The Late, Great Glenn O’Brien’s Last Book “Like Art” Takes on Advertising

Photo: Tom Rubnitz, Hustle with my Muscle, 1986, still from color music video for John Sex. © Varla Records.

Glenn O’Brien was a man of his times, yet always kept a step ahead, able to foresee where we were going—all the better to warn us of the inevitable.

Also: Downtown Legend, Writer, and Renegade Glenn O’Brien Dies at 70

In the April 1990 issue of Interview, O’Brien recognized that Marla Maples gave Donald Trump the edge, bring the first journalist to predict the results of the November 2016 election. He understood, “This sex symbol campaign of his is really just the foreplay for a run at the presidency. American doesn’t want it all the time, but when America really wants it, like back at the dawn of the 60s, America wants a stud President, a fertile potentate to make the crops grow and the oil wells gush. My guess is Don Trump is the next candidate for America’s ritually cyclic, priapic president. Want to lay me odds?”

Jean Cocteau, in 1939, wearing a 1988 suit from Comme des Garçon’s Homme Plus line. Superimposition of 1988 photograph by Shinji Mori on 1939 photograph by Gisèle Freund. From Sixth Sense 1.

O’Brien had the foresight and the wisdom to see what would come to pass. Though he died earlier this year, he continues to be the prolific man of letters he always was, as his posthumous book, Like Art: Glenn O’Brien on Advertising will be released from Karma/D.A.P. on May 23, 2017.

Between the years 1984 and 1990, the legendary writer, creative director, and downtown renegade maintained a column on advertising in Artforum magazine, laying bare his thoughts on the relationship between fine art and commercial work—for just as often as not, they are created by one and the same. Like Art presents 38 of O’Brien’s greatest hits, gently tearing away the masks of polite society in favor of truth.

“There are no ethics in fashion. There are no ethics in magazine. There are no ethics in advertising,” O’Brien warns in the book’s introduction. O’Brien has seen it all, from every angle there is, and as a free spirit, he called it like it is. “I can’t help but feel like my ads are better than Barbara Kruger’s,” he claims. “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.”

Jasper Johns, Painted Bronze, 1960, painted broze, 5 ½ × 8 × 4 ¾ inches. Private collection.

Indeed, this is true in a very specific corner of the globe that revolves around the markets of Madison Avenue, and (when O’Brien started writing) 57th Street. The interplay between art and commerce has always existed—but it was the rise of New York City as the leader of the art world after World War II that finalized it. Andy Warhol made ads, then he made art that looked like ads, until finally he just made commission portraits that pre-dated branding with precocious insouciance—which just happens to time with O’Brien’s arrival at Interview and his foray onto the downtown scene.

From this high perch, O’Brien could see it all, rubbing elbows with uptown and downtown at Max’s Kansas City and the Mudd Club. His youth, along with his radical, rebellious streak, enabled him to join the commercial world without ever being subsumed by it.

Like Art is the consummate insider speaking to insiders and wannabes about the murky undertow of branding. By the mid-80s, when he began the column, it had already taken hold, with Keith Haring for Swatch and Le Mondrian hotel. It was only (un)natural that it would come to this.

“Advertising often imitates art imitating life, and it’s not hard to find commercial messages adopting the styles and tendencies of their less profane counterparts,” O’Brien observes in his December 1986 column. “But it wasn’t until recently that I was able to detect a Cubist influence in television sportswear advertising.”

But O’Brien can’t recall the product, and that speaks volumes for its success. He recalls every detail of the ad except—what was being sold. “This is a case of an ad being simply to good for its own good,” he declares.

Spike Lee, Mars’ Bedroom, 1990, Wieden & Kennedy television ad for Nike Air Jordans. Photo: David Lee.

Because, ultimately, what all of this amounts to is to leave an impression we are not likely to forget, one that will envelope us in a relationship with consumption as the supreme act of self. “I shop therefore I am,” Barbara Kruger cheekily decried, but in a consumerist culture, she wasn’t lying.

As O’Brien’s essays point out, advertising is not merely an act of sales: it is a conditioning of the mind to respond to sensory stimuli. Like art, it engages our curiosity and desire, but unlike art it offers something beyond the experience itself. And that leaves art wanting more for itself.

“Art like something else is easier and can often be passed off as useful and therefore harmless. It is unlikely to compete directly with social, religious, or political mores, lessening the likelihood that it will be quashed,” O’Brien determines in May 1988. “At a time when the artist for art’s sake has become an estheticized stunt person, more and more of the stuff that turns me on has a label, not a signature.”

And so we arrive—twenty years hence, to a culture that has simply embalmed itself in the ideas O’Brien penned. The globe gathers around the warm, glowing light of their computer screens eager to see the latest celebrity arrivals at the annual Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Gala. I’d ask if it’s real or if it’s Memorex, but I know that in doing so, I’d lose half the audience.

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.