By Alex J. Taylor, author of Forms of Persuasion: Art and Corporate Image in the 1960s
In a short commentary in the Los Angeles Times published earlier in the year, art critic Christopher Knight lambasted the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for presenting what he claimed to be “a show of art conceived as a corporate marketing tool.” He was not exactly wrong, but his criticisms buy into an oversimplistic paradigm that casts art and commerce as opposing forces, an adversarial clash that requires the museum – and us – to pick sides. Whatever mild controversary Knight’s takedown stirred up has by now passed, but his comments have remained on my mind as evidence that these cliches remain as entrenched as ever.
The exhibition in question was Artists Inspired by Music: Interscope Reimagined, which ran at LACMA from January 30 until February 13, 2022, and brought together works commissioned by record company Interscope from artists including Cecily Brown, Damien Hirst, Titus Kaphar, Rashid Johnson, Takashi Murakami, Richard Prince, Ed Ruscha and Kehinde Wiley to interpret and respond to the music of Dr. Dre, Billie Eilish, Eminem, Kendrick Lamar, Nine Inch Nails, Lana Del Ray, and Lady Gaga. The show included 50 new works of art, many conceived as alternate cover art for these artist’s hit albums.
“Strip away the diverting celebrity names,” wrote Knight, “and what’s left is just a museum show of a corporate collection.” Are the musicians the extraneous celebrities we are urged to disregard, or should we be suspicious of the fame of many of these visual artists too? Knight seems only able to imagine that the latter participated in this project because “they’ve been paid.” Is it so inconceivable that popular music could be a genuine source of inspiration for these artists – as it is for so many others?
The issue cannot be the fact the works were commissioned by a wealthy and powerful patron. Surely this would disqualify too many of the world’s acknowledged masterpieces. Nor does it seem to have been with the art itself, as the article was written before the show even opened, and its primary evidence seems to have primarily been the exhibition’s press release – that ubiquitous promotional form whose pervasive influence on arts journalism, more usually concealed, was dissected here for evidence of the project’s “crass motives.”
To dismiss this exhibition on the mere basis of being “just a corporate collection” (despite the fact that, as Knight acknowledges, that the company does not actually own the works), or stoking panic that LACMA will become a “corporate rent-a-museum,” ignores the many ways in which art and museums are unavoidably engaged in the commercial sphere. It defends an ideal of the museum’s purity that has always been a myth. It fuels an old-fashioned vision of the curator as an elevated cultural arbiter, and casts big business as a nefarious bogeyman that feeds on the creativity of others. Collaborating with ‘company execs’ need no more threaten curatorial judgement than working with collectors, dealers, or any other aspects of the artworld’s expansive commercial infrastructure.
Many of these issues are central to my book Forms of Persuasion: Art and Corporate Image in the 1960s. In the case of LACMA, we need look no further than the museum’s own galleries for evidence of modern art’s generative engagements with the commercial culture. When Warhol made his Campbell Soup Cans in 1961-2, he joined a long line of modern artists to use mass media subject matter to upset the borders between high and low. (Knight has, elsewhere, ably catalogued Warhol’s punning references to avant-garde painting, including the dribbly ‘soup’ of ab ex, but even these only gain their punch by virtue of Warhol’s selection of such an iconoclastically ordinary container.) But how are we meant to understand Warhol’s return to the soup can subject in 1964, prompted by a commission from the Campbell Soup Company itself. This particular painting is in the LACMA collection and is almost always on display. Given its corporate entanglements, should it be banished to the basement?
“Since when is LACMA’s mission the promotion of corporate marketing plans?” asks Knight at one point in his piece. Again, some historical context helps here – because museums have dabbled in this field for decades. Indeed, ne of LACMA’s most important contributions to the history of post war art was the Art + Technology initiative. For this project, Maurice Tuchman and his colleagues coordinated dozens of collaborations between artists and Southern Californian corporations. The project was far from untroubled, but it certainly saw many major artists engaged in marketing and public relations strategy. We should not ignore such commercial imperatives, but neither should we reduce these works to the conditions of their production, nor assume that the goals of artists are always identical to those of their patrons.
Both corporations and museums should be answerable for the ethics of their decisions. But to dismiss an exhibition on the basis of its corporate connections alone feeds tiresome myths concerning the superficiality of commercial culture. Knight’s sense that this was all just a “low-wattage marketing idea” is correct in at least one sense: the exhibition was clearly not designed to sell albums or drive downloads, something that Billie Eilish hardly needs the paintings of Lisa Yuskavage to do, but instead fuel the slow burn image building by which a brand might carve out a lasting place in the collective imagination. Painting and sculpture are part of our shared cultural inheritance, but so too are the products of record companies, movies studios and, yes, advertising agencies. Many artists can recognize the value of these forms of cultural production, and critics should too.