06/01/2010 02:43 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Curtains Down on a History of Patronage

According to over 85% of the people who have voted on The Huffington Post so far, AT&T's new ad campaign of people draping monuments all across America in orange fabric is an undeniable rip off of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's 1979 - 2005 The Gates project in Central Park. Even AT&T saw enough resemblance to tack a disclaimer on to the end of the commercial: "The artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude have no direct or indirect affiliation or involvement with AT&T," especially after Christo and his lawyer complained. A spokesman told Page Six, "Neither Christo nor Jeanne-Claude nor any business entity of [theirs] has been or will be paid any compensation of any kind." There are also numerous comments on blogs like TrendLand that show that many people are inured to the idea that the visual language created by artists doesn't actually belong to them. Christo and Jeanne-Claude worked on the The Gates for 26 years before millions of people were able to enjoy it.

I think that this is an example of a corporation and an advertising agency (BBDO in this case) taking from artists and not feeling any responsibility to give back to the community, which is certainly not the corporate philosophy espoused by AT&T in the '90s when they sponsored the Museum of Modern Art's exhibition High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture, curated by the late Kirk Varnedoe and The New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik. I happened to be reading the catalog, and was struck by tone of the letter written by the then Chairman of the Board and CEO, R.E. Allen:

With this catalog and the exhibition it represents, AT&T celebrates 50 years of formal association with the arts. That association is founded on our belief that communication is the beginning of understanding. That refers, of course, to the technology that lets information loose on the world. But it also refers to the arts, which color that world from a uniquely human perspective. It is that gift of expression and promise of understanding that prods our support. It is the illumination of our own ignorance that fuels the search. The arts, after all, exist not to explain, but to question. To unearth not the answers, but the possibilities. To remind us not of what we are, but what we can be.

Considering what Allen wrote in 1990 that "communication is the beginning of understanding" it seems undeniable that AT&T no longer wants to be a part of the conversation with artists and the institutions that support them. It's ironic that AT&T's use of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's visual vocabulary is the ultimate example of transference from high to low. They supported an exhibition that was hotly debated when it opened and raised issues that continue to be of great interest. In 2004, Graham Bader revisited the debate around High and Low in Artforum and wondered if the body of criticism sparked by the exhibition was ultimately more interesting than the exhibition itself.

I believe that consumers, institutions and individual patrons have to hold corporations and their advertising agencies to a higher level of accountability. Taking and then disclaiming the work of an artist means to me that patronage isn't really in the DNA of that company. Perhaps AT&T should remember the words of their former CEO: "The arts, after all, exist not to explain, but to question. To unearth not the answers, but the possibilities. To remind us not of what we are, but what we can be."