Update: Thursday, February 10, 11:30am - Todd Oldham, designer of the Art Guys' SUITS, sent us a comment. See it after the jump.
Wednesday, Art Attack talked to the Art Guys (Jack Massing and Michael Galbreth) about Super Size Me! director Morgan Spurlock's claim that he hadn't heard of the Art Guys until yesterday. Spurlock and the Guys are engaged in controversy over what the Guys say is an appropriation of their late-'90s SUITS project, in which they traveled the country selling advertising space for corporations on their Todd Oldham business suits. SUITS was well recognized within the art world, eventually landing on magazine covers, CNN, and CBS Sunday Morning. The performance-art work addressed issues of pervasive branding and marketing in society, art and fashion.
In his new film The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Spurlock employs an uncanny device, the business suit, and sells advertising space on it to fund his documentary film about advertising and product placement. He has worn the suit in promotional interviews for the film.
Spurlock says he didn't know that the Art Guys did it first.
Galbreth finds that very hard to believe.
"It's beyond uncanny as far as I'm concerned," says Galbreth. But just to be objective about it, he did a quick poll of his art, business and advertising acquaintances across the world and their reaction was unanimous: Spurlock's suit has to be a copied image.
"It's beyond belief--the specificity of the look of his suit," says Galbreth, "and then he's using that suit as an armature to engage people with the idea that marketing and brands are pervasive in society. It's almost word for word. It is so similar."
Spurlock told avclub.com that the Guys' accusations are "baseless." And he added: "Looks like we both had an idea to mimic what's been happening in stock racing for the last 40 years."
"[That's] an illogical statement," says Galbreth. "It is evasive. That's not the issue of the suits. The suits did not look like racing suits. There are certainly similarities--there are similarities to the suits that golfers wear. That is a disingenuous, shallow and illogical response."
Galbreth feels there's no way Spurlock could have made his film without stumbling over SUITS. "Spurlock has a company; there are people involved with it: producers, directors, screenwriters, archivists, lawyers," says Galbreth. "When you're trying to sell something in the order of a million-and-a-half [dollars], or whatever agreement he entered in with a company, you don't do it casually. And for someone who does documentaries, as an investigative aspect to these documentaries, in my opinion, I find it beyond belief that he did not know about us."
Massing is barely willing to believe Spurlock: "I don't want to call him a liar. But it's a suspicious thing; if he was spending a lot of time thinking about what he was doing, I doubt that he, or his people, would've missed it." Massing points out that Spurlock knows Todd Oldham (who worked with the Art Guys designing the suits for SUITS). "I don't know how close they are," says Massing. "Todd designed [our] suits and maybe would have said something to Spurlock, but I don't know if they talked about it."
Galbreth points out that when it comes to appropriating art, the bigger fish often reaps the reward for stealing and generating controversy, and the artist is left looking petty and desperate for a hand-out. "There's been a lot of reporting on this thing, and there have been efforts to contact Spurlock," he says. "There's been more effort to contact him than us. He's in the world of entertainment, and he's certainly, arguably, more well-known than we are. We operate, unfortunately in a world where the arts are not as broadly considered in American culture. That's another thing we write about, lecture about, do our work about. So his world is different than ours, and that's fine. There's just problems with it."
Galbreth feels that the more controversy Spurlock generates, the more money he makes. It's all part of the business deal. "I'm sure he's thrilled about it," says Galbreth. "I'm sure in any of the planning meetings for the film, they welcomed any sort of controversy that came their way. I also don't doubt the same approach for some of his sponsors. There's very little of this that we don't understand. And there's very little that we don't anticipate happening, because we've done it."
Spurlock has also managed to attract the attention of the famed TED conference, and Galbreth thinks that's ridiculous. "I don't know if the people at TED know about any of these issues," he says. "If it were me, I wouldn't appreciate it. If I were the TED people, and my understanding is the people who speak at TED are distinguished intellectuals, recognized as experts in their field. My understanding is he's doing a TED talk on the topic of marketing and media and the pervasiveness of it. Well, in my opinion, if he were an expert, he would have known about us. Any curator in the art world would have found out about this."
So, do the Art Guys have a case for legal action? "We just don't know," says Galbreth, "not one way or another. It's a complicated question. It's a very, very complicated can of worms. It's not pleasant; it's not desired. We have other interests. Whatever this has done, we don't think it's for our benefit. We've talked about making it so, in the sense of playing off of it. But our interests are elsewhere. We're not interested in feeding his beast."
Massing added: "If we decide to make an issue out of it legally, then what does that say about us? We don't want money from the guy; we don't want personal gain. It boils down to recognition--peer recognition, essentially."
Mostly, for the Guys, it's all just a big ol' bummer. "The problem with the issue is that it's ugly. Suspicion is ugly. Plagiarism is ugly," says Massing. "If he would have called us and said, 'Hey, I see you guys have done this; I'm trying to do this,' it would have been a completely different feel." But as it is, for Massing, Spurlock's antics represent artistic disrespect. "There's sort of an unwritten law or a policy that if you're inspired by someone else's work and you want to derive ideas from that, you usually acknowledge those people. What's confounding me is that he says he didn't know. Sure, it's in the art world and not in the popular world, and perhaps he missed it...but I don't know. I don't have anything bad to say about him, but if he did this consciously and uncaringly, I think that's really bad."
Update: Thursday, February 10, 11:30am - Todd Oldham's comment:
"It was such a pleasure working with Jack and Mike on the Art Guys SUITS project. Their brilliant and extravagant exploration of fame and commerce was amazing to observe and clearly is an idea, even ten years later, that resonates today. As a fan of Morgan Spurlock I know he has good taste. I find it all a new surprising ripple in a smart, strange project that just keeps on going. Those Art Guys are bellwethers!"
As expected, very diplomatic and totally Oldham.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.