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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  • 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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