Absolutely for Sale

Dear jaded consumer: These two Houston artists are now competing for your attention. They sell ads, they're making a vodka billboard, and their client list includes Budweiser and Target. They call it art, but what advertisers want to know is, will it work

"An ad," Flood says solemnly, "is meaningful compared to most paintings."
The differences between "Primal Screen" and the SUITS project are instructive. While Flood sold ads to small local businesses -- discos, galleries, record stores -- with a high tolerance for controversial content, the Art Guys are aiming for squeaky clean, if adventurous, national brands. Flood is disbelieving, for example, when he learns that the rears of the Art Guys' trousers are not for sale. "There's no genital placement on the Art Guys' suits?" he asks, thinking immediately of the diaper companies who might place a premium on such real estate. "That's ridiculous! What a missed opportunity."

While Flood's project questioned the meaning of painting, the SUITS project is about living in a marketing paradigm. Like many of the Art Guys' projects, it's behavioral rather than visual.

Then there's the punk factor. "Primal Screen" was a subversive satire of the Houston art world, complete with a press kit of faked reviews identifying the exhibit as a product of "Houston's first art movement." On the other hand, there is nothing subversive at all about SUITS. It's the kind of idea that people love because it seems subversive, but there's no criticism of commerce implied. Andy Warhol said it, and the Art Guys believe it: "Good business is the best art."

Galbreth has gotten out an issue of the New Yorker, seated himself on the couch and turned to a page marked with a big paper clip. On the page is a letter from a reader-- a "really beautiful" letter, Galbreth insists, and he proceeds to read aloud, with a fair amount of pomp and flourish: "Indeed, it seems that marketing may be the dominant paradigm of more than popular culture. It may be the next dominant paradigm of everything."

Gently, Massing suggests that the writer of the letter is actually dismayed, even cynical about the commercial onslaught. But Galbreth doesn't see it. "Cynical?" he asks, peering dubiously at the magazine. "I don't think so." Galbreth, a man who stands ready to rhapsodize on the unbridled power of the Nike Swoosh, believes the letter writer shares in his enthusiasms. To the Art Guys, the pervasive marketing of our time is far from anathema. Instead, it is a rich territory to be explored, and even exploited. Having identified the world of commerce as their subject matter, the Art Guys have wasted no time immersing themselves in it.

The Art Guys call their forays into particular subjects "investigations." In 1995, after working out with a personal trainer for a year in a piece called Bulk Up for CAM, the Art Guys "investigated" the world of male strippers by performing at La Bare, a Houston ladies' club. Then, their investigation turned out to be more of a parody -- they wore layer upon layer of clothes when they stripped, and outfitted themselves with fake, extra-long ding-dongs. But though ads -- which tell us everything from how coffee drinks can calm us (Starbucks) to what the "proper utensil" is to "stir your soul" (Mazda) -- could be said to be just as ridiculous as La Bare, the Art Guys are more awestruck than critical.

Their attitudes become apparent as they discuss the Nike ad that features William S. Burroughs. Did the ad successfully co-opt the beat writer's countercultural, anticorporate message?

"I think it makes Burroughs more fascinating, " Massing says. "It makes Nike more interesting, too."

"Nike uses William Burroughs to further their idea. William Burroughs uses Nike to further his ideas. That agreement is called commerce," Galbreth says.

"There is absolutely nothing wrong -- I used to think that there was -- with William Burroughs doing things for Nike or [Lion King director] Julie Taymor doing Broadway for Disney," Massing says.

Bringing the conversation back to their own situation, the Art Guys agree that their self-promotion makes the art world uncomfortable because it draws attention to the fact that art is, after all, a business. "We don't pretend," says Galbreth. "That's what bugs people about the Art Guys in the art world. It does not bug people in the nonart world. At all."

"Kodak's not going to get squeamish about [our proposal]," Massing points out. "It either meets their needs or it doesn't."

Indeed, the advertisers who've bought in are satisfied with the Art Guys' motives. "We asked them if they were kind of poking fun at the brand, at advertising," says John Brine of LaForce & Stevens. "The answer is no -- it's kind of a celebration."

In a time when the NEA is under siege for the sometimes radical art it supports, and support for the arts generally is ebbing, the fact that a couple of artists have convinced companies that they're up to good, wholesome fun -- and that the fun is a valuable commodity -- might be seen as an ironic coup. Except the Art Guys are up to good, wholesome fun. SUITS is a celebration. And as spokespeople, their charm rating must at least come close to Sandy Duncan's. One thing the SUITS sponsors all agree on: The Art Guys are really, really, really nice.

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