Commercialism and International Art World: Takashi Murakami and the Rise of the New International Artist

By Abigail Bisbee


When Andy Warhol began to release his artwork in the 1950s, the art society was astonished, and in some cases, enraged by the manner in which Warhol presented depictions of everyday commercial objects as fine art. Warhol ignored the critics and continued to break down the barriers between high and low art forms, thriving on the process of print making in his “Factory” in New York. By the 1960s, however, Warhol had progressed from a misunderstood creative mind to one of the most profound artists in the second half of the twentieth century in the western world. It was through his process and the collaboration with different forms of art, such as film and fashion, that Warhol almost single-handedly destroyed the barriers between popular and high art forms that led the art market into a new era.

While Warhol was very influential in the initial creation of the post-modern artist, it was not until the mid-1990s that a new artist was able to fill his shoes and once again recreate the way that art is both created and received. Takashi Murakami, a contemporary Japanese artist, emerged onto the international art scene with his anime inspired paintings and sculpture. Well received, Murakami then used the momentum from his early success to become more than just a studio artist. Over the course of the next decade and a half, Murakami would spearhead the re-establishment of the artist’s factory and the merging of commercial enterprise and art in a manner that took Warhol’s vision to a new level. The following essay will examine how Murakami was able to rise to prominence in the 1990s and early 2000s become the embodiment of the dynamic international contemporary artist and his incorporation of commerce into his artistic product. This exploration of Murakami’s career and the effect it has upon other contemporary artists will demonstrate how international dialogism and the globalization of the 1990s have changed the way that not only the artist creates and disperses his artwork, but the way that the art is received by audiences around the world.

Takashi Murakami – Artist Background

Takashi Murakami grew up in Tokyo in the age of post-WWII Japan. Born in a nation uncertain in its identity and not quite far enough removed from the terror of the nuclear destruction, Murakami came of age in a culture that was increasingly turning to cartoons and animation and away from the artistic tradition that had defined pre-war Japan. Murakami was fascinated by okatu culture, “the subculture of “geeks” or “pop culture fanatics”– a fantasy world where apocalyptic imagery, fetishistic commerce, and artistic vanguards meet” (Little Boy), but found that he did not have the talent to succeed in anime illustration (Lubow, 51).  Choosing another direction, Murakami went on to attain his PhD in nihonga, “the refined hybrid of European and traditional Japanese painting that was invented in the late nineteenth century.” While he would later leave this traditional art form, it would strongly influence his production for the rest of his career. After achieving his PhD, Murakami began to venture down the path of other contemporary artists of the late 1980s and early 1990s, creating artwork that was global in character. After a trip in 1994 to New York, however, Murakami decided to rediscover his Japanese identity and since then his artwork has been founded in Japanese culture and history (Lubow).  Still strongly interested in okatu in the mid-1990s, Takashi turned toward the fabrication of his own oversized anime character designs including his famous Miss. Ko2. 

Takashi Murakami's Miss Ko2 on display at Versailles

Takashi Murakami’s Miss Ko2 on display at Versailles

After working with several of the fiberglass character statues, Murakami shifted gears and returned to the exploration painting. It was at the beginning of his painting career that he developed the theory of “Superflat.” This theory was based on linking the flat picture planes of traditional Japanese paintings to the lack of any distinction between high and low culture (Lubow). Traditional Japanese painting, like nihonga, was founded in a two-dimensional aesthetic that easily transferred over into the pop anime culture that Murakami was inspired by. These paintings that he produced were a kind of remix, a hybrid of traditional and contemporary art forms in Japan. In his Semiotics for Beginners, David Chandler notes that,

“…the semiotic notion of intertextuality introduced by Julia Kristeva is associated primarily with poststructuralist theorists. Kristeva referred to texts in terms of two axes: a horizontal axis connecting the author and reader of a text, and a vertical axis, which connects the text to other text…Uniting these two axis are shared codes: every text and every reading depends on prior codes.”

This understanding of codes and intertextuality applies to Murakami’s artwork. By combining the two genres of painting through a corresponding theme, Murakami was able to connect with various nodes within Japanese society including the anime- obsessed generation and the elder population who had experienced Japanese culture prior to the war. In addition to formal qualities, his “Superflat” technique was often enhanced, particularly in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, by an underlying theme of nuclear warfare and its emotional toll on Japanese society. In this sense, he was merging both internal (Japanese) and external (Western) views of how the modern Japanese society was functioning, particularly as an ahistorical state (Lubow, 52).

Takashi Murakami's "Tranquility of the Heart, Torment of the Flesh" at the Gagosian Gallery, New York in 2007 (copyright Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times)

Takashi Murakami’s “Tranquility of the Heart, Torment of the Flesh” at the Gagosian Gallery, New York in 2007 (copyright Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times)

The Rise of the Multi-Faceted Artist in the International Contemporary Art World

One of the ways that Murakami has built upon Warhol’s legacy is that he has not only blurred the lines of high and low art, but the artist has also redefined what it is to be a post-modern international artist. According to Arthur Lubow in his 2003 piece on Murakami in the New Yorker Magazine, the artist has “moved frictionlessly among his multiple roles as an artist, curator, theorist, product designer, businessman, and celebrity” (50). In this statement, Lubow is referring to the many hats that Murakami appears to wear but the crucial element from that excerpt is not the individual role that he plays, but rather how “frictionlessly” he shifts between them. For Murakami he is an artist, but that title encompasses all of the titles formerly noted. Thus the new contemporary global artist is not only creating hybrid artwork through merging genres and various international identities into his final product, but he is exercising these dynamic qualities in addition to his artwork in an effort to capture the new commercially driven art market.

Murakami’s involvement in art is not only based on his direct involvement with the artwork that he creates, but also that of other artists. In 2005 Murakami served as the curator for the “Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture” at the Japan Society (Japan Society). For the exhibition he drew inspiration from Japanese otaku culture that had defined his adolescent years. Murakami curated the exhibition to elaborate upon his theory of “Superflat,” the show serving as the final piece of a trilogy of exhibitions curated by Murakami. The manner in which Murakami addressed the show according to scholarly theory reveals how the artist has moved beyond the structured role of artist to represent the academic character of the new contemporary artist as well. The other key element in this discussion is that the trilogy of exhibitions were presented outside of his native Japan across two continents, demonstrating the effects of globalization in the shaping of today’s artists. In his introduction to Globalization and Contemporary Art (2011), Jonathan Harris states that “awareness of global context and conditions has come to shape how artists conceive, realize, manifest, and attempt to sell and many other ways propagate their works…” (Harris, 8). While Murakami presents artwork that is distinctly Japanese, there are elements of his artwork that can be understood in an international context because “he is reacting to a hyper-stimulated and decontextualized Japan” that appears similar to western cultures, particular American society (Lubow, 77). In the globalized art market, the national borders that previously existed for contemporary artists have been transcended, and with Murakami, he is recognized in Europe, North America, and Japan for his work.

Incorporation of Commercialization into Murakami’s Artistic Production

A lifelong admirer of Warhol’s, Murakami sought in his early career to draw inspiration from Warhol’s process while incorporating his approach within pre-existing Japanese traditions. Murakami founded his own factory, KaiKai KiKi, which is a fusion of Andy Warhol’s “Factory” and the Kano Schools of sixteenth century Japan (Lubow). KaiKai Kiki serves as more than a location of production for Murakami’s art, it is run as a true business. Murakami has over sixty employees between his Tokyo and New York City locations with computerized time cards and training manuals for new hires (Lubow, 51). While Murakami used to produced his own art, he now leaves the physical production to his studio assistants who follow exact instructions written by their master. KaiKai KiKi represents a distinct shift in the production of the modern artwork, where the artist’s hand no longer determines the financial value of the item, but rather the symbolic value that produced through subject matter, execution, and the artist’s association. For Murakami, he has no inhibitions with the commercial nature of his enterprise, an element derived from his upbringing in Japanese society where high art was displayed in department stores and merchandise was given the same symbolic value as high art as a function of habitus (Bourdieu). KaiKai KiKi also serves as a home for seven artists whom Murakami sponsors and mentors. Murakami often travels with his students to international art fairs, an institution that has grown in recognition and prestige over the last two decades.

In 2003 the artist expanded upon his commercial empire with the collaboration with Louis Vuitton to reinvent the traditional Louis Vuitton monogram. His “brightly colored hued logos as well as the artist’s own signature ‘jellyfish eyes’ and smiling cherry blossoms and fruit” covered the Louis Vuitton handbags. The collaboration between the artist and the fashion brand brought in over 300 million dollars in profits for Louis Vuitton. While many highly educated art collectors and critics scoffed at Murakami’s collaboration with low art, for the artist it was one of his “deeply held tenets that demarcations between fine art and popular merchandise are now completely un-Japanese” (Lubow, 50). When the merchandise went to market, so too did Murakami, displaying his flawless paintings of the LV monogram in the Louis Vuitton store rather than in gallery demonstrating how the art has become a hybrid of both a commercial and artistic product.

Takashi Murakami, Eye Love "Superflat", 2003. Screenprint in colors.

Takashi Murakami, Eye Love “Superflat”, 2003. Screenprint in colors.

©Murakami: How the Murakami Integrated Remix Culture into Contemporary Exhibitions

When he collaborates with museums and galleries for solo exhibitions, Murakami makes an effort to display the work in a dynamic manner that enhances the experience. In 2008, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles worked with Murakami to put together a retrospective of over ninety works of art covering Murakami’s entire career. In “©Murakami”, Murakami was “intent on exploring how mass-produced entertainment and consumerism are part of art” and in addition to his works sold Louis Vuitton merchandise in a separate pop up store he specially created for the exhibition, that also sold prints of his works. Beyond the sale of Murakami merchandise, the artist also included multi-media in his exhibition, including a short animation film (another art-form he had started to pursue in 2008). While the animation film was not running, Murakami played an “MTV-style video” Kanye West’s 2008 hit, “Good Morning,”(Vogel) further explaining how the contemporary international artist is not only responsible for the production of his own work, but for the collaboration with his contemporaries in other fields.

Kanye West Music Video of “Good Morning” (2008)

Murakami proves that the global artist is no longer only obligated to create of art in multiple forms, whether it is sculpture, painting, film etc., but that artist is also responsible for combining popular culture into high art production. The combinatoriality that exists in his paintings that merge Japanese tradition with Japanese present is also a key element in his exhibitions and his artwork. According to the head curator of the show, Paul Schimmel, Murakami was able to reach new audiences through “various kinds of cross branding” because of names like Louis Vuitton, Kanye West and eBay (Vogel, “Watch out,Warhol”). In a world generation that is increasingly more connected to popular culture through the use of social media, this dynamic approach to the display of his artwork opens up high art to a new section of society. We are seeing the collision of art and popular culture in extreme that we had not seen prior to Murakami’s emergence in the Western art market.

The Murakami Effect: Commerce and Art in Society Today

In a review in 2003, Todd Zaun stated that “Japan needs more creative types like him who are able to find ways to export Japanese culture all over the world” and it appears that ten years later his request has been answered. While one could argue that Murakami’s presence in both the art scene and popular culture is an anomaly, recent campaigns in the consumer goods market have been modeled off of Murakami’s collaboration with Louis Vuitton in 2003. This can be seen in the Yayoi Kusama collaboration with Louis Vuitton in 2012 utilizing her iconic polka dots for handbags and an assortment of other products. The marketing campaign came simultaneously to the retrospective of her works at the Whitney in the summer of that year. While her show is no longer on view, her collaboration with fashion has continued and displayed on the front cover of W magazine. For the front cover of the December 2013 “Art Issue”, Kusama collaborated with Giorgio Armani to create the clothing for the photo shoot staring international heart-throb and well-respected actor, George Clooney (Lee). This year another major cross-collaboration came to fruition between Dom Pérignon and artist Jeff Koons, who created “hot pink chrome limited editions of his Balloon Venus sculpture, inspired by a paleolithic fertility figurine” (Kolesnikov-Jessop). The pink figure holds a bottle of 2003 Dom Pérignon Rosé that is being sold for about 15,000 euros. The rise of the cross-collaboration between artist and luxury branding was established not only as a means of profit by Murakami when he first worked with Louis Vuitton in 2003, but his collaboration broke down barriers so that it was not only artists who could recreate commerce, but that commerce could re-create art.



Takashi Murakami led the charge for the integration of remix culture into art in the 1990s and the 2000s. His art, distinctly Japanese in theme, was able to transcend the walls of the Japanese society. The cultural encyclopedia that Murakami uses in reference to his artwork is one that is distinctly Japanese, but his exposure to other cultures through the power of globalization in the late twentieth century and the early twenty-first permitted him to use his remix techniques (combining art-forms, cultures, identities, technologies) so that his artwork could be understood across international symbolic systems and codes. Murakami has illustrated to artists around the world the power (both symbolically and financially) of combining artistic and consumer genres. Prior to the artist’s rise to fame, the dialog between the art and consumer culture was a one way street (art discussing consumer culture), but with new barriers broken, one decade into the twenty-first century Murakami’s method of combinatoriality is not only accepted by both the art world and popular culture, but it is expected.



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