In the 1997 book The Conquest of Cool, author Thomas Frank mischievously labels the consumer sway from the 1950s through the present as a swift shift from square to hip. Frank says the change was marked, in part, by the death of the "gray flannel suit," a classic '50s icon of conservatism and conformity that was usurped in the '60s by a rash of lavender velvet, paisley and trippy, drippy lace cuffs called the "Peacock Revolution." "New products existed," he writes, "to put us in touch with our authentic selves, to distinguish us from the mass-produced herd, to express our outrage at the stifling world of economic necessity."
In a world in which both the guy checking your gas meter and the woman in front of you in the express lane are named Tommy Hilfiger, stifling economic necessity is an absolute birthright. Leave it to those compulsive hucksters the Art Guys to push this to the extreme. "SUITS: The Clothes Make the Man" -- a yearlong AG multimedia extravaganza -- launches this weekend with a downtown parade. As is customary with Guys Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing, art and commerce (and prank) are confoundingly entangled in the "SUITS" project; the counterrevolution will not be televised -- it'll be embroidered!
"SUITS" involves Galbreth (the taller one) and Massing (the not-so-tall one) donning business duds designed by Todd Oldham and emblazoned with the stitched corporate logos of such big-name advertisers as Budweiser, Philip Morris, Taco Cabana and Target, plus not-so-big names like Houston's Suds Auto Detail. Sponsorships cost between $2,000 and $7,000, depending on size and placement. There are, at present, 53 sponsors. Throughout the year, Cool Films will document the Guys' "HILARIOUS HIJINKS" on video, and you can read regularly updated diary entries on the official "SUITS" web site (houston.sidewalk.com) and the Guys' own site (www.theartguys.com). There's also a "SUITS" book contract (with Harry N. Abrams, Inc.). In the fall, a team of besequined Angora goats will spell out the word "SUITS" at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. One of these statements is a lie.
Galbreth and Massing say they'll wear the suits all day, every day, for one year -- even, Massing assures, when "nobody" is looking -- as they go about their business of attending art openings, cutting ribbons, buying groceries and otherwise drolly offering their services as well-styled sandwich boards. What the Art Guys won't be doing in their penguin getups is creating any kind of public scandal that might reflect on the good reputations of their sponsors. This is part of the reasoning, Massing explains, behind the choice of the business suit as canvas rather than the perhaps more obvious bowling shirt or gimme cap. "The Art Guys have a tradition of using suits in their work," he says by phone. "It's part of our mandate [with 'SUITS'] to behave responsibly." That last part is stated in a stark deadpan that may or may not be accompanied by a wink, but it should be noted that the Guys are pretty sanitary as performance artists go (slapping each other and dunking heads in buckets of paint notwithstanding).
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Another thing the Art Guys won't be doing in "SUITS" -- unless they feel like it -- is attending the upcoming opening of Houston's first Krispy Kreme Doughnuts. The company was one of the first sponsors to sign on back in November. While KK's affable Minister of Culture (a.k.a. vice president of marketing) Mike Cecil says the company did not ask the Art Guys to hawk doughnuts in any overt way in exchange for its "SUITS" sponsorship, Cecil definitely sees a benefit to the partnership, putting it in the same category as product placement in a film. Krispy Kreme did check out the Art Guys first, pronouncing them "interesting." Says Cecil, "They seem like decent, honest, fun-loving guys. Certainly, we'll have doughnuts wherever they go."
Is this a co-optation of a system of unbridled corporate domination? Come on, we're talking about the Art Guys. Haven't you figured this out by now? Just shut up and eat your doughnut.
-- Caryl Herfort
The Art Guys Parade and "SUITS: The Clothes Make the Man" project launch: 7 p.m. Saturday, July 25. Up Travis from Dallas to Texas. Info: 880-2302. Free.