Too Late to Apologize? On Shia LaBeouf & Branding in the Arts
I experienced Shia LaBeouf’s #IamSorry performance piece at Stephen Cohen Gallery earlier this afternoon. A lot is going to be written, blogged, and snarked about it as the exhibition continues its run through this Sunday. While the hurricane gathers force, here are some thoughts from a slightly different vantage point.
Shia is going to take a lot of heat for this. He already has been. Not just today, but in the entire lead-up to this event. As has been demonstrated by James Franco before him, the arts and entertainment public’s gag reflex gets triggered the moment a recognizable actor tries to branch into the fine arts. The logic behind that reaction, though, becomes equal parts labyrinth and lesson.
As far as I can tell, the disgust stems from a belief that movie stars are not, and can never be, true artists. (Never mind the thorny issue of defining that term, since I don’t think the portion of the public expressing that sentiment is agonizing over it in the least.) At first I thought people might just be drawing a finer distinction between “great actors” and “movie stars.” Maybe the former could pull off the transition, but the latter couldn’t. The continuing monsoon of adulation and sorrow for Phillip Seymour Hoffman certainly suggests that there are at least a few marquee actors whom the public would elevate to “artist” status.
Then I remembered that Joaquin Phoenix, someone I’d guess people might put in that elite category, was disemboweled for his extended performance piece/mockumentary/Andy Kauffman homage I’m Still Here in 2010. It’s impossible to universally and objectively rate the quality of Hollywood performers, of course. But considering how frequently I’ve heard Phoenix’s name come up as something between an heir and a consolation prize in the wake of Hoffman’s death, it’s hard for me to picture another living actor whose ambitions outside his established medium would be greeted with an open mind - not when Phoenix’s expansion attempt was doused with Agent Orange.
At heart, I think the real issue is branding. Anyone who regularly reads me knows that I’m a staunch proponent of the idea that commercially success contemporary artists are in many ways their own luxury brands. If your neighbor put two factory fresh shop vacs in a lit, double-decker plexi vitrine and told you it was art, you’d stop letting your kids wander into his yard. If Jeff Koons does it, the piece ends up in MOMA’s permanent collection. Why? In large part, because by the time the work is offered, he’s already ground-breaking multi-millionaire artist Jeff Koons.
The inverse is true for Shia. The overwhelming reaction to #IAmSorry has been, “Oh, the guy who was in the first three Transformers movies is doing ‘serious performance art’ now? I don’t think so.” The quality of the work itself is irrelevant to the public perception. His brand doesn’t just precede him; it basically transforms his path forward into the beach at Normandy. Never mind that if #IAmSorry was being undertaken strictly by his Finnish performance art collaborator, Nastja Sade Ronkko, almost no one outside the sphere of contemporary art would pay attention. Shia’s brand, on set and off, transforms what would otherwise be a non-event into target practice for the internet.
My role isn’t to be an art critic. All that I’ll say about the value of the actual piece is that, in my opinion, there is plenty of vastly more laughable art being regularly exhibited at reputable galleries. And that larger context matters. Divorce Shia’s pre-existing brand from the equation for just a moment, and #IAmSorry becomes just the first gallery exhibition by a young artist. The fact of the matter is that good work in any genre is really, really hard, especially on anyone’s first attempt. Some of the results may be promising, some may be “eh,” some may be regrettable. To paraphrase Phillip Seymour Hoffman, every new project is a puzzle. I wouldn’t wish #IAmSorry’s public heat lamp onto any novice trying to solve his first one.
I have no concept of whether Shia will continue down the path of performance/fine art, or if the past several weeks will ultimately be a one-time dalliance between movies. However, I’m positive that either permanently transitioning, or even just oscillating between media long-term, will be a tall order for him. The stigma Shia is fighting must be orders of magnitude worse than whatever Matthew Barney went through as a male model in the early '90s. If he wants to relegate his acting resume to just as much of a footnote in his own career as a visual artist, he’s going to have to scrap like hell to rebrand himself. Only then will he be able to get the wish scribbled on his infamous paper bag - ironically, the very lack of fame and attention that most mid-career visual artists desperately want to evolve beyond.