Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Who Is Kaws?

Last Friday I posted a cartoon referring to an artist by the name of Kaws. To be fair, I had not heard of Kaws before last Friday and posted the cartoon without doing very much additional research.

I was better off before I did.

In an era where artists and dealers and critics and collectors are drooling over a Jeff Koons oversized metallic toy bunny rabbit, we are within our rights to think that art is dead. When a critic compares the bunny to the Pieta, we know that art is dead. And when we read that a collector paid over $90 million for said bunny, we know that some people have too much money and too little appreciation for art. 

In principle, people who amass gigantic fortunes give back to the community. Some contribute to charity. Some invest in other businesses. Some become patrons of the arts. What would Florence be like today were it not for the Medicis?

Now, however, in the increasing vulgarization of American society wealthy collectors speculate in the art market, as though they were trading pork belly futures. A man who buys a sculpture for a million dollars and sells it for twenty million is a genius investor. He does not need to know anything about art. People will gaze raptly at said work, not because it possesses any aesthetic value, but in admiration of the man who made a fortune trading dreck.

He might have begun by seeking out a coterie of young artists, buying up their work on the cheap, storing it in a warehouse, finally to trot it out to an auction house… and reap a fortune in profit. If said art had been put up in public, on a church wall, he would have had to answer for his good or bad taste. 

Of course, collectors who want to game the art market do not always hide their collections away, out of public sight. They hire critics and curators, develop relationships with dealers, and engage in hyper sophisticated marketing campaigns… to enhance the value of their collections.

Some have been known to manipulate the auction market, easy to do when art is on the block. If you have a room full of paintings by X, you need but find two people to bid against each other at the next auction of X’s work. Thus, you will be enhancing the market value of your collection. If you are a dealer, and you pull the same stunt, you can increase the prices of all of X’s new works in  your next show.

Nothing is quite as easy to manipulate as the art market.

To what purpose, you ask? Perhaps wealthy collectors have formed a vast conspiracy to persuade us that they have much too much money… and that the government will do a better job of disposing it. Or perhaps they are simply indulging in the ancient Native American practice of potlatch, whereby great chiefs compete against each other by burning their possessions… as a sign of their limitless wealth.

Anyway, since artists have taken to beclowning themselves, the better to enhance their media profile and brand, we are now obliged to suffer the puerilities of an artist who calls himself Kaws. In truth, it’s a pseudonym, adopted by one Brian Donnelly, a thirtysomething man who lives in Brooklyn. Not to belabor the obvious, but Kaws is an intentional misspelling of the word “cause.” It is not very clever, not very creative and not very interesting. 

And it would not be, were it not for the fact that the art world is beginning to take a serious interest in Kaws.

Cody Delistraty brings us the sad news about the art market. In a recent auction, works by great abstract impressionists failed to attract bids. Works by Kaws and a young artist named Christina Quarles attracted some very serious bidding.

He writes in Baffler of the auction action:

The first lot, a moderately sized painting by the American artist Christina Quarles, which depicts two women, one of them bent over the other, sold for more than quadruple its high estimate. The second, another figurative painting—this one by Kaws, a newly bona fide favorite of collectors—also blew through its high estimate, more than tripling it. In fact, the auction went well until an enormous, abstract, blocky painting by Alberto Burri came up. It was meant to fetch at least ten million dollars, but after Highley’s drawn-out attempts to up the bidding, it didn’t sell at all. The same happened with “Number 16,” a Jackson Pollock drip painting with a posh, Rockefeller provenance.

Abstract expressionist art had fared as well at Christie’s or Sotheby’s either:

But not all had gone impeccably well at the Christie’s sale in Rockefeller Center either, which included an abstract painting by Willem de Kooning that had to be withdrawn, likely because of a lack of interest. (For an auction’s major works, the house’s specialists tend to know who will and won’t be bidding on a work.) And at Sotheby’s, whose contemporary sale had happened the evening before, two significant abstract paintings—by Kenneth Noland and Susan Rothenberg—failed to sell.

Good-bye, abstract expression. Welcome, Kaws:

Phillips, in turn, has begun to rely on the simple messages and pop cultural sensibilities of Kaws. For Phillips’ most recent New York evening contemporary spring sale in May, one of their biggest lots was a Kaws painting that depicts SpongeBob SquarePants with Xs on his eyes. It sold for an incredible $6 million. The Xs are a signature of Kaws—a simple criticism of Pop Art, popular culture, and what we allow ourselves to see and not see in contemporary society. It’s this figurative didactism that the art market seems to currently crave.

Making pop art in order to critique popular culture. Who is trying to fool whom? As for “figurative didacticism” only God knows what that means. In principle, it means that these are teachable moments. But seriously?

I would accept the notion that the artists are simply making collectors look like pretentious, ignorant fools. They are laughing all the way to the bank. So, it’s all a species of performance art. Starving artists ripping off billionaires by making said billionaires feel that they possess great intelligence. It has its appeal.

Anyway, Delistraty has an interpretation, and we will give him his say:

Art that is popular often points to the social desires of its time. Recently, social expectations have been overturned by a shifting political scene, and, with it, the style of art that sells has changed, too. Here is a man diving into a bright pool; here is a cartoon character with his eyes shut to the difficulties of the world. The art that is doing well in the market provides a place of escape from society. Right now, that’s an escape to rules and boundaries and to easily digestible culture. But the inverse is also true: when there is greater social stability, even ennui, as there was in mid-century America, the preferred art becomes that which allows for a flight into messiness and multiple interpretations. Crucially, however, this current turn toward the figurative and its stabilities seems to be particular to the rich, to those who are actually buying the art. It has not always been so.

Escape from society… perhaps. And yet, when art makes you feel that you took a wrong turn, missed the museum and now find yourself in a toy store… does that make you feel like you are escaping from society? You might be escaping from adulthood. You might feel like you are getting back in touch with your inner child. You might feel that you have been welcomed into a special world, inhabited by very serious thinkers, people who think deep thoughts, and whose superior intellectual acumen allows them to grasp the subtleties of Kaws or of Christina Quarles. 

If such is the case, the joke is on them.

Here, for your delectation, are two from Kaws:


whitney said...

"It’s this figurative didactism that the art market seems to currently crave."

That sentence cracks me up. It seems like they're just discovery that art is fashion an abstract impressionism is out of fashion. There's no real depth when you throw away Beauty and Truth

David Foster said...

Basically, the whole country has turned into the fashion industry, by which I definitely don't mean that people are dressing better. Rather, the pursuit of what is in vogue at any given moment has reached stratospheric levels, whether in technology or in management practices or in art or literature.

Sam L. said...

"When a critic compared the bunny to the Pieta, we know that art is dead." We also know that common sense has been folded, spindled, and mutilated, and is now dead. It has passed on, joined the choir invisible, and its remains buried deep.

And the upper classes wonder why your average American finds art (or "ART") a scam.

UbuMaccabee said...

Nihilism. The art of the last man.