Invidious Distinction: Is It Selling-Out or Is It Commodification?

The concept of selling-out, sacrificing personal integrity for material gain, is a ubiquitous concept and hardly a new one. The Oxford English Dictionary attributes its first usage to the diary of Mary Boykin Chesnut (1862); in the version edited by C. V. Woodward (1981), about the surrender of Norfolk to Lincoln’s Union, she writes, “Another sellout to the devil. It is this giving up that kills me. Norfolk they talk of now. Why not Charleston next?” (336). Unless you’re anticipating the Confederate South to rise again, then this should be clear: Selling-out doesn’t take a negative connotation because to whom or for what one sells-out, but, rather, the act itself belies the actor’s character, hence nobody likes a sell-out. To sell-out is incoherent, and it leads others to question the actor’s authentic self. And no one likes a two-face either. (Even Harvey Dent had the integrity to consistently act based on chance.)

As an accusation, selling-out has never been more popular it seems since the prominence of the World Wide Web. Before nearly everyone had a voice in the court of public opinion, people could only disappoint their closest friends and family or themselves by forfeiting principled values for superficialities. With public scrutiny democratized through the Internet, people capable of building an oeuvre become targets for critical analysis, their motives being closely inspected against the content of their work. This outpouring of art and commerce is the topic of the Colin Marshall article about Wes Anderson’s “commercial success.”

Wes Anderson, for those unfamiliar, is the director behind Bottle Rocket (1996), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Life Aquatic of Steve Zissou (2004), and The Darjeeling Limited (2007), to name the one’s that I’ve seen. His visual style is fairly distinct: Generation X fashions amidst detailed scenery captured in continuous, panoptic shots. His narrative style notably evokes a sentimentality and intimacy about flawed characters and calm dysfunction. He also has a cult following. Those adherents are probably the most vocal about his recent stint as a corporate shill. But is he (and those other auteurs who’ve done commercials: e.g., Jean-Luc Godard and David Lynch) “sell-outs”?

If we accept the definition above, then for Anderson to deserve the title we need to show that he sacrificed principle for profit. While I’m a fan of the auteurs above, I’m no expert on their works; that said, Godard’s Marxist Weltanschauung excepted, none of these directors bolster a particularly anti-commercialist message through their works. Since they create T.V. spots that bear their distinct marks, one can’t really accuse them of creative prostitution. However, that’s not to say they haven’t done something commercial, and in so doing commodified their style.

Commodification only requires that a thing be transformed through economic relations into a good that is bought and sold. While moviemakers presumably make movies to be distributed in the market, the film per se, and not the artist, is the commodity. When Anderson makes a commercial for a corporate entity, he’s no longer dealing with a distinct product in the open market in which we all participate; instead, he’s selling his style (read: himself) to the corporation which in turn is selling its brand to us consumers. Commodification differs from selling-out in that the latter, as we’ve established, requires a betrayal of integrity.

Now that we’ve established that Anderson isn’t a sell-out but is guilty of commodification of the self, the question remains: Has he done something detestable? No. Advertisers extending their hands to directors, and directors taking those hands, is an acceptable way for these directors to produce material within a market economy—the notion of integrity notwithstanding. You can determine whether this material is valuable for yourself.

Regardless of your stance on the cultural value of commercials, commercials are severe mini-shorts, and they can be as inane as a slogan repeated ad nauseam over a still image or as captivating as a dramatic allusion to an Orwellian dystopia. Wes Anderson’s overstuffed, rococo, 1960s- and 70s-time-bomb style particularly lends itself to the frequency of commercials: Viewers can discover new parts of the mise-en-scène they missed before.

Of course, an advert is an advert and should only be taken in moderation, always through a critical lens, never passively. All the cultural responsibility shouldn’t fall squarely on the artist’s shoulders. Intelligent fans should be able to discern the craft from the gimmick (as should every consumer!). Alas, people do shop according to envy, emulation, and “mental engineering” (also the title of a good show that analyzes ads and used to be on PBS, by the way). Ironically, the people likely to care about an Anderson or Lynch or Godard commercial are also likely to scrape off the pre-consumer waste from the bottoms of these ads. Those that don’t appreciate the signature of these directors are likely to index these segments in their minds alongside furniture liquidation ads. In the end, marketers foot the bill of expensive furniture liquidation announcements. (At least that’s what I hope.)

Reinforcing my point, Marshall observes how out-of-place the product is in these ads. Here’s where someone could argue that the director has indeed sold-out: None of the films these directors made have full-screen, abject product placement. Though, is anything of the artist’s original idea lost? The sheer incongruity within the advertisement should at least defer the accusation; the branding at the close of these commercials appears tacked on by someone other than the director much the way a Let’s-All-Go-to-the-Lobby-type insert precedes a feature film. Watch Lynch’s commercials. Some of his ads integrate the product, others don’t; either way, the effect is some of the most humorous stuff he’s made. His commercials play like an SNL or Kids in the Hall parody of German/Existential advertising: the mark of Lynch is there, but the product is unimportant and seemingly pretend.

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About frommherrtzueternity

About me? For this I refer you, kind reader, to "Black Sabbath Vol. 4." On that album, listen to the song "Supernaut" for an entertaining synopsis of my assumed persona.
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