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Art and(or) Outdoor Advertising in Marfa, Texas

“What is art?” is most often an academic question, debated best either late at night over a glass of wine, or at scholarly conferences.  In the west Texas town of Marfa, however, it has a very practical impact.

Public art is an integral part of Marfa.  NPR has called Marfa “nothing less than an arts world station of the cross” and a “blue chip arts destination.” Marfa’s place as an art destination can be traced back to the 1970s, when minimalist artist Donald Judd grew tired of the small, confining gallery spaces of New York City and bought 16 decaying buildings, a decommissioned army base, and three ranches near Marfa.  He moved there, and filled it with art.  Since then, many artists have come to the region and set up shop in and around the town.  (Sculptor Campbell Bosworth said, “You just come out here and you feel like, I want to make something; I want to do something!”)  Many works are integrated into the unique west Texas landscape.  Imbued in the area is a sense of independence and alternative living. The bookstore, the pizza shop, and the coffee shop are all independently owned.  One of the best known installations is “Prada Marfa”, which is a replica of a Prada boutique created by artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, replete with luxury shoes and handbags set a few miles outside of town.  Perhaps the structure is a commentary on the prevalence of luxury brands or an exercise in context; whatever it is, however, one cannot escape the irony of a fake Prada store in the middle of the desolate landscape.

Recently, Playboy Enterprises built (or “commissioned,” depending on your perspective) what it claims is also an art installation near the entrance to the town — a 40 foot Playboy bunny on a pole along with a black spray-painted Chevy, called “Playboy Marfa.”  Playboy worked in conjunction with artist Richard Phillips to produce the piece.  Residents of the town have been upset by what they see as a corporate advertisement and an unwelcome intrusion into the landscape.

According to the Texas Department of Transportation, if the structure is art, it can stay — but if it is a roadside advertisement, it has to go.  Playboy does not have a permit for a roadside advertisement, and the location of the sign doesn’t qualify for a permit.  TxDoT regulations define an “Outdoor advertising sign” as “an outdoor sign, display, light, device, figure, painting, message, plaque, placard, poster, billboard, logo or symbol, or other thing which is designed, intended, or used to advertise or inform, if any part of the advertising or information contents is visible from the main-traveled way of a regulated highway.”

The issue is, thus, whether Playboy Marfa is “designed, intended, or used to advertise or inform.”  Art can inform, and perhaps art can advertise, but to the extent it does so within sight of a regulated highway, the Texas Department of Transportation can have it removed.  (This kind of makes me want to go spray-paint “MADISONIAN.NET” on Cadillac Ranch.  Just a little.)

Over the summer, the Texas Department of Transportation decided that Playboy Marfa was an Outdoor Advertisement, and ordered the landowner to remove it within 45 days, a period of time that has recently expired.  Playboy refused to remove the piece and issued its own statement, stating that the company does not believe that “the art installation by Richard Phillips violates any laws, rules, or regulations.”  The piece is still up, and the parties are reportedly in negotiations.

1 thought on “Art and(or) Outdoor Advertising in Marfa, Texas”

  1. I suppose the Texas Department of Transportation can be forgiven for not having read Andy Warhol. As Donald Kuspit informs us, Warhol embodies the successful transformation of art into money (or, as I would prefer, a commodity) to the degree that the lines between the two are virtually indistinguishable, although the power of the latter becomes largely determinative of the substance and form of the former:

    “More than the association of art and excrement, the association of art and money adds to the charisma of both, making each more magical than it would be if it were indifferent to the other. [….] Show me the contemporary artist who would prefer to live from hand to mouth rather than fall in the hands of an art dealer. It seems impossible to be a martyr to the cause of art in an art world that has become all business — ruthless business. It is impossible to avoid the temptation of money, because art itself has become money. Capitalism transformed the prima materia of our time into the ultima materia of money. [….] The interchangeability of art and money — the completeness of their correlation — suggests that there is something rotten about both. This has nothing to do with whether art is good and money is bad, but with the fact that they belong to radically different realms. Or at least they did until Warhol confused them by forcing them together. Giving each the value of the other he devalued both, however much he meant to use each to increase the value of the other. [….] For Warhol, all art is commercial, which says more about the power of commerce than it does about the power of art. It took little more than half a century to undo Kandinsky’s idea that art was the last bastion of spirituality against materialism.”

    Kuspit continues:

    “[the] success of the transformation of art into money became explicit in 1975, when Warhol nonchalantly declared, with deceptive cleverness: ‘Business art is the step that comes after Art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist. After I did the thing called ‘art’ or whatever it’s called, I went into business art. I wanted to be an Art Businessman or a Business Artist. Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. During the hippie era people put down the idea of business — they’d say ‘Money is bad,’ and ‘Working is bad,’ but making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”

    Marfa begins as a destination for “outsider” art, attracts the “insiders” (i.e., artists attempting to distinguish themselves from others by novel ‘branding’), and the outside turns inside as Marfa becomes a tourist destination attracting much needed revenue for both the town and its “artists.”

    Late at night, over a cup of strong coffee, I would argue with Kandinsky the artist and Kuspit the critic that this whole mess is emblematic of the “end of art,” at least that sort of art that once allowed for the aesthetic transcendence of the “banal substance of everyday life.” Such “completely banal art,” exists in an intermediate world between kitsch and craft on the one hand, and “high” or fine art on the other: “it glamorizes everyday reality while pretending to analyze it.” It provides only the “appearance” of transforming alienation into freedom, of facilitating that species of self-transformation quickened by “critical freedom of thought” against conformity, anxiety, and fear. It is only an “appearance” owing to the fact that it refashions the banal and gives it back to the masses as a novel product christened “art” by the entrepreneurial artist hell-bent on “making it” with little appreciation for, let alone understanding of, aesthetic beauty, such beauty, since Plato at least, being inextricably bound up with reference to truth and goodness as well. In Kuspit’s words, we’ve grown accustomed and resigned to a “post-aesthetic” art that has lost (by design or default) the “age-old concern” with aesthetic beauty, which in part consisted of the attempt to “reconcile form and subject matter so as to sensually reveal the truth of the subject matter.” A 40 foot Playboy bunny on a pole along with a black spray-painted Chevy perfectly instantiates and exemplifies what Kuspit calls the “in-your-face” subject matter of post-aesthetic art, a conspicuous failure in the transformation of form and thus a failure in creativity insofar as form is virtually identical to subject matter: subject matter is form. In addition, our artist’s Marfa exemplum — in a city whose residents no doubt have a better intuitive sense of what art has been and is capable of being — reveals the post-aesthetic art of the “bully pulpit,” as the artist “tries to bully the spectator into believing what the artist believes.” Perhaps he is even preaching about the ugliness and injustice of the world, no doubt in a manner suffused with irony and cleverness; nevertheless, it merely amounts to an ironic and clever reminder of what we already know (although some may not have come to terms with such knowledge), sans “any aesthetic, contemplative alternative to it,” without, in other words, providing us with a “reprieve and sanctuary from the barbarism of the world,” such spaces and moments at least providing the possibility of a transcendent experience of pleasure and joy akin to orgasm (something appreciated by some Indian philosophers of art, like Abhinavagupta), albeit now in the sublimated terms and conditions Freud endeavored to explain. All the same, our artist, Richard Phillips, has at least achieved celebrity status, and nothing can beat that when it comes to assuring some measure of “artistic” achievement and success, a few minutes of fame if not fortune, in the post-aesthetic world of art.

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