When Big-Name Artists Cashed in on Corporate America - OZY | A Modern Media Company

When Big-Name Artists Cashed in on Corporate America

When Big-Name Artists Cashed in on Corporate America

By Sean Braswell


Because sometimes artists have to be willing to sell out before they can sell themselves.

By Sean Braswell

Does a Ford Edsel by any other name look as foul? 

Probably, and perhaps even worse, especially if the notorious 1958 car flop — an ugly gas guzzler named after Henry Ford’s son Edsel — had been called, let’s say, Utopian Turtletop. That was just one of many creative suggestions put forth by Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Marianne Moore. Others included Thunderblender, Mongoose Civique and Anticipator. Moore did not charge for her creative labors — she was friends with the wife of a Ford marketer who had solicited her services — but the poet’s foray into automotive branding is a reminder that countless writers and artists have lent their skills to more commercial endeavors, often to rather amusing results.

Not all artists are unrepentant bohemians. At some point or another, almost every serious artist has yielded to certain financial pressures or incentives, or perhaps just the need to eat. “Bach, Mozart, Hayden and Beethoven were all obsessed with earning money through their art,” economist Tyler Cowen reminds us in his book In Praise of Commercial Culture. As Charlie Chaplin confessed late in his life, “I went into the business for money and the art grew out of it. If people are disillusioned by that remark, I can’t help it. It’s the truth.”

Even the indomitable Dr. Seuss spent a good chunk of his career in a corporate ‘Waiting Place.’

You have to start somewhere. And it’s easy to forget — particularly in an age when 22-year-old entrepreneurs raise millions of dollars to launch startup ventures — that somewhere is often a corporate enterprise. Countless cartoonists and illustrators, for example, got their start in advertising and other industries. Before he got his big break, Eric Carle, author of the children’s classic The Very Hungry Caterpillar, was a graphic designer for The New York Times and an art director for an advertising agency, illustrating lobsters and insects for allergy-tab advertisements. Shel Silverstein worked for years as a cartoonist for Playboy while also deploying his skills toward more PG-themed fare as an author of such children’s classics as The Giving Tree.

Even the indomitable Dr. Seuss, who wrote such anticonsumerist works as How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Lorax, spent a good chunk of his career in a corporate “Waiting Place” before a fluke encounter on a Madison Avenue sidewalk with an old college friend launched his legendary writing career.  Before that, Seuss’ capacious imagination had largely fueled advertising campaigns for his largest client, Standard Oil Company. Long before children were being entertained by the Grinch or the Sneetches, magazine readers were encountering surreal beasts with Seussian names like the Karbo-nockus or Moto-raspus in ads for Essolube motor oil or Flit insecticide (both Standard Oil products).

Sometimes, as with Seuss, the commercial venture provides an invaluable (not to mention paid) opportunity to explore one’s craft and develop as an artist. Muppets creator Jim Henson first used his band of handmade puppets to help make ends meet, making about 180 somewhat absurdly violent television commercials for various instant-coffee brands. It wasn’t long before the Muppets were selling everything from dog chow to chow mein, and these commercial endeavors proved integral to their eventual on-screen success as well as Henson’s creative development. 

In some cases, the corporate world is not just a forum for honing one’s artistic skills but also an important source of ideas. Kurt Vonnegut Jr., author of bestsellers like Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle, was hired in 1947 at the age of 24 to join a small team of content marketers within the global energy giant General Electric. As part of his public-relations job, Vonnegut interviewed numerous GE scientists about their research, and some of what he learned about — such as attempts to control the weather — would form the basis for several key creations of his own, such as the Ice-9 featured in Cat’s Cradle.

“The capitalist market economy,” Cowen argues, “is a vital but underappreciated institutional framework for supporting a plurality of coexisting artistic visions … [and] helping consumers and artists refine their tastes.”

And within that commercial framework lie a host of opportunities for aspiring artists. Or, put another way: Sometimes you may have to sell out to sell yourself, but the important thing is to be able to tell the difference. Or, as Dr. Seuss wrote (and knew full well) in Oh, the Places You’ll Go!:

Step with care and great tact
and remember that Life’s
a Great Balancing Act.
Just never forget to be dexterous and deft.
And never mix up your right foot with your left.

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