Takashi Murakami at The Brooklyn Museum

Takashi Murakami, Hiropan; courtesy The Brooklyn Museum

The most interesting thing about Takashi Murakami, whose paintings, sculptures and merchandise are the subject of “© Murakami” at the Brooklyn Museum, is that he’s above shame. To know shame is to realize there are standards of behavior that, when bent or broken, cause remorse or, at least, self-awareness of having done wrong. Shame is unknown in Mr. Murakami’s rarefied orbit: Art is an adjunct of capital. There’s no second thought given to this fact.

Andy Warhol is the starting point for Mr. Murakami’s cold embrace of heedless commercialism. But the scale and scope of Mr. Murakami’s enterprise would have been beyond Warhol’s ken, though he probably would have found it amusing. Mr. Murakami’s obliviousness to irony might have given Andy pause. The Factory, with its roving array of socialites, bohemians and hangers-on, was a pointed mockery of the artist’s studio as sanctum sanctorum.

Mr. Murakami’s factory is exactly that. Actually, make that factories; he’s got two in his native Japan and one in Queens. Mr. Murakami’s commercial venture, Kaikai Kiki, is “the first Japanese company looking to the future to develop and promote state-of-the-art contemporary artworks.” It employs roughly 100 artists, some of whom make Mr. Murakami’s art while others handle more esoteric tasks like—huh?—“animal- and plant-handling and sales.”

Kaikai Kiki manages up-and-coming Japanese artists, many of them Mr. Murakami’s former assistants. It sells towels, toys and God knows what else, all of which are emblazoned with Mr. Murakami’s maniacal cartoons. He’s collaborated with billionaire real estate developer Minoru Mori and with Louis Vuitton, who has literally set up shop in the middle of the Brooklyn show. Mr. Murakami is a commercial whiz kid, and more power to him. We should all possess such business acumen.

Mr. Murakami distills manga and anime—respectively, Japanese comic books and animation—and intensifies their punchy, angular and often aggressive stylizations. If you’ve never thought of what a neo-psychedelic Mickey Mouse capable of ultraviolence might look like, well, Mr. Murakami will help you. Mr. DOB, roughly translated as “Why?”, is a recurring figure and, one gathers, the artist’s alter ego; it’s a grinning orb with distinctive Disney ears, any number of oval eyes and, sometimes, spiky teeth. Vomiting Phlegm Boy is another of Mr. Murakami’s characters.

Mr. Murakami brings to the fore the sexuality latent in much anime and manga, and makes it as plastic and smooth as a Fisher-Price toy. Miss Ko2 (1997) is a teenage boy’s dream—or maybe nightmare: An eight-foot-high sculpture of a girl with innocent eyes, a French maid’s outfit and legs that go on forever. Other sculptures are more stridently sexual. Hiropon(1997) is a blue-haired girl with humongous breasts that stream a loop of milk. My Lonesome Cowboy (1998) depicts a spiky-haired superhero-type emitting a lasso of creamy white from his erect penis.

Ejaculating is all well and good, but how exactly does Mr. Murakami’s “growing multinational corporate empire” qualify as art?

His notion of “Superflat” presumably provides a rationale. Essayist Dick Hebdige describes it as “a tactical domination device” to overtake an art world that is “being redimensionalized and reterritorialized by the uber-IED known as globalization.” He likens Superflat to the “epidemic wanderlust produced by psycho-socio-sexual binarism.” Whatever you say, Mr. Hebdige.

There’s talk of “mutational dialectic,” “superhuman mastery of bodily functions” and, not unrelated, the “steady porn-etration of the public sphere.” In a 1999 manifesto, Mr. Murakami advocated for an “infantile” body politic that would abolish society’s “ultra-rich citizens.” Ultra-rich citizens nowadays snapping up Mr. Murakami’s art might want to watch their backs.

What this all boils down to is that Mr. Murakami appropriates Japanese Pop imagery, embodies American entrepreneurship, mixes in a glut of sex and apocalypse, cutes it all up and serves it as a slick cross-cultural product—all with the goal of obliterating the divide between high and low culture. Oh, you think, that again.

Mr. Murakami’s “radical specificity and originality” is old hat. His happy dream of a plastic world is a shopworn conceit dressed in internationalist shrink-wrap. In order to waylay too much attention being paid to Mr. Murakami’s consumerist excess, comparisons are made to traditional Japanese art (subject of a concurrent exhibition at the museum). Apparently, Vomiting Phlegm Boy’s roots go way back.

Eighteenth-century Japanese print makers made art for a buying public, sure, but they didn’t capitulate to it. The profit motive was redeemed by untrammeled visual grace. Likening the zig-zag ejaculate of My Lonesome Cowboy to a Hokusai color woodblock print of roiling waves is an attempt to include Mr. Murakami in a great tradition. What bullshit. Mr. Hebdige admits as much: All you need to understand Mr. Murakami’s art is a “credit card or cash.”

Hokusai will survive the insult. As for Mr. Murakami: He’s no dummy. He makes deals with the likes of Mr. Vuitton because he knows that Significant Artists have their day in contemporary culture and that fashion is forever. In a few years or so, some savvy operator will exploit adolescence with a similar showmanlike immediacy and upstage Mr. Murakami.

That we’ve become inured to such things—now that’s a shame.

© 2008 Mario Naves

Originally published in the April 15, 2008 edition of The New York Observer.

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