Don’t you hate it when your gesture as a cheeky provocateur causes damage to your brand and makes all of China angry with you? The tide of public opinion and corporate backing turned against street-artist-turned-fine-artist KAWS this week, when an untitled 2002 work depicting Chairman Mao (Mao Zedong) triggered massive outcry. The artwork, which was slated for auction on October 7 and was expected to reach between 620,000 and 950,000 Hong Kong Dollars (~$79,000–$121,000) has been taken down from Sothebys’ auction site, following a firestorm of public response, including videos of former KAWS fans literally burning their merch, as reported by Highsnobiety.
The Chinese paper Sing Tao Daily has a capture of the original listing, and an undoctored image of the work can be seen at MutualArt, which still has the sale date listed for October 7. The image augments an official Mao poster with KAWS’s recurring motifs: frilly ears, crossed-out eyes, and a bowtie. As reported by ARTnews, Sotheby’s Hong Kong cashed in hugely for KAWS in April of this year, selling his 2005 painting The Kaws Album for an earth-shattering $14.7 million, more than 14 times its high estimate. Now, affection for KAWS has taken a serious downturn, with outcry that this constitutes an insult to China and its people — particularly falling so close after the 70th-anniversary celebrations of the Chinese Communist Party, founded by Mao. In response, Uniqlo China has reportedly removed all KAWS products from its online store, as has China’s biggest resale platform, Poizon.
As Frank Sinatra said: that’s life. You’re riding high in April, shot down in …October. One suspects that even with the alienation of a huge market, KAWS will somehow land on his feet, as street artists from Basquiat to Banksy have always had a way of spinning controversy into gold. As long as there are rich people and mass markets with extraordinarily questionable taste, there will be a place for KAWS. Let’s just not get too carried away with imagining that this 2002 work represents actual social critique, so much as a bit of cultural button-mashing that has come back to bite.