Curator Talkback

Who wore it best? Logo-shrouded suit pits The Art Guys against Super Size Me's Morgan Spurlock

Who wore it best? Logo-shrouded suit pits The Art Guys against Super Size Me's Morgan Spurlock

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The Art Guys in "SUITS" Courtesy of The Art Guys
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Director Morgan Spurlock poses for a portrait during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Photo by Victoria Will/AP
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Courtesy of The Art Guys
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Photo by Mark Seliger
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Master provocateurs Morgan Spurlock and Houston's The Art Guys are making conflicting claims that each is the originator of a logo-shrouded suit, a concept that first appeared in The Art Guys' 1998 work, "SUITS: The Clothes Make the Man."

A similar getup was spotted on Spurlock at the Sundance Film Festival when he promoted his product placement docu-commentary, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.

MediaBistro design blog Unbeige broke the news of the conflict, which has now caught the attention of such widely-read outlets as ARTINFO and Forbes.

For The Art Guys' project, the duo (Jack Massing and Michael Galbreth) collaborated with designer Todd Oldham and sold ad space on their suits to 56 companies, from Taco Cabana to Tootsies. They traversed the nation for one year with a camera crew, resulting in a documentary (the suits currently reside in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston). In a similar act of avant-gardism, Spurlock funded his film by selling advertising spots that appear throughout the entire footage. 

On Tuesday, The Art Guys released a statement declaring that Spurlock's concept represents an act of plagiarism.

"The suits do look suspiciously similar," MFAH curator of contemporary art Alison de Lima Greene tells CultureMap. "I can't speculate whether the idea was stolen, but I will say it's pretty obvious that they're the same."

De Lima Greene says the museum was contacted over a decade ago by local artist Mark Flood, claiming that The Art Guys lifted the logo idea from his canvases, in which he sold ad space. A Flood painting, which consists of a blank canvas and the phrase, "Your ad here," was commissioned by the MFAH.

"Like the 'SUITS' project, he did a whole bunch of publicity about advertising and art," says de Lima Greene.

Toby Kamps, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Menil Collection, wrote a cover story for ARTnews when The Art Guys unveiled "SUITS" in 1998. "All kind of things are developed simultaneously around the world, from the airplane to the typewriter," Kamps says. "Who knows if Morgan knew consciously or unconsiously about The Art Guys' project?

"Who even has an original thought these days? We're getting information in all directions: TV, Internet, print media, jokes going viral. I think this is perhaps more timely than ever."

Kamps points to a 2008 incident in which Apple approached artist Christian Marclay about using his 1995 work "Telephones" in a TV commercial, and when the artist declined, Apple simply duplicated his idea.

Most recently, artist Jeff Koons (who has been the back-and-forth player of multiple intellectual property lawsuits) took issue with a gallery and design firm that produced bookends in the shape of blowup balloon dogs — an image the artist has produced in multiple metallic sculptures that rake in millions. After a month-long squabble over the iconic shape, Koons dropped his case.

Art Guy Jack Massing tells CultureMap that he's still not sure how he and Galbreth will proceed, but a legal pursuit is unlikely. The Art Guys have a trademark on their name, but have never gone to the effort of having artworks officially copyrighted. Nevertheless, copyright exists from the moment a work is created, although it must be registered if a party wishes to pursue a lawsuit.

The duo has yet to receive a response from an e-mail sent to Spurlock, who told A.V.Club, "This accusation is preposterous. I never even heard of these guys until today, and all of their claims are baseless. Looks like we both had an idea to mimic what's been happening in stock racing for the last 40 years."

Massing concedes, "I doubt he's seen our film, because it was not widely distributed. But when Spurlock's suit comes out, that's where I become very suspicious of if he truly was naïve, or did research." Massing says he would be surprised if somebody on Spurlock's production team hadn't encountered "SUITS."

"These are supposed to be highly aware and intelligent people," he says. "It's been in many books and traveling exhibitions. I think it probably was our most widely-publicized work — but that was part of it. That's what its intent was."

Indeed, it will be difficult to prove that Spurlock personally observed "SUITS" and ran with the idea without offering credit. "With the currency of images in this world, people are not always as aware of the laws involved," says de Lima Greene. "I think it's a very, very fuzzy and undefined area still. But I think The Art Guys are right in pointing out that it's not just a common coincidence."

Whether or not Spurlock has intentionally committed plagiarism, The Arts Guys are enjoying a return to national media coverage.

"Publicity is publicity," de Lima Greene points out. "I think it's a terrific opportunity for drawing attention back to the 'SUITS' project. Things come full circle after a little bit more than a decade."

Massing says that all he wants is for Spurlock to come forward and "smooth things over."

Toby Kamps has a suggestion for mediation: Perhaps all the disagreement requires is a comped "The Art Guys" advertisement on the director's suit.