Murakami Japanese Pop and Versailles French Baroque: A Clash of Artistic Sensibilities or Something Else?

Takashi Murakami, Oval Buddha Silver (2008) at Palace of Versailles
Takashi Murakami is one of those artists you either really like or really do not. My decision to make him the subject of this blog's first "Click and Muse" poll (on the right hand of the home page) is case in point. Perhaps for this reason alone he has continued to spark controversy with his unabashed fusion of visual arts and popular culture references, culminating in his theories of the "superflat" art movement, and his not so veiled hommage to the grandmaster of pop art, Andy Warhol. Murakami's close connection and working relationship with popular fashion and music icons (Marc Jacobs, creative director for Louis Vuitton (see video clip below) and hip hop superstar Kanye West to name but two) has also done much to polarize those in the art world who cannot decide if he is more businessman than serious artist.

This past week Murakami once again made the headlines with his much anticipated exhibition opening September 14th at the historic Palace of Versailles, ground zero for French Baroque and a symbolic monument to more traditional notions of French culture. A showstopping spectacle for many will be his 18.5 foot tall Oval Buddha (pictured above, and which also famously spent some time in a midtown Manhattan sculpture park in 2008) set center stage in Louis XIV's famous home. The character was originally conceived in 1999 when Murakami was asked to create an iconic figure for a line of Issey Miyake t-shirts and has subsequently appeared in a number of the artist's projects-- a hybrid of traditional Buddhist sculpture and Murakami's signature iconography (yes, it kind of looks like Hello Kitty, that is the point).

ArtInfo reports that the "right wing" Coordination de la Défense de Versailles (CDV) has now organized a protest against the show and declared that Murakami's presence at the Palace represents "the veritable ‘murder’ of our heritage, our artistic identity, and our most sacred culture." Not surprisingly, Murakami's artist statement suggests that he is well aware of the hype: "I am the Cheshire cat that welcomes Alice in Wonderland with its diabolic smile, and chatters away as she wanders around the Château." The Anime News Network has reported upwards of 4,000 signatures already gathered by the group. And yet another interesting factoid is that the Qatar Museums Authority--who have no contemporary art collections themselves, but appear to be following the tastes of the Quatar's royal family who have particular appetite for all things Damien Hirst--are the main sponsors of the show.

All of this of course begs the question of what is actually being protested. Is it the work of Murakami and its blend of commercialism and what the CDV terms "inferior aesthetics"? Is it the fact that French cultural exports and those who design, influence, and consume them are increasingly non-Western? Or is it just another instance of Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" thesis rearing its ugly head whereby the state of globalizing art markets and the power of taste-makers residing in remote Arab countries to select and position Murakami's work in the symbolic center of traditional French territory rings some kind of alarm bell to right-wing French reactionaries? Probably all of the above. In any case, it will be fascinating to see how the French and international public respond to the Murakami show in the months to come. No doubt in my mind that the issue of Quatar's sponsorship of the event will increasingly come to the fore of debate.

Marc Jacobs on Murakami

Further Reading:

Steinberg, Marc. "Otaku consumption, superflat art and the return to Edo." Japan Forum 16.3 (2004): 449-471.

Darling, Michael. "Plumbing the Depths of Superflatness." Art Journal 60.3 (2001): 76.