We live in an age of cons driven by people who think they’re smarter than the rest of us, or in on a joke the rest of us fail to see. Con men (and they’re most often men) are prevalent in the fields of modern and contemporary art. They have their coteries of edgelords, artists, curators, and associated writers and academics who fancy themselves ahead of the crowd, along with collectors, dealers, auctioneers, and other purveyors of luxury goods who join them in celebrating their acquisition of power, or the symbols of it anyway.
Few genres of contemporary art reveal the machinations of this tiresome ouroboros of popular shock to luxury shlock as clearly as graffiti and street art. And no one encompasses that soulless supersizing of pop culture as clearly as Kaws, who is the subject of a mid-career retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum curated by Eugenie Tsai, the institution’s longtime curator of contemporary art.
Once the bastion of visual dissent for underrepresented voices who co-opted the language of branding and advertising, street art (which blends contemporary art strategies with the visual thrill of graffiti) has for the last decade become fully associated with real estate interests, merchandising, and gentrification.
It was during that 1990s period of street art’s emergence that Kaws (birth name Brian Donnelly), along with some of the other bold-faced names of street art (Shepard Fairey and Banksy) emerged. Unlike Fairey and Banksy, Kaws is proudly apolitical, which made him best suited for the super wealthy who prefer to be comforted and appeased rather than being criticized. Kaws began his career creating creepy images that overlaid his balloon head figures with eyes X’d out onto fashion ads in phone booths and bus shelters around New York City. His saccharine style means nothing, according to him. As a result he’s become a favorite of luxury brands who can project whatever they want onto his repetitive designs.
The art on display in KAWS: WHAT PARTY, is wretchedly meh. The references are facile, and aesthetically the works are akin to Instagram filters or Photoshop tricks. He uses shiny materials, scale, and quantity to make his obtuse points. Not to mention, he offers merchandise in every color and size and price point — let’s call him the Swatch watch of art.
Artists like Kaws rely on nostalgia, and judging by the audience that arrived on the Wednesday afternoon I attended, most of the visitors (based on my brief conversations) were a mix of former taggers and street art scenesters who want to relive their childhoods, often with their own kids, fashion fans who love the brand tie-ins, and local BoCoCa or Park Slope parents eager to get their kids out of the house.
The artist is mining the now feeble legacy of Warhol, who wanted rich people and celebrities to love him, while reinforcing the supremacy of American imperialism and capitalism. The shtick has gotten very old. There’s a reason people are increasingly protesting museums and it’s partly this mindlessness masquerading as “critique” and the insipidness it entails. There’s signs of misogyny in Kaws’s early work, which the exhibition never explores, where he covered the heads of mostly women in ads with their eyes crossed out like a serial killer would do. But scratch at the surface of anything here and you’ll be disappointed as, to quote Gertrude Stein, “There is no there there.”
This exhibition says more about the dysfunctional commercial art scene and the museums that serve its needs than anything else. Looking at his exhibition I was reminded of the way Anthony Bourdain explained why Cipriani — a very mediocre New York Italian restaurant — continues to attract the extremely wealthy for events and galas. He said:
Dictators tend to eat really really badly, you know, they insist on it … There’s all these great Italian restaurants in the city but they go to Cipriani, you know, they go to Nello, they pay a hundred and twenty bucks for a bowl of spaghetti pomodoro or whatever they’re paying. Why? Because they want to live in that bubble. The one thing they can be guaranteed there or at Philippe or Mr. Chow or places like that is that they won’t be called out by a normal person who is pointing out the obvious. Your plastic surgery is botched. You know, regardless of what your friends tell you, you’re an evil person, and you’re eating really shitty food, which you’re paying too much for. Those places, they’re insulated from that, you know. You want complicity, everyone at Cipriani is complicit, you know, everyone who goes to Nello or Philippe or Mr. Chow, understands that they are signing on to, uh. The despots’ club.
This explains much of the appeal of Kaws too. Collectors of Kaws don’t want to hear the art sucks, because deep down they know. They don’t want art that challenges them, they want brands and decor that signal their wealth without offering insight. It has become commonplace to expect to see Kaws on a TikTok video of some rich commercial developer’s McMansion alongside Gucci furniture, a Versace branded ceiling, and other trappings of newfound status.
The bigger question is: How did we get to this shallow place? The answer is complicated. The rise of street art in the last few decades was accompanied by an almost total blackout by many contemporary art institutions that turned up their noses at the movement. Street art developed in a parallel market supported by uncritical lifestyle media uninterested in criticism, think Juxtapoz, Hypebeast, and other media outlets that don’t write negative reviews, preferring a clearly celebratory approach to everything they feature. I honestly don’t think an artist as unexciting as Kaws would have emerged if superficial platforms like Instagram, where he has 3.4 million followers (something the Brooklyn Museum director, Anne Pasternak, clearly felt compelled to include in her foreword to the catalogue), didn’t allow them to create an insular river of marketing BS free of critique, discussion, or insight. Shopping malls aren’t dead; they’ve just turned into Instagram feeds.
This reality facing artists like Kaws has all been compounded by the disdain too many in the contemporary art scene show for street art and the artists associated with it, which makes most criticism from those professionals easy to dismiss. Over a decade ago I wrote about street art with some regularity and was always shocked at the responses from so-called “art people” about the movement. The dismissals were often racialized and almost always classist, preferring to see street art and its contemporary white box incarnations as universally subpar and terrible, rather than parsing bodies of work and recognizing the differences among them. Kaws is not the best of street art, and he’s certainly not the most interesting. The artist also has the sophistication of a high school student when he discusses his work, unable to provide anything but bromides to an audience of fan boys and hangers on eager to learn more.
It’s not worth discussing the art in the show itself mostly because it’s all quite interchangeable and unremarkable. “Untitled (Kimpsons)” (2004) and “Better Knowing” (2013) is equally insipid, demonstrating no evolution from one decade to the next, while continuing to trade in stereotypes. There’s a figure that appears again and again in much of Kaws’s work, and he calls it a “Chum.” Resembling a Disney cartoon figure, it has less emotional complexity than an emoji or a cereal commercial, acting more like an avatar of greed and hubris for those who bring a huge dose of cynicism to contemporary art without any of the needed introspection or criticality. The only good things I can say about the exhibition is that it proves you can create a museum gift shop that is indistinguishable from the show (except from the stanchions and cash registers), and as depressing as it was to peruse the exhibition it was also extraordinarily easy to forget after you left. If anything, I’m just sad that with all that is going on in the world, the Brooklyn Museum thought this was the show we needed to see.
KAWS: WHAT PARTY continues at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, Prospect Park, Brooklyn) through September 5, but what’s the point, just look at photos tagged on Instagram.