Friday, December 21, 2012

If 'luxe' could kill: Artists don't want to be artists...they want to make handbags

Yayoi-Vuitton at Selfridges
I thought I'd wrapped it up for Christmas and then along comes an excellent piece by Charlotte Burns, The Art Newspaper's ace art market reporter, on the Faustian pact between high-end contemporary artists and luxury brand strategies.

The 'luxury brand' concept — whereby we tend to view the work of people like Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, and Damien Hirst in the same way that we view a Hermès handbag, Louis Vuitton luggage or a Rolex watch — is still relatively recent in the art world. As is the name-checking of economists in articles about the art market (it used to be art critics who were liberally quoted in market analyses).

Burns argues that the shine of luxury brands might finally be fading and she lists sliding share prices for Mulberry and Burberry in evidence, quoting Burberry’s finance director, Stacey Cartwright, on the decline of so-called “aspirational” middle class shoppers as one reason for the gloomy price warnings.

This reminded me of the famous "£100 rule" coined by Sotheby's marketing guru Stanley Clarke in the 1950s. After crunching the numbers, he told Sotheby's boss Peter Wilson that the firm's core business was not in multi-million dollar Cézannes and Monets, as many people assumed, but in objects worth £100 and less. Diana 'Dede' Brooks, Sotheby's CEO in the 1990s updated that mantra during her company's ill-advised marriage to Amazon.com. Plus ça change. As Charlotte Burns correctly points out, "While the top end of the market is not much affected by the woes of the middle class, a healthy mid-section is vital for long-term health." That's another reminder that although Koons, Hirst and Murakami remain the cynosure of media eyes, they represent just one of the many mansions within the art market house.

Yayoi Kusama's window at Selfridges' London store
In any event, I'm not at all sure that the products these three jokers release onto the world can properly be described as luxury brands. The branding aspect of their work has never been properly explained, Don Thompson's popularising efforts notwithstanding. Their work may be hugely expensive and thus available only to Ultra High Net Worth Individuals, but that in itself does not make them 'brands'.

Yayoi Kusama's cross-pollination with Louis Vuitton is a far more compelling instance of an artist seeking to partake of the luxury brand cachet. Most members of the general public who passed Selfridges' window during Kusama's recent Louis Vuitton installation in London (above right) would not have recognised her (the window contained multiple Kusama mannequins) or known she was a contemporary artist. But perhaps the issue is that even if they had, they would not have been surprised.

Maybe that's the real reason she, and Hirst, and Koons are leaving über-dealer Larry Gagosian. They don't want to be artists; they want to be handbag designers.



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