PRINT January 1988



DARYL HANNAH WAS on TV the other night, on Entertainment Tonight, and she was angry. She was angry that the Coca-Cola Company, which owns Columbia Pictures, ganged up its advertising, selling the picture she made for the studio, with Steve Martin, and the soft drink all in the same spot. Daryl doesn't do ads, even in Japan, where Sly Stallone (sausages), Sting (beer), Mickey Rourke (whiskey), Joseph Beuys (whiskey), Woody Allen (a department store), and many other big stars have appeared regularly in TV commercials that are not shown outside Asia. She thinks it would affect her integrity as an actor, as an artist. Some actors and artists may refuse to do TV ads for less lofty reasons: they may think that ad exposure could dilute their exposure quotient and have a deleterious effect on their pay scale.

I don't see anything wrong with commercials. Specific commercials are bad, sure, maybe even entire categories of commercials stink, but the idea of commercials—I have no problem with it. When I was younger I felt that art and commerce were irreconcilable pursuits, but now I'm more mature and established in my career. I have left the Maoist-collective free-love subsistence farm far behind and now I want to do business with the Japanese over drinks and dinner. I wouldn't feel the slightest guilt. It wouldn't even make me feel less artistic. But I am more concerned about standards than ever, and I am committed to the idea that when more artistic commercials are made Daryl Hannah will be in them. But we still have a long way to go before we consistently achieve high standards in our advertising, in our art, in our business, and in our money.

There's an ad for Saab automobiles that has been running on American TV lately. The basic idea is to run down the range of prices offered by Saab. First we see a Saab 900 cruising along a wide expanse of blacktop. Announcer: “Saab's innovative technology and engineering prowess start at around $15,000 for the 900 . . . move up gradually through the 900S. . . . ” The 900S pulls up abreast the 900. Another car joins the high-speed formation. “The 900 turbo . . . .” And another: “the 9000S . . . . ” And another: “and the 9000 turbo . . . and don't really stop until you get to the Saab JA37 Viggen . . . ” A fighter jet roars past the tight line of speeding cars. “ . . . which runs about $20 million.” “Saab: the most intelligent cars ever built.”

It's an effective ad. There's something disturbing about it, but it didn't really bother me until a Sunday a while ago when I read John Russell's article in the New York Times bemoaning the $53.9 million paid at auction for van Gogh's painting of irises. Not only is this price bad for art, according to Mr. Russell, but it is horrible for money too. The top-ten list of multimillion-dollar canvases represents to Mr. Russell a “definitive loss of faith in money.” Art, which should enrich money and often glorifies it, was now accused, by the art critic of the Times, of demeaning money—of making money unbelievable.

A loss of faith in money is what makes markets crash. (Of course, Irises went after the stock market crashed. And later on I'm going to figure out the exact relationship between van Gogh and the crash.) But I can't believe that art, always a powerful faith-producer, is now a faith destroyer. This will take some checking into.

In the meanwhile I'm occupied with the question of standards. Now that gold is only a stand-in standard, how can we measure worth? Does the fact that a single canvas fetched over $50 million demean money? After Black Monday, America's richest man, Sam Walton, who lost $2 billion between the opening bell and the closing bell, said, “It's only paper.”

To earn enough money to buy van Gogh's Irises, at present rates, I would have to write this column for the next 19,600 years, or three quarters of one complete precession of the equinoxes. The jet, at 0% interest, would take only eight centuries or so to pay off. To tell you the truth, I think I'd rather have the painting than the fighter, even if it means driving a 900 instead of a 9000 turbo. With a van Gogh in the trunk I'd rather drive slow.

It's a great country. If you work hard and save your money, you never know what great things you might create, or, if you can't create them, collect, and appreciate as they appreciate.

Glenn O'Brien is a writer who collects baseball hats. His column on advertising appears monthly in Artforum.