Is Takashi Murakami Japan's Andy Warhol—or its Walt Disney?
Murakami is often called the Japanese Andy Warhol. He's obsessed with celebrity and mass culture, and his art is packed with images drawn from Japan's leading popular art forms: manga and anime. And, like Warhol, he's largely hands-off, presiding over a factory staffed with assistants who fabricate what he calls his "art products": paintings, sculptures, helium-filled balloons, animated films, and wallpapered environments like this one, featuring his signature rictus-faced daisies.
But at this stage of his career, Murakami is looking less like Warhol and more like another great American artist-entrepreneur: Walt Disney. Warhol famously blurred the line between high art and mass culture, but there was always a trace of irony in his low-brow enthusiasms. With Murakami, that ironic distance is gone. He's not just commenting on consumer culture—he's creating it.
When "© Murakami" opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles last fall, much was made of the fully functioning Louis Vuitton boutique rudely plopped down in the middle of the exhibition. It was an intentionally provocative gesture and an unambiguous statement of Murakami's position that art and commerce can be mutually enriching activities. The boutique has been reconstructed in Brooklyn, and Murakami isn't kidding when he says that it's "the heart of the exhibition itself."
Murakami began working with Louis Vuitton in 2002, when the company's artistic director, Marc Jacobs, invited him to design his own version of the iconic LV monogram. He replaced the classic warm browns with a rainbow of pretty pastel colors and—presto!—the bags became an instant media sensation—and, for the rich and au courant, a must-have.While Vuitton was manufacturing the handbags and accessories he designed, Murakami worked with his bevy of assistants to create dozens of paintings, like this one, splattered with colorful LV monograms. This strategy of cross-branding and positioning products at different price points—a few thousand dollars for the handbags, a few hundred thousand for the paintings—is the key to Murakami's overarching vision as an artist, designer, and entrepreneur.
"Business art is the step that comes after art," Warhol wrote in 1975. "I started as a commercial artist and I want to finish as a business artist. Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art." Warhol never truly fulfilled this ambition during his lifetime. Most of his business ventures lost money, and the widespread licensing of his images came only after his death. Now, with Murakami, the age of business art has arrived. Leaving behind the old-fashioned idea of art as an autonomous form of individual expression, Murakami has fashioned himself as a brand, a trademark, and a corporate identity.
In his as-yet-untranslated 2005 book, Geijutsu Kigyo Ron ("The Theory of Art Entrepreneurship"), Murakami attributes his spectacular international success to his business management skills and his strategic appraisal of the position of Japanese art in the Western art market. "You cannot create an art piece unless you know how to make and sell it," he writes. Elsewhere, he sums up his position with uncanny concision: "Art is the supreme incarnation of luxury entertainment."
Takashi Murakami. Tan Tan Bo, 2001. Acrylic on canvas mounted on board, 141 3/4 inches by 212 5/8 inches by 2 5/8 inches. Collection of John A. Smith and Victoria Hughes. Courtesy Tomio Koyama Gallery, Tokyo. © 2001 Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All rights reserved.
Murakami's art education started out along fairly conventional lines. He studied nihonga painting, a Japanese style that emerged in the 19th century in reaction to Western influences, and briefly tried his hand at anime. In the early 1990s, while finishing his Ph.D. at Tokyo National University, he set his sights on a career as a contemporary artist. His first successful works borrowed from otaku, the geeky male subculture of sci-fi anime, manga, and video games with an obsessive, pedophilic edge. In works like Miss ko2 (pronounced ko-ko), he borrowed otaku stereotypes—in this case, a leggy, bubble-eyed supervixen dolled up like a 1950s drive-in waitress—and rendered them as larger-than-life-size fiberglass sculptures. Hypersexual, garish, and slick, these oversized figurines owe a lot to Jeff Koons' sculptural enlargements of American kitsch icons like Michael Jackson and his pet chimp, Bubbles.
Murakami doesn't just appropriate existing characters—he also creates his own anime-style avatars. The first and most important of these was DOB, whose name is derived from the existential question that plagues toddlers everywhere: Dobojite dobojite? ("Why? Why?"). DOB has an O-shaped face and ears bearing the letters D and B. In early versions, like this painting from 1994, he looks a lot like Mickey Mouse, and that's no accident. Murakami has said that he created DOB as an "inquiry into the secret of market survival" and into the "universality" of characters like Mickey Mouse, Hello Kitty, Sonic the Hedgehog, and the anime icon Doraemon (a cuddly, catlike robot from the future). Murakami's DOB can be read as a critique of the Japanese cult of kawaii (cuteness), which he sees as an expression of postwar Japanese impotence—a retreat into infantilism. But the point was also to create a character that could successfully infiltrate that market. Like Disney, Sega, Sanrio, and other corporate "parents," Murakami has fought hard to protect his character's copyright. In 2004, he sued the children's clothing company Narumiya International for its use of a mouselike figure that resembled DOB and reportedly received a settlement of tens of millions of yen*.
Correction, April 17, 2008: The article originally stated the reported settlement was for tens of thousands of yen.
Over the years, DOB has sprouted multiple eyes and pointy fangs, morphing and mutating almost beyond recognition. (When in doubt, look for the telltale D and B on the ears.) At the Brooklyn Museum, he appears in numerous incarnations: as inflatable balloons, in paintings and sculptures, and in the form of various mass-produced gewgaws for sale in the gift shop. Though DOB started out cute, more recent variations reveal a darker, crazier, more sinister facet of cartoon cuteness.
In this painting from 2006, DOB floats on a ribbonlike wave against a mottled background that evokes traditional Japanese screen painting and lacquer ware as well as Warhol's oxidation paintings from 1977-78. Elsewhere in the show, there are recognizable references to Hokusai, Francis Bacon, Jackson Pollock, and Salvador Dalí. These high-art allusions seem calculated to appeal to a niche audience of critics, curators, and collectors who like their contemporary art to come equipped with a built-in historical pedigree. Murakami has this market pegged: Westerners don't care about "those vague, 'oh-what-a-beautiful-color' kind of impressions, as Japanese do," he writes in his book on art entrepreneurship. "They enjoy intellectual 'devices' and 'games' in art."
It's important to realize that for Murakami, museum art is only the tip of the iceberg. As critic Scott Rothkopf points out in his illuminating catalog essay, Murakami heads a multinational corporation, Kaikai Kiki Co. Ltd., that not only produces his art and art-related merchandise (plush toys, T-shirts, stickers, etc.) but also manages the careers of seven artists, operates an art fair in Japan, organizes touring exhibitions, produces animated films, pursues collaborative commercial projects (with Vuitton, Issey Miyake, and Kanye West, among others), and accepts corporate branding commissions. Kaikai Kiki now has about 100 employees, with an office in Tokyo, two studios in the Tokyo suburbs, and one in Long Island City, Queens.
Museum exhibitions like the one in Brooklyn fortify the Murakami brand, just as a gleaming flagship store on Madison Avenue helps move merchandise in mall outlets in less glamorous locales. And herein lies Murakami's genius as a marketer and art entrepreneur. As a better businessman than Warhol with more high-art credibility than Disney, he's figured out how to have his cake and eat it, too.Murakami has often argued that there is no indigenous tradition of distinguishing between high and low cultural products in Japan, where art is routinely exhibited in department stores and luxury merchandise can be seen in museums. In the 1990s, he coined the term Superflat to describe this condition of nonhierarchical flatness, linking it to the formal tendency toward two-dimensionality in Japanese art, from Edo screens to anime to his own depthless paintings, such as this DOB variation. For those of us who were reared on the idea that art is a special kind of luxury product—more contemplative, denser with meaning, somehow resistant to the status quo—Murakami's radical leveling of art and commerce can be pretty unsettling.
But there's also something exhilarating about the uncanny honesty of Murakami's approach and the sheer expansiveness of his ambition. His work feels historically important—not because of its formal innovations, which are fairly slim, but because it powerfully redefines what it means to be an artist in the 21st century. You can rail against the commercialization of art and the aestheticization of commerce. Or you can take a deep breath and bow to the new emperor of no-brow.
The visual arts are art forms that create works which are primarily visual in nature, such as ceramics, drawing, painting, sculpture, architecture, printmaking, modern visual arts (photography, video, and filmmaking), design and crafts. These definitions should not be taken too strictly as many artistic disciplines (performing arts, conceptual art, textile arts) involve aspects of the visual arts as well as arts of other types. Also included within the visual arts are the applied arts such as industrial design, graphic design, fashion design, interior design and decorative art.