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I Miss When Artists Were Artists Instead of Marketing Machines

Art has always had an uneasy relationship with commercialism. But that’s the point: it’s supposed to be uneasy.

Laptops, books, teacher’s dirty looks: it’s back-to-school season again. Thankfully, we have Target’s TV advertising to help us get over our end-of-summertime blues. You know the commercials: “You say hello, and I say good buy” (italics added). Ah, such a clever play on the Beatles “hello/goodbye” lyrics, such a droll and witty adaptation. If Dorothy Parker watches TV from the Algonquin Round Table in the Sky, I’m sure she’s simply seething with jealousy.

As far as I’m concerned, there’s been only one acceptable use of a rock or pop song in a television commercial: when the Heinz commercials played Carly Simon’s “Anticipation” behind the visual of ketchup s-l-o-w-l-y pouring out of the bottle. Now, that was fun and memorable—so much so that the company did a twist on the campaign decades later with its upside down squeeze bottle (no anticipation this time around). And, maybe—just maybe— I could make an exception for Microsoft’s use of the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” to launch Windows 95. But that’s it.

As far as Target’s blatant mangling of Beatles’ lyrics, we have Michael Jackson partially to blame. Let other people rail against MJ because he went from adorable child star to freaky adult and allegedly prefers the companionship of young boys and once dangled his baby off the balcony of his hi-rise hotel room balcony. I care that he owns part of the Beatles catalogue and was the one to start allowing companies to license their songs for commercial use. That’s the real reason he deserves his fall from grace.

Let others curse split personality Miley “Hannah Montana” Cyrus for making $25 million last year and posing suggestively for Vanity Fair and dating or not dating one of the Jonas Brothers (who, as it happens, had a song on the Hello/Goodbuy commercials). I care that one day recently, when I had the TV on in the background, I looked up to see Miley being interviewed and heard her refer to her “demographic”. Not her audience, not her fans—her demographic. What ever happened to the dividing line between art and commerce?

Why must we know how much Brad Pitt makes per picture or how much The Dark Knight pulled in opening weekend? Why do we even know the importance of opening weekend? These used to be the concerns of movie chieftains, reported in the industry rag, Variety. Now, everyone’s going around talking like the guys from Entourage about box office returns and product placements and A-list vs. B-list celebrities.

Art has always had an uneasy relationship with commercialism. But that’s the point: it’s supposed to be uneasy. There should be an epic struggle between the artist’s desire to create work that’s pure and his or her desire for fame and adulation and money. I’m not advocating the romantic “ideal” of the starving artist. I don’t want artists dying penniless and in obscurity like the horribly underappreciated during her time Zora Neale Hurston.

I don’t even mind artists enjoying the mansions and yachts and private islands they’ve earned through their art. But once I start seeing them primarily as business people rather than artists, it’s like I’ve witnessed something I wish I hadn’t, like a strand of (unfamiliar) hair in the pasta primavera I’m eating in a favorite restaurant.

Shouldn’t artists have some sense of propriety, even shame? American actors and actresses used to do the right thing by slinking off to Japan to make an easy mil appearing in TV commercials that would only run there. They didn’t want American audiences to see them starring in “roles” that were beneath them and clearly just for the money. Now, Nicole Kidman shills for Chanel, Halle Berry for Revlon, Angelina Jolie for St. John—even Francis Ford Coppola, that former rebel against the system, for Louis Vuitton.

And commercials for weight loss programs used to rely on stars who’ve lost some of their luster like Kirstie Alley or Valerie Bertinelli. But, now, even current stars like Queen Latifah don’t mind being associated with something as decidedly unglamorous as pre-packaged microwaveable food. What’s next? Shirley MacLaine advertising Depends? Michael Douglas promoting Viagra?

But it goes even beyond performers serving as spokespersons. Throughout history, there was the artist and “the man”. Van Gogh created magical paintings, his brother Theo tried to sell them. Now the artist is the man. Take someone like J. Lo, who made an amazing transition from a “fly girl” on In Living Color to movie actress, pop star, and producer.

But why stop there? Next came the multiple clothing lines, accessories, jewelry, perfumes, and a restaurant. Ditto Jay-Z and Sarah Jessica Parker, etc., etc. If you’re not a mogul, you’re a nobody.

Note to artists: Fool us like you used to, please. Let us think that money is of little concern to you or that “the suits” made you do embarrassing things for money against your will, rather than you did it willingly, you little hussy. Why must everything be out in the open? Put a shirt on it! Why can’t we play the game where you deceive us and we go along with the deception, and you know that we know?

If you want to maintain your good standing with us, allow us to be in denial about your mercenary ways. Denial is good, denial is healthy. In fact, the benefits of denial as an effective defense mechanism were brought to light in a New York Times article published last November. It was titled, “Denial Makes the World Go Round”. Amen to that.

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