On 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 (artreview.com, 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?