Wednesday, November 14, 2007

When the Worlds of Art and Fashion Collide

I spend my mornings writing and reading about fashion and my afternoons learning about art (it's my major), so you'd probably assume that I'd be overjoyed to learn about the recent collaborations between leading contemporary artists and fashion brands as varied as Target and Louis Vuitton. Art for the masses, right?

Actually, when I got over my initial excitement that I could actually own a work designed by Cindy Sherman for $50, I started feeling uncomfortable with the whole idea. Recently, Takashi Murakami partnered with Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton on a line of handbags stamped with the artist's signature cartoon characters (yours for just $960!). What's even stranger is that the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art decided to open a boutique in the middle of an exhibition of Murakami's latest work, housing the handbags in glass cases next to his paintings and sculptures. Though I'm a firm believer that fashion is an art form, this blurring of art and commerce is pretty disturbing.

Does a traditional logo bag with a few cartoons stuck on count as art? If I go out and spend $50 on one of those towels ($48 more than I'd normally spend on an item whose primary purpose is to dry me off after a shower), can I tell people that I own a Jeff Koons work?

I think what bothers me about these collaborations is that it's difficult to characterize these products. It doesn't feel like a Murakami bag belongs in a museum, nor does it feel right for Cindy Sherman to be creating towels. But there's undoubtedly something appealing about these works, this idea that art (if it is art) can be owned and enjoyed by people who will otherwise never have the opportunity to bid at Sotheby's for the real thing.

Unfortunately, I don't think that most of the people purchasing the Murakami bags are doing so because they're seriously interested in the bag's artistic properties. They're doing it to show off their cultural capital, as people who appreciate and understand both high art and high fashion, as if sophistication and art appreciation are things that can be bought and displayed through a handbag.

Like fashion, art should not be the exclusive property of the wealthy or well-connected, and these collaborations feel like an extension of the discount designer trend we've seen in recent years, with high fashion designers creating lines for discount stores like H&M and Target. But visual art always seems like a purer medium than fashion, perhaps since we don't like to think of art as being created for the purpose of making money or being reproduced infinitely in the way that clothes and accessories are. Still, if the success of the Murakami bags are any indication, I think we'll be seeing many more artist/retailer collaborations in the coming years.

What do you think of art and fashion collaborations? Would you buy an artist-designed towel or handbag? Does this stuff count as art?


Princess Poochie said...

I think I prefer the collaboration of art and product to buying a cheap poster of a famous work. I mean, I like da Vinci, but is anyone fooled by my Mona Lisa poster?

My favorite expression, and one that I think combines art and commerce best is what is happening on Etsy. You get unique pieces direct from artists and it is still accessible. And I consider it an art piece whether it's a photo, drawing, or a bracelet.


Subspace said...

I cannot express emphatically enough: YES, yes, I want artists to be designing handbags and towels.

I want them to be designing my toothbrush, my DVD player, and my socks.

We are surrounded, inundated with poorly designed "product" made with the hopes of blending in, becoming part of the static gray landscape of your daily toil.

I am honestly surprised that this is even a question: are you asking whether I'd like a wallet 'designed' by a tired, uninspired factory worker, or a wallet artistically imagined by a working, paid artist? I hope you understand what a massive, societal question that you're asking: do we want to delegate the entire function of our daily lives to mass production, or to the encouragement of culture?

There was a time when all goods were artfully crafted. When furniture wasn't purchased ad infinitum from Ikea. When people knew the names of the manufacturers they liked, and not the retail outlets where they purchased them from.

The boundary that people are hesitant to step over is not one of artists crossing into commercial zones, but the price. Is something of immediate intrinsic value simply because an artist had a hand in it? Maybe it is. But you don't have to buy it. We're in a weird place now, utterly unlike the Victorian Europe where artists were popstars supported by the goodwill of the rich simply because it was considered to be a good work for the future (and it was). I would argue that now the bulk of the artistic community in America is the self-supported working class, "hobbyists," in essence, working a factory job by day to pay for their creativity by night. However, when there's a real chance of swinging culture over to value art in a banal, towel-drying way, then aren't we obligated, as low-level patrons of art, to support it?

anyotherknight said...

I agree with subspace, art and (fashion) business need more blurring. While you may not be able to say you own an artist's "original" artistically-minded products do inspire (mass) culture, support the artistic community, and enrich our environment. I think in the future we're going to see a boom of independent artist communities like Etsy driving this movement by forcing larger companies to rethink their ethos.

It doesn't replace art in its most elitist sense, but it does make beautifying our lives a little more accessible.

[One of my favourite new companies, method, sells green/natural cleaning products, but relies on flowing minimalist packaging designed by Karim Rashid (see: Umbra's Garbo) to draw and keep consumers.]

Ms. P&C said...

The distinction here is that, especially in the case of Louis Vuitton collaborations, the artist collaborators make no attempt to call their items "art". These handbags are designed for functional use. If a museum curator wants to put it in an exhibit, that's someone else's decision...

Artist-designer collaborations have been going on for quite a long time. Takashi Murakami was indeed the most popular collaborator for Vuitton, but is merely one in a long line of artists that Marc Jacobs has teamed up with. (I mentioned this in a recent post I wrote called "I Love to Hate Him".) The most recent collaborator is Richard Prince.

What I like to think about with all of this is, do you really think average joe consumer will ever know or care about who Takashi Murakami or Richard Prince IS, unless those names were brought to their attention by a designer handbag?

I am pretty confident in saying that the fashion and art worlds are the most elitist of all industries. Most average folks who don't live "on the coasts" don't know or care about the nuances of these rarified microcosms. But, they do care about hot handbags. If "Capital-A" art gets disseminated to a greater audience via a coveted fashion item, then hey...why not? The world needs more art lovers.

rachelh said...

As a tag-on to what subspace said...

I don't think we can assume that art equals design at this point. There is something wonderful about having your everyday functional items be beautiful, but just because something is artistic doesn't mean it was designed well. And personally I'm not the point where I'd sacrifice functionality for beauty in everyday items, particularly if they cost more.

Unnecessary yet beautiful things, sure. I'll buy a beautiful glass vase that I know I'll rarely use for actual flowers just because I love it. I will not, however, spend extra money on a towel for anything less that higher functional quality (softer, less fuzz, etc.)

That said, when something is designed artistically (the iPod is a readily accessible example of this, but there are some contemporary furniture designers who are very good at this too) then it becomes almost sublime - and that I will pay more for, willingingly.

Does that make any sense?

pattykate said...

Personally, I think these collaborations diminish the value of the artist--in a sense, they become pedestrian rather than something exclusive. If that's what an artist wants, go for it!!

I have several real Louis Vuitton bags. I feel the value of my purchases have been diminished by the fake bags offered on every corner of the street. Now, everyone carries a Louis Vuitton and I know most are fakes. Yet, there is no way for me to say "Hey, mine are real!!" For some of these artists, do they really want the great unwashed wearing, carrying, using their artwork? I guess it all comes down to money--by making these items available to the masses, they line their pockets with green.
I mean, does Louis Vuitton really have the same exclusivity it once had before the knockoffs? I don't think so.

And I don't think it matters whether the artist agrees to this mass merchandising or if its done as fakes.

I guess I would just like a few things that reamin a goal to achieve. When I purchased my firt Louis Vuitton, I thought I had arrived in this world. Now they sit in my closet collecting dust because I won't carry them because everyone is going to assume they are fakes. They don't hold the same mystique for me that they once did.

Bottom line...not everything should be mass marketed.

Subspace said...

rachelh said:

"I don't think we can assume that art equals design at this point."

This is an excellent point that I glossed over. I certainly don't want an artist designing my seatbelts, no matter how cool they look. I do, however, want companies to be clamoring to keep artists on staff to work with an end-product, for the fringe to make it's way into the product before it hits the shelves. I won't pay $50 for a towel tomorrow either, but it's not an issue of principals, it's an issue of money.

pattykate said:

"I have several real Louis Vuitton bags. I feel the value of my purchases have been diminished by the fake bags offered on every corner of the street."

This actually made me laugh, because it's at the core of the argument: value of "art" or "realness" is purely theoretical. Pattykate doesn't want to use her expensive handbag anymore because someone will think it's not "real," rather than use it anyway because she loves the design. Is this where we are at with fashion? In a way, sure, but on the street, on the very lowest level of consumption? There will always be people who want to have something because it's rare and represents "arrival" to a scene, and these people aren't going to be the ones that are buying artist-designed handbags purely because it's awesome and they want to see it every day.

She also said:

"Bottom line...not everything should be mass marketed."

This is a story I'll shorten as best I can: I was part of a test-marketing group for a gaming console (that never saw production), and one woman bitterly complained that it "didn't match" her TV, VCR or stereo. The console was fairly cutting edge - white curves with organic black lines, not unlike what would soon become the ubiquitous iPod look - and truly did not match anything else on the market. To clarify I asked her, "So you appreciate the current designs of your electronic components?" and she scoffed, "No! Of course not! But I at least want it to match!"

This mentality of preferring a hateful but matching lifestyle over a "dilute" artistic lifestyle is one I cannot understand. This panicky reaction of an artist having "too much" available art, or becoming "pedestrian," as Pattykate put it, is a total non-issue. Murakami is not a household name and never will be. Most Americans cannot tell a Rembrandt from a Vermeer, nor can they tell you what Damien Hirst is famous for. Even these, some of history's most lauded artists, aren't well known enough to cause an eyerolling "Oh, that sellout."

Look at the component level of the argument: that we should restrict availability of art to preserve it's exclusiveness. I'm going to have to vote no on this one.

Anonymous said...

I for one appreciate any opportunity to buy something that is artistic over something which is not. I am thrilled with the idea of mass producing things of excellent style and artistic form - if you can make an attractive toaster that will actually toast, I will pay a premium for it.

My problem with designer lines for Target and Kohls are that they are made of low quality fabric and the items fit poorly. There are many items of those lines that I would buy if they fit okay and the fabric felt decent, but being designer isn't enough.

I live in Kansas where every girl carries a designer bag because it is a status symbol. They don't care about the style, only the Prada or Coach, preferably well exposed, label. The label makes them feel important. It's for the same reason many people buy designer perfume or makeup - it's the only designer item they'll ever be able to purchase. If you love the product, then you should have it. I just hate when people buy it for it's name.

michelle said...

The types of products that Meg is critiquing in her post aren't consumer goods designed by (mostly) anonymous industrial or graphic designers, but rather products designed for fashion houses or the mass market by gallery artists. My problem with these collaborations (Marc Jacobs with Takashi Murakami, Reed Krakoff for Coach with Kiki Smith, for example), is that fashion designers use their commercial leverage to promote the work of certain artists. Why should I trust a fashion designer to tell me who is important in the art world? The problems of gaining publicity for one's work in the art world is itself complicated enough without introducing the fashion world and its own prerogatives into the mix.

Kiley said...

This issue was recently addressed in LA Weekly's article on the Murakami exhibit. To sum up, the reason why it makes sense why LV would have a store in a Murakami show is because his art veers towards commercialism. This piece even puts for the idea that his work is a vehicle for Murakami products. This makes sense to me, as I still see 'Superflat' art as a mass-market and easily copied form. Additionally, a Japanese colleague visiting LA remarked how 'convenient' it is to be able to pick up a Murakami piece and something from LV at one stop.

In addition, a lot of parties, events, openings in LA are sponsored by companies. For instance, an actor's birthday party sponsored by Skyy Vodka. In that same way, LV is sponsoring Murakami's exhibit. An LA thing maybe?

Anonymous said...

mr. p&c said:

"Most average folks who don't live "on the coasts" don't know or care about the nuances of these rarified microcosms. But, they do care about hot handbags."

Honey, please. Do not lump every state not touching an ocean into one big pile, because it makes you sound uneducated. Until you actually know what is going on in any of the not "on the coast" states, then don't speak to our capacity to appreciate art. We're not all (and in a lot of places, not even most) moronic consumerist hicks who drool over every high priced ugly "hot handbag" that touches the market.