There is a new Vonage television commercial, in which satisfied customers toss their old, higher phone bills over their shoulders to form a pyramid-like stack in a corner which looks exactly like a Felix Gonzalez-Torres pile of hard candy, the difference being that, in the commercial, you add to the stack, rather than taking one away.
This is not the first time that some enterprising Madison Avenue type has appropriated the work of an artist unknown to the world at large to sell something in TV land. Among recent such borrowings are Doug Aitken’s video billboards and his video of an empty shopping cart in a parking lot, Maurizio Cattelan’s little boy on a tricycle and his elephant covered in a sheet. AT&T is currently bigfooting the trope with a TV spot directly ripped from Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates, a borrowing so over the top that it may have inspired Vonage’s sly art world rejoinder. The reasons these familiar art world motifs are so easy to steal is that no one in the outside world knows about them.
Back in the 1950s. Madison Avenue played on the familiarity of fine art to its wider audience in order to sell things. Dutch Masters Cigars was self-explanatory, and Whistler’s Mother and the ever-popular Mona Lisa were ubiquitous. All of Magritte’s distortions dominated liquor ads. Nowadays, the Ad Council runs a piece of stupidity under a Caravaggio pic of a young swain with the caption, "I’ll bet your kid thinks that Caravaggio was one of the Sopranos."
Far from its ostensible claim to educate the public in the finer things artwise, what Big Media wants is to obliterate fine art as a recognizable cultural touchstone so that episodes of Lost, Avatar and Geico caveman commercials will dominate the virtual museums of tomorrow. And our art world accommodates this policy perfectly, both high and low.
At the high end, we have the myth of art as unapproachable and elitist, the $33 million purple Warhol staring the poor and helpless away from the gates of culture. At the low end, there is the ongoing theft of a brilliant work about loss and longing, a participatory work at that, by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, without attribution. The bitter irony here is that few artists reach out to the wider world the way he did, in his billboards of sunken pillows, his piles of "take one" posters, the amazing portrait of Oliver North which he made with Mike Kelley.
While a mediocre artist like Shepard Fairey, who muddies too-familiar cultural images in blood and ochre, turns into our Norman Rockwell, the late Gonzalez-Torres, whose work could do so much to propel the claims of gay marriage, or the need for universal, cheap health care, merely promises a lower phone bill. I’d like to see a mound of teabags as an homage to Gonzalez-Torres that simultaneously mocks the Palinistas and celebrates all male love. There must be a wider place in the world for this great genius.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).