My expectations may have been all wrong for the Takashi Murakami show, (originally I mistakenly wrote Haruki) which is currently at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Murakami is perhaps most notorious for designing bags for Louis Vuitton and making a retail location for their sale an installation in his show, so I expected some investigation of consumer culture and branding as contemporary forms of art—a problematization (to use a good Foucauldian word) of the preeminence of branding in our culture. But instead it was “superflat” to use Murikami’s own term for his style—lifeless and at every turn unprovocative, blankly cheerful when embracing motifs derived from toys, unconvincing when aspiring to creepiness, with the lone exception of a video piece about a E.T. like robot-boy character who wants to be able to love like a real-life junior high school boy, presented as a series of fake commercials for a nonexistent TV series. That piece succeeded in messing with where we placed our empathy as viewers and made us reconsider what nostalgic fantasies of adolescence and sci-fi-themed escapes are about. Teen alienation is literalized, refigured in a way that makes that pain palpable and truly ridiculous at once—a far cry from the way teen angst is an empty, stylized trope in our culture at large, and definitely in a different league of artistic inquiry than the Super Mario World juvenilia, the McDonald’s Playland-like installations, the self-satisfied gestures toward commerciality in the rest of Murakami’s show.
Presumably we are supposed to be at a point where we are not expected to be outraged at the commercialization of art, and are instead being asked to appreciate the artistry in the creation of a brand campaign. But if that is so, the joke is still on us for going to see an inferior execution at a museum when much better campaigns are taking place all around us. We’d be better served going to the long awaited grand opening of the Ikea store in Brooklyn. That is branding, democratization of design, identity crafting through purchases meant to shape the field of everyday life on perhaps the largest scale in the world. At the Murakami show, I felt like the artist was trying to cajole me into granting him leeway for the shallowness of his creations, as though they weren’t exactly his fault and merely expressed the democratic spirit inherent in niche marketing: Everybody gets their products—Louis Vuitton bags for the rich, stuffed animals and sticker sets for the less rich. But that’s not an excuse for creating works with no frisson, with nothing that seems ingenious or provocative. Instead, there were hollow gestures—a statue of anime characters with big breasts squirting a milk lasso; a mushroom cloud landscape; a room wallpapered with cutesy eyeballs. Was it a comment on how surveillance infiltrates our lives under the guise of welcomed entertainment? How we mistake Big Brother for something cute and cuddly? It just didn’t seem like there was enough evidence to attribute such ideas to Murakami; I felt like I was going to my own bag of argumentative tropes to try to engage with what I was seeing, that I was reading it all against the grain rather than reveling in what was supposed to be, I think, a dazzling tour de force of sensual overload, of fun, flashy surfaces.
In the end I wasn’t convinced that pop art is anything other than a dual-edged mockery of actual pop culture and the kind of art consumers who’d rather engage with his work than other sorts of fine art that requires more cultural capital—more knowledge of artistic tradition, etc. The wall cards suggested that Murakami was modifying various Japanese aesthetic traditions, and maybe you need to be Japanese to appreciate the subtlety of his approach. But that ended up making me think Americans looking for an analogous experience should skip Murakami and instead go to DisneyWorld. Murakami seems to want to bring the spirit of childlike wonder and unreflective excitement typical of theme-park goers to the museum, but instead he made me feel like I now had to take the solemn spirit of museumgoing to the amusement parks. That’s the problem with trying to collapse that particular dichotomy—the dominant term (in this case high culture) wins out and corrupts the populist and potentially subversive pleasures to be found in the subordinate sphere. The inversion of values doesn’t stick; pop culture isn’t afforded new respect while remaining truly popular—the popular audience just ends up being alienated from what once seemed like simple pleasures made for all of us by the new audience ironizing and problematizing it all by force of habit.
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