being recycled by commerce, and I wouldnt be surprised eitheir that mass design surpasses Warhol by aesthetic means, which as that other guy mentioned earlier about publicities being sometimes worthy of artistic merit, is also a matter that should be scrutinized thoroughly.

Did Ellsworth Kelly surpassed the coca-cola bottle when he took influenced from it in his early abstractions or was it always the coca-cola bottle that looked so sharp? Is the product you are placing inherently better than your art?

(or is your art a necessity to understand or gather its marvelousness? a way to synthesize and simplify the new forms that are actually invading culture but are left unobserved because we are mere self-obsessed categorists unable to evaluate the interesting shapes of that cool pogo stick transfixed on our eyes?)


Cedric Caspesyan

8/22/2006 03:02:00 AM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

The popular art / fine art division is blurry and changeable; Michelangelo's Cistine Chapel work was the blockbuster movie of its day.

Product placement works in movies because the movie distribution infrastructure stacks the odds that many will see the placement, so it functions as an ad.

There's (as yet?) no similar infrastructure for distributing contemporary fine art. Its propagators have gone to some lengths to maintain a somewhat elite culture, perhaps to maintain high 'ticket price'.

Even so, the thought of a gallery offering large low-cost prints through a viable infrastructure -- read Wal-Mart -- seems off. Imagine 2 x 3 foot Jenny Saville prints; the market's too small. Which successful gallery would steer its vision toward popular culture to make that work?

I just don't see how it would pay off, although it's an interesting idea.

8/22/2006 09:12:00 AM  
Anonymous J.T. Kirkland said...

I'm not sure I have the answer, but how far away from "product placement" in art are commissions? Of course there are a variety of types of commissions - some with more requirements than others - but if an artist is commissioned to paint a portrait of someone, isn't that "product placement" of a sort? The artist is being paid to include something in their work that they would likely not include otherwise.

Is it then lesser art?

8/22/2006 09:40:00 AM  
Anonymous paul said...

Although liquor companies sponsoring openings makes me cringe, it's not product placement in art. I've seen sponsored art plenty of times, where the ad is next to the art. There was a website that got posted on the front page of Rhizome a few months back that was an ad with art videos on it, and it tricked Rhizome because the advertising was subtle (for PSP). But still there was no advertising in the actual art videos. And there's this call for entries for Victory Media Network in Dallas where they'll be running digital art on their outdoor screens 50% of the time. Guess what'll be shown the other 50%?

But I think this is the closest it'll get. I can't imagine anybody's going to take art seriously that really includes product placement unless the product placement is the art, or some other kind of jackass project like that.

8/22/2006 11:30:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As long as language is liquid, it can't hurt!
Strongly articulated language, personally felt and adept, combined with an art that is figured to shine via an external primitive conviction, logistically, language which assesses art via the known can only find good, or bad.
The word is---as good as the work, as is language, the best is to meet in the dark, in a lonely alley!

8/23/2006 09:38:00 AM  

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