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What does it mean to be an “official” artist? In the old Soviet
Union it meant being sanctioned by the state to produce what the
state wanted. In China during the Cultural Revolution it meant
adhering to the aesthetic dictates of the government. But as an
official 2008 Olympic artist selected by the U.S. Olympic
Committee, Mark T. Smith—who has previously
created original artwork for Rolling Stone, Absolut Vodka
and Chrysler, among others—is responsible for producing a gallery
of art to be used as posters and promotional materials for the
Summer Games in Beijing. In this case, Smith's official status
allows him the freedom to express himself and interpret this major
international event in his own style, with his own imagery. Here,
Smith discusses the line he has to toe and the one he refuses to
Smith's dragon poster for the Beijing 2008 Olympics.
Heller: How did you get the job as an official illustrator of
the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games?
Smith: The Olympics project came to me through a series
of professional contacts. Several different agents and galleries
represent my artwork; it was through these connections that I was
presented to the U.S. Olympic Committee and selected as an official
Heller: What exactly does this officialdom entail?
Smith: I was commissioned to create an image for the
Beijing 2008 Olympics. In addition to the creation of the artwork,
I have commitments to some promotional related activities, such as
poster signings and personal appearances.
Heller: Will your work compliment the official identity of
Smith: The artwork is scheduled to be included in the
presentation of the American experience in the Olympic village. I
view the artwork as a stand-alone piece of the larger identity
Heller: Have you ever done anything like this before?
Smith: This commission is unique in that it the first
piece of artwork that I created for a truly global market. I have
created many images that have been seen by very large numbers of
people, advertising campaigns such as the “Absolut Smith”
commission in 1996. The Olympic commission will dwarf that audience
in sheer numbers and global reach.
Smith's previous work includes a cover illustration for Miami
Skyline magazine (left) and a commission for Absolut.
Heller: Did you develop a style exclusive to the
Smith: No. Within the breadth of my visual language
contains a variety of platforms to communicate a concept. This is
just one of the many paintings that I created this year.
Heller: Judging from the abstract, symbolic look of your
imagery, you seem to have had creative freedom, but how
Smith: I had complete freedom to design the image.
Because of the consistency and quality of my images, I am always
called on to “do what I do”—most commercial projects that I
participate in have a larger amount of input in terms of imagery
from the client. The image for the Olympics was presented as a
sketch; after the approval of the sketch, the final artwork was
created, along with a series of related works. The U.S. Olympic
Committee approved the artwork without any changes.
Heller: The Chinese allow art to flourish, but within
distinct proscriptions. Were you given any guidelines?
Two-color version of Smith's Olympic dragon poster.
Smith: Because the commission came from the U.S. Olympic
Committee there was no input from the Chinese government. Any
guidelines or parameters were placed by me on the design of the
image. For example, I wanted to create an image that was universal
in appeal and an image that could transcend languages and cultural
Heller: Should you run up against censorship, what is your
Smith: It would be an understatement to say that the
Chinese are in an unusual and difficult transitional period in
their country's history. I expect that they will have many other,
more pressing issues at the time of the games to deal with than my
painting. That said, if my artwork were censored, I would have to
rely on the voice of the global free press to assist my efforts to
have a well-earned place at the event.
Heller: What do you hope to achieve?
Smith: I have used this commission as a platform to
discuss larger societal issues surrounding the Chinese government
policies toward Tibet, Darfur, the environment and the impending
global integration of China into the world and its markets.
However, my artwork has seldom been created with an activist or
political agenda—this Olympic piece has neither. This commission
comes at a time when China is being examined under the spotlight of
international media attention surrounding the games. The intense
interest in China's internal and external policies has fostered an
environment where these topics are being discussed frequently. I
hope to contribute to the public discussion on these issues.
Heller: So, is there an agenda for your artwork?
Smith: My participation in the Beijing Olympics was to
create a piece of artwork that visually bridged the gap between
China and the United States and raised funds for the U.S. Olympic
team. This project has afforded me the opportunity to speak about
issues that are normally left to political pundits, ambassadors and
the like; for an artist—and more importantly, a citizen—to have
this platform is a rare occasion. I have the responsibility to
speak on topics that I have a strong opinion about and a
responsibility to use this time in the media spotlight to be an
agent of change. I am not beholden to any Olympic sponsor or
political agenda and I am not the spokesperson for any particular
cause or movement. I can and do only represent my views on
Heller: What, in fact, is your position regarding these
Smith: I believe very strongly that the United States and
the world must continue a dialogue with China. It is precisely
because of this that events like the Olympics are of the utmost
importance. It starts dialogues where there was none, or it can
offer a safe topic to start a deeper relationship between nations
with conflicting interests or large cultural gaps.
A sketch (left) and painted variation on Smith's dragon theme
for the 2008 Olympic Games.
Heller: There was talk about boycotting the Games. By virtue
of doing this art, I presume you are not in favor?
Smith: To boycott the Games would end this dialogue, and
boycotts that have been used in the past have never been effective
at achieving their stated goals. All we have to do is look at our
relationship with Cuba to see an example of an ineffective
Our Olympic athletes should have the opportunity to represent
the country on the world stage—the United States has produced
countless Olympic champions that have dedicated their lives,
literally, to the pursuit of excellence in a specific athletic
contest. These people have spent countless hours, days and years
preparing—they deserve the right to complete against the world's
best. In some ways these athletes become unofficial ambassadors for
the country of their origin. There are so many other ways to effect
change on the world stage; to use these Olympic athletes as a pawn
in that game would be a shame.
Heller: Do you believe in some way your work will contribute
to the dialogue?
Smith: I believe that the primary purpose of art is to
ennoble the public. This ethos is always a large part of my
commission selection process. I look for projects that will touch
as many people as possible. In addition, I believe that artists
have a responsibility to communicate to the public on a wide
variety of topics. Being an artist means in a larger sense being a
problem-solver. Most artists have an unusual way of looking at
problems and challenges. This can be a useful and interesting
contribution to a dialogue such as this one. I hope that the
artwork can be a small example of how two cultures can be
interconnected in a productive and positive way, and that this will
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