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I made the mistake of going to see the Takashi Murakami show on Black Friday, the big shopping day after Thanksgiving. I had to get in line at 2:30AM for the doors to open at sunrise 6. The convivial queue stretched from the Geffen MOCA all the way to the Grand Avenue MOCA. During the dark and cold wait, curators and docents were passing out coffee, scones and discount coupons for a holiday handbag and a DOB-bie keychain. Director Jeremy Strick was there, reassuring the crowd that no Louis Vuitton store revenue enriched the museum—they only paid for the opening party! A strolling Christmas choir, festive in Dickens attire, sang carols, a rap version of ‘Nearer My God To Thee’ and a few Hanukkah favorites. All the security guards wore riot gear. The art loving shoppers were civil and well mannered until management opened for business. The crowd surged and choked the door. Elbows flew and eyes were blackened. It looked like a high fashion mosh pit. A woman screamed. A dapper gentleman in a smart Burberry suit unearthed a small palm tree and hurled it through one of the plate glass doors. All hell broke loose...
The battle of art versus commerce is as old as a cave painting with no resolution in sight. Like warring twins, art and commerce really can’t live without each other. In “Pecker”, John Waters’ art world treatise, Mr. Bozak, the deli owner and ersatz photo show gallerist, threatens with a spatula and shouts, “You just can’t look at the pictures without buying something!”
A brand is a matter of definition, identification and meaning. The future of the brand looks to encompass lifestyle, spirituality and sociology. Branding has become a new medium.
We live in a branded culture. A brand is a relatively new concept that is continually evolving with depth and intention. (It’s the cross-branding that will kill us. When we buy the Mercedes Benz Hothouse Tomato for it’s sleek styling, we’ll be in trouble.)
Much has been written and little said in the press about the Japanese Warhol-Hasbro. Murakami is now a brand, but he did not start out that way.
Throughout time, artists have lent a brush stroke to jazz up commerce. Salvador Dali played with fashion, painter Richard Prince now has his own handbag and Damien Hirst is spinning it for Levi Strauss. It is novel entertainment.
As an artist, Murakami simply re-colored the Louis Vuitton bag. With a white background to counter the long established brown, the result was noticeable and wildly popular. Demand was high. Almost instantly, counterfeit knockoffs could be found in the swap meets of Rome and the streets of Tijuana. Vuitton wanted more and Murakami was able to interject his own design language into the Vuitton motif. This is when Murakami slipped away from the distinction of artist-designer and moored himself as a brand.
Logos are potent symbols and they can be very artful. If you put a Nazi swastika on the cover of a book, expect sales to jump upwards of fourteen percent. The swastika, originally the svasti, a Neolithic-era tag, is a Jainist, Hindu and Buddhist symbol that is perfect in its beauty and symmetry. It used to translate as ‘conductive to well-being’ but it’s off limits now. Leave it to a fascist to take the fun out of everything.
For the urban hipster, Shep Fairey’s OBEY is as ubiquitous as the Golden Arches.
As a waterdog scion of Newport Beach, I named my first sailboat ‘Kahlua’. It may seem a rather jaded choice for a nine year old, but I have always been enamored with the sensual coffee liqueur logo. To this day, I look at the distinctive type with rattan highlights and I go glossy-eyed with slipstreams of warm sandy beaches, grass skirts and the come-on of an exotic come-hither.
A brand logo offers the implication of a quality. The MAGlite flashlight is reputed as the finest made. I believe you’re in good hands with Allstate. Thunderbird is the choice of every skid row sommelier.
Brands, giving distinction and implying quality, are elitist by nature. I can’t remember which is more impressive, a Harvard tie or Yale neckwear? I know that both carry more weight than Caprice County Trade Tech, my alma mater.
Where do you coffee? Starbucks or Coffee Bean? In LA, the difference is between a waitress job and a sitcom role.
If clothes make the man, then the brand makes the clothes.
The goal of a brand is to extend its value. It’s about financial maturity, market penetration and revenue extrapolation. In short, it’s about making more money. If we sell the popular Happy-X Widget, then why not market the Happy-Y Widget. Why not Happy-Z?
There is no better example than the tie maker from the Bronx. Ralph Lauren extended his fashion brand to furnishings and eventually house paint. The rugged, outdoor, fresh air brand of Eddie Bauer could upscale a Ford Explorer. But can Montblanc, the pen makers, extend themselves to jewelry? I doubt it.
This is the difference between extension and exploitation. Damien Hirst exploits his value with Levi Strauss while Warhol was able to extend his to stationery and greeting cards.
Distinction is the hallmark to a brand. Warhol’s painting style became a brand while Jeff Koons’ or Richard Prince’s will not. Murakami, with his repetitive elements, is becoming one. Brands are recognizable.
Today, as a brand tries to extend itself, the evolution aims for the psychological well-being. I was waiting for a coffee at Starbucks and several of their new products told me to ‘create’ and to ‘dream.’ An art professor, a probation officer or a psychiatrist can tell me that but not a goddamn coffeemaker.
The GAP has built a specialized product line and a campaign around African AIDS awareness. Is this an extension or an exploitation?
Fairey’s pervasive OBEY logo is laden with the import of great meaning yet it remains without. The street work is designed to remind us that symbols can have great meaning. Or not. There is some value in the message, as well as an opportunity lost.
Branding is evolving from a simple product distinction to a sociological mirror of our culture. A brand (or a logo that we wear on our shirtsleeve) is our distinction and our identity.
My latest work, the Fellowship of Fortuna, is in the school of Phenomenology. If America’s fastest-growing art-centric religion is to be part of our culture, then branding is a necessary new tool. How else can I end world war by proving that religious affiliation is no more important than the label in your collar? Branding is a medium for the artist.
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