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Da Vinci, van Gogh ... AT&T? Inside the Corporate Masters Series

If corporations are people, what would their portraits look like? Artist Sarah Guthrie on why she defaced classic works of art for an unconventional exhibition.

Son of Apple crop

Click to view the Corporate Masters series of paintings
by Sarah C. B. Guthrie, M.F.A.

When the Supreme Court ruling Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission gave corporations legal rights similar to those of human beings, I found myself wondering: What does it mean that a corporation is now considered a legal person? What does it mean for art? And if a corporation is a person, what would its face look like? I wondered, what if I immortalized these multinational entities with iconic portraits?

Corporate Masters began with the vision of a corporate logo in a da Vinci-style painting. GE had received widespread press coverage for legally paying less in taxes in 2010 than most people, including me—an artist and nonprofit worker. It was a natural choice for the first painting in this series.

I then began to research other companies that were getting away with things that the average citizen could not. Bank of America, for example, played a role in badly damaging the economy through bad lending practices, nearly crushing the U.S. housing market.

The paintings that have come to make up this series seek to start conversations and act as a catalyst for change in our consumer culture. Initially, I wanted to cause a reaction in viewers when they saw familiar works defaced by corporate logos.

As the series developed, an interesting tension arose. I began to consider my own complicity in this corporate culture. I saw how much I really depend on corporations. 

As government representing ordinary people has cut back funding for the arts, institutions—even large museums like MOMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the National Gallery of Art—have relied increasingly on corporate sponsorship to fund art exhibits. Perhaps most famously, the wildly popular 1996 Vermeer exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. had to be privately funded to stay open during the federal government shutdown.

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As I considered my complicity, my self-interrogation deepened. I recycle. I buy local. I work at a nonprofit. But I also own an iPhone that runs on the AT&T network, even though it invests millions in lobbying to protect its interests over mine. I heard about suicides at iPhone plants in China. The peak came when I realized that my Artomatic Corporate Masters debut was beautifully lit by GE bulbs.

Yet while I do embrace comforts that corporations make possible, it is hard to understand how we have gotten so far out of balance.

We have a say in how we organize ourselves as a society, and we seem to be making choices that favor corporate interests over the interests of people. My hope is that these paintings inspire people to contact their representatives, boycott products, call on companies to improve their practices, and support corporations with ethical, sustainable practices.

These are small, individual decisions that, collectively, could shift the culture until we are no longer subjugated to these Corporate Masters.


Sarah C. B. Guthrie wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Sarah uses several means of self-expression including: painting, performing, drawing, and writing. She turns to the theories of behavioral economics, Lacan, Althusser, and Baudrillard to inform her work as they offer studies in decision-making, desire, the subject, media, and ideology. She works in communications and holds an M.F.A in Visual Arts at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, an M.A. from The George Washington University, and a B.A. from Davidson College. Her work may be viewed on sarahguthrie.com.

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