“Commerce is culture.”
That’s been my refrain this year, beginning with our MoMA symposium back in April. “The way we buy things, and what we buy, is an expression of who we are culturally,” I declared, proudly, from the Celeste Bartos theater at the Museum of Modern Art.
But when commerce and culture collide, it can be met with disdain; especially when work commercializes art that represents suffering.
This week, designer Elizabeth Goodspeed took retailer KITH to task on X (née Twitter) for a “rip off” marketing piece for their X-Men 60th anniversary Asics collaboration.
As we discussed in our new zine, The Multiplayer Brand, commerce critique is not without merit. The marketing images for the collab bear an uncanny resemblance to an art installation entitled “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)” (1991) by Félix González-Torres.
In 1991, González-Torres’ partner was slowly wasting away in a long battle with AIDS. The piece, a pile of multicolored candies, invited visitors to take a piece of candy. As the pile drew down, it signified the slow decline of González-Torres’ partner, Ross.
“I doubt this was intentional, but I don’t think that makes it any better,” declared Goodspeed in a followup post. Artist and activist Ruby Thelot agrees with the sentiment. “Iit may have been more of a purely aesthetic gesture,” says Thelot. “ My current thought is that it was a classic case of moodboard-mishap.”
Moodboards are common in strategy and branding circles, and has led to the homogenization of digital advertising. The inclusion of culturally-important works in moodboards distances the context of art into a grid of color-palette-aligned aesthetic imagery. When art direction gets to work, the meaning of the reference material is all but lost.
A more generous reading of the KITH ad points to the subtext of the X-Men. Marvel often used the mutants as a stand-in allegory for oppressed people groups. “X-Men are mutants... they are hunted and killed... persecuted... ostracized,” says Thelot. “I doubt though that they were making an association with the plight of AIDS victims and of fictional mutants.”
As a kid, I longed for comics to become mainstream. As an adult, I long for commerce to become more artful.
Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.
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