However, artists are struggling to navigate the asymmetrical power relationship with large corporations, and to weave these one-off projects into a sustainable career. With no standardized fees, contracts, or best practices, artists are typically left to negotiate and advocate for themselves with little leverage. “They expect you to be super-professional on your side, but then they’re unprofessional on their side,” Amalia Ulman, a new-media artist based in Los Angeles who has collaborated with brands in the past (including two collaborations that I worked on, for Gucci and Airbnb), told me. In some cases, she said, companies have canceled large commissions at the last minute without any payment. “They can decline the project with almost no notice, or compensation, or anything.”
What’s more, some artists and critics are concerned that this influx of branded capital may prioritize certain kinds of art production over others —i.e., works that are shiny, colorful, and Instagrammable, instead of conceptual, political, and challenging. It’s true that most branded projects don’t allow artists to approach sensitive topics such as sex, violence, or political critique—or meta-critique of the brand itself (though a memorable exception was a video by the Swiss artist Sylvie Fleury depicting the destruction of Chanel handbags, included in the 2008 Chanel Mobile Art Pavilion). Ulman has often been frustrated by these restrictions. “For a brand to be able to work with an artist,” she said, “they can’t expect the artist to do something that is not art.” The brand has to allow the artist breathing room. “If you’re already telling them what font to use,” she said, “then what’s the point?”
Of course, art history reminds us that patrons of every era have shaped aesthetic trends and set the bounds of political expression. In countries like China, unbridled creative speech has never been guaranteed, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that artists there were among the first to be less sentimental and more pragmatic about both the benefits and limitations of this type of partnership—a sensibility that then filtered into other places. In addition, there’s a potential benefit in having these stakeholders and transactions so transparently mapped out. Sean Raspet, who is interested in blurring the distinction between the art economy and rest of the economy, told me, “The content of a work of art might be a very radical politics, but then the economics of the work is still selling to the .001%, as an object for a collector to speculate on.” If an artist is working with a consumer brand, then “at least the cards are on the table, and there isn’t this much of a disconnect between where the money’s coming from and how the artist is functioning.”
Raspet is going especially far in muddling these categories. As an artist and self-taught flavor chemist, in 2015 he went to work in the R&D department at Rosa Labs, the company that manufactures the beverage Soylent, to develop new flavors. (Rosa Labs introduced one of them, Nectar, to its product line, but it is now discontinued.) His contract stipulated that the artificial flavors he designed there were technically his own artworks, and could be displayed (and sold) as such in the future, though Raspet has not done so yet.
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