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Commercializing Christo and Jeanne-Claude

May 30, 2010

In a recent television spot, AT&T did some borrowing from French environmental artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

AT&T is transparent in their idea theft, noting in a disclaimer that the images were not created by C&JC, and no compensation was given.  C&JC are adamant about keeping their art non-commercial.  From their website:

Christo and Jeanne-Claude firmly believe that to accept (licensing) deals of this kind would alter and compromise their art. Refusing this money assures them they are working in total freedom and in total work respect for their aesthetic. It helps keep their art pure.

(They) pay the entire cost of the artworks themselves. They earn all of the money through the sale of the preparatory studies, early works from the 50s and 60s and original lithographs on other subjects.

C&JC’s works are community events.  The projects generate jobs and the materials are recycled, both major selling points for clearing bureaucratic hurdles.  The pieces, like Valley Curtain in Colorado and The Gates in Central Park (both pictured below), stir conversations about art among both the hired labor as well as the people who see the work.

Valley Curtain

"The Gates" in Central Park

It was only a matter of time before a company borrowed C&JC’s signature visual image for commercial purposes.  Good art tends to be commercialized, either by paying the artist directly or by copying the style.  AT&T paid royalties to use the Nick Drake song, “From the Morning,” in the ad.

Standing in contrast to C&JC’s purist philosophy about art are the Black Eyed Peas, aptly described by the Wall Street Journal as The Most Corporate Band in America.  According to band leader will.i.am, who spends a great deal of his time working on corporate partnerships, “I consider us a brand…Here’s our demographic.  Here’s the reach.  Here’s the potential.  Here’s how the consumer will benefit from the collaboration.”  It’s hard to blame the Peas for taking what they can get, especially in an age where being branded a “sellout” doesn’t hurt your image the way it once did.  Will.i.am notes that he moved his mom out of the projects with money from a 30-second song for Dr. Pepper, but that finding the right balance of corporate muscle to put behind the work without overshadowing it is “a hammer and a nail.”

For more background on Christo & Jeanne Claude’s work, check out their website or the Maysles Brothers documentaries.

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