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takashi murakami: owning the spectrum

“Japanese people accept that art and commerce will be blended; they are surprised by the rigid and pretentious Western hierarchy of ‘high art.’ In the West, it certainly is dangerous to blend the two because people will throw all sorts of stones. But that’s okay— I’m ready with my hard hat.”

~ Takashi Murakami

While market size and sales volumes are usually not requirements in looking at an artist’s work, Murakami’s intent to blur boundaries between fine arts and commercial products, alongside the increasingly mainstream demand of his work, necessitates an analysis of the business strategies and models he employs. This should be accompanied by an understanding of how aesthetically and conceptually he crafts his work as an artist, a movement and a brand. Murakami’s approach is far from textbook in how he operates his artistic practice as an international business; how he combines elements of Japanese fine art and popular culture and makes it meaningful to both high art audiences and consumers worldwide.

In the Artforum article, “Economies of Scale: Takashi Murakami’s Technics,” the author states, “when it comes to deploying the technics of globalization within artistic practice, no one surpasses Takashi Murakami.” In deconstructing his global success against the backdrop of the global art market the author observed two rising market dynamics. On one side of the spectrum, the techno-aesthetics of digital film and video projection dominate, yet, in contrast, “craft,” (however loosely defined) was making a comeback. This shift may be attributable to media fatigue. However, as ad mogul and art collector Charles Saatchi suggests, “in dark economic times painting remains the blue-chip object of choice” (Lee 2007, 339-340). Murakami’s ability to cater to both sides of the spectrum of the global art market is perhaps foundational in some part to how he built his commercial success.

Takashi Murakami’s studio is described as a conglomerate which functions similarly to many media companies, advertising agencies and (smaller) transnational corporations. According to Howard S. Becker, artistic work generally involves the collective activity of several people. It is through cooperation that art work manifests. Cooperation may be ephemeral, but often it becomes more or less routine, producing patterns of collective, referred to as an art world (Becker 1982, 1; Repole 2003, 10-29). In surveying existing research on the structure of Murakami’s artistic practice, Repole begins to draw a picture of Murakami’s factory structures in the early days of his success (1996-2003) and Peterson updates this picture, to a certain degree, at a point when Murakami’s factories have become transnational conglomerates (Repole 2003, 10-29; Peterson 2013, 17-22). Repole describes Murakami as the picture of contemporary global entrepreneurship through the structure of his ‘factories,’ his management approach, his marketing and distribution philosophy, and his vision. She describes how daily accountabilities are tightly managed; how low costs and international collaborations are maintained; and how his assistants were usually highly skilled artists, whom he allows to co-sign his paintings (Repole 2003, 10-29; Peterson 2013, 17-22).

As an illustrative process, it is perhaps beneficial to identify one aspect of Murakami’s work and follow how he translates this throughout his artistic practice and across multiple art worlds. Takashi Murakami’s Panda Geant, now an emblem of his long collaboration with Louis Vuitton, first appeared in 2003 in store merchandising and across the LV accessories line. At that time, the panda was also one of the protagonists in a short anime film “Superflat Monogram.” In the film, a young girl is greeted by the panda, who swallows her whole, taking her on a kaleidoscope adventure, punctuated by Murakami’s manga-influenced characters and the LV monograms. A later video, “Superflat First Love,” features a similar narrative of an older female character falling in love with a young LV craftsman, who are brought together by the panda (Luke 2015). The Panda Geant character continues to grace Murakami’s large-scale paintings/ murals, sculptures, LV accessories and animated films. In some incarnations, the panda is cute and lovable; and in others, evil and vicious — conveying a polarity of emotion.

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PHOTOS: MURAKAMI’S PANDA GEANT MURALS (TOP) & (L) TOYS (R)

While Murakami’s work has achieved wide commercial success outside of Japan, his work is known for addressing Japanese otaku subculture, for taking a political stance on the post-WWII Japanese collective unconscious, and for leveraging and combining aspects of Japanese fine art and popular culture. Otaku consumption intertwines with a historical ‘return to Edo’ movement and plays a role in Japan’s geopolitics, cultural consciousness, and the ‘Superflat’ movement. Without getting too bogged down in the political sociology of contemporary Japan, it seems worthwhile to look at how the rise of otaku subculture relates to Murakami’s commercial success (Steinberg 2004, 450-452). Emerging as a bi-product of Japan’s school system and social hierarchy amidst growing technology consumption, recent studies show an overwhelming majority of Japanese teens identify as ‘otaku,’ rising from a small population segment in the 1980s. The term characterizes individuals who identify as obsessive non-conformists, focusing their energies in directions which deviate from societal conformity, whether by choice or not (Steinberg 2004, 449-471). Theorists of manga, anime and literature who analyze the production and consumption cycles, suggest it is no longer the products themselves that Japanese consumers seek out, but rather the ‘grand narrative’ (defined as a ‘worldview’ or ‘order’) consumed through ‘small narratives.’ Having accumulated enough pieces of the grand narrative (worldview) through the consumption of small narratives (products), the otaku consumer translates these into their own small narratives — producing to a similar extent as they consume (Steinberg 2004, 450-452). Murakami seems to have constructed a grand narrative, embodied in part through his Panda Geant character which, seamlessly traverses his art works and products.

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PHOTOS: 727-272 MURAL

In “Fabricating Japaneseness? The Identity Politics of Young Designers and Artists in Global Cities,” the author explores how identity construction is intertwined with a transnational artist’s approach. The constraints seem to fall along a spectrum of western conformity vs. niche appeal, when determining how Japanese identity manifests in the artist’s work. Focusing on universal issues tends to make it easier for audiences to be emotionally involved in the work without being overly reminded of the artist’s ethnicity. According to Fujita, carefully balancing the two is what seems to lead to success outside of Japan (Fujita 2011, 55). Given the majority of Murakami’s commercial success is garnered outside of Japan, it is worthwhile exploring how he translates aspects of Japanese identity throughout his work.

In the essay, “Murakami’s ‘little boy’ syndrome” the author, Koh, is quite critical of Murakami in his conceptual philosophy, his approach to blurring boundaries between commercial and fine arts, and his emulation of the Warholian approach to production. Koh defines ‘Little Boy’ — the original code name for the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 — as both the figure and metaphor underpinning Murakami’s work. He characterizes Murakami’s ‘Superflat’ as meaning “the flatness of a mirror that reflects our other self, our alter ego suffocating for internal contradiction, due to the limited independence that Japan is allowed to have as a consequence of the Second World War.” Koh surveys a range of Murakami’s critics who (perhaps justly), criticize Murakami for creating a reductionist view of Japan and Japanese culture for western consumption, and catering to western exoticism in the pursuit of profit (Koh 2010, 394-395).

While this may be a bit of a leap on my part (and conjecture at best), Murakami appears to have aligned his political statement about the impact of WWII (on the Japanese psyche), with a similar impotence felt amongst those who identify with otaku subculture. He creates a parallel between the western hegemony (in post-WWII geopolitics) and the hegemony of Japan’s rigid social hierarchy. The partnership with Louis Vuitton adds an additional layer to his statement about contemporary Japan — that consumerism has become the contemporary pacifier.

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PHOTOS: STORE (L) / LOGO (R)

In analyzing the LV & Murakami partnership, authors of “Murakami on the Bag: Louis Vuitton’s de-commoditization strategy,” define the collaboration as an attempt to maintain the perceived value of the Louis Vuitton brand. While luxury brands traditionally relied on craftsmanship, exclusivity and a dream they created, their success hinged on emotional appeal, brand reputation and projecting a unique lifestyle. Upscale brands typically focus their differentiation strategy on such tactics as co-branding, expansion of brand territory (in geography and product category) or partnerships with celebrities, artists or activists. In their essay, the authors describe how the internal value chain of luxury retail had recently evolved; how downstream activities at the store-level now play a more significant role in artistic merchandising. It describes how Murakami’s role affected all aspects of the LV value chain — brand/logo redesign, monogram for accessories, product design, retail shop design, LV branded exhibits in art galleries/ art museums, and marketing communications (Riot, Chamaret and Rigaud 2013, 920-936). Revisiting our Panda Geant illustration, the character permeated all of these layers of LV’s retail value chain globally. Panda Geant literally traversed multiple art worlds.

For an international artist (in high art circles) whose career is in the hands of top agents, curators, and art collectors, Murakami arguably provided more value to the LV brand than vice versa. However, from Murakami’s perspective, the collaboration provided him with an exhibition platform and turn-key distribution channel for his work, which resulted in broadening his audience, and brand appeal, and provided new revenue streams to his international business. While high art circles are unlikely to vocalize this, in commercial consumer streams, a formula tends to be readily recognized. Particularly with cultural material, commercialization (of anything) comes down to two things — the size of the audience and the value of that audience, usually quantified in purchasing power.

CONCLUSION

In summary, Murakami seems to have combined several things:

  1. He has constructed an (arguable aspirational) grand narrative, to be consumed through products and exhibitions, enticing audiences to traverse multiple art worlds. This is commercially beneficial to his collaborators — he brings audiences with him and grows them.
  2. He takes a political stance on Japan’s post-WWII psyche and not only aligns it to the contemporary emotional experience of the rising otaku subculture, but provides an outlet through his retail partnerships (mainstream consumable products).
  3. He has structured his ‘factories’ similarly to transnational media companies to enable him to scale his operations to the rising demand of his work. This is particularly atypical in the high art world, aside from a handful of notable examples (ie. Warhol).

One question remains outstanding. While otaku subculture is deemed to be uniquely Japanese, a seemingly lack of understanding of the subculture amongst western scholars suggests there may also be an incomplete picture here. Namely, is there a western parallel of the otaku subculture that has yet to be recognized and quantified? In foretelling the future, has Murakami tapped into a subculture that is global and relatively tech-savvy, rather than uniquely Japanese?

REFERENCES

Andrea T. Repole, “Takashi Murakami: Artist and Entrepreneur 1996-2003,” (Masters thesis, SUNY Fashion Institute of Technology NY, 2003).

Ben Luke. “The Many Moods of Takashi Murakami.” Sotheby’s Magazine. (2015) Accessed Apr 26, 2016.

Dong-Yeah Koh, “Murakami’s ‘little boy’ syndrome: victim or aggressor in contemporary Japanese and American arts?” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies. 11 (2010): 393-412. Accessed Mar 1, 2016, doi: 10.1080/14649373.2010.484179

Elen Riot, Cecile Chamaret and Emmanuelle Rigaud. “Murakami on the bag: Louis Vuitton’s de-commoditization strategy,” International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management. 41 (2013): 991-939. Accessed Mar 1, 2016, doi: 10.1108/IJRDM-01-2013-0010

Gabriel D. Peterson, “Working in the Artist’s Studio,” (Masters thesis, University of California LA, 2013).

Howard S. Becker. “Art Worlds.” University of California Press: LA (1982): 1-68. Accessed Mar 1, 2016,

Marc Steinberg, “Otaku consumption, superflat art and the return to Edo,” Japan Forum. 16 (2004): 449-471. Accessed Mar 1, 2016, doi: 10.1080/0955580042000257927

Pamela M. Lee, “Economies of Scale – Takashi Murakami’s Technics.” Artforum. 336-343 (October 2007). Accessed Mar 1, 2016.

Yuiko Fujita, “Fabricating Japaneseness? The Identity Politics of Young Designers and Artists in Global Cities,” International Journal of Japanese Sociology. 20 (2011): 43-58. Accessed Mar 1, 2016, doi: 10.1111/j.1475-6781.2011.01147.x

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