Kitsch! Tacky! Vulgar! No, this is not the exclamation I made when entering my old spinster aunt’s house in the countryside, it is the definition of the current art market.
Welcome to the new era where no taste is the biggest trend and the high culture is taking on the low. It is simple, fun and frankly, a welcomed change after all the conceptual complicated pieces we have been inundated with for so long. For centuries, the way culture worked was in a trickle down fashion. Taste and connoisseurship came from the highest social spheres and the people at the bottom desperately tried to get up there. Of course, the moment they did, the highest class would have moved on, and on and on it went, the lowest classes always running after something they couldn’t catch: taste.
An interesting phenomenon took place a couple of decades back, starting with the Pop movement and being followed by the Young British Artists and the Kitsch movement, the connoisseurs got tired of always being ahead of the rest of us and did a double take. They went backwards! Looking at everyday subjects, throwaway materials and producing “meaningless” art, the people we look up to for taste and cultural enlightenment decided the lower classes had it all along. Fun took on a new meaning in the art world and we all cried out: Let there be kitsch!
Kitsch is still here! And it is going strong. Thomas Kinkade, “the King of Kitsch” died in April 2012, leaving behind an enormous amount of work – he was America’s most collected living artist at the time of his death: 1 in 20 American households owning a copy of his paintings – but most importantly, a lot of heirs.
What is interesting here is what these heirs have done to the art market of the last decade. While Kinkade was a businessman who appealed to the middle class of America and did not take over the art world, some of his offspring did just that. They radically changed the art market and what it means to be a successful artist in the 21st century.
The art market is a market and like the stock market, it goes up and down, crashes and peaks, making fortunes and destroying reputations in the process. Artists like Jeff Koons know it, and they know it well.
Completely honest in his practice, Koons never pretended to make artworks that had a hidden meaning. Koons’ detachment to his practice is in the lineage of such emblematic and genius artists as the Renaissance painters or Warhol and his Factory. The question is simple: what does Jeff Koons actually do? The concept is nonexistent – according to him -, the subject is common and the burden of production is removed from his shoulders by his assistants. So what is it that makes Jeff Koons one of the most famous American artists of this century? Jeff Koons is a brand. Brands have only value through what they sell and Jeff Koons sells taste. He sells a new art market to the old art market, a new vision of what art is and could be.
Alongside the same lines, Takashi Murakami, the Japanese super seller in the auction houses is a brand. But he went further, associated his branded name with other brands. His collaboration with Louis Vuitton was a master coup. Not only was he already a superstar in the art world, he also became synonymous of luxury to every single person in the world with access to media.
Kitsch art is still art. A name often seen when talking about Jeff Koons is Marc Quinn. Tackling popular subject matters and some extremely mundane material – blood and faeces anyone? – Marc Quinn is an artist who takes kitsch seriously. Where Koons disregards meaning, Quinn delights in it. His body of works, according to his website, “displays a preoccupation with the mutability of the body and the dualisms that define human life: spiritual and physical, surface and depth, cerebral and sexual. […] Quinn develops these paradoxes into experimental, conceptual works that are mostly figurative in form.” So no, it’s not just that Kate Moss is extremely flexible and that she could join a circus, it’s about “the notion of value in society in the light of the credit crunch”. It was also the largest gold statue made by man since ancient Egyptian times and has a price tag in the millions, tens of millions.
So why is the art world so obsessed with kitsch art? And even more telling, why are people – extremely wealthy people – ready to spend millions on something that depicts an everyday subject? Aside from the fact that kitsch art is fun and enjoyable on a visual level, in the case of most of these artists it is the brand. The name Marc Quinn might be slightly less expensive than Koons but the Young British Artists, the movement which includes Quinn but also Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst is breaking records everywhere. Meeting at Goldsmiths in the late 80s and starting exhibiting together in 1988, the YBA as they became known began with a series of artist led exhibitions such as Damien Hirst’s Freeze in 1988 and in 1990, East Country Yard show and Modern Medicine. Shock tactics – such as Tracey’s My bed or Hirst’s shark – and throwaway materials are a common denominator in the movement.
The brand YBA was avidly collected by Charles Saatchi from the beginning. A maker or breaker of the art market, Saatchi is a collector famous for his gallery in the West of London – he donated the gallery and more than 200 artworks to the British public in 2010 – but more importantly he is an advertiser. Co-founder of Saatchi&Saatchi (which became the largest advertising agency in the world in the 80s) and then of M&C Saatchi, Charles Saatchi is an expert on brands and marketing.
And marketing experts the YBA are. Aside from the shock value of their pieces, they also excel in manipulating the value of their entire body of works. For the love of God, the diamond skull by Damien Hirst was supposedly sold for 50 million pounds to a consortium that included the artist himself. Hirst told The Time Magazine that in the end he sold a third of the skull to an investment group. Based on an Aztec turquoise skull and probably a crystal skull by John LeKay, the true worth of the skull has been estimated to somewhere between 7 and 10 millions by the Vice Chairman of the London Diamond Bourse and Club.
Outside the brand, find more kitsch. In fact, it seems inside and out, we can’t escape kitsch. And why would we want to? But let’s go back to my mention of the Pop artists. The gigantic depiction of everyday objects had been done way before Koons came along. Claes Oldenburg was and still is the master of the practice. While Koons takes already kitsch objects to make his art, Oldenburg truly replicates everyday objects nobody could associate with kitsch and changes their meanings by accentuating the colours, resizing them – only for the bigger – and displaying them in public areas. So the everyday goes back to the everyday, but supersized. While Claes Oldenburg’s work sells in the millions on the art market, he can be considered to be outside the Superstar Millionaires Kitsch Artists.
While one could wonder if maybe Oldenburg’s position might not be due to the fact that he is first and foremost a Pop artist, and as such kitsch, yes, but in an old fashioned kind of way; I’d like to bring in Pierre and Gilles. The French photographers, in the line of David Lachapelle are so over the top one might think their work is what Disneyland would look like if it got corrupted and then had an overdose. Popping colours, porn, religion: looking at these photographs is like being on drugs. Kitsch artists, they are also contemporary artists who have never been in another art movement and yet manage to be successful without being a brand. Hell, there isn’t even a picture of them on their Wikipedia page – go and check, it’s true! Their art has monetary value – the Kylie Minogue album cover: that’s them – they exhibit, sell and are known for their work worldwide, their pictures being reproduced over and over again in postcards, posters…
Pierre and Gilles do not market their name, but they are a brand all the same. Their art is instantly recognisable as theirs, their evolution over time is virtually impossible to detect and as much as their art, it is what makes them kitsch.
The art of the everyday. Kitsch artists created a new art market. They led the way for the everyday to be reaching millions of dollars if illuminated in the right branding light – something Warhol and the Pop artists had already started – and they opened doors for the young artists of the everyday: the street artists. The new mundane and in that sense, kitsch is none other than street art. You can see it everywhere, you pass it by on your way to work but it reaches phenomenal prices at auctions. Mr. Brainwash – does he even really exist – or Banksy are the new artists everyone wants to collect. Their branding is flawless, their art everywhere, their subjects lowbrow… Long live the new Kitsch!