Absolut Self-Importance

In the future, Culturebox believes, artistic integrity will be judged not by whether this or that artist sold out–an outmoded concern in this era of branded selves–but on the basis of how he or she did so. Prostitution will be understood as an integral part of the creative process. Art will be the means whereby one exploits the most intimate aspects of one’s life in order to become rich or famous, at which point one may put one’s message across to the public–if there’s still a message to communicate. The question debated by critics won’t be Was the art good or original or unconventional? but rather, Did the artists pose for their vodka ads with a full sense of the dramatic possibilities, or did they fail to take advantage of the situation?

Click on image to see enlarged version The Absolut campaign in the July issue of Vanity Fair, which features 20 artists photographed by Annie Leibovitz (click here for Culturebox’s review of her book on women) along with their favorite Absolut ads, suggests that some artists have remedial work to do in this area. Not all. Architect Philip Johnson, for one, knows exactly what he’s up to. This is not surprising. Hilton Kramer once observed of the stylistic shape-shifter Johnson that his métier is not “ideas or artistic creation. It is publicity, showmanship, and the exercise of power.” Johnson, whose photograph opens the series, is its presiding spirit. He is the Wizard of Oz, a minuscule, wizened man who knows the trick of making himself look imposing. He leans forward dramatically and stares at you intently. He is about to sell you a bill of goods. His favorite ad is Absolut Houdini. He is a man who can wriggle free of any moral dilemma or aesthetic pigeonhole–modernism, postmodernism, whatever.

Click on image to see enlarged version Another self-aware poseur is Tom Ford, the fashion designer, who sprawls in front of the camera, beefcake-style, his sultry gaze almost a leer, his leather jacket and his Absolut ad (a woman’s corset with Absolut-bottle shaped lacing) the unabashed couture of the gigolo.

Contrast the delightfully sluttish Johnson and Ford with Susan Sontag and Philip Glass and Gore Vidal, lifelong celebrities from whom one would expect, in this context, a modicum of ironic distance. Glass furrows his brow as he contemplates his musical notation, artistically clad in a black turtleneck. Vidal gazes soulfully toward the left edge of the frame–this may be meaningful, though it probably isn’t, since he’s actually looking to his right–his fingers supporting his face in a gesture evocative of Rodin’s The Thinker. Sontag looks gently into the middle distance. Her shirt collar is elegantly high; the shirt itself is bohemianly crumpled. She is surrounded by books, a laptop, glasses, a legal pad, a pen–all the requisite accoutrements of the intellectual life. Her ad is Absolut Evidence. Glass’ is Absolut Vienna. Vidal’s is Absolut Definition.

Click on image to see enlarged version

If you are disposed to think kindly of Vidal and Glass and Sontag, then you may say to yourself: A-ha!Given ze ceercumstances, zhey can but mean to mock ze clichés of the highbrow artiste as zo much co-mere-sheal claptrap! Culturebox, alas, harbors a less charitable suspicion.