Fashion victims enter the temple

Murakami_LV_MOCA.jpgOn a recent visit to Los Angeles, I made a pilgrimage to Takashi Murakami’s mid-career spectacular at MOCA. You know, the one with the handbag shop in the museum (and a copyright sign in the show’s title). I wanted to taste that smiley-face Murakami vibe. And having heard all the hullabaloo about the handbags—offered for sale by the good people at Louis Vuitton not in the gift shop, but inside the actual gallery space—I wanted to contemplate the crossing of cultural thresholds never before so brazenly tested. So, on a surreally warm, sunny Christmas Eve, I pointed the car’s navigation system to the Geffen Contemporary.

I came to the museum with an open mind. Messing around with boundaries is a legitimate pursuit, after all—I’m all for it. We Artworldsalon types get easily excited when it comes to novel genetic mutations and cross-pollinations between art and commerce. But I came away with mixed feelings; feelings that probably make me sound like a woolly old mammoth.

About the most generous way to see the Louis Vuitton boutique implant is as a canny and effective performance piece. It takes the art of audience participation to a new level. People are invited to walk into a symbolically charged space and offer up a kind of sacrifice, i.e. money, in return for objects of demonstrable (because someone is paying) cultural or emotional value. There is a theatrical, performative, staged quality to the experience. Kind of like church.

I watched as a young Asian fellow with two attractive female companions whipped out his credit card and charged $3,000 for three handbags. They looked like dancers in a trance, speaking barely a word. The girls at the counter played along with feline elegance in the finely choreographed ritual exchange, in which everyone seemed to know their part. And I thought to myself, “He may as well have cut a vein and drawn a pint of blood.” Eliciting that profound response, that level of commitment, says something powerful about these objects. Don’t we all want people to respond to art in such a tangible way?

But that may be giving Murakami too much credit. Ever since the visit, I can’t shake a sense of disquiet about the store-in-the-museum concept. I have been trying to get to the bottom of it, but I couldn’t pin it down until I came across a statement by John Baldessari in a conversation (, Jan. 5) with Artworldsalon regular Jonathan Neil. In the interview, Baldessari talked about how “art has become more entertainment,” and about the Murakami show he had this to say:

I’m on the board of trustees at MOCA – not that I go, but I do go to a few meetings – and you realise when you get in there, in the midst of it, that these museums are about ticket sales, and they have to have blockbusters. So what are we doing at MOCA? – Murakami. Man, that is going to bring them in. Now do you think if you had an Ad Reinhardt show that that would bring them in? I don’t think so. Could you see a Reinhardt on a billboard? But it’s more and more like that. And it’s perfect. Because there’s a huge Asian community: that’s going to bring them in. Murakami is like Warhol: that’s going to bring them in. And then this argument – I had to laugh – but Paul Schimmel said, “We’re going to have this Vuitton shop, and it’s going to be functional, because that’s part of his practice”, and I said, “Well wait a minute, part of your practice, alright, so you have the same show – but one of [Adolf] Wölfli, are you going to have a mental institution inside?” No, you wouldn’t have to, it is a mental institution!

So which is it? A savvy cultural investigation into the relationship of art and commerce? Or just another way to sell a handbag?

8 thoughts on “Fashion victims enter the temple”

  1. Have not seen © Murakami. But the apologia of “part of his practice” can easily bring in all sorts of verisimilitude usually limited to the natural history or ethnographic museum, setting the scene with instructive time lines, unctuous wall plaques, vitrines of anxious ephemera. The paraphernalia of the blockbuster show and its supreme will to power, to cover all bases, to present the exhibition as a profound and inviolate Gesamstkunstwerk.

    So I guess I am less disturbed by the “store-in-the-museum concept” – which, after all, is just a logical step up from the Krens model of the museum, entered through the gift shop – than by the need to orchestrate, to rationalize and over contextualize the art on display by presenting it amid biographical material. The implication is that art is only understandable through its “real life” manifestations. A Warhol exhibit would require a photomural of the I. Miller store circa 1960. Anything AbEx would have to recreate the Cedar Tavern. A Damien Hirst retrospective would need to incorporate a diorama of the Groucho Club, if not a taxidermy shop. Similarly, Ashley Bickerton’s show would not be complete without palm fronds and coconuts, to testify to his Balinese workplace. (Wait – is he doing that already?). With Chris Ofili we would not stop with the dung – what about the elephants themselves? It’s all part of the “practice”.

  2. Jan has a point, which is to say, in response to Andras’s final question, it’s both (another way to sell a handbag and an “investigation” into art and commerce). In this scenario, I would very much like to hear from Japanese art and cultural critics, philosophers and the like, who have been exposed to an altogether different set of art and commerce crossovers than we in the “West” are familiar with. Our notions of aesthetic autonomy are, from what I understand, very different from certain Japanese traditions; and the Murakami show may finally provide us the opportunity to look at and to explore these differences.

    I realize that the “it’s a different culture” line is something of a tired one, but I’m recently reinvigorated by it, especially in the Japanese context, because of an essay of Ian Hacking’s titled “Our Neocartesian Bodies” (or something like that) in a recent issue of ‘Critical Inquiry’. In discussing the lengths to which modern medicine and biotechnology have gone to redefine and greatly confuse our notion (not to mention understanding) of “death”, Hacking describes how the Japanese have a very different approach to the commercial traffic in body parts and organs, including blood, which is almost exclusively bought and sold in Japan, whereas in the US, as we all know, it runs in no small part on a donation system.

    This is not the place to attempt to distill Hacking’s entire essay, but, for my own part, it revivified the radical disparities that can still exist between the cultural mores of industrialized (and financialized) nations. It would seem to me that, in the case of Murakami, these disparaties may offer the best guide to our continued perplexity in the face of the art and commerce question.

  3. Japanese department stores fulfill a number of functions unknown to their counterparts in the west. It goes back to Japan’s rapid Westernization in the late 19th century, when the depatos were seen as agents of modernity and cultural advancement. Mitsukoshi, Seibu and Isetan even offered the equivalent of community college education on their premises, and many stores sponsored in-house museums and art galleries, complete with curators and catalogs, where both Western and domestic art was shown. It was a prestige gesture, designed to attract customers, but also coupled to a sense of duty and social responsibility.

    Lately the pendulum has shifted back to smaller shops, boutiques and malls, with the depatos often viewed as old fashioned and stodgy. But they have made the “museum-in-the-store” a commonplace in Japan. The Vuitton “store-in-the-museum” at MOCA-LA, and a lot of Murakami’s artistic praxis, his licensing out of imagery to commercial concerns, needs to be examined in this larger context.

    This acknowledgment of cultural difference does not mitigate the central critique voiced in my previous post, and the danger I see lurking on the horizon: art museums all too willing to signify as theme parks, if not petting zoos.

  4. American department stores also used to sell art. The point is well taken about different cultural mores and there is something certainly to be said about the somewhat arbitrary, locally conditioned distinctions between sacralized, culturally prioritized museum spaces, and the mundane, tough no less seductive language of high retail environments.

    Be that as it may, did a commercial transaction really need to happen to allow this point to be made? It seems to me so literal. What if the installation/boutique had been the same, except that the bags had been offered as gifts, for free? Could that have afforded a more radical perspective on consumption and luxury-goods fetishism (not to mention generating longer lines, and possibly, fist fights)? Could a museum-goer get the same experience by contemplating the purchase of a handbag in the museum gift shop (alongside the other Murakami gift items)? How is a Louis Vuitton shop in a museum different anyway from a Louis Vuitton shop in an airport? If it isn’t different, can it be an occasion for art? If it, or the objects in it, are not really art, should they belong in an art museum? Or was the purpose of the enterprise solely to point out a distinction between commonplace objects — “mere ordinary things,” as Arthur Danto would call them — and objects identified as art? If so, what — apart from the aforementioned exercise in comparative cultural anthropology — do Murakami’s handbags tell us that Warhol’s Brillo Boxes didn’t tell us already?

    I come by degree to my point, which is not my point, actually, but an observation made by my good friend Marty Kaplan, head of the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California (on the website of which he posted our Murakami thread today), and coincidentally, a contributor to a book I recently edited, titled What Orwell Didn’t Know. Here is what Marty has to say:

    “I’m guessing that part of your disquiet, Andras, comes from this discomfiting fact: it’s difficult to make the core act of spending money wholly ironic. The gift shop customers you described were doing a straight transaction – cash for commodity. Maybe the handbags themselves, and the museum/consumer display of them, are mondo globo pomo hipster, but there’s something irreducibly unironic about having $3k in discretionary cash to blow, about the value of the dollar vs the yen, about the bottom line of Vuitton and the other profit participants at the Geffen. The cultural deconstruction of a commercial transaction is always illuminating, but there’s always a little nausea involved in the leap from analysis to the sight of cold hard money changing hands.”

  5. András:

    We all know museums do not (cannot?) exist in an aesthetic ivory tower. They need money to operate, and a board of trustees to provide same. We know that members of this board might enjoy having the museum show an artist whose work they collect, as it will possibly increase the value of their collection. We know (it was reported in the news) that Murakami’s local powerhouse gallery, Blum & Poe, helped defray some of MOCA’s costs of mounting the exhibition, certainly because they believe strongly in the work, but also because it will improve their bottom line.

    In other words, we know that museums can never be as pure of pecuniary influence as we would like, because they exist in the real world. But we generally do not have to witness the actual fact of money talking. We maintain our illusions by only imagining it behind closed doors. So your friend (and my namesake) Marty might have hit on a vital point. Your squeamishness is quite possibly a function of having to directly witness a brutal, uninflected act of commerce in the space of an institution that (in theory) is supposed to be above such activity.

    If the purchase of a Vuitton bag at MOCA resonated as a bit of performance art, it could rise above commercial considerations and possibly add to our critique of commodity. The bag could signify in the same sense as a Warhol Brillo Box: an object not for sale but for contemplation, a simulacrum that comments on the real. But despite the words you chose to describe the purchase — “dancers in a trance…feline elegance…choreographed ritual” — you could not convince yourself it was art. You knew it was all too real.

  6. I wonder if this raises a broader question about the role of publicly funded Arts bodies. At what point does MOCA (or any other publicly funded Arts space) become simply another money-oriented commercial gallery? Steven’s point about purity of pecuniary influence has echoes of the current debate in France about whether publicly funded television should be allowed to carry advertising. Did MOCA cross the line by having the store in the gallery space?

    Indeed, in the past the very term “museum” suggested a place for showing samples of past works; a place where the history of Art was displayed for broader edification. Why do we now have museums competing in the open marketplace for exhibitions of current artists, and at auctions for the chance to purchase their works? Is this an activity that should be supported by public funding?

  7. Barbara Bloemink, former curator at Cooper-Hewitt, Museum of Art and Design, and other museums, who has explored intersections of art and design, sent this comment:

    For centuries, one of the functions of art was to confer prestige on the owner of art in terms of viewer’s perceptions. In most 17th Century American and European portraits, for example, sitters were shown with important texts, the latest styles of furniture and clothing, and objects referencing their wealth and knowledge. In some cases, royalty were shown surrounded by actual painted miniatures of their painting collections–so much so that we can easily recognize the exact paintings shown in the work’s background.

    At least twenty years ago the Metropolitan Museum created the museum store to capitalize on the prestige impulse. While obviously not the real, unique, objects on view in the museum, the exacting reproductions sold in the store provided at least a secondary perception of good taste. For years, museum stores and curators have grappled with the idea of the ‘unique’ object as being the most prized. But mass-produced objects made by significant designers are exactly the same when on view in the museum or when available for purchase in the museum store.

    It seems to me that in the same way as Duchamp played on the idea of ‘intent’ as distinguishing ‘art’ from ‘non-art’, Murakami’s commercial work plays on notions of wealth, art, and commerce, and the intention of the buyer.

    In terms of what this implies for museums, it is my hope that in the future, exhibitions will be less about the subjective decisions of the curators, and more an interactive experience between curators, artists and viewers. Instead of long didactic labels, there will be open-ended questions on the wall for visitors to actively consider when viewing the work. In Murakami’s case, the question might be, “How is our perception and engagement with the work changed by selling the works adjacent to those purely intended for viewing?”

    I’ve tried this several times in organizing exhibitions, always to positive response. We need to ask what is the role of the 21st century art exhibition, particularly when it comes to contemporary work.

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