Has Wes Anderson Sold Out? Can He Sell Out? Critics Take Up the Debate

Ear­li­er this month, we post­ed a pair of Wes Ander­son-direct­ed tele­vi­sion com­mer­cials adver­tis­ing the Hyundai Azera. While I under­stood that, at one time, a known auteur using his cin­e­mat­ic pow­ers to pitch sen­si­ble sedans would have raised hack­les, I did­n’t real­ize that it could still spark a live­ly debate today. See­ing as Open Cul­ture has already fea­tured com­mer­cials by the likes of David Lynch, Fred­eri­co Felli­ni, Ing­mar Bergman, and Jean-Luc Godard — and I could­n’t resist link­ing to Errol Mor­ris’ when dis­cussing El Wingador — I assumed any issues sur­round­ing this sort of busi­ness had already been set­tled. On Twit­ter, the New York­er’s Richard Brody, author of a hefty tome on Godard, seemed to cor­rob­o­rate this con­clu­sion: “Bergman made com­mer­cials, so did Godard; the more dis­tinc­tive the artist, the less the artist need wor­ry about it.” “Also,” the Chica­go Sun-Times’ Jim Emer­son tweet­ed, “the, con­cept of “sell­out” no longer exists.”

From all the ensu­ing back-and-forth between crit­ics and cinephiles emerged Brody’s New York­er blog post, “Wes Ander­son: Clas­sics and Com­mer­cials.” Point­ing out that “so many great paint­ings were made for popes and kings and patrons, and great build­ings spon­sored by tycoons and cor­po­ra­tions,” Brody finds that “the bet­ter and stronger and more dis­tinc­tive the artist, the more like­ly it is that any­thing he or she does will bear the artist’s mark and embody the artist’s essence. Those who are most endan­gered by the mak­ing of com­mer­cials (of what­ev­er sort in what­ev­er medi­um) are those whose abil­i­ties are more frag­ile, more pre­car­i­ous, more incip­i­ent, less devel­oped.” But a dis­sent­ing voice appears in the com­ment sec­tion: “The rea­son that Godard and Ander­son can make com­mer­cials that feel more like short films is not so much because their tal­ents are more devel­oped; it’s because their rep­u­ta­tion is more secure. [ … ] It would be bet­ter to regard these com­mer­cials as short films financed by a com­pa­ny’s patron­age (with a few strings attached) than as com­mer­cials prop­er.”

An even more force­ful objec­tion comes from Chris Michael in the Guardian: “Is it worth remain­ing scep­ti­cal about art made in the direct ser­vice of a sales pitch? I think it is. Does it cheap­en your tal­ent to con­sis­tent­ly sell its actu­al goals to the high­est bid­der? I think it does. When the goal or per­sua­sive intent does not ‘res­onate with audi­ence in mean­ing­ful way’, but rather ’employ style to con­flate love for artist with love for prod­uct’, there’s a gen­uine, full-frontal, non-imag­i­nary assault on the integri­ty of the art’s mean­ing. Bet­ter to ask: What mean­ing? What art? Tak­ing it fur­ther, can a car ad ever be art?” When Slate’s For­rest Wick­man entered the fray, he hauled a Dar­ren Aronof­sky-direct­ed Kohl’s spot in with him to demon­strate that “that there is such a thing as sell­ing out,” com­par­ing it unfa­vor­ably with Ander­son­’s ads as “noth­ing more than a sec­ond-rate ripoff, a cheap copy of ads and music videos past.”

Michael remains unim­pressed: “Aronof­sky real­ly sold out least: by not pros­ti­tut­ing his style and deliv­ery, by not wrap­ping any­thing of him­self around a dull car or depart­ment store, by just doing the job for the mon­ey like a pro­fes­sion­al. That, I can respect.” Respond­ing, Brody holds fast in defense of Ander­son­’s ads, one of which he calls “a feat of aston­ish­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal com­plex­i­ty. “These lit­tle films, which hap­pen to be com­mer­cials for a car,” he writes, “share not only the style but also the con­tent, the theme, and the emo­tion­al and per­son­al con­cerns, of Anderson’s fea­ture films. Yes, they’re short. Yes, there’s a dif­fer­ence between what can be devel­oped in two hours and what can be devel­oped in thir­ty seconds—it’s the dif­fer­ence between a poem and a nov­el, between a song and an opera.” Has Wes Ander­son sold out? Is sell­ing out still be pos­si­ble? As in every­thing, dear read­er, the task of weigh­ing the evi­dence and mak­ing the deci­sion falls ulti­mate­ly to you.

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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Comments (4)
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  • Allison says:

    What about pho­tog­ra­phers who adver­tise? Cindy Sher­man did a bunch of Marc Jacobs ads a few years back… Or haute cou­ture fash­ion design­ers who col­lab­o­rate with Tar­get or H&M?

    What’s the prob­lem if an artist wants to try a new form or reach a new audi­ence? Who’s to say the expe­ri­ence won’t add to their capac­i­ty in the end? Let’s let our favorite artists do what they want to and hope they’re bet­ter for it at the oth­er side!

  • B. Catkinson says:

    Just because it’s an advert, does­n’t mean it can’t look as nice as a piece of art. Any direc­tor can direct any­thing visu­al. I’d be more upset if he were to pri­vate­ly pro­duce some­thing that was nev­er seen by the pub­lic. Would­n’t that be worse? At least this way, we get to appre­ci­ate his work; let’s face it, adver­tis­ing affects only a por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion. And it cer­tain­ly does­n’t affect cats, like us.

    B. Catkin­son

  • J. Phillips says:

    Chris Michael’s ques­tions are real­ly at the heart of the mat­ter for me: “Bet­ter to ask: What mean­ing? What art? Tak­ing it fur­ther, can a car ad ever be art?”

    Sell­ing out or not depends on your per­cep­tion of art. If art real­ly is a mir­ror that reflects and com­ments on soci­ety and cul­ture, that “bears [crit­i­cal] sig­nif­i­cance” (Edward Said), then an ad is not art. How­ev­er, the ad may be crit­i­cal­ly inter­pret­ed to rep­re­sent ram­pant con­sumerism, in which case it holds artis­tic sig­nif­i­cance. Depends on whether or not the artist intend­ed such rep­re­sen­ta­tion and sig­ni­fi­ca­tion or not, and that’s gen­er­al­ly a secret held between the artist and the art, or the ad.

  • rich goodspeed says:

    The whole nar­ra­tive of sell­ing out is dying out because peo­ple are more and more becom­ing aware of the fact that their media is so mul­ti­fac­eted and so appro­pri­able and ‘recon­tex­tu­al-isable’ that in fact call­ing an artist a ‘sell-out’ implic­it­ly calls the audi­ence igno­rant.

    It fails to cred­it the audi­ence with the agency to appro­pri­ate the media and inter­ro­gate it. It is irrel­e­vant to me whether per­son­al­ly the direc­tor has integri­ty or not, as i under­stand the con­text of the media and can appro­pri­ate the con­tent or not at my dis­cre­tion. I don’t need my artists to be counter cul­ture or resist com­mer­cial affil­i­a­tion because I can do that with the media myself if I need to.

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