Art Shmart: Consumer Art

Nikki Sansone

With the holiday season nearing it’s almost impossible to have anything else on the brain besides gifts. Giving, receiving, Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanza, it doesn’t matter: the entire December month is a Festival of Shoppers and Buyers.

In art, this kind of consumer and consumerism spirit largely transcends the month of December and pervades almost every aspect of art as we know it today. Art has always been made to be sold, but has always somehow escaped that seedy I’ll wait til it goes on clearance concept of commodity. In fact art purchases are rarely considered purchases at all. We invest in art, taking modest comfort in the fact that unlike those sometimes lamentable impulse purchases, an art investment is money in our favorite form: right in front of us, where we can see it. Now though the art world has gotten topsy turvy, with art spilling into every genre from fashion to toys, and our wallets getting lighter and lighter with every new product.

Where are we expected to draw the line? We all picked up a new Gorillaz CD after hearing “Dare” and “Clint Eastwood” all the while none the wiser about the small piece of art we were inheriting in that album cover. In 2006 London’s Design Museum named Jamie Hewlitt Designer of the Year for his concept and design of the infamous Gorillaz’s animated look. Before the Gorillaz project Hewlitt was a beloved cult comic artist, who conveniently enough loved drawing “Eggs, bananas, half eaten apples and bow ties.”

Although some have criticized the Gorillaz drawings as gimmicky, Hewlitt’s work, and perhaps more specifically its popularity, sheds light on a significant trend in art today. Hewlitt’s design was used by Kid Robot to create a new Gorillaz brand of art toy. Kid Robot “is the world’s premier creator and retailer of limited edition art toys and apparel,” started by designer Paul Budnitz in 2002. Kid Robot is the result of combined efforts between pop artists, toy designers, graffiti writers, and any one else who might reflect urban trends, producing unconventional art objects to be sold in Kid Robot’s exclusive “store-galleries.” Any of these items range in price from $4 to $400, and many will, like other objects found in gallery-stores, appreciate with time.

There are also those trickier items in the gray area between art and consumer products that may not appreciate with time, but seem valuable nonetheless. Everyone’s gotta put food on the table, and perhaps for this reason artists are making the cross-over into fashion, and vice versa. At the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) Takashi Murakami is the featured artist with his retrospective exhibit, showcasing pieces such as Louis Vuitton place mats and Louis Vuitton bags featuring Murakami’s own original designs. For this exhibit, Murakami collaborated with Marc Jacobs, artistic director of the Louis Vuitton brand, to conflate the two creative forces’ respective icons into the quirky designs on display now. Similarly, graffiti artists are putting their brand on every kind of apparel possible, from sneakers by Adidas and Scien (124Klan) to Blokt’s role in the apparel line ILLASTRATIONZ.

And museums are beginning to take notice: curators are putting the trendy hybrid relationship between art and consumer goods at the top of their agendas and sponsoring whole exhibitions dedicated to their exploration. In 2002 the Tate Liverpool presented “Shopping: A Century of Art and Consumer Culture;” the first exhibition to examine in-depth the relationships between display, distribution, and consumption of commodities and art. Some of the works included in this exhibit were Claes Oldenburg’s Store and Jeff Koons’ vacuum cleaner vitrines.

Many artists of the 20th and 21st centuries have struggled with the melding of consumerism and art-so what seems so different about this cultural phenomenon now? An initial reaction might be to blame Myspace, an almost-too-easy, knee-jerk reaction that’s symptomatic of the larger issues at hand.

Increasing globalization and the multi-perspectivism of post-modernity seem to have made it nearly impossible to maintain any one genre’s purity. Social networks like Myspace have helped to push art beyond the walls of the gallery; now anyone with access to a computer and a digital camera can have their own solo exhibit, courtesy of YourMyspacePageHere dot com. How can we be expected to uphold the snob factor in art investments when to millions across the globe the same viewing pleasure is only a click away?

The bottom line to this argument may be exactly that-bottom lines. The contemporary art world has started forcing the question of Consume or Perish for aspiring artists; thankfully for hopeful investors everywhere their response seems to be a unanimous ‘Tis the Season.