Like Art


First Person

Working in advertising gave me the resources to do what I thought was art—with a logo.

From the cover of Like Art.


Art school is the place you go to learn how to be a creative director, even if you don’t know that yet.

You start out wanting to be a painter, a sculptor, an installation artist (an installer?) or performance artist (nonentertaining performer), and so you start out learning to be an artist—drawing, painting, and reading theory—and then one day you find yourself drawing storyboards for a hipster beer.

It’s just a temporary thing, or so you tell yourself. You could drive a taxi or wait tables and make art in your spare time, but of course that is exhausting and dispiriting if not demeaning, compared to the big-time artists whose lives you read about. Where’s the loft? Who’s your dealer? Where’s your summerhouse? Somehow, you may find you don’t feel like painting in a room with a bathtub in it after a day sucking carbon monoxide as a bike messenger or taxi driver. 

Many would-be painters, art-school students discouraged by the cost of living and cowed by the daunting stairway to the top, then seduced by the salaries at hipster ad agencies, derail their fine-arts careers, opting for a creative-director slot with benefits. Creative director is the contemporary name for what used to be called art director. The title changed over recent decades because art director proved too small a title for what had become the dominant job in magazines and advertising. Art director began referring to the subordinates who size photos and push type around. The creative director is a visual genius collaborating with fashion photographers (who prefer to be known as artists) and fighting it out with the corporate editors and writers for creative control.

I went to art school, then double majored in literature and philosophy, and then went to graduate school; if anyone asked I identified myself as a writer, not a motorcycle messenger, bartender, or temporary typist, or however I was making ends meet. As writing and editing were not very lucrative, I did continually engage in various forms of employment of the sort Marx termed alienated or estranged labor. Most of my artist friends were in the same boat, scraping the barrel bottoms to survive and in the hope of eventual artistic salvation. At least we could say we were an artist or, even worse, a poet. We could fail nobly, even in style. But we were headed upstream.

I could have been an artist, but somehow I had convinced myself that my drawing skills were inadequate. How did I not realize that I could have had a thriving art career without skills beyond ordering neon tubes or hiring assistants who could draw or paint better than I could. Ideas were more than enough. But the truth is I would have been embarrassed. I had an unshakeable belief in skill, talent even! I would stick with writing because I had the skills and could type ninety words a minute.

One day, my mother, who lived in an affluent Florida retirement community, had an idea. Why don’t you get a nice creative job, she said with a sad yet hopeful lilt. I laughed because I knew exactly what she was thinking about. She was replaying the Hollywood movies in her head, mostly comedies that took place in the world of Madison Avenue, where living wages were to be had selling the world what it did not need, stoking the fires of conspicuous consumption in the hearts of the ambitious.

Typically, the creative executive was played by Rock Hudson or James Garner, and his sidekicks were Tony Randall or Jack Lemmon. Their world was the world we know today as Mad Men, except without the tragic and existential aspects. The creative executives enjoyed much of la vie de bohème hobnobbing with photographers and models, frequenting jazz clubs, possibly smoking an occasional jazz cigarette. They were free of many of the constraints of conventional business life and even enjoyed the company of actual artists. And there was some truth to this character. A friend’s father was a creative director at BBDO and he sat in on drums with Dave Brubeck now and then. He got us into Birdland.

My mother felt that if only I could channel all that creativity into something productive and lucrative, like advertising, my problems would be over. I might even meet a nice girl like Doris Day or Kim Novak and commute from Connecticut to Madison Avenue on the bar car. My mother, who never had a job other than homemaker, had witnessed the influence that artists, poets, and bohemians had on me, she bemoaned the curse of artistic ambition but she knew that there were alternatives, even for the seriously afflicted, beatnik-bedazzled youth. I could spout Rimbaud and swill Pernod on the 5:40 to Greenwich and I’d be okay.

Something creative! Like advertising! In the midsixties a sort of crossover moment occurred when Pop Art baffled America by making fine art that looked like commercial art. The world popped a pill and the world looked different. Andy Warhol, the most successful commercial artist of his time, famous for drawing shoe advertisements, making the leap to fine-art painting Campbell’s Soup cans and Brillo boxes. Mel Ramos painted Coca-Cola and Lucky Strikes. Roy Lichtenstein made comic-book panels into museum pieces. Jasper Johns, who had decorated the display windows for Bonwit Teller with his partner Robert Rauschenberg, sculpted Ballantine Ale cans. Pop Art’s license to steal worked both ways with admen creating work that seemed like art. Stan Freberg created advertising that topped in popularity the television and radio it supported. His famous campaigns for Chun King, Jeno’s Pizza Rolls, and Contadina Tomato Paste didn’t take the back seat to any of the TV programming they supported.

How do you sell a lawn mower? Pit it against a sheep. How do you sell Chinese food? Stan Freberg thought, Why not sell it like a car? Here’s one of his radio spots:

Announcing the 1966 Chun King. Sleek, arrogant, a different breed of Chow Mein. You see it instantly in its bold new bean sprouts, its crisp aggressive water chestnuts. Talk about extras! You want bucket bamboo shoots? Power onions? You’ve got it Mister in the 1966 Chun King Chow Mein! Outside too you notice the revolutionary styling of its round cans right away! Wrap-around labels! More pick up in the two cans taped together. That’s standard equipment on this baby! Look at the way she handles. The bottom can … independent vegetable suspension. And in the top can … where the action is … over twenty-seven cubic inches of succulent Chun King sauce, loaded with high performance chicken. Step up to the tuned Chow Mein—the 1966 Chow Mein. (Noodles optional.)

Pop Art had conquered the world. The acid-rock band Jefferson Airplane made a spot for white Levis. The Yardbirds sold Great Shakes. The Stones sold Rice Krispies! And made a movie with Godard.

Could it be that the firewall was gone between art and commerce?

Tom Waits has profitably hung on to his purity, suing those who would even sound like him, but in the seventies, long before Iggy Pop sold “Lust for Life” to a cruise line, he heard the Stooges on an ad for Detroit Dragway and felt validated. “I was so thrilled,” said Iggy, “I felt like I was somebody. I felt like I was in the society.”

I never acted on my mother’s suggestion that I find a nice creative job, like in advertising, but then the job came to me anyway. An art-director friend called and said she was making a TV commercial for Barneys New York and she needed some words. Would I do it?

I didn’t hesitate for a second. Why not? What is the difference between art and advertising?

Quality? Clearly not. The only difference I could come up with for sure was the logo. I was an adman from that day forward, and somehow it gave me the resources to do what I thought was art—with a logo.

I had always been interested in the neutral zone, the DMZ of art and commerce, and now I was working there. It was a place where I could push the limits, mainly because I was so unfamiliar with the limits. Like Iggy, I didn’t feel like a sellout, I felt empowered. If you’re going to be a bad boy, be bad: like Bob Dylan talking to the computer in the IBM ad. Don’t tell me he wasn’t savoring the transgression of the whole thing.

Decades later, I’m still accepting commissions. You can’t improve the discourse without improving the language, and you can’t improve the language by sticking to the hoity-toity of it. You’ve got to get down and dirty with it. Stan Freberg, who refused to advertise tobacco or be sponsored by it, made a hot-dog commercial where a man lights the wiener as if it were a cigar. Then he bites into it. He talks about cutting down and then he pulls a pack of frankfurters from his suit jacket and says, “I’m down to a pack a day.”

Freberg’s work is the model for great advertising because it goes against all expectations. It transcends categorization. It uses commerce as a vehicle for art. That’s how you really succeed in advertising, really trying or not.

I have had many of my TV spots satirized. Brad Pitt talking to himself for Chanel. Both Saturday Night Live and Beavis and Butt-head paid homage to the controversial cK One series. Remember that one? It looked like casting for a porn movie. There’s actually nothing obscene about it, except perhaps the carpeting and the wood paneling. It’s just young people tearing their T-shirts and fending off the suggestive innuendo of an off-screen dirty old man interviewing them. Remember? Bill Clinton asked the Justice Department to investigate that campaign. He said he wouldn’t want his daughter (then fifteen) to see the spots we had done.

Calvin Klein made the most of the publicity by “withdrawing” the ads, which he called “misunderstood.” Truth be told, the media budget had already been spent, and the whole affair disappeared from the news rather quickly—especially when Monica Lewinsky began to confess her affair with the president, which began at the same time, when she was a twenty-one-year-old White House intern. Perhaps Mr. Clinton found the ads more arousing than most.

“Like Art” was the title of my Artforum column that ran from 1985 to 1990, but it was also my philosophy of advertising. Advertising was like art, and more and more art was like advertising. Ideally, the only difference would be the logo. Advertising could take up the former causes of art—philosophy, beauty, mystery, empire. We were clearly living in a time of extremist hypocrisy where various forms of creative work descried one another. Price-gouging painters looked down on lowly craftsmen and entertainment journeymen. Millionaire rock stars adopted a quasi-communist stance, emphasizing the anticommercial aspect of their work.

When my advertising “practice” took off, I was soon offered a column in the New York Observer, writing about advertising. It was their idea. Why not? The Observer had a good audience. I had an agent deal with the details and they didn’t meet her fairly ambitious ask, so it didn’t happen. But soon afterward, I was written about by the Observer, scolded for working both sides of the fence, editing a magazine while continuing my career as a creative director.

I can honestly say that I never felt I was put in an awkward position by this supposed conflict of interest, but also I can say that if I was guilty of working both sides, so was every fashion editor, creative director, photographer, and stylist in the business. There are no ethics in fashion. There are no ethics in magazines. There are no ethics in advertising.

Anyway, advertising has always been on and in my mind. I wish I was the Dos Equis Most Interesting Man in the World. I actually relate to Geico’s Neanderthal. But more than that, I can’t help but feel like my ads are better than Barbara Kruger’s. Although hers are art and mine, well they are just ads. They have a logo. But I think art has logos now, too, so maybe there is no difference. A Koons or a Hirst work doesn’t have a logo like Audi or Mercedes, but it might as well. Since the Warhol Factory, the artist’s studio has adopted more and more features of a leading manufacturer. The visionary Ashley Bickerton put the Bickerton logo on his early works, which were logos adorned like a NASCAR racer and some of which featured an LED tracking the work’s estimated net worth. If I could, I would put my own logo on my work, but if it’s beautiful and witty and stars Charlize Theron stomping on her jewelry, well the Dior logo doesn’t bug me at all.

The fusion of advertising and art is adding another dimension to culture. I think it has something to do with the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. Corporations, which began as legal persons, are now mutating into actual persons, with opinions and personalities. I found a de facto manifesto for the emerging corporate personality in an ad.

I still don’t know what SAP HANA is but they have infiltrated my consciousness with a TV spot—a montage of techno-landscapes over which that authoritative Oxonian Brit voice speaks like God over a stirring crescendo of strings:

Can a business have a mind? A subconscious? A knack for predicting the future? Reflexes faster than the speed of thought? Can a business have a spirit? Can a business have a soul? Can a business be … alive?

If I have to be a business in order to be fully alive, so be it. Glenn O’Brien … try some today.


Excerpted from Like Art: Glenn O’Brien on Advertising, published by Karma, New York this month.

Glenn O’Brien was the first editor of Interview, from 1971 to 1974, and was a music critic for the publication in the punk era, with the influential column “Glenn O’Brien’s Beat.” O’Brien was featured for many years as “The Style Guy” in GQ magazine and published the arts and literature magazine Bald Ego from 2003 to 2005. His books include The Style Guy and How to Be a Man.