Kaws is terrible, but fortunately forgettable
We live in a time of inconvenience driven by people who think they’re smarter than the rest of us, or in a joke the rest of us don’t see. Crooks (and most often they are men) are prevalent in the fields of modern and contemporary art. They have their coteries of lords, artists, curators,
Few contemporary art genres reveal the machinations of this boring ouroboros from popular shock to luxury shlock as clearly as graffiti and street art. And no one embraces this soulless oversizing of pop culture as clearly as Kaws, who is the subject of a mid-career retrospective at brooklyn museum curated by Eugénie Tsai, longtime curator of contemporary art at the institution.
Once a bastion of visual dissent for the underrepresented voices who co-opted the language of branding and advertising, street art (which mixes contemporary artistic strategies with the visual thrill of graffiti) has grown over the years. the last decade fully associated with real estate interests, merchandising, and gentrification.
It was during this period of emergence of street art in the 1990s that Kaws (birth name Brian Donnelly), as well as some of the other bold names in street art (Shepard Fairey and Banksy) emerged. Unlike Fairey and Banksy, Kaws is proudly apolitical, which made him best suited for the super rich who would rather be comforted and appeased than criticized. Kaws started his career creating spooky images that superimposed his balloon heads with X-eyes on fashion ads in phone booths and bus shelters in New York City. His sweet style means nothing, according to him. As a result, he has become a favorite of luxury brands who can project whatever they want onto his repetitive designs.
Art exhibited in KAWS: WHAT A FESTIVAL, is miserably meh. References are easy, and aesthetically the works are akin to Instagram filters or Photoshop tricks. He uses shiny materials, scale and quantity to make his points obtuse. Not to mention that it offers merchandise in all colors, sizes and prices – let’s call it the Swatch Art Watch.
Artists like Kaws rely on nostalgia, and judging by the audience that arrived on the Wednesday afternoon I attended, most of the visitors (from my brief conversations) were a mix of former taggers and street art scenes who want to relive their childhood, often with their own children, fashion fans who love the brand’s ties and the locals BoCoCa or Park Slope parents eager to get their kids out of the house.
The artist exploits the now weak legacy of Warhol, who wanted the rich and famous to love him, while strengthening the supremacy of US imperialism and capitalism. The shtick has become very old. There is a reason people are protesting more and more against museums, and part of it is this stupidity disguised as “criticism” and the blandness it implies. There are signs of misogyny in Kaws’ early work, which the exhibition never explores, where he covered most women’s heads in advertisements with his eyes barred like a serial killer would. But scratch the surface of anything here and you’ll be disappointed because, to quote Gertrude Stein, “There isn’t any there.”
This exhibit says more about the dysfunctional commercial art scene and the museums that serve its needs than anything else. Looking at his exhibit, I remembered how Anthony Bourdain explained why Cipriani – a very mediocre New York Italian restaurant – continues to attract the wealthy for events and galas. He said:
Dictators tend to eat very, very badly, you know, they insist on it… There are all these good Italian restaurants in the city but they go to Cipriani, you know, they go to Nello, they pay a hundred and twenty dollars for a bowl of pomodoro spaghetti or whatever they pay. Why? Because they want to live in this bubble. The only thing they can be guaranteed to be there or at Philippe’s or Mr. Chow’s or places like that is that they won’t be called by a normal person who points out the obvious. Your plastic surgery is botched. You know, no matter what your friends tell you, you’re an evil person and you eat really crappy food, which you pay too much for. These places, they’re isolated from it, you know. You want complicity, everyone at Cipriani is an accomplice, you know, everyone who goes to Nello or Philippe or Mr. Chow, understands that they are getting involved, uh. The Despots Club.
This also explains much of Kaws’ appeal. Kaws collectors don’t want to hear that art sucks, because deep down they know it. They don’t want art that challenges them, they want brands and decors that signal their wealth without offering insight. It has become common to Expect to see Kaws on a McMansion TikTok video from a wealthy commercial developer alongside Gucci furniture, a Versace-branded ceiling and other attributes of a new status.
The bigger question is: how did we get to this shallow place? The answer is complicated. The rise of street art over the past decades has been accompanied by an almost total blackout on the part of many contemporary art institutions which have turned their noses up to the movement. Street art has developed in a parallel market supported by non-critical and critically indifferent lifestyle media, think Juxtapoz, Hypebeast and other outlets that don’t write negative reviews, preferring a clearly festive approach to anything they present. Honestly, I don’t think an artist as unattractive as Kaws would have emerged if superficial platforms like Instagram, where he has 3.4 million followers (something that Brooklyn Museum director Anne Pasternak has clearly understood) felt compelled to include in its catalog foreword), did not allow them to create an island river of BS marketing free from criticism, discussion or insight. Shopping centers are not dead; they just turned into an Instagram feed.
This reality faced by artists like Kaws has been compounded by the too much disdain in the contemporary art scene for street art and the artists associated with it, which makes most of the criticisms of these professionals easy to dismiss. Over a decade ago, I wrote about street art with some regularity and have always been shocked by the responses of so-called “art people” to movement. The layoffs were often racialized and almost always classist, preferring to see street art and its contemporary embodiments of white boxes as universally mediocre and terrible, rather than analyze bodies of work and recognize the differences between them. Kaws isn’t the best in street art, and it’s definitely not the most interesting. The artist also has the sophistication of a high school student when discussing his work, unable to provide anything but bromides to an audience of fan boys and amateurs eager to learn more.
It’s not worth discussing the art in the show itself, mainly because it’s all pretty interchangeable and mundane. “Untitled (Kimpsons)” (2004) and “Better Knowing” (2013) are equally tasteless, showing no change from decade to decade, yet still trade in stereotypes. There is a character who appears over and over again in much of Kaws’ work, and he calls him a “Chum”. Resembling a Disney cartoon character, he has less emotional complexity than an emoji or a cereal ad, acting more like an avatar of greed and pride for those who bring a huge dose of cynicism to life. contemporary art without any introspection or criticality required. The only good thing I can say about the exhibit is that it proves that you can create a museum gift shop that is indistinguishable from the exhibit (except candlesticks and cash registers) , and as depressing as it might be to walk through the exhibit, it was also extraordinarily easy to forget after you left. On the contrary, I’m just sad that with everything going on in the world, the Brooklyn Museum thought this was the show we had to see.
KAWS: WHAT A FESTIVAL continues at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, Prospect Park, Brooklyn) until September 5, but what good is it, just look at the photos tagged on Instagram.
Schvartz paints a flawless portrait of the working class, the culture of the neighborhood, the women involved in the innocent but decidedly political act of simply being.
Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky and Maxim Dmitriev documented radically different sides of Russia in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Instead of anachronistic models that are already reasserting themselves in modern society, we should be able to see on the big screen just how badass, free-thinker and intercultural the premodern world really was.