The Artist And The Businessman: A Tale Of The Art World, Corporate Sponsors, And Censorship

The Artist And The Businessman

Transmission L.A. came to Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art a few weeks ago and seemed to take the art world and the entire city by storm. It was a celebration of hyper-contemporary artistic voices who use video and moving shapes and light to make art. It also tied in audio and visuals, something that came with it being curated by The Beastie Boys’ Mike D. There were huge celebrity performances from Santigold to James Murphy to Diplo to Thom Yorke: it became a cultural entity beyond the art world.

This was a huge win for everyone. It was a win for MOCA, a museum that has been on top of the local and international art world since luring Jeffrey Deitch out West to run their show. It was a win for the city of Los Angeles, a city that we personally champion everyday on Los Angeles, I’m Yours that is quickly evolving into a destination for contemporary art and culture. It was also a win for art in general, the work being shared truly remarkable pieces, groundbreaking and fun and what should be happening at contemporary art museums.

Oh, it was also a win for Mercedes.

Wait, it was a win for who? Mercedes? How is that so? Well, Mercedes were the people who wrote the check for the show. So, in addition to the aforementioned, it was a win for the car brand as well. This isn’t a big deal because someone had to pay for it and smart of MOCA to get a huge corporation to front the bill on an event that everyone can shake their head yes in confirmation that it was a critical, financial, and cultural success. Examining what they did is smart considering they brought both the art aware and culturally curious audiences into their space–and did it at no cost for them aside from a few slightly appropriate, unobtrusive giant Mercedes logos that looked like rapper chains.

The closing of the show saw an art happening within the art happening, something that our friend who works with MOCA Felipe Lima was behind. He invited us to the event and, because it sounded fantastic, we helped publicize it and knew we had to be there for. The art happening was BYOB, which stands for “Bring Your Own Beamer,” beamer meaning projector and a clever “Look what we did!” to Mercedes by MOCA. It focused on video art, creating a moving collage at the front of the show that blurred where the show started and ended, making it nearly impossible to see who was part of what show. You can see more about BYOB here.

The Artist And The Businessman

While we were there, speaking with Felipe and a few other MOCA/not-MOCA people, we watched Adam Katz’s brilliant BYOB installation of a BMW car broadcast from every angle onto a wall. We all laughed about it and applauded Katz on his work because it really was great. The time we got there was two hours after the festivities started, the piece being up for some time. Felipe and Adam both told us this almost mythic story how another artist had done a piece with a Peugeot, which was shut down by Mercedes as a conflict of interest. We shook our heads, a little baffled and confused and of course somewhat offended for the artist, but we let it be: it happens. If your grandfather is paying for your college education and you wear a shirt to school that says “MY OTHER GRANDFATHER IS BETTER,” he would be upset that you wore it and ask you to take it off. We get it. Not what we’d do, sure, but who were we to stop it?

As we stood there speaking about it, a Mercedes chained woman came and told Adam to shut his work down. I urged Bobby to take a video of it because it obviously wasn’t right and we all then chatted about how shitty it was when she left. But, obviously, there wasn’t anything any of us could do about it: what if we turned it back on? We’d all probably get ejected from the show. What if we all ganged up on the Mercedes person about artistic freedoms? We could have won–but was it worth it? Probably not. What if we (i.e., the artist) just turned on another piece he made? That’d be fine–and that’s exactly what Adam did. He handled it like a pro and, despite the bitter taste and people protesting there, dealt with it.

That is not what happened to the Peugeot making artist though. He–Chris Silva–spoke with the press, becoming a poster child for artists being wronged in Los Angeles, biting MOCA for letting a business step atop of an artist. The article is a very candid interview that opted to be a little attention grabbing, perhaps only representing an artist who really wanted to be heard and a journalistic institution who wanted to ride a wave (when they were not actually present at the BYOB event). They posed clever statements like, “Censorship in the name of advertising without competition is so boring and square, it is a real dumbing down of the evil elitist vibe that museums try to cultivate in the absence of any actual power to influence society.” and “This to me is a classic case of the corporate world trying to flex its muscle on the ‘nobodies’.” Sure, yes, sure, OK: it wronged an artist, it is a textbook example of something that should not happen in art, and it did happened–not once–but twice.

The Artist And The Businessman

This article then opened the floodgates to everyone wanting to talk about it, most notably art blog Notes On Looking and Art Info. Both raise their pitchforks and nooses, wanting Deitch’s head and wanting everyone to know that he and the institution are lazy, pandering, opportunistic, and just bad. They highlight issues and gripes that seem to be exemplified by a Facebook group liked by four people that likens Deitch to an “ass clown.”

Now. Let’s digest this. These articles are obviously performances to elicit nothing else but drama, to elicit more press. They exemplify the idea of old world art versus new world art, “line item on CV” even being mentioned seriously and participation in the show being akin to something easily lied about. The question that arises from this is why bother? If it was a joke to begin with in the mind and something that was just diminished to an easily made up item in a list of shows, why participate? Especially in a show that you would have had to have known was being paid for by cars: this is like walking into a gay bar with a “GOD HATES FAGS” sign. There is a huge chance you will get shut down and you are very aware of what you are doing. And, obviously, that happened.

The articles very quickly talk about the respect to the wallet fronting the bill. However, it’s taken very lightly, almost like a joke. Sure, you can spit garbage at this–but it is who paid for the event to happen. Art21 wrote a story that likened it to a shiftily powered machine that was less interesting than a fundraiser Art21 had. This sounds like splitting hairs: who cares who benefits from the money? If Mercedes gets cash, cool. If Mike D gets cash, cool. If MOCA gets cash, cool. What does it matter? People got to see free, good art. Since when is that a bad thing? So what there was a room with a car? No one cared. Everyone rolled their eyes and walked out or enjoyed it. The collaboration between the art world and the business world got tons of the city to experience art that they otherwise may never have gotten to see. Who watched the people mime around the Art21 live telethon camera? I would say maybe a tiny handful of people, those people being people with money and with their head in the (old) fine art world.

Transmission and MOCA represent a very new, current, modern approach to art making and sharing. And, in order to do cool things, you need big money. Who made money is irrelevant at the end of the day–but, who paid the bill to make the show possible does matter as it gave them some power. It’s as if you paid a person to paint your portrait. If your portrait comes out and is not to your liking and is bad, you would shut it down. That is the exact thing that happened with the Peugeot and the BMW: the person paying for it did not like it and it was shut down. Sucks but that’s life.

The Artist And The Businessman

And, let’s be real: if Mercedes offered Huffington Post’s art section or Notes On Looking or Art Info or Art21 big money to do what they do at the cost of a little logo on their site or at the top or bottom of their show, would they deny that? Especially if they could get their artistic message to a broader, younger, culturally curious audience? I would say they would take it or at least seriously entertain it, negotiating where their voices and the corporate voices stack up in the conversation. If they approached me? I would take it and run. I would know that there would be some restrictions and I would know that I could get my message heard more and also have my tab paid to do cool shit. The reality is that corporations with big money want to get into cool art, paying for people to be creative. Why else did Bank of America fund Pacific Standard Time? Why is Sonos involved in making an art space? Why is Wells Fargo presenting upcoming Made In L.A.? This isn’t selling out: it is selling up.

MOCA sold up. They did not sacrifice their integrity, they did something completely on brand, they engaged a super young audience, they put on a great show, and they did something all museums aspire to do: they made going to a museum and seeing art sexy. Jeffrey Deitch is a huge reason for this. Why stop that? Notes On Looking ended their article with the vicious line, “This has to be stopped. Culture is too valuable and too hard to make.” Why does it have to be stopped again? What culture did they not make? The culture that was shared and created around Transmission L.A. literally made headlines and inspired the article that included that line. I think it doesn’t need to be stopped but learned from.

Another huge fact everyone is overlooking in this conversation is that Deitch unfortunately had to miss BYOB for work: he was out of town. We were actually meeting with his assistant before the event and attended it with her, as we are profiling her on Los Angeles, I’m Yours. It was known that Deitch was not present and, if he was, he would not have stood for artists’ work being shut down. Those who attended the event and were in the conversation of BYOB knew this, which none of the press outlets seem to know as they were not at the event. In the case that he would have been there, he would have told those Mercedes chained people, “This is my house, you play by my rules–even if you are paying for it.” And they would have shut up. Deitch has also made people look at and respect the Los Angeles art world: what he says and does is incredibly important and–obviously–very political and touchy.

Yes, artists were wronged in BYOB. But, they had a chance to show at MOCA and tried to push some envelopes and got shut down. It sucks but at least they have a story to tell about it. Yes, Transmission L.A. was a success despite its flaws. The show along with MOCA represent a new way of looking at art that makes it accessible both online and offline as well as financially. It is unable to be confined and it represents so many more communities than just “people who go to museums.” It also represents so many more types of art than “paintings that go in frames.” It crossed over into the mainstream, it was calculated, and it was a success. For a museum of their size and caliber, they deserve several pats on the back for all their hard work. It sucks to be the artists who had their work shut down. However, what a great opportunity to have gotten to be shown in one of the most looked at and respected museums in the world, a museum that is practically the Mercedes of art museums.

May 23, 2012 / By