Category Archives: Final Projects

A Case for Convergences in Celebrity and Visual Culture – Ojas

The power of celebrities in today’s world is uncontestable. From being icons of fashion, to figureheads for commercials and charities charities, celebrities play a central role in the commodity architecture of society. Celebrities come from many domains – film, television, music, art, comedy, social media, politics. And celebrities are called upon to play several roles – teach us their crafts, model new fashion trends, reinforce national and industry-related traditions like the grammy awards, reinforce the value of a college in a commencement speech, and so much more. Letting the pass the slightly tautological nature of the definition, celebrities are perhaps most notable just for being people that are well known (Walker 4). For whatever reason, they are people that have garnered a reputation for having a reputation worth paying attention to.

Lil Yachty. Viceland. 09 Feb. 2017 .

Lil Yachty. Viceland. 09 Feb. 2017 <>.

Celebrities as subjects of our visual culture dates far back, depending how loosely you want to define celebrity or visual culture. But the artistic depiction of royalty and nobility was a major driving force of the industry of painting since the inception of the portrait. However, the defining features of celebrity as we know them today are distinct from the royalty and nobility that are the subjects of old art. In fact, when we take the story of one of today’s most widely appreciated and controversial celebrities Lil Yachty into account, it departs drastically from this. Rising to fame in his teenage years, Lil Yachty is one of the youngest, if not the youngest hip-hop artist in the scene today. But from nursery rhyme cadence, to simple lyrics, to a “mumble” vocal style, to a lack of literacy of the hip-hop world and industry, Lil Yachty also is the subject of great debate among critics. Joe Budden of Complex Media recently got into a big debate with DJ Academick and Yachty himself on this issue between old and new hip-hop.

In this interview, Yachty admitted that while he certainly can rap, this is not the central focus of his business model. His business model comes from his image, which has already been deeply commoditized by companies like Coca-Cola in this Sprite commercial. Yachty points to Instagram and Tumblr as the start of his career, and the source of his rise to fame just for “being cool.”

This self-driven ascension to fame started with the circulation of how he depicted himself visually in a social media application that is purely visual. Markedly different from a king or duke commissioning an artist to paint them, the access to contributing to a visual culture that directly interfaces to a person’s feed drove Lil Yachty’s ascension to celebritism and his significance in today’s visual culture. The app itself thrives on the convergence of social media with public driven visual culture afforded by good quality cameras in our smart phones. The role of technology has not been overlooked in documenting the narrative of visual culture. However, as a case study for the origins of celebrity today and the visual culture that supports it, I look to fin-de-siécle Paris and the poster.

This moment in history is particularly well documented, especially for the artists that occupied the cabarets and cafes of Montmartre, such as Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Paul Cézanne. However, I would like to use this moment in history to consider how the affordances of the lithograph as a technology was part of a convergence of social and artistic renegotiations. On one hand, we had the mixing of previously staunchly divided social classes in the growing Parisian district of Montmartre. On another hand, we have the distinct move to realism in depicting the modernism of urban life. And yet on another, we have the growing use of a technology and artistic medium that supported precursors of a mass audience. I will argue that the negotiations of these three key facets of the growth of Montmartre are still at play in the construction of celebrity today by comparing what we know about the artistic culture of Montmartre to the case of Lil Yachty.

The lithography of fin-de-siécle Paris was notable in the convergence of many elements. First at hand is the growing local art and performance culture of Montmartre. In cabarets such as Moulin Rouge and Le Chat Noir, notable artists such as Édouard Manet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Victor Hugo, and several other artists and writers, collaborated together, performed, conspired in their art together a nightlife culture of debauchery and entertainment (Cate 30). They occupied designated spaces in the backs of cabarets with the owners to foster this culture in the publications of journals that would advertise the cabarets and artists as a locus of art and culture. In the fronts of the same venues was a growing market of consumers that would exponentially increase the revenue circulating in the entertainment industry, happy to brush shoulders with one of the big names of the scene. And the ascension of artists to such a status had much to do with the period of France’s history. The fall of the second empire led to much less institutional support for the arts and the survival of art was in the hands of independent artists, writers, thinkers, and cabaret owners – to local artistic cultures (26).

Fichot, Charles. Prolongation de la rue Drouot, magasins de nouveautés du Carrefour-Drouot. Brown University Library.

Fichot, Charles. Prolongation de la rue Drouot, magasins de nouveautés du Carrefour-Drouot. Brown University Library.

Another important element at play in this moment of history is the growth of Paris after the fall of the second empire and rise of the third Republic; the modernism of the urbanism from renovations commissioned by Napoleon III (Chapin 47). The period of history saw the erection of the Eiffel tower, a major movement in modernist painting and writing that directly challenged traditions with the hardened realism of the city, and the rise of an explicit bohemian nightlife. Decreased national support for the arts, as well as a relaxation of censorship laws in 1881 opened up a stage for artists to take more pronounced ownership of the art scene. Renovations to the city commissioned by Napoleon III to Georges-Eugéne Haussmann were designed to accommodate a growing Parisian population, renovations such as better sewer systems and open parks. In a process of what is now known as Haussmannization, in addition to the parks and modern architecture that exists in Paris to today, the renovations brought wide boulevards to promote easier travel between major districts and landmarks in the city. These boulevards also brought an important element to our narrative – a new stage for the public. Along boulevards opened up cafes, departments stores, and entertainment venues which were heavily populated. Of course, this was a major contribution to the increased revenue in the entertainment industry, and the increased attention on performers, artists, and celebrity culture.

Fin-de-siécle Paris is not the first emergence of lithography as a print medium. Emerging in the late 18th century, lithography was still a novel printing press as it was the first very new form of printing to emerge since the 15th century. Starting in Germany, lithography gained its reputation in the printing trade as a reliable way for creating multiples of sheet music and spread throughout Europe as it supplanted and supplemented other forms of printing, such as woodblock cuts and the letterpress (Twyman 16). In addition to music printing, the technology inspired a new trajectory for geologists, the printing of reference sheets for typefaces, and of course art and advertising. The technology was ripe for the era of history in question because of the particularities of the renegotiations of urban life. Other forms of art still thrived in this environment, but the role of the poster was novel and its role is a direct product of the many convergences we are looking at.

One of the major affordances of lithography as an artistic medium is its reproducibility. Walter Benjamin puts artistic reproduction in an era of technological reproduction into context of the traditions of art reproduction that preceded it. Including lithography, photography, and cinema, he discusses the reproducibility of art in terms of its aura, or its uniqueness. We might substitute aura with essence. But what he argues is different in era of technological reproduction is that “by replicating the work many times over, it substitutes a mass existence for a unique existence” (254). The aura in question is no longer in the unique matter that composes the piece or the unique moment in which a piece is performed. Rather, technology captures this aura and becomes part of the aura in the dissemination of the piece to a mass audience. In film, the aura of an actor’s performance is captured by a camera and represented through the medium’s translation of that aura for mass consumption. When considering lithography, a counter point that I would like to include to nuance Benjamin’s treatment is considering individual prints not as many versions of a single idea or representations of an original, but the production of multiple originals (Castleman 19). This doesn’t supplant Benjamin’s consideration of the unique vs. mass aura, but nuances it in that each piece has its own unique aura that in the unique impressions of the minds of others creates a mass impression.

While the above affordance of lithography regards the ontology of lithographic illustration in art, another important affordance of the technology is its reproducibility in the circulation of art pieces. Cabaret owners like Aristide Bruant and Rodolphe Salis founded journals to support the growing culture of Montmartre and circulate the artists and performers that occupied their spaces. The journals represented a new paradigm for art collection. Side by side with the journals were albums of prints, such as Toulouse-Lautrec would do for certain celebrities such as Jane Avril and Yvette Guilbert. This meant not only that lithography was an artistic medium defined by its reproducibility, but for whom the reproducibility could reach. Appearing on the streets of Paris and the halls of venues accessible to a more diverse range of classes, lithography represented an artistic medium that was open for consumption to lower classes.

Yvette Guilbert. Jules Chéret. Lithograph.

Yvette Guilbert. Jules Chéret. Lithograph.

Along with the convergence of classes in the audience of lithography, the medium hybridized two different forms of the visual culture. Jules Chéret, often dubbed the father of the poster, opened his printing shop in Montmartre in 1866 and over the course of his career designed and printed over 2,000 unique posters. But most notably, what he accomplished was the hybridity of high art and commercial art (Iskin 20). His posters and the commissions he was hired for artistically rendered the prints he designed as a way of making the commercial affordance of the technology more artistic and simultaneously commercialized art in the poster’s use for advertising. He furthermore established a visual culture of the poster particular to this hybrid form that created the backdrop to which later artists that would be commissioned for lithograph prints would be responding to.

Yvette Guilbert. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Lithograph.

Yvette Guilbert. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Lithograph.

Toulouse-Lautrec, of course, chose a much different approach in his visual rhetoric. The grotesqueness of urban life and the modern cityscape which Chéret’s fantastical imagery served to be an escape from, Lautrec chose as his subject (Iskin 284). The growing popularity of this style of modernism of course was a product of the many convergences previously discussed. But most significantly for our vantage point here, the depiction of celebrity in this backdrop of visual rhetoric played into the new shape celebrity was taking.

“Once the province of rulers, politicians, and great men, celebrity was now an equal-opportunity venture, open to all classes of entertainers, courtesans, dandies, artists, and writers” (Chapin 46).

Looking at the poster’s of Chéret and Lautrec as interfaces to Montmartre in context of the many convergences and cultural renegotiations of the time period, we see a very carefully orchestrated, multicausal, multi-faceted world. We visually see the battle between how and what to sexualize. We see the battle between tradition and modernism. And of course, Lautrec’s position in the art history canon and Chéret’s slightly subordinate role in the history of the poster and visual culture is representative of the narrative shift in the representation of celebrity, as well as artistic technique and modernity.

Comparing and contrasting La Gouloue or Yvette Gilbert shows dynamic artistic styles particular to the lithographic medium and particular artists. What we can gleam from this is that the merging of visual culture and renegotiated social contracts is as much technological as it is artistic or historical. Developments in all three of these domains show us the harmonic convergence that was the lithographic visual culture of fin-de-siécle Montmartre.

Of course, when we bring this into modern terms with Lil Yachty, the visual culture has become something totally different. While a detail of the technological infrastructure and the historical and artistic trajectories that led to Lil Yachty’s career is beyond the scope of this paper, it would be an interesting place for further research to consider his career in this same late. It’s the growth of a visual culture of celebrities that continued and grew through the 20th century. The internet and smartphones enabled a visual culture of social media that supported the growth of celebrities negotiated via the public itself. Lil Yachty didn’t commission an artist to style him and do the work of circulating his imagery. Rather, it was self driven and the public was already in a position to ascend him to celebrity status. And his music, which he admits, is about image and not growing the traditional artistic values of hip-hop, supports this image. This represents another major convergence of social, technological, and artistic conventions, one that is still in the process of being renegotiated.


Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Era of its Technological Reproducibility.” Selected Writings: Volume 4 1938-1940. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2003.

Castleman, Rita. “The Artist’s Life and Work.” Toulouse-Lautrec: Posters and Prints from the Collection of Irene and Howard Stein. Atlanta: High Museum of Art, 1998.

Cate, Phillip Dennis. “The Social Menagerie of Toulouse-Lautrec’s Montmartre.” Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre. Washington D.C: National Gallery of Art, 2005.

Chapman, Laura H. “Studies of the Mass Arts.” Studies in Art Education, vol. 44, no. 3, 2003: pp. 230–45.

Complexmagazine. “Lil Yachty Joins Episode 114 of Everyday Struggle | Joe Budden & DJ Akademiks.” YouTube. YouTube, 02 May 2017. Web. 14 May 2017.

Donson, Theodore B. and Marvel M. Griepp. Great Lithographs by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. New York: Dover Publications, 1982.

Driessens, Olivier. “The Celebritization of Society and Culture: Understanding the Structural Dynamics of Celebrity Culture.” International Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 16, no. 6, 2013: pp. 641–57.

Iskin, Ruth. The Poster: Art, Advertising, Design, and Collecting, 1860s-1900s. Hanover: Dartmouth College Press, 2014.

Ives, Colta. “French Prints in the Era of Impressionism and Symbolism.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, vol. 46, no. 1, 1988: 1–56.

–“The Janus-Faced Modernity of Toulouse-Lautrec and Jules Chéret.” Visual Resources, vol. 29, no. 4, 2013, pp. 276-306.

Pedley-Hindson, Catherine. “Jane Avril and the Entertainment Lithograph: The Female Celebrity and Fin-de-Siècle Questions of Corporeality and Performance.” Theatre Research International, vol. 30, no. 2, 2005: pp. 107–23.

Twyman, Michael. Panizzi Lectures : Breaking the Mould : The First Hundred Years of Lithography. London, GB: British Library, 2001.

Walker, John A. Art and Celebrity. London: Pluto Press, 2003.

Superflat Adds Complex Layers of Meaning to the “Flattened Surface”

Ai-Ling Wu


My final paper will study the Superflat art movement which is a node in the network of Japan’s culture, economy, social changes and art interaction with artists around the world. I will focus on artworks and idea of Takashi Murakami, the founder of Superflat while comparing it to other Superflat artists such as Chiho Aoshima, Yoshitomo Nara and Aya Takano, etc. Superflat, a term coined by artist Takashi Murakami to denote his anime-inspired style of art, is used by other artists in Asia and abroad. Combining the flatness of commercial graphic design and the hyper-sexualised cartoon characters of Japanese comics with the aesthetic concerns of fine art, Superflat’s influence is wide-sweeping. The symbolic and capital consumption of Edo is my research method to analyze the relationship and dialogues among different Superflat artists. Besides, the paper will apply the institutional and social network to discuss how Murakami and Superflat art movement interact with western art world and consumerism.


Japanese artist Takashi Murakami first organised an exhibition for PARCO department store museums in Tokyo and Nagoya in 2000, he coined the term “Superflat.” Murakami’s new term described a specific type of Japanese contemporary art that compressed, or “flattened”, various types of graphic design, fine arts and pop culture (Hunter, 2001). The Superflat Manifesto from Murakami Takashi can further illustrate the concept of the Superfalt art movement, “The world of the future might be like Japan is today – Superflat. Society, customs, art, culture: all are extremely two-dimensional. It is particularly apparent in the arts that this sensibility has been flowing steadily beneath the surface of Japanese history. Today, the sensibility is most present in Japanese games and anime, which have become powerful parts of world culture.”

What is Superflat? Anime, manga and fine art

Combining a Pop aesthetic with the Japanese kawaii (cute) culture, Superflat overtly references the flatness and two-dimensionality of Japanese anime (animation) and manga (comics). While much of the work in “Superflat” trades on the tensions build onto adolescent sexuality by either sublimation (for example, Nara’s children) or heightening eroticism to the point of the ridiculous (as in Murakamai’s My Lonesome Cowboy), there is little of the violent pornography that characterizes much of the manga being produced outside of the brackets of fine art. Murakami also combined the traditional Japanese art into Superflat. He claimed “much of the work on display is the result of an evolutionary process of formal and spatial reduction that fins its roots in eighteenth and nineteenth century Ukiyo-e prints, such as Katsushika Hokusai’s ‘Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji’” (Cooper, 2001). On one hand, Superflat critiques and oppose the pedagogical hegemony of Western aesthetics, with its emphasis on Renaissance perspectival space, in modern Japanese art education (Cooper, 2001). On the other hand, Murakami has integrated the language of the Abstract Expressionism in many of his paintings, working below the surface, giving it new depth (Gioni, 2012). Superflat as a movement also concerned with mass consumerism and dissemination. It conceals a double meaning: according to Hunter Drohojowska-Philp who is an art critic,  Superflat also stood for “the shallow emptiness of […] consumer culture.”

Takashi Murakami, ‘The World of Sphere’, (diptych), 2003, acrylic on canvas, 350 x 350 cm.

WWII influence on Superflat

The artist combined this tradition of two-dimensionality with his youthful preoccupation with the bombings of Japan during the Second World War. Murakami states that the relationship between war and art is a predominant concern in his work (Awad, 2014). Second World War is a crucial framing device in Superflat. It has great influence on Japanses culture since it is a chronological moment for a fracture between young and old (Cooper, 2001).

Flower Superflat, a famous example of Superflat art by Murakami, which shows that Japan is becoming a nation like all the others. Represented in the identical flowers, Japan is slowly becoming an indistinguishable flower in a bouquet, losing all the colors and qualities that made her unique, thus losing her individuality. The consumer culture and lack of traditional values and morals does not make Japan stand out from the other countries anymore. The country is becoming “super flat.”


Takashi Murakami, Flower Superflat, 2004, Lithograph, 68.4×68.4cm. 

Who are Japan’s Superflat artists?

The group exhibition “Superflat,” held at MoCA Gallery, California, in 2001 included the following Japanese artists, designers, and cartoonists who either influenced or became known as Superflat artists: Takashi Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara, Chiho Aoshima and Aya Takano.

In addition, Murakami runs Kaikai Kiki Co. Ltd, an art production company promoting the movement. In Tokyo, he has started a twice- yearly art fair called GESAI  that seeks to foster up and coming talent in Japan. Their work is not limited to paintings or digital prints. For instance, Chiho Aoshima’s work has lent itself to mural design. Her work can be seen on the walls of the 14th Street-Union Square subway station in New York City, and on display in the Gloucester Road Tube Station in London.


Chiho Aoshima, City Glow

Research questions

•What are the dialogues among Superflat artists? What characteristics do they share in common? What differentiates them?

•How does Superflat interact with the western art world and consumerism in the institutional and social network?

Symbolic and Capital Value of Edo in Superflat

Edo is a critical element in the works of Superflat artists such as Murakami Takashima and Nara Yoshimoto. Superflat artists consumed the semiotic value of Edo when they create artistic works. For example, Murakami links contemporary anime and manga-influence art to the works of Edo-period artists Kano Sansetsua and Katsushika Hokusai. Nara applies ukiyo-e art form in the Edo period into his drawings. The paper will use semiotic consumption of Edo to analyze the dialogues among different Superflat artists.

What is Edo?

There was an Ego boom in Japan in the 1970s and 1980s. It caught people’s popular imagination in television, literature, manga and in critical theory. (Steinberg, 2004).

“Edo was the site of the lost-but-not-forgotten authentic Japan, the pre-Western ‘outside’ of modernity. It was also, conversely, the precursor and reflection ofJapan’s consumerist, postmodern present” (Harootunian, 2000). Edo represents Japanese uniqueness and acts like an “outsider” of modernity in Japan. It also can be recognized as the precursor and reflection of Japan’s consumerist and postmodern present (Steinberg, 2004). We can situate Murakami’s exhibition in the phenomenon Edo boom. In its first manifestation in the Parco Galleries of Tokyo and Nagoya (spring and summer 2000), and in its later manifestations at the MOCA in Los Angeles (January to May 2001), the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis Quly to October 2001) and the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle (November 2001 to March 2002), the ‘Superflat’ gathered various contemporary Japanese artists, most of whose works have some relation to contemporary mass culture-whether in the form of fashion, manga (comics), anime (animation), figurines or video games. Besides the connection to the mass culture, these artists showed the flatness and the art form from Edo-period painters, such as Kano Sansetsu and Ito Jakuchia, and woodblock artists, such as Katsushika Hokusai (Steinberg, 2004). Superflat as an art movement links the past with the present with the future.

Nara and Murakami’s Comsumption of Edo

Nara Yoshimoto is a contemporary of Takashi Murakami within Japan’s Neo-Pop and Superflat movement, having been influenced by popular culture from both the East and West. In fact, in terms of their age and popularity, Nara and Murakami are more like partners than mere contemporaries. They had discussion at conference and created a website together and sell both individual and their collaborative merchandise in the Narakami General Store (Steinberg, 2004). However, regarding the relation between the art and Japan, Nara differs from Murakami considerably. Nara claims that his works are influenced more by children’s book worldwide than the anime, manga or hihonga (Japanese traditional painting) while Murakami maintains a cozy relationship with the concept of a Japanese aesthetics. According to Nara, his work depict the universal childhood that cannot be recuperated by either nation or culture. “So for me. Western and Eastern Art Histories are no more than relics of the past. We probably need some other name for what is now ongoing in the world. For my own works too, it would seen incomplete to represent on in the context of Japan and Asia, but of course they cannot be discussed in terms of the West either” (Nara, 2000).

Nara is renowned for the punk-kid figure with oversized heads and glaring eyes in his paintings. These figures sometimes are grimacing, bloody or threatening which are filled with sadness and anger. Another characteristic of Nara’s work is emphsizing on figure and rejection of background. The characteristic is derived from the ukiyo-e print which is the representative art form of the Edo period. The paper will discuss how Nara composite Edo in the Slash with a Knife in his book Ukiyo (published in 1999) by erasing any complexity, dimensionality or depth present in the original work work Under the Wave off Kanagawa (Great Wave) from the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji collection by Hokusai.


Nara Yoshitomo Slash with a Knife, courtesy of Tomio Koyama Gallery.


Katsushika Hokusai, Under the Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki nami ura), also known as The Great Wave, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjūrokkei), c. 1830-32, polychrome woodblock print;

Nara erases depth by painting over the original painting with white paint and by integrating his figures into the original ukiyo-e. He paints over the creases in the waves and the distant Mount Fuji with white and turns the giant wave in the foreground in the foreground into the hair of a knife-wielding figure. Nara blurs the fine lines and the blocks of color that create a sense of spatial depth in the original work. He paints his punk figures on an uneven, splotchy yet uniplanar surface. He transforms the elements of Edo that attracts him into his own artistic work. This composition has been done through picking out elements from Edo database or Japanese cultural encyclopedia. “What animated Nara’s work on the prints is a logic of consumption of database, a logic that can be re-articulated in terms of the visual logic or operation of compositing” (Steinberg, 2004).

This consumption of Edo elements also appears in Murakami’s work Mt. Fuji and Manji Fuji. In this painting, two Murakami’s cartoon characters stand on the tree with the outline of Mount Fuji in the background. The Mount Fuji and the tree are drawn in a traditional style while the characters and the top-left writing are composed in color and a digital style that is contemporary and distinctively Murakami. Although there are two different styles in this painting, they are not conflicting. Murakami avoided the dimensions among different objects in his painting but added more complexity to the layers of the contemporary and the traditional. As in Nara’s works, the characters are not simply positioned on top of the original works but are drawn into it.


Murakami Takashi Manji Fuji © Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd/All rights reserved.

Both of the cases from Nara and Murakami consume the symbolic value of Edo. They select different elements from Edo database and create a new work by remediation. Nara and Murakami are not drawing Edo into their present but rather is drawing their present through Edo. The capital value of Edo can be displayed in the nationalistic appeal to Japanese tradition , or a unique Japanese sensibility, which is a marketing strategy, a selling point. The consumption of Edo database can be an effective strategy when artistic works are promoted in the international art market.

Superflat’s Interaction with Western Art World and Consumerism

The development of Superflat has a strong relationship with the pop art movement in western art world.  Murakami said, “I could not survive in Japan, so that’s why I first had to move to New York — the capital of the art market and of the art everything. Things turned out well, I was lucky, and ever since I have been trying to learn how to exist within the market and the museum and the critical industry. I am still trying to learn how they operate” (Gioni, 2012). The mass consumerism theme in Superflat is the central part of the Pop Art in the late 1950s and 1960s. The “Pop” was the most prominent style in America. The imagery of Pop Art was derived from commercial source, the mass media and everyday life. “In contrast to Abstract Expressionism—which viewed works of art as revelations of the artist’s inner, unconscious mind—the Pop artists strove for “objectivity” embodied by an imagery of objects” (Adams, 2011). Andy Warhol was the leading artist in the Pop Art movement. He turned himself into a work of Pop Art and became the central figure of a controversial cult with his flair for multimedia events and self promotion. Takashi Murakami is generally regarded as the “Japanese Andy Worhol” by thinking flat, championing mass media, breaking the boundaries between high and low art. Besides, it’s the repetition and interest in merging business and art along the lines of mass production that echoes with Warhol. Warhol would have loved Murakami’s cooperation with Louis Vuitton. However, there are some differences between Murakami and Warhol. In the context of contemporary Japanese art, Murakami demonstrates the mass customization over mass production, and the reincarnation of repetition as a type of uniqueness in art. In other words, Warhol transforms commercial goods into art while Murakami develops his art into a medium in consumerism. A short animated video Superflat Monogram in 2003 which was designed by Murakami for Louis Vuitton and their collaborative campaign can illustrate the relationship between Superflat and consumerism.


Takashi Murakami, ‘The World of Sphere’, (diptych), 2003, acrylic on canvas, 350 x 350 cm.

Murakami’s Superflat campaign for Louis Vuitton did not merely create obsession for the luxury brand’s graphic trademarks with a depthless visual field. It facilitated users to change from consuming to producing. For instance, users created countless Louis Vuitton desktops, wallpapers, screensavers and even the Louis Vuitton Facebook layout. These graphics, like Murakami’s Superflat, takes brand’s colorful monograms as the visual cue for a deliberately flat surface. “Indeed, such a depthless image with over- flowing Louis Vuitton icons, like Murakami’s superflat art, is the ideal format for any screen, from television to computer, from iPhone to iPad, whose ever flattened and enlarging surfaces are saturating our entire visual environment” (Li, 2012).

Superflat Monogram features a multicolor Panda with big staring eyes who guides a Japanese girl to fly in a space filled with LV brand’s multicolor monograms. There is a scene that the Japanese girl who stands in front of a Louis Vuitton store is “swallowed” by the Louis Vuitton Panda. Although this scene seems to suggest the loss of consumers’ identity when they consume luxury goods, the anxiety is dissolved by the subsequent cheerful journey. The girl is lead into a fantasy space flooded with loads of Louis Vuitton monograms. The dreamland of Louis Vuitton is visualized as a Superflat style which is flat and depthless. Although the girl who can symbolize a shopper or a consumer is freed when she fly in the fantasy land, her figure is often “prisoned” on the depthless surface within a certain frame such as a shopping window, a cellphone or a screen. Murakami’s Superflat provides the audience with a cheerful but deeply alarming scenario about our obsession with the “flattened surface”.


The paper analyzes the common point between Takashi Murakami and Nara Yoshimoto is that both of them consume the Edo database and incorporate the symbolic and capital value of Edo into their works. What differentiates Superflat artists is the distance between their works and the style from Japanese traditional art. For instance, Nara asserts that his works can not be appreciated and understood under certain culture. He wants to display the essence of art in his work which can be interpreted across the cultural boundary. Murakami benefits from the ideas of Pop Art in America and learns the operation in the market of western art world. He makes innovation in Superflat by integrating the uniqueness of Japanese art and mass media. It makes the western audience feel freshness and surprise when they are familiar with the Pop Art. After Murakami’s works have been well received by the western art world, he is able to bring the success back to Japan. His cooperation with luxury brand Louis Vuitton helped him accumulate capital to develop Japanese contemporary art and cultivate young artists. Although Superflat critique the superficiality in consumerism, it does not mean that Superflat would not have any collaboration with commercial world or entertainment world. Superflat has power to add complex layers to the flat and shallow commercial world through art works.



Cooper, Jacqueline. “Superflat.” New Art Examiner 64 (2001).

Gioni, Massimiliano1. “Takashi Murakami: SUPERFLAT to SUPERNATURAL.” Flash Art International, vol. 45, no. 284, May/Jun2012, pp. 52-56.

Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, 2001, Superflat

Laurie Schneider Adams, 2011 A History of Western Art. 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill

LI, JinYing. “From Superflat Windows to Facebook Walls: Mobility and Multiplicity of an Animated Shopping Gaze.” Mechademia, vol. 7, no. 1, 2012, pp. 203-221.

Mary Awad, 2014, Superflat: The Aesthetic Reaction to Post-War Japan,

Steinberg, Marc. “Otaku Consumption, Superflat Art and the Return to Edo.” Japan Forum, vol. 16, no. 3, 2004, pp. 449-471


Murakami Paints Himself Warhol, 2009, Published –

Think Flat: The Art of Andy Warhol and Takashi Murakami: Selections from the Freedman Family Collection and the BYU Museum of Art

Understanding the opportunities and challenges in the progress of Japanese Contemporary art

By Lin Ding


Review the short history of Japanese contemporary art during the Heisei era, there were opportunities internationally and domestically for the young artists to grow but there are also challenges of the education system and museum/gallery system that slowed down the process. By exploring the opportunities and challenges in the progress of Japanese contemporary art, people will understand the triangle relationship among the economy, culture, and politics, and how these three elements influence the whole art world. In this paper, the researcher introduced and discussed the choices made from three important Japanese contemporary artists, Takashi Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara, and Makoto Aida, when facing the dilemma of opportunity and challenge. Overall, this research wishes to answer the question that how did the major opportunities and challenges affect the choices or career paths of Japanese contemporary artists, their styles and ideas, as well as the development of the Japanese contemporary art.

Coming to the 1990s, Japanese economy Bubble burst. The Bubble deflated quite slowly. First, it was like little holes being punched, with slow effects on various perspectives, such as cultural perspective, political perspective, and the perspective of Japanese contemporary of art. Then, the decline went on and it seemed that it would never reach the end. All sectors of the society were greatly influenced and changed by this economy depression. It was during this post-Bubble stagnation that several talented Japanese artists won world recognition with their high-bidding price artworks.

This was no miracle if people understood the social background behind the big names. For Japanese artists – like Takashi Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara and Makoto Aida- who were born in the baby boom of the 1950s and early 1960s, they grew up half in the best era of Japan when anything becomes possible before the great wealth and half struggling to find the future when the Bubble burst. They had witnessed economic efforts of the technological and financial advance, of the powerful Japan, gradually going to collapse. At that time, “everyone felt that it was time to express themselves: to go and break out”.[1] Liberated by the post-Bubble chaos, a golden generation of creativity appeared in Japan. This generation was luckily and creatively to invent the image of Cool Japan.



A guide book of Japan found in Kinokuniya Bookstore in Seattle, WA. Photo credit to Lin Ding. 2017.


After pop culture and subculture came to the street of Tokyo, it took a while for bureaucrats and politicians to notice and value this new excitement of Japan. They saw the possibility of this new art form, a way to present a new creative and cool image of Japan to create a fascination, targeting the western world, a promising wonderland of Otaku, of manga and anime, and of all things that are kawaii and moe. This was based on the idea that culture and art can lead to economic development and they can be used to rebrand the city internationally.[2] There is a high commercial value of the world-recognized Japanese contemporary artworks that can help boost the country’s economy. For example, Takashi Murakami knows well how to apply his art entrepreneurship theory to his works and Yoshitomo Nara is a talented businessman. In fact, commercial value is designed in their works. This was due to the technology-driven globalization, especially the new trend found in the global art market.

These years, the global art business had repositioned itself culturally, and “it became a vehicle for cultural globalization and city place branding that has itself transformed museums, galleries and art festivals from staid repositories of national high culture, into front line tourist attractions for high end global consumption”.[3] Around the year 2000, when it came to the moment of the internet, when it came to a world dominated by digital and virtual images, and when new software applications made it convenient and easy to “steal and mass produce art or photography”, “artists’ names became brand names”.[4] It was a time that arts could be communicated and shared through virtual networks. Arts were connected to their fans and people can see them without going to galleries or auction sales. Both Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara were lucky to successfully embrace this global shift.

Although there were conveniences for the development of Japanese contemporary art, the young artists still had to face and deal with challenges and to break and change the old traditional art/museum system. Exploring the opportunities and challenges in the progress of Japanese contemporary art can help people understand Japanese art world and how the system works, as well as the triangle relationship among the economy, culture, and politics. This paper will discuss major opportunities and challenges that Japanese contemporary artists faced, especially during the Heisei era. The researcher mainly focused on three Japanese contemporary artists: Takashi Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara, and Makoto Aida. By answering questions like what are they trying to express through their works, what are the options and how did they choose when facing the opportunity/challenge dilemma, what are their career paths, and how did they achieve the commercial success or what had blocked them away from gaining international reputation, a general view of Japanese contemporary art development will be revealed.


When it came to the Heisei era, both opportunities and challenges coexist for young Japanese contemporary artists. It was a time when globalization expanding to every field, including the art market. The global art market was seeking a variety of representations from different countries and cultures. It did encourage several Asian artists to share their works to western audiences, and some had successfully won world recognition in terms of international sales and consistent museum visibility, for instance, Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara. But it also tired some artists for the focus was on their multicultural backgrounds not on their works. This happened to Masato Nakamura when he was selected for Venice Biennial in 2001 (The two pictures below are his works at this art exhibition). He was an earliest partner and rival who remained highly active in Tokyo. It was reported that he came home disillusioned as “he realized with disgust that he was a token Asian face, and that his art in fact had no meaning in this context”.[5]



Masato Nakamura, QSC+mV/V.V, 2001. Acrylic resin, fluorescent tube, steel frame, stainless steel, 440 x 542 x 40 cm (each), 1963 Odate, Akita Prefecture.








Masato Nakamura, Crystal glass, fluorescent tube, 12 x 12 x 2,5 cm (each).







Unlike Masato Nakamura, Takashi Murakami was pretty comfortable in selling himself and his ideas to the foreigners. According to curator Paul Schimmel, the most important contribution of Murakami in world art history was “his revolutionary practice of commercialization and branding”.[6] His idea of presenting and combining post-war otaku culture with American pop culture gave him an excellent selling point that can be easily understood by the western world. Furthermore, Murakami applied the Nihonga techniques he used to learn at school to his works because he knew that this would be appreciated by the critics and this could also work well in terms of self-branding. As analyzed in his book The Art Entrepreneurship Theory, he believed that telling a good story about the artwork will give it value and he talked about the significance of “knowing your own identity” as recognizing the Western gaze at Japan and play with it, mainly making use of it to attract western audiences and buyers.[7] That is why he branded himself “Japanese”, the associated exotic training, with unique things like great attention to details, of which helped him to find a space in the global art market. He is also a good organizer, knowing well of how to use all sorts of resources and talented people to achieve his contemporary art business. The group exhibition, which was famous for his “Superflat” theory, the one he curated in 2000 for the Museum of Contemporary Art (LA), was an example of him gathering close friends, well-known pop cultural figures, young unknown artists, and some of the best contemporary commercial designers. Takashi Murakami was unique and talented. There was no one else could have such a multidimensional synthesis of a view of the integration of traditional and contemporary Japanese cultures, an interesting art theory, a high production value, and superb techniques.

Yoshitomo Nara himself is also a talented businessman. It was said that he made his name “outside the white cube of the gallery, on the pages of books”.[8] He was very lucky to catch the independent book publishing boom of the late 1990s. The book publishing industry in Tokyo had a large small scale which enabled books to be produced and distributed quickly. Then Nara’s books could be widely spread within a short amount of time. What’s more, the tradition for Japanese to appreciate printed works, especially that with well-drawn pictures, also contributed to the popularity of Nara’s picture books.



This is the second book of Yoshitomo Nara. Yoshitomo Nara: Slash With A Knife (Japanese Edition) (Japanese) – January 1, 1999.


Various options for Nara’s picture books on the Amazon Website.


Apart from the successful book business, Nara succeeded in receiving reputation and economic benefits from his community. His art corporation was like an enormous fan club where exciting collaborations among himself, friends, and fans led to exhibitions and artworks, which were all in Nara’s name. This could due to the large amount of distribution of Nara’s work. People can buy anything with Nara’s little girl on that possibly everywhere, from gallery painting to notebooks, from museum shops to little souvenir stands. It is likely that the things you buy are not authorized by Nara, for there is a large market for fake production of Nara’s work and Nara himself just let it go and watched it being produced. Another reason behind this can be understood with the explanation of Midori Matsui. Matsui pointed out that the basic power related to Nara is how his work “had become a contemporary equivalent of folk art, representing and consoling people who feel alienated from modern art”.[9] The sense of being understood and belonging could be the driven force for fans working as volunteers to help Nara build the ideal world, which actually is the world only for Nara.

Willingly or not, Nara became part of the local tourist industry. His work and his ideas, like which of Murakami, were important parts of Japanese “soft power” propaganda at that time. “Cool Japan”, this image was important to the Japanese government. It published tourist brochures and policies trying to keep this image after the Bubble burst for the government believed that the export of Japanese popular culture and contemporary aesthetics could help the country open global markets and work as a new cultural industry sharing the dominant role with the manufacturing and finance. Therefore, these lucky contemporary artists enjoyed certain convenience from the government. However, the different starting points between the artist and the policy-making side sometimes made it more difficult to achieve their goals, which contrast with the other in most of the times. A good example of this difference can be the story of Kanazawa’s 21st Century Museum. Kanazawa is a conservative historical town, famous for samurai and geisha houses, as well as beautiful traditional Japanese gardens. Originally, the museum was established to attract tourists with the essence of Japanese cultures while the curator seeking for international relevance for the museum. The famous curator, Yuko Hasegawa, decided to try her best to import the best international artists and to show their works to the public and media of Japan. The problem is that she did not focus on acquiring important Japanese artists. So the local residents would not visit it because they do not know or understand the works in their museum, and the few foreigners who came to the town want to see arts that are more Japan not western contemporary arts. The museum failed in achieving its original goal and it could not afford any major Japanese contemporary artists’ work for it had spent all the money buying the western arts. However, as time goes by, the museum instead “became a condescending lesson in teaching Western art norms to an ignorant Japanese public, as well as a lovely location for top Western artists to take a Japanese holiday”.[10]

Both Takashi Murakami’s and Yoshitomo Nara’s international success were in fact parts of the globalization in the art market. Constantly influenced by the commercialization of the western art market, works of Murakami and Nara “concentrated Japan into a simple digital code that was flat and easy to understand”, something that could be copied and liked by everyone.[11] This is a trend that believed to be an opportunity for young Japanese contemporary artists to be seen and accepted by a larger audience, as it had helped Murakami and Nara achieve their reputation.

Along with all the appealing opportunities, there were several challenges that the artists need to deal with. Like all new things, when they first emerge, the public needs time to understand and accept them and they have to fight for a space in the current system. Same story for the new-born Japanese contemporary art in the early Heisei era. Contemporary art was only a small part of arts. Traditional and classical art forms were more appreciated by the Japanese. When comparing Japanese arts with western arts, wealthy Japanese collectors always chose the former. Meanwhile, Japanese collectors and curators were not eager to find the new excitement nor nurture the next generation of big names.

The art schools were no ideal cradle for the new-born artists either. The traditional art education system in Japan gives more weight to technique practices rather than creativity. Students were relatively not encouraged nor inspired in the perspective of creativity. However, there was a group of curious students who had sensed the trend of contemporary art of the future. Disappointed, they found that there was no mention of this exciting pop culture influenced new art form in their textbooks. No museum had an exhibition of this kind. Then they gathered as a group to explore it by themselves. This is the story when Murakami was in Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music in the late 1980s.

The status quo left a very tough situation for young Japanese contemporary artists to grow. They had to rely on themselves for no one will guide or support them. Once figured out this, they found the next move even tougher. Before the 1990s, there were “commercial gallery-like spaces in department stores” in Tokyo, the Ginza rental gallery system.[12] These commercial galleries were for rent by artists who wished to sell artworks, mostly in conservative styles targeting old-fashioned collectors.[13] But for these future contemporary artists, they could not afford the high rental price, unless they came from privileged families, which usually did not happen. There did exist very few private museums that began to showing contemporary works of pop culture and gallerists who showed certain willingness to help the new artists, like Tsutomu Ikeuchi. However, these space in nature are profit-driven and the owner will reconsider the sponsorship based on the balance of costs and incomes. The gallerist Atsuko Koyanagi has withdrawn support for Mariko Mori when the costs getting too high.[14]

For some artists who have made their way to gain adequate supports with plenty budgets and space for their work, they still have to think really carefully about how to present their ideas through the work. This question, together with the question of what kind of message does the artist wish to present, lead to one core conceptual question of all Japanese contemporary artists: how to keep the Japanese identity in a contemporary context in a time of multicultural integration[15]? As a matter of fact, it is also the primary question for all countries under the current globalization circumstance, of how to keep the essence of local culture and not to lose it under the influence of out-coming cultures.

There is one Japanese contemporary artist whose works have touched upon this question, that is Makoto Aida. In the works of Makoto Aida, “he has deconstructed the history of modern art in Japan, including its many Western influences, and reassembled it as a critique of bourgeois heartlessness in a demotivated society”.[16] He is less well-known internationally if compared with Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara, but highly recognized in Japan as one of the most important figures of Japanese contemporary artists. In his works, Aida uses both materials and conventions of Nihonga, Ukiyo-e, or Yoga, and materials of contemporary avant-garde.[17] This approach makes his style unique and his work easy to recognize.



Eitoku Kano, Rakuchu-rakugai-zu, late 16th century (Azuchi-Momoyama period). Gold-leaf on paper. 160.5 x 364.5 cm. Designated National Treasure. In the collection of the Yonezawa City Uesugi Museum.


A Picture of an Air Raid on New York CityWar Picture Returns), 1996. Six-panel folding screens / The Nikkei newspaper, black-and-white photocopy on hologram paper, charcoal pencil, watercolor, acrylic, marker pen, correction liquid, pencil on fusuma (sliding door), hinges, etc.169×378cm, CG of Zero fighters created by Matsuhashi Mutsuo. TAKAHASHI Collection, Tokyo. Courtesy: Mizuma Art Gallery


Makoto Aida, ‘A Picture of an Air-Raid on New York City (War Picture Returns)’ (1996). Installation view. Photo: Nick West

“Aida Makoto: Monument for Nothing” Trailer 2. November 17, 2012 – March 31, 2013.


If compare Aida’s A Picture of an Air Raid on New York City (War Picture Returns) with Eitoku Kano’s Rakuchu-rakugai-zu, it is noticeable that Aida has taken a bird’s eye view, which is typical of traditional Japanese landscapes, as presented in Rakuchu-rakugai-zu, to criticize the period of WWII when many cities of Japan were destroyed. He also creates a gold-leaf effect for the background which is unique in traditional Japanese artworks. Makoto Aida considers the traditional concepts when he carefully expressing his ideas and uses the material appropriately for a sense of aesthetic enjoyment. In his another work The Giant Member Fuji versus King Gidora, he adapted a shunga work by Hokusai Katsushika, depicting sex acts of King Gidora, who appears in Japanese monster movies. The reason why he chose to connect shunga with animation is for he believes that the shunga depiction of sex acts is “the purest form of truthful and original visual expression in Japan”, and “shunga has a deep connection with contemporary anime and manga”.[18] It is his way of paying homage to the originals. However, Aida’s work can be difficult to understand if one knows little about traditional Japanese art styles or contemporary Japanese history. His work is not as flat as Murakami’s or Nara’s. This may be one of the reasons why he is less international successful compared with those two.



Makoto Aida, The Giant Member Fuji versus King Gidora, 1993. Acrylic and eyelets on acetate film. 310 x 410 cm.



Hokusai Katsushika, Taco To Ama (Octopus and Shell Diver), illustration for the novel Kinoenokomatu, about 1820 (Edo period). Uragami Sokyu-do, Tokyo.


Review the short history of Japanese contemporary art during the Heisei era, there were opportunities internationally and domestically for the young artists to grow but there were also challenges of the education system and museum/gallery system that slowed down the process. When facing the dilemma between opportunity and challenge, some artists successfully gained an international reputation while others remain less famous in the home country, even unknown. The difference lies in the different approaches to the new art form, different choices made when introducing artworks to foreigners, and talents in doing business and self-branding, as well as unique personal styles. As for the future development, there can be one way for Japan to stand out among other Asian countries, that is to highlight its cultural uniqueness in terms of its tradition and appropriately combine the traditional materials with out-coming cultures.


[1] Favell Adrian, Before and After Superflat: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art 1990-2011 (Hong Kong: Blue Kingfisher Limited), 83.

[2] Favell Adrian, Before and After Superflat: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art 1990-2011 (Hong Kong: Blue Kingfisher Limited), 156.

[3] Favell Adrian, Before and After Superflat: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art 1990-2011 (Hong Kong: Blue Kingfisher Limited), 67.

[4] Favell Adrian, Before and After Superflat: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art 1990-2011 (Hong Kong: Blue Kingfisher Limited), 63-64.

[5] Favell Adrian, Before and After Superflat: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art 1990-2011 (Hong Kong: Blue Kingfisher Limited), 110.

[6] Favell Adrian, Before and After Superflat: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art 1990-2011 (Hong Kong: Blue Kingfisher Limited), 49.

[7] Favell Adrian, Before and After Superflat: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art 1990-2011 (Hong Kong: Blue Kingfisher Limited), 51.

[8] Favell Adrian, Before and After Superflat: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art 1990-2011 (Hong Kong: Blue Kingfisher Limited), 59.

[9] Favell Adrian, Before and After Superflat: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art 1990-2011 (Hong Kong: Blue Kingfisher Limited), 61.

[10] Favell Adrian, Before and After Superflat: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art 1990-2011 (Hong Kong: Blue Kingfisher Limited), 171.

[11] Favell Adrian, Before and After Superflat: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art 1990-2011 (Hong Kong: Blue Kingfisher Limited), 64.

[12] Favell Adrian, Before and After Superflat: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art 1990-2011 (Hong Kong: Blue Kingfisher Limited), 102.

[13] Favell Adrian, Before and After Superflat: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art 1990-2011 (Hong Kong: Blue Kingfisher Limited), 86.

[14] Favell Adrian, Before and After Superflat: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art 1990-2011 (Hong Kong: Blue Kingfisher Limited), 103.

[15] Vartanian Ivan and Kyoko Wada, See/Saw: Connections Between Japanese Art Then and Now (California: Chronicle Books LLC, 2011), 12.

[16] Elliott David and Ozaki Tetsuya, Bye Bye Kitty: Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art (CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 9.

[17] Elliott David and Ozaki Tetsuya, Bye Bye Kitty: Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art (CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 9.

[18] Elliott David and Ozaki Tetsuya, Bye Bye Kitty: Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art (CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 137.

Works Cited

Favell Adrian, Before and After Superflat: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art 1990-2011 (Hong Kong: Blue Kingfisher Limited).

Vartanian Ivan and Kyoko Wada, See/Saw: Connections Between Japanese Art Then and Now (California: Chronicle Books LLC, 2011).

Elliott David and Ozaki Tetsuya, Bye Bye Kitty: Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art (CT: Yale University Press, 2011).

“Biography: Emperor Hirohito,” last modified January 12, 2017,

“Hesei Emperor Greets New Years Well Wishers,” last modified January 2, 2016,

“Masato Nakamura,” last modified 2017,

“Yoshitomo Nara: Slash With A Knife (Japanese Edition),” last modified 2017,

Eitoku Kano, Rakuchu-rakugai-zu, late 16th century (Azuchi-Momoyama period). Gold-leaf on paper. 160.5 x 364.5 cm. Designated National Treasure. In the collection of the Yonezawa City Uesugi Museum.ō_Eitoku

A Picture of an Air Raid on New York CityWar Picture Returns), 1996. Six-panel folding screens / The Nikkei newspaper, black-and-white photocopy on hologram paper, charcoal pencil, watercolor, acrylic, marker pen, correction liquid, pencil on fusuma (sliding door), hinges, etc.169×378cm, CG of Zero fighters created by Matsuhashi Mutsuo. TAKAHASHI Collection, Tokyo. Courtesy: Mizuma Art Gallery.

Makoto Aida, ‘A Picture of an Air-Raid on New York City (War Picture Returns)’ (1996). Installation view. Photo: Nick West.

Makoto Aida, The Giant Member Fuji versus King Gidora, 1993. Acrylic and eyelets on acetate film. 310 x 410 cm.

Hokusai Katsushika, Taco To Ama (Octopus and Shell Diver), illustration for the novel Kinoenokomatu, about 1820 (Edo period). Uragami Sokyu-do, Tokyo.

“Aida Makoto: Monument for Nothing” Trailer 2. November 17, 2012 – March 31, 2013.

The Language of Xu Bing: Subvert Culture with “Chinese Characters” By Zhihui Yu


Although the use of Chinese language in art work is prevalent in much contemporary art, the Chinese language is worth more and more focus and attention at this moment. To most westerns, Chinese language is usually regarded as “exotic” because of its complexity and its totally different internal structure against western letters. Language differences and diverse understanding structure of culture are still main gaps between Asian and Western art world. Xu Bing, as a Chinese-born artist who lived in the United States for a long time, always had a strange relationship to words and books, has been trying to build bridges and connect the east and the west, creating a series of art works and characters in terms of Chinese characters and English letters. This article will first make a brief description of Xu Bing, and then analyzing his three most famous works and installations, Tian shu (Book from the sky), Square Word Calligraphy, and Di Shu (Book from the Ground) to explore his art world and his comprehension of the world.


Xu Bing is a Chinese-born artist who is widely regarded as one of the most recognized modern Chinese artists in West culture, having won numerous prestigious awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship—considered to be the Nobel Prize of the America at world. He is mostly known for his printmaking skills and installation pieces, as well as his creative artistic use of language, words, text, and how they have affected our understanding of the world.

In his article To Frighten Heaven and Earth and Make the Spirit Cry, Xu wrote about his family background, “My father worked in the Beijing University History Department, My mother in the Department of Library Sciences. I am familiar with all types of books because I grew up surrounded by the books from my parents’ work.” (Xu Bing, 1998) Taking advantages from his parents’ work-related access, he can easily access to all kinds of books from every culture. And after his whole life that exposed to books, he became to have strong and special feelings and sensitive outlooks toward books. When Xu was young, he regarded books as strangers since he was not able to read them, and when the time went by, though he was capable of reading characters, he was even more muddled and lost. “I was like a starving person who all at once has too much to eat, and winds up so uncomfortable that he is filled with disgust.” Books, which became to be his mainly interest afterwards, has always been something that make him feel both unacquainted and conversant simultaneously, and he started the idea to make a book of his own that would explain the world.

Xu Bing was born in 1955, he experienced the tumultuous years of Chinese Culture Revolution, New Culture Movement in 1980s, and 1990s’ American Immigration Flow and had lived in the United States for a long time, which can all be found in his creations and inventions, especially in his works of books. When we are appreciating Xu Bing’s works of books, we can see that he usually created his books and installations, complying with his unique calligraphy and characters of regional history and culture, to manifest the propagation role books play in every specific civilization.


The Language of Xu BIng, Photo of Xu Bing’s exhibition,  Source: Xu Bing Studio


The Chinese language is a performance of culture. Use Chinese cultural elements to address global issues, to participate in global cultural debates is a positive development. Part of the international success of Book from the Sky has come precisely from the fact that it embodies a particularly Chinese approach to culture.

Although the use of language is prevalent in much contemporary art, the appearance of Chinese Characters and Chinese language at historic moment is worthy of particular focus and attention. In the west, where the Chinese language is so often taken as a sign of the exotic, the methods which many Chinese artists are using can sometimes get confused and lost. In Xu Bing’s art work, he wants to find the balance between familiarity and strange, he wants to find the equal point from words and in words. Xu’s inspiration for universal signs can be found in nearly all his works related to books and words: Everybody is equal in their approach to two books, as one is unreadable while the other one is understandable.

To Xu Bing, books and words reflects his unique life experience and Chinese culture that he represented. What form do books and characters appear in his art work? How Xu Bing show his experience and culture concept and understanding through these works?

Tian shu (“Book from the Sky”)

“……when visitors first entered the space, they thought that the words they saw were words they could read. However, when they actually tried to read the words, they couldn’t. they thought that some of the words are wrong. Then they realized that all of the words were wrong. Their expected response was disrupted.”

——Xu Bing


Book from the Sky, 1987-91. Hand-printed books, ceiling and wall scrolls, and false character blocks, installation view. Source: Xu Bing Studio website.


The mammoth Book From the Sky installation, originally consisting of several 80-foot-scrolls that swag across a gallery ceiling, a wall covered with contemporary Chinese newspapers and a floor filled with traditional hand-bound books. Its deployment of 4000 hand-carved though meaningless characters resembling Chinese characters that Xu created and carved over a period of several years. After its first showing in Beijng, China in October 1988, Tian shu (Book form the Sky) has since gone to the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, Italy and etc.. It is probably the most famous work of Chinese contemporary art in the West at this moment. Throughout these years, these created characters have attracted more and more attention and stirred discussion and speculation over their meaning.

Tian shu, in Chinese, literally means “heavenly words” and those words and phrases people are not able to understand. For this well-established and even overwhelmed installation, non-Chinese viewers can be no doubt guided through the strange geography of ‘heavenly’ signs because of the reading issues. To those viewers who know nothing about Chinese language and characters would consider those words are unmistakably drawn from Chinese traditional culture and literary form, however, these carved words are also strange to local Chinese.

“Strictly speaking, Book from the Sky doesn’t have any connection with text, since there is no ‘real’ text, even though it takes the form of books and the appearance of ‘words’.”, Xu Bing said about the ‘words’.  These characters are devoid of any kind of personality and thus have no concrete implication or emotional significance. While different from foreign viewers who would directly and suddenly feel strange to these characters, those audiences who mastered Chinese language would sense the similarity and feel intimacy, while the upcoming unfamiliarity would trigger feelings of simulation and then become uncomfortable. Furthermore, Chinese characters was created and experienced evolution over a period of 5000 years, the unfamiliarity may somehow remind these local viewers of ancient Chinese Characters.



Original carved printing plate form and scanned version of one page of books of Book from the Sky, Source: Xu Bing Studio website.


Xu Bing’s work speaks powerfully to me and it does do, to one who was brought up on Chinese classics and Western semiotics. These ‘nonsense’ words and characters are not invented groundlessly, the very first thing to consider is the format and architecture of the characters, they look as much like Chinese Characters as possible and meanwhile cannot be one. They make no sense themselves and unreadable, while strictly follow internal structural morphology.

According to Xu, Book From the Sky was originally created to express his feelings about popular culture at that time. It has different effects on people from different cultures, but the entry point is essentially the same. From Xu’s perspective, the invented characters have a sort of equaling effect, “they are playing joke on everybody, but at the same time they do not condescend to anybody”. There’s no one on earth can read and comprehend these characters, including Xu Bing himself. In Book from the Sky, what Xu wanted to create is a huge, empty space free of meaning and content, without giving people any hint of specificity.

New English Calligraphy

“Turning the written English language upside-down is fascinating for English-reading viewers”

——Xu Bing


Letters separation of Square Word Calligraphy, Source: Xu Bing Studio website.


Square Word Calligraphy, Art for the People, MoMA, 1999, Source: Xu BIng Studio website.


From the thorough value denial of language to the earnest search for a trans-cultural communication tool, language has always been at the core of Xu’s artistic works. After he moved to America in 1990, though the fresh environment and different styles of living started to flow into his sight, he never changed his passion towards words. Facing English everyday, he was always trying to figure out the relationship and integrating point between English letters and Chinese characters.

Xu Bing’s creative manipulation of language worked, another specific language created by him. In the mid-1990s, Xu invented what he calls “Square Word Calligraphy.” He used his printing and calligraphy background and arranged English letters in squares to make the words look like Chinese characters, yet they remain legible to the English speaker.

Square Word Calligraphy takes a visual turn on translanguaging by inventing a hybrid calligraphy that incorporates English words into the orthographic frame of Chinese. By physically tracing the alphabet through the character, viewers would gain an embodied translingual experience, which encompasses an intercultural imaginary negotiating and transcending the English-Chinese divide.

As for Square Word Calligraphy, Chinese viewers can recognize the characters as familiar shapes but can’t figure out exactly what they mean. To a non-Chinese viewer, they first appear as mysterious characters from Asian culture, yet ultimately they can be read and understood.


Square Word Calligraphy classroom installation, source: Xu Bing Studio website


Except for doing exhibitions and making design signs and logos for some organizations in the United States and abroad using Xu’s Square Word Calligraphy, he has turned gallery and museum spaces into classroom settings where visitors can learn how to write Square Word Calligraphy.

The intention of this installation is to simulate a classroom-like setting in a gallery or museum space. Desks are arranged with small containers of ink, brushes and a copybook with instructions on the basic principles of ”Square Word Calligraphy,”, just like traditional Chinese classrooms. A video titled ”Elementary Square-Word Calligraphy Instruction,” was played on a monitor in the exhibition space, capturing the audience’s attention and inviting them to participate in the class. Once they are seated at the desks, the audience are instructed to take up their brushes and the lesson in New English Calligraphy begins.

While undergoing this process of estrangement and re-familiarization with one’s written language, the audience is reminded that the sensation of distance between other systems of language and one’s own is largely self-induced, and no matter where the audience is from, they are all the same.

Di Shu (Book from the Ground)

“As long as the reader has experience of contemporary life, this script will be effective…… The script in Book from the Ground requires no study; rather it has taken shape through widespread popular use. I have not created these symbols, but instead have collected them, symbols already in wide circulation”

——Xu Bing



Different from Tian shu (Book from the Sky) and Square Word Calligraphy, Di Shu (Book form the ground) was called as the books and works everyone can understand regardless of your own culture and background. Xu borrowed and utilized icons and symbols that he thought were popular used. Xu’s inspiration for this called universal signs was drawn from the ancient Chinese form of pictographs. The modern Chinese written language is based on using pictures for words, and the characters have developed over thousands of years. Xu developed his new language using his keen sense of art, which grasped the real essence of common signs from his everyday life and frequent travels.

In Book From the Ground, Xu tried to develop a new kind of communication system relying on universal symbols, such as the icons and logos that people around the world come across everyday in places such as airports and bathrooms.

“I have a special interest in this work (Book From the Ground)) because it is my most practical work,” Xu told Beijing Review. Everybody can feel the restraints traditional languages place on modern society, Xu said, adding that his intention was to create a way of communication using the simplest, most direct and common signs.

Conclusion: The language of Xu Bing

“No matter what outer form my works take, they are all linked by a common thread, which is to construct some kind of obstacle to people’s habitual ways of thinking—what I call the ‘cognitive structures’ of the mind. These obstacles derive from intentionally mixing up different received concepts to create a sense of estrangement and unfamiliarity.”

——Xu Bing

In terms of most of Xu Bing’s art works that related to books and characters, by inventing words regarded as ‘nonsense’, even some of them never exist in the human history, those are works that most people cannot read or complete comprehend in a usual way or in a normal way, even including the artist himself. He used and deepen the abstract concept of books and words, and not limited in the format of books and languages. Radically speaking, Xu’s books, even Book from the Ground, are not readable, because those contents are basically too much abstract, isolated, and to some extent, distorted. Xu wants his readers and audience to feel this singularity, the bizarrerie, and most significantly, the conflict with in languages. He intentionally designed his installations, complying with his works in order to force his audience to interactive with his works and experience certain conflict, no matter what background you are.

His work included the relation of language to experience and the nature of writing, however, can culture be transferred and interpreted? And from my perspective, to Xu Bing, culture is a communication platform that pushes the development of human civilization. He utilized books and language as a carrier, to express his personal experience and his understanding of culture propagation. Comprehend Xu’s work from perspective of books, his works are basically grounded in the wisdom of Chinese culture, and meanwhile deepened to the topic of global cultural fusion. The aesthetics of his works are unique and abstract. Analyzing his works, the audience can go deep into the inner concept of books and languages and further experience the essence and culture significance of books.


  1. Xu Bing’s Personal Website:
  2. Lloyd, Ann Wilson. “Lost and Found.” Xu Bing: Language Lost. Massachusetts: Massachusetts College of Art, 1995. 20-25.
  3. Yang, Alice, ‘Xu Bing: Rewriting Culture’, in Why Asia? Contemporary Asian and Asian American Artists (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 24-29.
  4. Danni Shen, Sun Contributor, A Dialogue With Chinese Artist Xu Bing, Taken from The Cornell Daily Sun, 20 October, 2014
  5. Simon Leung with Janet A. Kaplan, A Conversation with Wenda Gu, Xu Bing and Jonathan Hay, Art Journal, 1999, p86-99
  6. Kong-King Lee, Translanguaning and Visuality: Translingual practices in literary art, Applied linguistics Review 2015, 6(4): 441-465
  7. Patrick Mahon, Xu Bing, Ed Pien and Gu Xiong: Lost and Found in Translation, Visible Language 42.1, 28-43
  8. Adam Jaworski, Metrolingual art: Multilingualism and heteroglossia, International Journal of Bilingualism, 2014, Vol. 18 (2) 134-158
  9. Xu Bing, The Book of Unknown, MUSE, January 2014, 32-33
  10. Glenn Harper, A conversation with Xu Bing: Exterior Form and Interior Substance, Sculpture, 22 no1 January/February 2003

Mitsukoshi Department Store: a Missionary of Civilization, a Taste Cultivator & an Art Entrepreneur in the Early 20th Century

-YinYing Chen


Through closely examining the case of Mitsukoshi department store, the first modern department store in Japan, this paper argues that the birth of the Japanese department stores bears a clear trace to the socio-cultural backdrop of Meiji restoration, an era that can be summarized by the state motto, “civilization and enlightenment”. Therefore, unlike its Western counterparts, Japanese department stores are not only commercial institutions but also cultural institutions that function to define modern and cultured life.  Part I of this paper will provide an overview of the idea of Japanese department stores as cultural institutions. Then, the paper proceeds to explore the historical and cultural context of Japanese department stores and Mitsukoshi department store, focusing on the concept of department store as a missionary of civilization. Part III  will illustrate how mitsukoshi acted as a taste cultivator for the burgeoning urban middle class, Yamanotezoko, who were the new clientele of Mitsukoshi and eager to legitimate their social status through demonstrating a refined taste. Part  IV concentrates on elaborating how Mitsukoshi acted as an art entrepreneur in the land that was new to the idea of fine art and thriving with growing consumer cultures. This paper aims to answer the following question: how did  a commercial institution function as a prominent cultural institution in a land that was new to concept of “fine art” and thriving with burgeoning urban middle class?

 1. Introduction

Japanese department stores and Western department stores have a very different origin. When department stores sprang up in the major Euro-American cities, it was a special time in Euro-American world; it was the time when the rise of the bourgeoisie enriched and colored the cultural landscape in Europe. Whereas, Japanese department stores could be viewed as the end product of Meiji Restoration, an era of Westernization, to showcase the “civilization and enlightenment” of Japan. Therefore, the Japaneses discourse surrounding department store bears a clear trace of the socio-cultural logic behind its development. The social history and cultural dimensions inflecting and informing the discourse revolving around Japanese department store are inscribed into Japanese department stores today.

More precisely, the Japanese discourse surrounding department stores has far transcended the idea of department stores as “the cathedral of modern commerce”, a term Émil Zola used to decribe social function of department stores in the 19th century (Sapin 2004, 317). In Japan, department stores are not only commercial institutions but also cultural institutions that actively engage in the symbolic production of cultured life. In addition, Japanese department store epitomizes many aspects of modern cultural institutions. They plays a crucial role in the production, exhibition, circulation and consumption of art. As Younjung Oh (2012) remarks “Department stores had a pronounced and lasting impact on art and visual culture
in modern Japan”, and Mitsukoshi department store, the first modern department store in Japan, offers us a good example to examine the idea illustrated above (1).

Yamaguchi Akira, Department Store: New Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi (2004). Pencil and watercolor on paper. 59.4×84.1cm Photo Courtesy:

2. Mitsukoshi Department Store: a Missionary of Civilization

Japanese Department Stores in Context

With the rise of the vital bourgeoisie in the mid-19th century, department stores sprang up in the major Euro-American cities, including London, Paris and New York. Department stores were the new social and commercial spaces inscribed with the voluptous lifestyle of the bourgeoisie. As the French intellectual, Émil Zola, remarked “ The department store tends to replace the church. It marches to the religion of the cash desk, of beauty, of coquetry, and fashion” ( Tamari 2006, 115). Accordingly, department stores became “ the cathedral of modern commerce”, as Émil Zola put it in his 1883 novel Bonheue des Dames (Sapin 2004, 317).

Eventually, the trend reached Japan in the early 20th century, but with a twist. Against the backdrop of Meiji Restoration, an era of Westernization and social reconstruction in Japan,  Japanese department stores were established. In response to the nineteenth-century West expansion to Asia, clashes with the intrusive West and the superiority of Western technologies and weaponry, Japan unfolded the Meiji Restoration in 1868, an era characterized with the state motto bunmei kaika, or civilization and enlightenment. Being Western was the synonym for “being modern” back to that time. “To be seen as Western was virtually synonymous with being counted as high and privileged class”, as Younjung Oh (2012) illustrates it (342). As it is indicated in the state slogan “datsu a nyu ou”, which literally means “break away from Asian and merge into Europe”, westernization was encouraged in every aspect of daily life, ranging from clothing, dining habit, and housing.

The emergence of Japanese department stores can be situated within the lineage of Westernization movement during the Meiji Restoration. As Younjung Oh (2012) notes, ” Coincidentally or not, students of Fukuzawa Yukichi, Meiji Japan’s most ardent promoter of Western values and practices, came to work as key personnel for major department stores and carried out a series of modernizing reforms of the stores.” (342-343). Therefore, Japanese department stores can be considered as institutions that instruct the ordinary Japanese how to socialize into the Western ways of consumption and living. Moreover, in many ways, Japanese department stores were also interfaces to modernity. According to Brian Moeran (1998), the Japanese department store was “a dream world where western, and thus bourgeois, culture was on display.” (142). It offered the masses an entrée into the bunka seikatsu, or cultured life (Young 1999, 65). In this regard, department stores in Japan were more like “missionaries of civilization” or “epitome of modern civilization”, rather than ” the cathedral of commerce” (Young 1999, 56;Sapin 2004, 317 ;Oh 2012, 343). Ironically, like the museums, which is a “sign of civilization” , as Andrew McClellan (2008) phrases it,  in a land that was aspired to be merged into the Western civilized world, department store was also treated as a sign of civilization(4) .   

Mitsukoshi Department Store in Historical and Cultural Context

Mitsukoshi is widely considered as the first modern department store in Japan (Moeran 1998;Tamari 2006). The origin of Mitsukoshi department store can be traced back to 1673, when Mitsui Takatoshi opened echigoya, kimono store, in both Kyoto and Edo[1].  

Echigoya illustrated by Utagawa Hiroshige, an ukiyo-e artist. Photo Courtesy:三越#/media/File:Hiroshige,_Sugura_street.jpg

Echigoya illustrated by Utagawa Hiroshige, a ukiyo-e artist. Photo Courtesy:三越#/media/File:Hiroshige,_Sugura_street.jpg

Echigoya pioneered in “ cash sales at fixed prices”, as its 1683 slogan puts it (Mitsukoshi Ltd. 2005, 16) . In 1895, Yoshio Takahashi, a firm believer in Fukuzawa Yukichi’s policy, took over Mitsui Gofukuten, the predecessor of Mitsukoshi department store. Inspired by the visit to Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia [2] during his time studying in the United States, Takahashi abolished the zauri system, “where products are not displayed in the stores but instead are stored at the backs, and clerks bring out the products to the customers upon their request”, as Mitsukoshi defines it, and transformed the whole Nihonbashi store into display area in 1900 (Mitsukoshi Ltd. 2005, 16; Moeran 1998, 145-146). The innovative spirit is descended to Mitsukoshi’s development in the early 20th century.

The bottom part is an illustration of the zauri system; the upper part is the illustration of the reformed display are in Mitsukoshi. Photo Courtesy:

The bottom part is an illustration of the zauri system; the upper part is the illustration of the reformed display area in Mitsukoshi. Photo Courtesy:

In the December of 1904, Mitsukoshi issued ” Department Store Proclamation” to its customers and business partners, and in the beginning of following year, the proclamation was placed as full-page advertisement in several major newspapers, which marked its official conversion from gofukuten, or traditional Japanese drapery to modern department store (Morea 1998, 143 ;Tamari 2006, 101; Sapin 2003, 15; Mitsukoshi Ltd. 2005, 16). What is worth noting is that in the proclamation, Mitsukoshi first adopted the term depātoento sutoa[3], or a paronym of the English term, department store, written in Katakana syllabary [4]. Since language is the carrier of ideas, an evolving course of a society often pulses with ideas that come with adaptations of new words that had not existed in the society. The adoption of the Western term, depātoento sutoa, signifies Mitsukoshi’s embracement of the western conduct of operations and thus the modern civilization. With the completion of the main building of Nihonbashi main store, which featured a renaissance-style architecture with the first escalators and elevators in Japan, and lions guarded the main entrance modelled on the lions of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square London in 1914, Mitsukoshi was eventually in line with its Western counterparts ( Moeran 1998, 155-156).

The main entrance of Nihombashi Mitsukoshi guarded by the lions modelled on the lions of Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square London. Photo Courtesy:

The main entrance of Nihombashi Mitsukoshi guarded by the lions modelled on the lions of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square London. Photo Courtesy:

The main building of Nihonbashi main store. Photo Courtesy:

The new main building of Nihonbashi main store. Photo Courtesy:

Overall, Mitsukoshi department store can be viewed as a product of Meiji Restoration to purvey western sociocultural values. It was a commercial institution inscribed with the state motto “civilization and enlightenment” and actively engaged in the symbolic production of cultured life in the early 20th century .

3. Mitsukoshi Department Store: a Taste Cultivator for the New Urban Middle Class, Yamanotezoku

“Taste, the propensity and capacity to appropriate ( materially or symbolically) a given class of classified, classifying objects or practices, is the generative formula of lifestyle, a unitary set of distinctive preferences which express the same expressive intention in the specific logic of earth of the symbolic sub-spaces…”  – Pierre Bourdieu 1984

The New Clientele of Mitsukoshi Department Store: Yamanotezoku

With the dissolution of feudal system and the waning of the “old cultural elites”, such as court nobles and the samurai, at the turn of the 20th century, the burgeoning urban middle class burst onto the scene. The process of industrialization and urbanization, as well as the vitality of the new middle class enriched and diversified the cultural landscape within cities. Mitsukoshi’s transformation from gofukuten to the modern department store was undertaken in the midst of the dramatic socio-cultural change back to that time. A privileged few was gradually replaced by the burgeoning urban middle class. As it is indicated in a research by Minami Hiroshi, between 1907 and 1923, the percentage of middle class household significantly increased from three percent to twelve percent [5] (Oh 2014, 354). With high-quality kimono, which as a symbol of wealth, as the major product, feudal lords, merchant capitalists, and aristocracy constituted the core clientele of Mitsukoshi gofukuten. One the other hand, situated in a different sociocultural context, Mitsukoshi department store expanded its assortment of merchandise to bags, shoes, umbrellas, cosmetics, stationery, artworks, and a wide variety of imported goods ( Moeran 1998, 155; Oh 2014, 353; Mitsukoshi Ltd. 2005, 16-17). Accordingly, the core clientele shifted to the modern middle class dwelling in the urban area, who were known as Yamanotezoku, or Yamanote people.  

Yamanote people was first referred to as the burgeoning urban middle class inhabiting in the Yamanote district [6] which was connected to the Tokyo downtown by the Yamanote line, a commuter rail line starting operation from the late 19th century ( Moeran 1998, 152). Later, the term, Yamanotezoku, was widely used to refer to the modern middle class living in Tokyo as well as other cities ( Oh 2014, 354). The new urban middle class was comprised of professors, civil servants, bankers, doctors, military officers, social elites working in large trading corporations, and other white-collar workers, who generally supported the Westernizing craze promoted by the state ( Oh 2014, 353; Moeran 1998, 151).

Taste: The Conspicuous Marker of Social Position

In the light of the dominant discourse of “fine art”, the autonomy of art is highly valued. Accordingly, one’s aesthetic preferences and taste are supposed to be autonomous as well ( Oh 2014, 355; Oh 2012, 345).  However, as Pierre Bourdieu (1993) suggests, the production of a legitimate cultural discourse is a symbolic production(35-37). Thus, taste is never innate but concerns “the capacity to discern”, or in Pierre Bourdieu (1984) words, “the capacity to see (voir) is a function of the knowledge (savoir)” ( 2).

As the rising cultural elites, Yamanote people were willing and eager to embrace novel products and ideas. However, many of them had never socialized in the cultural setting still limited to the purview of the privileged few, and thus were lack of the taste and “cultural competence to indulge their craving for high culture”, as Younjung Oh (2014) elaborates it (351). In a land that vigorously propagated the idea of cultured life, failure to demonstrate and command proper taste and cultural literacy to socialize would possibly lead to the exclusion from the inner circle of cultural nobility. The anxiety of the exclusion is exemplified in Tōkyōgaku (A Study of Tokyo) by Ishikawa Tengai published in 1909, which functioned as a guide to educate the new Tokyoites the importance of commanding proper taste in social settings (Oh 2014, 354). Eventually, “individual taste and the cultivation of culture became vital to the negotiation of one’s social position in this fluid moment of modern Japan”, as Younjung Oh (2014) puts it (354).

Mitsukoshi Department Store: a Taste Cultivator

During the liminal stage between the waning of the “old cultural elites” and the rising of the new social elites who aspired to legitimate their social positions through demonstrating refined taste, the “crack” offered an ideal space for Mitsukoshi department stores to come into play. Mitsukoshi was a prominent cultivator and creator of the taste and the lifestyle catered to yamanotezoku, which termed as Mitsukoshi shumi, or Mitsukoshi taste. For instance, in an article published to announce its establishment of art section in 1907, Mitsukoshi stated, ”  If there were no art in the world, it would be desolate..if we could not see fine works of art, it would be impossible for us to have shumi…As a gofukuten which deals with designs suggesting new taste, Mitsukoshi cannot neglect fine art and has decided to establish an art section” (Oh 2014, 351). In another marketing campaign to celebrate the grand opening of Imperial Theatre in 1913, Mitsukoshi meticulously adopted the famous slogan “Today the imperial theater, tomorrow Mitsukoshi” to bundle itself with the first Western-style theater in Japan and to rebound to its own cultural prominence.

A series of advertisement with Mitsukoshi's famous slogan "Today the imperial theater, tomorrow Mitsukoshi" Photo Courtesy:

A series of advertisement with Mitsukoshi’s famous slogan “Today the imperial theater, tomorrow Mitsukoshi” Photo Courtesy:

For Mitsukoshi, constructing the taste and lifestyle which could saturate the fabric of the everyday life of yamanotezoku was a brilliant marketing strategy to “equate shopping with aesthetic sophistication”, as Louise Young(1999) phrases it (66). Furthermore, it was a means to accumulate its cultural capitals, and to consolidate its cultural and aesthetic authority (Oh 2012, 13). Positioning itself as the test setter was a particularly smart strategy, since taste was exactly the major matters of concern for the burgeoning urban middle class. For the urban middle class, shopping in the space surrounded with the aura of the high culture gave them the illusion and perception that they were moving toward the circle of cultural nobility.

Mitsukoshi House Magazine: the Key Interface to Disseminate Mitsukoshi Taste

The cover of Mitsukoshi magazine designed by Sugiura Hisui. Photo Courtesy:

The cover of Mitsukoshi magazine designed by Sugiura Hisui. Photo Courtesy:

Mitsukoshi also pioneers in publishing the first department store house magazine in Japan. In 1899, it published its first house magazine, Hanagoromo, whose content was closely aligned with Mitsukoshi’s strategy to become a taste setter for the burgeoning urban middle class. Therefore, rather than merely focusing on the promotion of the commodities, aesthetic ways of life, fashion trends, academic articles and serialized novels by popular authors were also included (Sapin 2003, 81; Oh 2012, 18). Going through several name changes[7], its house magazine Mitsukoshi reached the circulation of over 50,000 issues in 1911. Moreover, nearly 230 people got involved in the publication of the house magazines, which manifests that Mitsukoshi took it seriously and thus poured energies into it.  

Mitsukoshi’s house magazine can be considered as the epitome and the messenger of its brand image and Mitsukoshi taste (Yamamoto 2011, 325). This is the underlying reason why it was also the media that Mitsukoshi chose to make the announcement of its launch of the art section, as it is discussed above. It is the key interface that Mitsukoshi utilized to speak to the public, to disseminate Mitsukoshi taste and to project the image that Mitsukoshi was an authority in cultural production. As Tomoko Tamari (2006) summarizes, ” For the upper and middle class they were a material catalog and source of cultural information.  For the new middle class, they could be a guide-book for new lifestyles…For people in the provinces they were “the window, through which they could see ideal lifestyles” (111).

4. Mitsukoshi Department Store: an Art Entrepreneur in the Land that Was New to the Idea of “Fine Art”and Thriving with the New Middle Class

Fine Art: an Imported Idea

Mitsukoshi epitomized many aspects of modern art institutions. It played a crucial role in the production, exhibition, circulation and consumption of art in the 20th-century Japan, a land that pulsed with the vitality of booming consumer culture, and that was new to the concept of ” fine art” (Oh 2012, 1).

Considering how Japonisme swept Europe and influenced the art scene in Europe from the late 19th century, and how Japanese arts provided a new “pictorial language” and “widen[ed] the culture horizons” for the Impressionist as well as many artists across the Western societies, it may be surprising to learn that the concept of “fine art” actually did not exist in Japan before early 1870s (Edwards & Wood 2012, 56, 65). Japan has a long history of encountering foreign cultures, while being shaped by such external influences. As Sidney Lewis Gulick (1903), a prominent American missionary, described how the Japanese society evolved and is enriched: “It is true that the character of a nation is mainly the outcome of its history itself, for the most part dependent on the environment or the opportunities for progress presented in the course of the time and of the ability of the the race to profit by these in the course of foreign encounterments.” Such trajectory can also be found in the development of the discourse surrounding fine art in Japan. bijutsu,which literally means “beautiful technique”, was the Japanese term for fine art[8] (Coaldrake 2013, 177). It was first introduced by the Meiji government in 1872  to prepare for the attendance to the Vienna World’s Fair (Oh 2012, 3). The fair was deemed as a vital international event for the country which adopted a national isolation policy for more than 200 years to rejoin the international community.

The coinage of the term, bijutsu, which was translated from the German word “kunstgewerbe”, defines “what fine art is”, yet also confines “what fine art could be”. In this regard, bijutsu, as a Western thing, imported by the Meiji government to manipulate the discourse revolving “fine art” can be viewed as historically constructed structure to showcase the “civilization and enlightenment “, the mottos characterizing the Meiji Restoration. Furthermore, the import of the concept, “fine art”, as a pre-packaged notion, as well as the establishment of Tokyo School of Fine Art in 1889 and Imperial Museum in 1890 manifest the transplantation of the Western idea of arts to Japan (Oh 2012, 9).

In the land that was new to the idea of fine art, and thus unconsciously ignored the boundary between “autonomous fine art” and “art for utility”, ironically, department stores turned to be the alternative venue for the creation, exhibition, circulation and consumption of art. As Younjung Oh (2012) indicates, ” In Japan, the department stores amply demonstrate the contradictions and paradoxes of the modern paradigm within which fine art was created.” (10) Mitsukoshi was the commercial institution that vigorously engaged in establishing its reputation as a cultural institution (Oh 2012, 13). For instance, in 1904, Mitsukoshi held the first art exhibition featuring with Ogata Kōrin’s paintings to promote the “ Genroku boom”, which was a core fabric of the Mitsukoshi taste (Oh 2012, 19). In 1907, Mitsukoshi set up art section to display and sell art works of contemporary leading artists. In a kimono advertising campaign in 1907, Mitsukoshi transformed Okada Saburōsuke’s Western style oil painting “Portrait of a Lady” to a chromolithographic outdoor billboard (Thornton 1989, 7).

Okada Saburōsuke's Western style oil painting “Portrait of a Lady” in 1907. Photo Courtesy:

Okada Saburōsuke’s Western style oil painting “Portrait of a Lady” in 1907. Photo Courtesy:

In 1910, the company hired Sugiura Hisui as the chief designer. In many ways, Mitsukoshi was a bold art entrepreneur in the early 20th century. In the following, this paper will dive deeper two innovative artistic practices, art-directed commercial designs and the establishment of new art section, adopted by Mitsukoshi to elaborate its status as an art entrepreneur.  

Art-directed Commercial Designs

In 1910, Mitsukoshi hired Sugiura Hisui to be the chief designer of its newly created zuanbu, or design department dedicated to graphic design,  which marks ” the beginning of art-directed poster design by artists who saw the potential of the medium in the sense pioneered by Jules Cheret, Edward Penfield, Alphonse Mucha, and others”, as Fraser et al (1996) put it (49).

An advertising poster for the Mitsukoshi Gofukuten show of new patterns for spring designed by Hisui Sugiura in 1914. Photo courtesy:

An advertising poster for the Mitsukoshi Gofukuten show of new patterns for spring designed by Hisui Sugiura in 1914. Photo courtesy:

Actually, before the establishment of design department, Mitsukoshi had employed nihonga painters to design bijutsu senshoku, or art textile[9], since it opened a design studio in 1895 ( Sapin 2004, 318). This underscores that, as a commercial institution, Mitsukoshi had been long recognized that incorporating artists in merchandising commodities not only enhanced the monetary values of goods but also imparted immaterial cultural values to the goods (Sapin 2003, 8).  In other words, the practice meticulously elevated commercial objects into symbolic objects that embodied symbolic capitals signifying individual’s social position. The practice was later extended to other objects in Mitsukoshi to manipulate and consolidate the discourse about its status as a cultural authority.

Before Sugiura Hisui joined Mitsukoshi as an adviser in 1908, graphic designs were ” designs without designers”, as Fraser et al (1996) phrases it (10). They were largely left to the hand of anonymous individuals (Fraser, Heller & Chwast 1996, 10). With the advent of printing technology, such as lithography[10] and chromolithography burst onto the commercial art scene. Accordingly, commercial cultures were revolutionized and artists were provided with new ways to produce and disseminate their works to the public masses. Historically, Japan was a land lack of clear distinction between fine arts and arts for utility. Therefore, when the concepts of Bauhaus, which claimed that art could be beautiful and useful at the same time and thus engaging commercial art practice would not compromise aesthetics and creativity, arrived in Japan, many Japanese artists quickly joined the movement ( Thornton 1989, 10).

Design competition was another key method that Mitsukoshi adopted to discover new artists with great potential, to set the trend, and to produce commercial art infused with the aura of high art. For instance, in order to promote the Genroku art, which was a core fabric of the Mitsukoshi taste in the beginning of 20th century, Mitsukoshi launch a design competitions to create the trend in 1905 (Sapin 2003, 92). Bijin-ka poster, or beautiful person poster was a genre that Mitsukoshi led the way in poster design. Therefore, in 1911, Mitsukoshi launched a beautiful person poster contest. Goyo Hashiguchi, a rising graphic designer and an expert in ukiyo-e , won the first prize with special money award worth 1,000 yen. The prize-winning work features a serene and elegant woman dressed in kimono.With a 35-separate-run chromolithography process, it was utilized as the advertisement for autumn sale in the same year ( Thornton 1989, 7; ) .

Goyo Hashiguchi's prize-winning Bijin-ka poster in 1905. Photo Courtesy:

Goyo Hashiguchi’s prize-winning Bijin-ka poster in 1911. Photo Courtesy:

The Establishment of New Art Section

In addition, in 1907, in response to establishment of Monbushō Bijutsu Tenrankai, or Ministry of Education Art Exhibition (abbreviated as Bunten thereafter), Mitsukoshi set up shin bijutsu bu, or new art section to display and sell art works of contemporary leading artist (Oh 2012,1; Oh 2014, 356). Mitsukoshi became the primary venue for the works of Bunten-winning artists to be widely appreciated and consumed by the public masses. Burgeoning urban middle class was the core clientele for Mitsukoshi’s new art section. They needed artworks to decorate their houses. In addition, in the era when taste is the marker of social status, they were eager to legitimate their social position through tasteful consumption of art (Oh 2014, 351& 354).

Nonetheless, the urban middle class was lack of cultural literacy and personal connection to purchase artworks. Hence, Mitsukoshi, a commercial institution with great ambition to be the “key agent for the cultural production of the new middle class in Japan”, as Louise Young puts it, turned itself into an prominent art dealer for the new middle class. As it is revealed in an article published in Mitsukoshi magazine to market its new art section, ” If you come to the Mitsukoshi art section, you can have a ready-made work to hang in your house instantly. Mitsukoshi is cheaper, faster and easier”, its new art section could be considered as an art market tailored to cater to urban the middle class.    

5. Conclusion 

Japan has had a long history of encountering foreign cultures, while being shaped by such external influences. Nonetheless, in Japan, with regard to the trans-cultural process, new elements of knowledge, ideas, or concepts have always served as inspiration and have assimilated into the previous value systems. Iikoto-tori, which literally means cherry-picking, is the Japanese way of adopting foreign elements. Such trajectory can be found in the development of Japanese department stores as well. They are also the product created from the fabric of Japanese cultures.

Unlike its Western counterparts, Japanese department stores are not only “the cathedral of modern commerce” but a vital site for the symbolic production of cultured life. Mitsukoshi is widely considered as the first modern department store in Japan. It epitomizes many aspects of modern art institutions by actively engaging in the production, exhibition, circulation and consumption of aesthetic taste and art. It is a taste cultivator for the burgeoning urban middle class, Yamanotezoku, who were aspired to legitimate their social positions through demonstrating refined taste. Its house magazine was the key interface to Disseminate Mitsukoshi Taste. Moreover, in many aspects, Mitsukoshi was a bold art entrepreneur. By adopting art-directed commercial designs and establishing new art section that catered to the new middle class, it further consolidated its status a cultural authority who was able to manipulate the discourse surrounding the symbolic production of culture.


[1] Edo is the old name of present day Tokyo. In Edo period (1603 AD to 1868 AD), Japan experienced unprecedented economic growing and urbanization. It was also a golden age for leisure activities, such as theater.  

[2] It is one of the first department stores in the United States.

[3]  Before the adoption of the term,depātoento sutoa, hyakkaten, which literally means ” hundred goods stores” was widely used to refer to stores like Mitsukoshi.  

[4] Katakana is one of the three constituents of the Japanese writing system designed to loaned words of foreign origins.

[5] According to the same research, the percentage of middle class household was higher in urban area, where department stores were.  

[6]  Yamanote district is also known as the “high city” in Tokyo, mainly populated by intellectuals. One the other hand, the rest of the district in Tokyo was known as ” low city”, or shitamachi, the older district of Tokyo where the traditional architectures remain and  Edokko, or the children of Edo, live.  

[7] From 1903 to 1907, it was titled as Jikō. In 1980, the title was changed to Mitsukoshi Times. In 1911, the title was changed again. Mitsukoshi became the new title.  

[8] According to Kimi Coaldrake (2013), ” Before the invention of bijutsu, art was referred to generically as gigei” in Japan (179).

[9] According to Julia Elizabeth Sapin (2003),  textiles were not only the core products of Mitsukoshi gofukuten, the precursor of Mitsukoshi department store, but also the one of Japan’s primary exports, counted for more than 50% of its exports before WWI (72). Considering the commercial interest, there was great impetus to promote the product visibility through refined designs.

[10] The first lithograph company was established in Tokyo in 1872.


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Bourdieu, Pierre, 1930-2002, and Randal Johnson 1948. 1993. The field of cultural production: Essays on art and literature. New York: Columbia University Press.

Coaldrake, Kimi. 2013. Fine arts versus decorative arts: The categorization of japanese arts at the international expositions in vienna (1873), paris (1878) and chicago (1893). Japan Forum 25 (2): 174-90.

Edwards, Steve, Paul Wood, and John Forsgren Fund. 2012. Art & visual culture, 1850-2010: Modernity to globalisation. Milton Keynes, United Kingdom;London;: Tate Publishing.

Gulick, Sidney Lewis, 1860-1945, and HathiTrust. Digital Library. 1903. Evolution of the japanese: Social and psychic. New York: Fleming H. Revell co.

McClellan, Andrew, and John Forsgren Fund. 2008. The art museum from boullée to bilbao. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press.

Mitsukoshi, Ltd. 2005 Annual Report.  2005.  

Moeran, Brian. ” The Birth of the Japanese Department Store” In Asian Department Stores, edited by Macpherson, Kerrie L,141-176. HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1998

Oh, Younjung. 2012. Art into everyday life: Department stores as purveyors of culture in modern japan.ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.

Oh, Younjung. 2014. Shopping for art: The new middle class’ art consumption in modern japanese department stores. Journal of Design History 27 (4): 351-69.

Sapin, Julia. 2004. Merchandising art and identity in meiji japan: Kyoto nihonga artists’ designs for takashimaya department store, 1868-1912. Journal of Design History 17 (4): 317-36.

Sapin, Julia Elizabeth. 2003. Liaisons between painters and department stores: Merchandising art and identity in meiji japan, 1868–1912.ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.

Tamari, Tomoko. 2006. Rise of the department store and the aestheticization of everyday life in early 20th century japan. International Journal of Japanese Sociology 15 (1): 99-118.

Thornton, Richard S. 1989. Japanese posters: The first 100 years. Design Issues 6 (1): 5-14

Fraser, James, Steven Heller, and Seymour Chwast. 1996. Japanese modern: Graphic design between the wars. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.

Yamamoto, Masako. “Kitamura Reisai : setting the grounds for the art section of the Osaka branch of Mitsukoshi department store.” Core Ethics 7 (2011): 323-33. 2011. Accessed April 30, 2017.

Young, Louise. 1999. Marketing the modern: Department stores, consumer culture, and the new middle class in interwar japan. International Labor and Working-Class History 55 (55): 52-70.

“Kodaking” – The Lense of George Eastman and case study of Kodak Company

By Wanyu Zhang

For my final post of this class I want to have a case study of Kodak Company, from the historical lense to flashback the past, current and the future of Kodak company’s impact to the world. By far the most significant event in the history of amaetur photography was the introduction of the Kodak #1 camera in 1888. Invented and marketed by George Eastman (1854 – 1932) Upon that time, the Kodak was a simple box camera that came loaded with a 100-exposure roll of film, so when the roll was finished, the entire machine was sent back to the factory and reloaded then returned to their customer when the first roll was being processed.George Eastman was successfully made photography accessible to millions of casual amateurs with no particular professional training, technical expertise or aesthetix credentials. The famous advertising campaign with the memorable slogan “You press the button, we do the rest” was published in many places. The word after Eastman first camera had a tremendous changed and huge impact on people’s life, there was the first step of a 20-year quest that would lead him to his most iconic camera – the Brownie. Basically it changed many American families themselve to recall their family history and memory. I’m also interesting in the the relationship between the customer who but Kodak camera and how they treated to these magical small boxes, some amateaur photographers reacted to the snapshop craze by forming organizations dedicated to promoting photography as a fine art rather the pop art. However, since the development of  camera has always way beyond than people’s expect , in the mid-1960s, the idea of a “snapshot aesthetic” began to get currency in art photography vase.

Section 1: Who is George Eastman and why he changed the world with “film”

“ He was a high school dropout, judged ‘not especially gifted’ when measured against the academic standards of the day. He was poor, but even as a young man, he took it upon himself to support his widowed mother and two sisters, one of who had polio.”

This is the first paragraph from Kodak homepage that introduced their company’s founder, like many “heroes” in various industries, they never follow the traditional trajectory to lead them to be success, they’re special and usually they used to have a tough life experience. With very fe exceptions, they’re kind from the humanity side. That young man may has no idea based on his invented on 19 century, people from all over the world can “storeage” their memory though the magic box, it’s also from that moment until to current, the definition of camera is significantly beyond the original concept and like Eastman promise from his first goal to make photography “as convenient as the pencil”. History can be changed by any people who persistently intended to change, when Eastman at 24 years old, he got interested to the giant camera and try to make some improvement of the structure of  the photographic emulsion, he learned from others but make the real action by himselves. After 3 years again and again experiment, finally by 1880, he had not only invented a dry plate formula, but had patented a machine for preparing large number of the plate. That is the iconic and symbolic step for the entire photography industry, because only the “tools” become handy and compact, people will have chance to bring that to everywhere and never feel this is a heavy burdens. And this is the power of icon, or we can say is a cultural icon has officially launched to daily life.

Eastman always believes and want to achieve a goal which is to simplify photography, so from the very beginning to found his own company in 1901, he build his business on 4 basic principles: 1. A focus on the customer  2. Mass production at low cost  3. Worldwide distribution  4. Extensive advertising. Apparently, the reason behind the huge success of Kodak make the above 4 reasons being closely related. Mass production could not be justified without wide distribution. Distribution can be successful should has strong bonding with strong advertising skills. And the original desire with to fulfilling customer needs is never change, because Eastman profoundly believed this is the only way to corporate success.

Even people may do not familiar the name and story of George Eastman but I’m pretty sure there is no name has been more closely tied to pictures than Kodak, this yellow and red logo it’s like a tattoo engraving to everyone’s memory. So when the section title I chose for Eastman changed world do not exaggerate at all. And the key of his success is “making photography a popular leisure-time activity for the masses were his development of roll film and the inexpensive box camera” Not surprisingly, there are tons of historical milestones of Kodak was made by Eastman.

photo-of-1888-and-1889-boxes-of-kodak-film“Kodak introduced the first commercial transparent roll film in 1989”


“In 1990, the KODAK BROWNIE camera brought photography within financial reach of consumers. The camera sold for $1 and film was 15 cents a roll.”


Introduced in 1935, KODACHROME Film became the first commercially successful amateur color film. Initially offered in 16 mm format for motion pictures, formats for 35 mm slides and 8 mm home movies followed in 1936.”

“KODAK CAROUSEL projectors – introduced in 1961, the projectors had a round tray that held 80 slides for easy viewing.” 

Section 2: Kodak and American Family – “A focus on the customer”

During my research on Kodak and American family after WWII, is the time when Kodak began marketing their extremely inexpensive snapshot cameras and Kodak’s advertising always urged families to capture the moments in the lives of postwar family at home or on vacations. Many young people themselves often bought these affordable cameras or received them as presents, that’s why we can found so many photographic evidence of their family and daily lives.  (see more photos )

camera-kodak-instamatic-fade-19-57-swscan02188-copy“ The idea gradually dawned on me, “Eastman later said, “that what we were doing was not merely making dry plates, but that we were starting out to make photography an everyday affair.” I think as a Businessman he really knows his customers need and as an inventor he challenged all the “impossible” things. Eastman never stopped to create the newer and better equipment for his customers, so all his experiments were directed to the use of a lighter and more flexible support than glass. This is Eastman American Film was in introduced – the first transparent photographic “film” as we know it today. Meanwhile, the first film advertisements in 1885 also stated that “shortly there will be introduced a new sensitive film which it is believed will prove an economical and convenient substitute for glass dry plates both for outdoor and studio work” which emphasized the new
chapter of the photography world. Because the system of photography using roll holders was immediately successful.images It’s more customized for the users based on their daily based needs. It’s gradually become an American phenomenon and let Americans the tembraced it, it encourages them were leaving home and striking out further and further west that people could have something to think about and reflect that to remember people by this technology. 
According to the Kodak Homepage and George Eastman House information, we can easily found how Eastman put customer at the first place and always based on this idea to develop all kinds of technology. “Eastman’s solution was to coat the paper with a layer of plain, soluble gelatin, and then with a layer of insoluble light-sensitive gelatin. After exposure and development, the gelatin bearing the image was stripped from the paper, transferred to a sheet of clear gelatin, and varnished with collodion – a cellulose solution that forms a tough, flexible film.” It’s hard to imagine all the chemical process happened thought how many times of experiments. Eastman absolutely transparent roll film and the roll holder or we can see he changed the entire direction of his work and established the fundamental on the success of amateur photography. The new era comes to people without any boundary.

    Section 3: Kodak = Affordable – “Mass production at low cost”

Kodak is way much beyond than a camera or film in people’s memory, the other reason was because of the price, it’s perfect fit to any middle class family in America. Eastman believed in order to make a large business they would reach the general public. Therefore, time back to 1888, it was Eastman put down the foundation for making photography available to everyone. Pre-loaded with enough film for 100 exposures, the camera could be easily carried and handheld during operation.In 1888, Eastman was issued a landmark U.S. patent No. 388,850 for his box camera. On the same date, he registered the trademark name: Kodak. The Eastman Kodak company was formed on April 24, 1888. This design was the first Kodak mass-produced camera, and brought photography to the mass market. As described in its advertising, the operation was simple: “Pull the String, Turn the Key, Press the Button. e83fb63c633b5fccd8cc2a3cc6226844” I have to say that’s one of the best advertisement I’ve ever seen, just make me thinking about the effort that Eastman made for people, he made complicated to simple which is one of the most things in the world. Now anyone could take pictures of family events, indoor and outdoor scenes, and vacations, without needing special skills. Only 22-ounces in weight, it required no tripod or table for support. It used a fixed-focus lens which was fast enough to take practically instantaneous exposures. Its roll film was enough to take 100 pictures, each 2½ inches diameter, that was brilliant and a big step for human’s history, even he was not the first people who invented the first camera or develop the skill and at the first time, but without all the chemical and technical miracle, it’s impossible to let people who do not have any special skills to love that. After 1888, almost every year the Eastman team developed some new kinds of camera or film to support and encourage peoppalmer-cox-cigar-label-19-1crople who love to take photos.  At February of 1900, the very first Kodak Brownie camera was introduced to the public and the price was only cost $1 allowed virtually anyone to afford. That showed this genius businessman mind of Eastman, because he lets the super cheap camera to expand the business term of film, he “push” the market from expensive cameras to the lower price exception can still out of the rewp1431f3fd_05_06ach of most middle and lower class working families. The cost of camera is low but the team also guaranteed the quality was effective and reliable. Exactly like the name of this camera, Eastman intended to marketed with children in mind because the name of Brownie  was taking from the popular Palmer Cox Brownie. At the same time the film was also affordable, even for 1900. 1 dollar can buy a Brownie, 6 exposure roll of transparent film at $0.15, paper negative film at $0.1 and $0.4 for processing which included the printed images and postage. Eastman was devoted to mass production of his cameras, international distribution, and meeting customer needs and he finally making photography truly accessible to the amateur masses.

Section 4: Kodaking – “Extensive advertising”

Kodak’s high-profile advertising campaigns established the need to preserve ‘significant” moment in family or any moment that people enjoyed. They were all labeled to “Kodak Moment”, just like the concept of everyday life. If we go through back to see tons of Kodak’s retro ads, we can found many similarities, always has famous Kodak girl,_35 young kids, simply slogan or the illustration of Kodak new products. As we seen, women Kodak cast in the leading role because Eastman knew how to market for women, because they know the mom, wife, daughter’s role in a family. They are the major group who enjoy to take the snapshot to record their family moment. However, women just present who took the photos, because the other half of the Kodak moment required a context, like the birthday parties, family holidays, sport games and so on. Kodak also played an important role in converting travel to tourism, the common sense we had now which is if you haven’t took any photos from your trip who will knows you went to that and photos was all about preserving memories for that sentiment, who love doing that? Women. Because by the 1970s, more than 60% of photos in the US was took by women.the-kodak-camera-century-1889The product’s first advertising slogan, “You press the button – we do the rest,” reflected this process.

The name “Kodak” had no meaning; Eastman created the brand name for reasons he summarized in his British patent application: “First. It is short. Second. It is not capable of mispronunciation. Third. It does not resemble anything in the art and cannot be associated with anything in the art except the Kodak.” In 1892 he renamed his firm the Eastman Kodak Company. Kodak cameras were not cheap at $25 apiece – about the equivalent of $400 today – so at first few Americans could purchase them. Yet the novel product, supported by extensive and appealing advertising, grew in popularity especially from the 1890s onward.

Advertising was a major budget item for the company and a cornerstone of Ged56b4dde0f6db3eaa3dc820cf2beab66orge Eastman’s business success, making Kodak a household word while many competing brands failed to gain a permanent market share. Eastman created an advertising department and hired a manager in 1892. A well-known icon, the Kodak Girl, began to appear in magazine and poster advertising in 1893. By the end of the century, the company was spending a phenomenal $750,000 annually on promotion. A famous slogan first used in 1905 proclaimed, “If ik0265t isn’t an Eastman, it isn’t a Kodak;”
in that same year the eminently recognizable yellow box appeared as film packaging. In some advertisements and other texts the word “Kodak” was used as a verb (“Kodak as you go,”
was one advertising headline) but this usage did not a become permanent fixture in the English language.

Kodaking is obviously a fake verb word but after explored the history and all kinds of archives of Kodak Ads, it’s pretty touching from many sides. Even I can tell the history of American life back to 19 and 20 centuries. If compare sharing experience on social media by those snapshots, do we lose something authentic? I hope the answer was YES.

Section 5: Conclusion – My Kodak Memory  

One of the best childhood memory on 90’s was to play with my Olympus film camera, I like the feeling of each click. Every time when I finished one roll of film than send it back to a photo store processed the Kodak films made me so exciting and mix a little bit pressure. When my mom brings the white paper bag and inside full of my photos, it’s really does satisfied an ameturar photograher’s mind to celebrate some my best shots. The texture and color of a film photo has never changed. The family album and old photos seem the only object make me has homesick, thanks to Kodak. And I have to say, Eastman not only changed the American life but also globally impact many families too.    

Reference :

Eastman Kodak Company 

George Eastman Museum

Duke University Digital Collection – Eastman Kodak and Its Early Advertising: More About the Ellis Collection and Kodak

O’Barr, William M. Culture and the Ad: Exploring Otherness in the World of Advertising. Boulder, Colo: Westview Press, 1994.

West, Nancy M. Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2000.

2012, Arthur Molella March 15. “This Kodak Moment.” National Museum of American History. Smithsonian Insitution Mithsonian Insitution, 08 Nov. 2016.

Chinamania: A Case Study of the Porcelain Installation Art


Chinamania has been phenomenally hit for a long time in history since the appreciation of Chinese ancient art and culture in the European society was developed during the 17th and 18th centuries. In this case study of the porcelain installation art exhibition in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the author tried to explore dialogism between the porcelain installation art works and the ancient Chinese art, as well as their symbolic and cultural meaning in the networks of contemporary art world. Meanwhile, the comparison between the installation art works and Ai Weiwei’s avant-garde ceramic artworks will be applied to see the happening of art reproduction and the rediscovery of artistic values in globalization.

Research problem

  1. What’s the history background of chinamania in the 17-18th European society and what’s the symbolic meaning of the porcelain decorations at that time and now?
  2. Case Study: How is McConell’s porcelain installation art influenced by and dialogic the history of chinamania and the porcelain design and production in China? How is the porcelain installation art work cohesive with the “peacock room” in the museum interface?
  3. What’s difference and shared commons between the types of porcelain installation art and Ai Weiwei’s ceramic avant-garde artworks?
  4. What’s the cultural meaning of the porcelain and ceramic artworks in the networks of contemporary art world?


“It’s getting harder and harder every day to live up to my blue and white china.”

– Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

A frenzy mania for Chinese art and culture swept through the Europe during the 1870s, as the Chinese decorations were increasingly exported to the European market. The blue-and-white Chinese porcelain was phenomenally popular and particularly appreciated as one of the most priceless treasures at that time. Oscar Wilde, the great novelist in Victorian society, was famous for collecting the blue and white porcelain during the period of China-mania.

Nowadays, the Chinese art and culture has been widely spread, developed and reinterpreted in multiple genres of art forms globally. For instance, Chinamania, the exhibition currently on display in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington D.C., has epitomized the Chinese and orient culture with delicate porcelains and installation art works, creatively reflecting the obsession and curiosity about Chinese craftmanship during the 17th and 18th centuries in the European society.

History: Chinamania, Porcelain and European Society

Chinamania, a vivid expression of frenzy love for Chinese style art and culture, derived from the global trade during the 17th and 18th century when more and more European merchants crowded into the southeastern coast of China and traded for tea, porcelain and silk.

As Early as the 13th century, the Italian merchant, Marco Polo, has been to China for trade and travel for a long time. After coming back to the Europe, he wrote a book, The Travels of Marco Polo, to record his experience in China and other countries in East Asia with regards to the wealth and culture there. It was so provoking for the Europeans since they, for the first time, were able to know about the mysterious Orient and ancient China for the details directly from a book. Marco Polo’s book greatly contributed to depicting a prosperous ancient China, and arousing people’s imagination of the mysterious Orient country. It was even the initial impetus for the European merchants to explore and trade with China. As the Portuguese and Dutch merchants arrived in China during the 16th century, they began shipping the blue-and-white porcelains home along with the silks and spices that inspired the Age of Exploration, and later came the British merchants in 17th century with larger scale trade in the Orient. On the other side, the developed oceanic silk road also served to export large amounts of Chinese goods to the Europe and they became relatively competitive in the market. In the 1870s, a new word Chinoiserie has been used by the British to describe the Chinese style, to some extent, it represents the progressive understanding of the Chinese culture among the British public, even being proud of collecting Chinese antiques and talking about Chinese culture.

Among the imported Chinese merchandises, the blue-and-white porcelains were particularly rare and precious in constantly high demands due to their delicate craftsmanship and replication complexity, thus being granted as the invaluable gifts usually for the royal families and aristocracies. Gradually, the porcelain as the symbol of wealth and social status was acknowledged by the European public, and until today, we could still see the 18th century exported Chinese porcelains in some western private collections and galleries.

A Theory of Everything, Walter McConnell.

A Theory of Everything, Walter McConnell.

Case Study: the Chinamania Exhibition in Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

As is shown in the video, two porcelain installation art works are displayed near one of the entrances of the exhibition room, as they are the most eye-catching and appealing items in this exhibition. These porcelain installation art works are constituted of stacks of porcelains in diverse shapes and styles, some of which are the well-known characters from cartoons or fairy tales, some are plants and animals in the nature, others are the great persons in history, e.g. Ludwig van Beethoven, and Abraham Lincoln. In the form of tradition Chinese art, these porcelain art pieces were in fact created from 3D scans of the porcelain originals. The multiples were replicated and recombined to produce various tokens of porcelain installation art works, and were granted the name – A theory of Everything. As the supplementation of the other Chinamania exhibition, these installation artworks also serve as another “outgoing” interpretation of the Peacock Room Remix – an immersive installation by painter Darren Waterston, reimagines James McNeill Whistler’s famous Peacock Room – an icon of American art. Inside of it should be a great collection of the ancient Chinese porcelains, however, it imitates a destroyed and after-fighting scene; when stepping into the room and immersed in the dim lighting environment, you’ll be immediately attracted by the broken porcelains and hear some low-mood tunes as if someone is murmuring in the dark.

The creator, Walter McConnell, is currently the professor of Ceramic Art at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. He specializes in installations of moist clay and towering assemblages of cast porcelain, and he’s most recognized for his unfired ceramic installations addressing the relationship between nature and culture. The series of porcelain installation art works, A Theory of Everything, reflected his exploration of nature and culture through the mixtures of figures and characters, meanwhile, they also represented the dialogues between the creator and audience, which is also one of the appealing aspects of the installation arts. McConnell got the inspiration from his travel to China in 2002 and witnessed the porcelain production sites at Jingdezhen, which is honored as the capital of Chinese porcelain. Therefore, this porcelain installation art works obviously dialogic to the Chinese art craftmanship. In McConnell’s minds, the porcelain installation sculptures not only represent the western interpretation of Chinese arts, but also the long-term appreciation of porcelains within the cultural contexts of Chinamania. “This is evidence not only of a collective unconscious but also of the larger cultural contexts in which objects accrue value and meaning.”

A Theory of Everything, such porcelain sculptures as the typical installation art, is an interesting case to look into. From a single porcelain to a great collection of porcelain installation with cultural and symbolic meaning, from singularity to multiplicity, the insight that the context in which an artwork is presented influences the experience and meaning of the work, meanwhile, the creator also struggles to express the meaning to the audience with the utilization of the interface and materials at most.

“The essence of installation art is, according to Reiss, spectator participation.” I’ve been to the exhibition for twice. Though it wasn’t crowded at all in the exhibition, I could still feel the visitors were curious about these marvelous installation art works – everyone spent time slowly walking around and around the stacks, stopped to watch the figures and read the introduction labels on the wall, evaluating the replicated stacks of Chinese style while created by western artist. I ever talked to guarding person in the exhibition room while watching these art works for the first time. I asked him about his feelings to see the installation art works, and he said, “I’ve been serving for the military for many years and hardly did I get a chance to closely look at such high-arts in the gallery, I was curious about it when I first saw it and I think it’s wonderful. And I like to see people coming to appreciate these special arts.” I was glad to hear that he found it amazing, and gradually realized that the installation art as one of the typical genres in contemporary arts, might usually be acceptable and welcomed by the public since it strikes the sensual feelings of people in a more direct approach.

When gazing at the porcelain installation art works at first, I was easily attracted by the diversity of characters and figures of every single porcelain, and I would unconsciously try to recognize as many as I could, or even count how many layers there are; then I would get closer to stare at the porcelain materials and think about how they are connected and attached to each other – for me, a visitor with Chinese cultural background, I would be definitely appealed to this specially designed installation artwork for the sense of familiarity and pay attention to every detail – it is the cultural encyclopedia that aroused my interests towards the art work, “the encyclopedia is a useful description for how we relate interpretants (at many levels) to symbolic information to generate meanings”; “Our learned codes for associating signs and symbols with their cultural meanings are a function of this macro-cultural Encyclopedia”.

A Theory of Everything, Walter McConnell.

A Theory of Everything, Walter McConnell.

Comparison: Ai Weiwei’s Avant-garde Porcelain Work

Ai Weiwei is a renowned Chinese avant-garde artist, architect as well as an activist. He is blunt in expressing his opinions in art, politics and social issues, and this makes him to be a controversial person in China. Other than that, he has contributed a lot to the field of art and design. In his early years, he dropped school in film studies and moved to New York and lived there for over 12 years. There he met some artists, like Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, and was influenced by the new Dadaism and the Fluxus movement, which have strong impact on his later art work in installation, photography and design. He ever served as artistic consultant on the design of the Bird Nest – the main stadium for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Some of Ai’s best known works are installations, often tending towards the dynamic and sparkling dialogue between the contemporary art world and traditional Chinese arts.

Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei

In the 1990s, Ai Weiwei has done something surprisingly – dropping the urn made in Han Dynasty. This iconoclastic appropriations of historic clay pots and porcelain vases raised endless questions about Ai and his arts – many people appreciate and even look highly of the precious porcelain art work, while he broke it easily all of a sudden, so what drove him to do so? In his eyes, he broke them because he wanted to preserve and develop the ancient Chinese arts based on the original ways of ceramic and porcelain production. Just like Walter McConnell, Ai was also partly influenced by the mass production of porcelains in Jingdezhen, however, he was kind of unsatisfied with the way of firing them, thinking that it was different from the way of making them in Qing Dynasty. In order to closely observe and record the process of breaking the vases, he broke them.

Dropping the Urn, Ai Weiwei.

Dropping the Urn, Ai Weiwei.

Ai also created other interesting ceramic vases with colorful patterns and even famous brands and logos on it – the Coca Cola Vase, for example, is a smart combination – a Twentieth Century logo painted upon a two-thousand year old vase; the emblem of an American brand emblazoned on an ancient Chinese artifact, a unique hand-crafted object adorned with the ornament of mass-production. The great contrast between the material and pattern are so eye-catching that it even recreate the artifact and more people will be able to rediscover the value of such an antiqued ceramic vase.

Coca-Cola Vase, Ai Weiwei.

Coca-Cola Vase, Ai Weiwei.

Conclusion: Reproduction, Rediscovery and Beyond

Art is emerging, globalizing, and remixing. Even the antiqued and regional artworks are valuable and welcomed to recreate in the contemporary art world. The Chinamania and its progressive development is typical in that it’s constantly being studied, reproduced and remixed even in today’s world. The porcelain and ceramic artworks were originally precious in themselves filled with priceless symbolic meanings. Both Walter McConnell and Ai Weiwei are trying to reproduce them with their own ways of interpretation, bringing them to the contemporary art work and rediscover their artistic values in exhibitions to the public. The installation art work with 3D technologies creating the porcelain replicas and diverse characters has got more people involved to see the porcelain art works, whereas the Dropping Urn  and Coca-Cola Vase are more straightforward in breaking the traditional art forms and reinventing the old fashions. Therefore, the globalization of the artworks, in its essence, is an approach to reproduce and rediscover the art works, which will also arouse more people’s interests to appreciate the global artworks and get them an opportunity to enrich their cultural experience.



  1. Patricia Bjaaland Welch, China Mania! – The Global Passion For Porcelain 800-1900. Passage, 2014.
  2. Vivian Van Saaze, Installation Art and the Museum: Presentation and Conservation of Changing Artworks. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2013. Print.
  3. Irvine Martin,  Introduction to Visual and Pictorial Semiotics: De-Blackboxing Meaning-Making in Art and Visual Media, Communication, Culture & Technology Program. Georgetown University, 2017.
  4. Oscar Wilde’s China love:
  5. Chinoiserie:
  7. Ai Weiwei Dropping the Urn:
  9. Coca Cola Vase:

The Reappearance of Mona Lisa: Appropriation Art and Dialogic Networks- Carson Collier


In the following pages I will go over the dialogic context associated with Appropriation Art, specifically looking at the iconic image of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q., Warhol’s Thirty Is Better Than One, and John’s Seasons are all famous works from different movements that depict the image of the Mona Lisa. How do these pieces’ associate with one another? Do these separate pieces of work drain the original dignity from the Mona Lisa? Or do they continue to re-distinguish the piece as a famous work of art?


Poster PDF


 Appropriation Art in a Dialogic Network

Roland Barthes refer to the three ingredients of an image: lines, forms, and colors (pp. 157-158). This sounds simple enough, however, images have the ability to provoke different meanings. Each image created by an artist, whether it be the Mona Lisa or Starry Night (1889), can be thought of as an extension of the artist’s mind. To fully appreciate an artwork, each viewer should try to consider the environment in which the work was created (Clark and Chalmers).

When an original piece is taken from its environment and altered once, a new dialogue is created between the two pieces. If an original piece is taken from its environment multiple times, the dialogic network becomes larger and complex. What fuels this network is not necessarily the image itself, but the intention behind each variation of the image in the network.

Mona Lisa

Hanging at an underwhelming 2’6”x 1’9” in her own corner of The Louvre, is Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. One of, if not the most, iconic paintings in history. The Mona Lisa gets around six million visitors
a year. However, fame is a two edge sword. Because Mona Lisa is one of the most iconic pieces of art in the world, it is also one of the most appropriated. The Mona Lisa has been appropriated in various forms, from popular culture, like the American television show the Simpsons with “Mona Lisa Simpson”, to random hobbyist like Svetlana Petrova who inserts her cat, Zarathustra, into famous pieces of artwork.



Appropriation of Mona Lisa was not limited to popular culture and hobbyist. Famous artists like Marcel Duchamp, Any Warhol, and Jasper Johns, have successfully appropriated the Mona Lisa in their work.


Marcel Duchamp: Da Vinci and Dada

“Dada is seen as iconoclastic and confrontational” -Hopkins

After World War One, most people’s view of the world was turned upside down. In order to cope with this change, different artist came together and created the Dada movement. The Dada movement was short but strong lived and it embraced everything anti-art; lasting from the mid- 1910s to the early 1920s. For the artists that participated in Dada, the violence of the war confirmed a lack of social structure in modern society (“MoMA Learning”) and the Dada movement was an attack against this society. Dada challenged the mainstream. For most Dada artist, the visual aesthetic of their work was not important. However, the ideas that the work promoted were the intended center of discussion. French artist Marcel Duchamp was one of the participatory artists of the Dada movement and also introduced the idea of ‘readymade’. Readymade work was associated with utilizing things that had already been manufactured and not typically considered ‘art’. Fountain (1917), is one of Duchamp’s earliest readymade pieces. Fountain was created by Duchamp to mock the mainstream ideals of society.

Fountain 1917, replica 1964 Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968 Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1999

Fountain 1917, replica 1964 Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968 Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1999

L.H.O.O.Q. (1919) was another avant-garde work from Duchamp coming out of the Dada movement. L.H.O.O.Q. features Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa with masculine features (moustache and beard) and a crude caption. If you sound out the individual letters in French “L-H-O-O-Q” it resembles the phrase “Elle a chaud a cul” which translates to “she has a hot ass” (Ayers). This work became an inside joke in the art world associated with the Dada movement. Shortly before da Vinci’s death he claimed to have never finished any of his work. So Marcel Duchamp decided to finish one of da Vinci’s works for him. All joking aside- this piece along with the Dada movement directly challenged traditional art and helped pave the way for the upcoming surrealist movement.


L.H.O.O.Q. (1919) Marcel Duchamp

It can be argued that Duchamp vandalized the Mona Lisa when he created L.H.O.O.Q. However, looking at the impact L.H.O.O.Q had on the Dada movement and other movements that followed, there could be a counter argument that Duchamp was utilizing that specific image of Mona Lisa to contribute to something larger than its existence as a store bought postcard.

Andy Warhol: Copying Mass Consumerism

“He was a legend in his own lifetime” (Honnef, pp. 7)

Another figure that was just as popular as the Mona Lisa, and had a background just as elusive as her smile, was Pop artist Andy Warhol. Warhol was known for his obscure screen prints of popular icons. The icons Warhol portrayed were anything popular and commercial, from famous people to cans of soup.



Warhol was obsessed with the celebrity cult and since Mona Lisa is one of the most iconic images of all time, Warhol obviously dedicated a whole series to the piece. Warhol appropriated the Mona Lisa a little bit differently than Duchamp. He took images of Mona Lisa and would reproduce them in various sizes and colors. In his piece Thirty Are Better Than One, Warhol creates a pattern-like print utilizing the image of Mona Lisa multiples times (Honnef, pp. 1-70).


Thirty Is Better Than One (1963) Andy Warhol

Like most of Warhol’s work, this piece embraces mass consumerism and reproduction. More is Better. The late 1950s-1960s were the peak of mass consumerism in America. Unlike Duchamp who challenged the environment around him, Warhol embraced his. Warhol took what was popular out of its original medium and made it his own.  Mona Lisa and other popular figures continued to appear in many more works throughout Warhol’s career.


Colored Mona Lisa (1963) Andy Warhol

Jasper Johns: Appropriation for Appreciation

“To be a good artist, you have to give up everything, including the desire to be a good artist” – Jasper Johns

John’s was an American Artist known for his work with Assemblage Art. “Assemblage is a form of three-dimensional collage in which found objects- everything from old iron chains to movie posters and Cracker Jack prizes- are combined to make sculpture” (Bischoff).

targreenGreen Target (1958) Jasper Johns

For example, Green Target (1958), one of John’s earlier pieces is made out of “encaustic on newspaper and cloth over canvas” (Jasper Johns, Green Target), not a typical medium. Jasper John’s, along with Robert Rauschenberg, were some of the key artists in the mid 20th century to move away from abstract expressionism. Johns liked to riff on the purposeful mess that was abstract expressionism with his Assemblage art. However, compared to Duchamp and Warhol, John’s rebellion was deemed as a little bit more reserved. One of John’s more popular pieces, Seasons (1985-1986), appropriates the image of Mona Lisa to pay homage to artists like Duchamp and Warhol who had used the iconic image in the past (“JOHNS, Jasper”).

The Seasons (Summer) 1987 Jasper Johns born 1930 Presented by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, courtesy of Judy and Kenneth Dayton 2004

The Seasons (Summer) 1987 Jasper Johns born 1930 Presented by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, courtesy of Judy and Kenneth Dayton 2004

Jasper John’s appropriation of the image of Mona Lisa directly acknowledges works like Thirty Is Better Than One and L.H.O.O.Q., pulling this huge dialogic network together.


Appropriation Art comes in many different shapes, sizes, and mediums. We see this when looking at how one image like the Mona Lisa can be taken from an oil painting, appropriated as a television cartoon, a postcard, a silk screen print, or a piece of Assemblage Art, and so on. I believe this repeated appropriation of the image of the Mona Lisa encourages a dialogic network. Mona Lisa’s continued existence in this appropriation pieces re- distinguishes the iconic image itself.


“Andy Warhol | Thirty Are Better Than One, from portfolio: Forty Are Better Than One (1963/2009) | Available for Sale | Artsy.” Artsy – Discover, Research, and Collect the World’s Best Art Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 May 2017.

Ayers, Andrew. “Duchamp, Marcel.” The Oxford Companion to Western Art. Ed. Hugh Brigstocke. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 10 May. 2017.

Barthes, Roland. “Rhetoric of the Image.” In Image, Music, Text, translated by Stephen Heath, 32-51. New York: Hill and Wang, 1988.

Bischoff, Dan. “assemblage art.” Encyclopedia of New Jersey, edited by Maxine N. Lurie, and Marc Mappen, Rutgers University Press, 1st edition, 2004. Credo Reference, .

Francis M. Naumann. “Duchamp, Marcel.” Grove Art OnlineOxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 12 May. 2017.

Hopkins. Dada and Surrealism. N.p.: n.p., n.d. A Very Short Introduction. Web.

Honnef, Klaus. Warhol. N.p.: n.p., n.d. TASCHEN. Web.

Irvine, “Remix and the Dialogic Engine of Culture: A Model for Generative Combinatoriality.”

“Jasper Johns. Green Target. 1955 | MoMA.” The Museum of Modern Art. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 May 2017.

“Jasper Johns | The Seasons: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter | The Met.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, i.e. The Met Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 May 2017.

“JOHNS, Jasper.” Benezit Dictionary of ArtistsOxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 10 May. 2017.

“MoMA Learning.” MoMA | Dada. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 May 2017.

“MoMA Learning.” MoMA | Vincent van Gogh. The Starry Night. 1889. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 May 2017

“Mona Lisa.” Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, edited by Susie Dent, Chambers Harrap, 19th edition, 2012. Credo Reference, Accessed 10 May 2017.

Michell, Kalani. “I know it when I see it: Mona Lisa on the move.” CineAction, no. 91, 2013, p. 50+. Literature Resource .com/ps/i.dop=LitRC&sw=w&u=wash43584&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA346142605&it=r&asid=72c02bf1b3c60e9133f1a9d5aadb19b7. Accessed 10 May 2017.

Popping the celebrity: Warhol’s attack on icon fetishism as demonstrated through Mao


By Shalina Chatlani


Warhol’s pop art is known throughout the art world for boldly representing the celebrities and pop-culture figures of the time in an outlandish way. This research seeks to understand, through one of his most famous works Mao, the underlying assumptions of his method. Asking what the foundations of his work are, this paper will use scholarly sources on Warhol’s historical background and contemporary research in order to dissect Warhol’s obsession with celebrity. Primarily, this paper argues that Warhol sought to address the theme of commodity and icon fetishism, but was also a victim of that very capitalist structure because of his background and artistic roots.


The surreality of celebrity is a theme that Andy Warhol was both fascinated with and often attacked through his artwork. As a popular cultural and artistic figure, he understood very well the exciting, but often struggling nature of fame; and, he used his pop-art to deconstruct this idea, laying out very boldly through vivid colors, exaggerated lines, and prints, in an almost parody version of an icon or figure that he saw as being worshipped. This strategy was an attempt to represent, sort of paradoxically, the reality of the celebrity through the visual representation of the celebrity’s surreality. With so much foresight into the concept of icon fetishism, Warhol managed to even address the potential of “celebritized” artwork, by turning reproduction into the art form itself. This method both preemptively acknowledges that his work would be re-mixed and re-imagined as it became a study piece, but also visually offers the sentiment of publicity and constant spotlight that is often evoked as a function of celebrity life, such as real-world paparazzi and intimate spreads in People magazine.

In 1972, Warhol after a break from painting and a stint with film, returned to screenprint and painting after becoming fascinated with the cover of a Life Magazine, which had a picture of Mao Zedong on it. The magazine had named the Chairman the most important person of the 20th century, a title which intrigued Warhol, because Mao had promoted for himself a mass ideology and cult following. Warhol, who had been following Chinese culture became infatuated with the way the population iconized the Chairman. He’s quoted as saying:

“They’re so nutty. They don’t believe in creativity. The only picture they ever have is of Mao Zedong. It’s great. It looks like a silkscreen” (Bourdon 95).

As a Western artist, Warhol with his remediated Mao prints not only deconstructed the celebrity of the figure, but also ended up serving as an interesting example of West meeting the East, as his almost blasphemous rendition of the Chairman actually stripped away a lot of the authoritarian undertones of his image and the Communist regime. His artwork has even come to be accepted within Chinese contemporary art. Using Mao as the overarching example, this essay argues that Warhol used the nature of icon worship to create artwork that actually deconstructs the commoditization of the individual. By exploring Warhol’s return to painting and screenprinting in the 70s, the pop-art form during the era and use of it as remediation of the true image, and his attempts to understand and represent the surreal nature of celebrity and icons, this research observes how Warhol broke down the celebrity complex even while being rooted in it.

Warhol’s roots in commercialization; a departure from painting, and a return 

Andy Warhol: Self-Portrait (Passport Photograph with Altered Nose), 1956© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

Andy Warhol: Self-Portrait (Passport Photograph with Altered Nose), 1956© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

Warhol in 1945 entered the Carnegie Institute of Technology, where he would received his degree in painting and design. Interestingly, while he was in school, he had a part time job as a window scene creator in stores, by which he became directly exposed to the “world of consumption and advertising.” These would become the subject of his artwork (Warhol and Faerna 97). Faerna in a biography on Warhol writes that the artist had become fascinated with the idea of changing his identity, particularly his physical appearance and often found news ways of representing himself differently through artwork, as shown on the right. In New York during the 50s, he was a free-lance commercial artists for magazines like Glamour and Vogue, through which he began
building his repertoire. In the 1960s, Warhol decided to break from the commercial art world, and enter into fine arts (Faerna 97).

Marilyn Monroe, 1962. The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

But instead of embracing the pre-existing order of fine arts, Warhol wanted to transform it, by bridging the gap between avant-garde and the public. His goal was to make it so that common people, not just the elite and educated classes, could become the audience of his work. His dive into pop art was supposed to be accessible for everyone. He was deeply influenced by the commercial past he had been submerged in, and became interested in the commercial technique of mass production. Thus, in the late 50s and early 60s, he began developing his work in painting and screenprinting and ended up producing some of his most recognizable and most often reproduced work, such as the Campbell’s soup cans and portraits of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe (Faerna 97).

In a brief move away from the world of painting, Warhol then began to become interested in filmmaking, taking up with bands like The Velvet Underground and producing “multimedia ‘happenings”‘. Warhol was becoming even more absorbed into the world of celebrity, becoming accustomed with the reality of fanaticism, when in 1968 a radical feminist even tried to assassinate him (Faerna 97). Truly, Warhol never stopped considering the reality of commodity. For example, Bourdon in Warhol writes about an experience the artist had in meeting John Lennon and Yoko Ono that he couldn’t separate the individuals from the thought of how much money

Yoko Ono, John Lennon, and Andy Warhol, June 5, 1971. Photograph by David Bourdon, David Bourdon Papers, 1953–1998.

Yoko Ono, John Lennon, and Andy Warhol, June 5, 1971. Photograph by David Bourdon, David Bourdon Papers, 1953–1998.

they were making. He quotes Warhol talking to a friend saying, “They must make a million dollars a day!” and proceeding to urge him to have a “little talk with Yoko” and persuade her to commission a portrait of herself (Bourdon 95).  So, not only was Warhol interested in representing commodity through icons, he was also very determined by it–he was a product of the system he sought to represent and even attack. Warhol was always around this theme of surreal life, the type of existence of constant watching, fame, and money.


Accordingly for Warhol, the world of politics were just another form of celebrity. In 1971, the year when the People’s Republic of China renewed relations with the United States, newspapers and other form of American media were filled with articles on the new “climate of the friendliness in the communist regime” (Bourdon 95).  In 72, Warhol, who had become really infatuated with Chinese culture during this time, decided to return to screenprinting and painting to represent it. His reasoning for returning to portraits is evident in one his quotes from Bourbon’s biography, where Warhol is clearly influenced by money, icon worship, and politics in the form of celebrity:

“Since fashion is art now and Chinese is in fashion, I could make a lot of money. Mao would be really nutty…not to believe in it, it’d just be fashion…but the same portrait you can buy in the poster store. Don’t do anything creative, just print it up on canvas” (Bourdon 95).

Warhol was attracted to the idea of producing Mao’s face, because it was both one of the most recognizable faces in the world and a simplified for many American of “alien and threatening form of government. He had the foresight to think that this type of painting would be appealing to “capitalist collectors in the West” (Bourdon 95). Particularly given the context of artistic pursuit in China during the time, Warhol’s work on Mao was popular for paradoxically representing a symbol of hope for the future of arts in China but also being made specifically for a Western audience. During the 60s, artists and intellectuals were regularly silenced in China, and often persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. Even though he purely intended for Mao to be a profitable return to painting, Mao ended up becoming a representation of undermining authoritarianism. Had he been in China, he probably would have ended up in prison (Bourdon 95).

Warhol beside Mao's portrait, Tiananmen Square, 1982.

Warhol beside Mao’s portrait, Tiananmen Square, 1982. From Warhol in China by Christopher Makos. 

The methods of the pop art world, and Warhol’s production of Mao 

The pop art movement was a move to blur the line between “high” and “low” art (The Art Story). Taking a step away from the “elevated” metaphorical subjects on mythology, history, and morality within classical art, pop art tried to move work on popular culture to the status of fine art. While movements like Abstract Expressionism reimagined the real world in a way to represent trauma, pop art took a sort of disinterested and cool approach to discussing the real world in a more direct way. Some critics of the pop art movement claim that it actually endorsed rather than critiqued capitalism and mass media (The Art Story).


American Preparedness 1968. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

For instance, one of Warhol’s contemporaries at the time, Roy Lichtenstein, took images from pop culture and comic books and painted them to look as if they were in an originally printed format. In painting red dots to represent the normally machine printed patterns in comics, Lichtenstein created “low” art in a “high” art format. Warhol flipped Lichtenstein’s technique, by using machines within his artistic style. In doing this, he “acknowledged the commodification of art, proving that paintings were no different from cans of Campbell’s soup” (The Art Story). The essence of the pop art movement was to take normal everyday items and objects and turn them into high-culture pieces, in order to turn an elite art scene into something more generally accessible. At the same time many artists used mass production techniques that were used in advertising to influence consumers to keep buying things in order to actually critique commodity fetishism post- WWII, methods such as commercial silkscreen to printing.

Warhol was a poster-boy for the pop art movement, and through his technique he committed himself to acting like a machine. Kahmolz quotes him in a Sotheby’s article in his response to the origins of his method:

“The reason I’m painting this way is that I want to be a machine, and I feel that whatever I do and do machine-like is what I want to do” (Kahmolz 2013).

"Mao," Musee Falliera, Paris, Feb 23-march 18, 1974, Bourbon 95.

“Mao,” Musee Falliera, Paris, Feb 23-march 18, 1974, Bourbon 95.

Warhol’s technique was to silkscreen print images repeatedly onto the canvas in an effort to undermine any evidence of “the artist’s hand.” Instead, he wanted to create the look of a mass-produced and machine look. To maintain sharp lines and bold colors, Warhol would pass a full ink-filled sponge over mesh that was sitting on top of the silk screen. The ink would seep through the mesh, except for places where Warhol had put glue. For Warhol, areas where the ink didn’t seep through perfectly, were just areas that were unique and added to the machine aesthetic or the “trashy immediacy of a tabloid news photo” (Kamholz 2013). And through reproduction, Warhol addressed “the commodification of fame”.

After becoming fascinated with Mao again in 1972 after an about five year rendezvous with film, Warhol returned to this methodology. Like other work, Mao was produced through screen printing and painting, putting on top of his face the type of glamorous makeup he used for the Marilyn portrait. But in a new technique, he also incorporated drawing, scribbling some lines alongside his face.

First Generation American, Andy Warhol, at The Art Institute of Chicago's Modern Wing.

First Generation American, Andy Warhol, at The Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing, photo from Desert Domicile.

Warhol of course created multiple different prints of Mao in order to achieve the sense of reproduction. One that is particularly noteworthy was displayed on the left at The Art Institute of Chicago. The ways in which Warhol sought to deconstruct the authoritarian nature of Mao and turn his celebrity into the the artwork itself is apparent in the eye make-up and rosy cheeks. The scale of the painting evokes the severe nature of the Chairman, but the image doesn’t maintain an authoritarian overtone, such as the official image of Mao that was reproduced throughout the People’s Republic of China, because in this rendition he looks rather ridiculous and comical. The addition of the beauty mark, along with drawing techniques, like the splattered color at the bottom, shows how Warhol conveyed communist propaganda as a parody commercial advertisement. Both as a statement on culture and perhaps an unintentional political statement, Warhol as a Western artist, applied American pop culture and marketing methodologies to an Eastern figure and offered a critique on mass media at the same time. It’s also representative, given its influences, of how Warhol was also extremely determined by capitalist intentions. Other reproductions also utilize bold distracting colors, as shown in the photo below. The one in Chicago, however, is highly representative of how Warhol managed to deconstruct celebrity, even in politics.

Andy Warhol MAO (F. & S. II.90-99) From

Andy Warhol MAO (F. & S. II.90-99) From

Warhol goes to China, his artwork stays

In 1982, Warhol actually ended up traveling to China. In Christopher Makos’ book Warhol in China, one can through his photos that Warhol was obsessed with rigid nature of the culture– the rules, the repeated photos of Mao everywhere, and sharp architecture. To Warhol, it was a completely separate world. The Chinese lifestyle was evocative of the reproducibility context that he worked in.

Frahm, the director of the Blenheim Art Foundation, wrote for the Huffington Post that Warhol’s visit to Hong Kong and Beijing occurred at a pivotal moment in Chinese history. His depictions of Mao offered a window about the the type of liberal awakening and active Western capitalistic intrusion that would occur throughout China. Warhol, upon visiting, noted immediately that there wasn’t a McDonald’s there, amazed with out how uncommercialized Beijing looked. Though, he foresaw that China too would become a victim to commodity.


Ai Weiwei, COCA COLA VASE, 2011, taken from

His artwork did more than just offer a glimpse into what might occur in the nation; it became a reference point for change in the Chinese artworld at the onset of development in contemporary Chinese art. Frahm writes that when it came to the image of Mao, it would come to characterize the start of more openness, and the ability for artists and intellectuals to begin publicly questioning the order of the system, especially things like propaganda: “As an essential cultural reference point in China, the image of Mao has become a crucial image within contemporary art practices —continually appropriated and repeated (much as Warhol would) as a signifier of skewed ideals and the paradoxical traumas these can cause” (Frahm 2014).

The same type of commodity fetishism that Warhol originally explored through his pop artwork is now emerging heavily within the contemporary Chinese art scene, as modern artists “examine and critique the commoditized values and ideologies in post-revolutionary China” (Frahm 2014). He mentions for instance the artist Ai WeiWei, who like Warhol, uses pop culture references to illuminate commercial aspects of society. He created the piece Han Dynasty Urn with Coca-Cola logo, which suggests that Western commercialism is taking over Chinese history and destroying its cultural heritage (Frahm 2014). But also like Warhol, Ai WeiWei recognizes that he too is apart of the system he is critiquing.

Conclusion: The surreality of celebrity inescapable

Even as an artist, Andy Warhol oozed celebrity. Being so immersed in the world of advertising and commercialism, Warhol’s quick rise to fame only further opened his eyes to the effects of mass consumerism on authenticity in culture. Using his pop art to elevate “low” art to “high” fine art, Warhol was able to break the boundaries of intellectual elitism. Further, through his technique of mass reproduction, Warhol preemptively acknowledges the reality that art too will become commoditized, and manages to turn the commodity back into art. Warhol’s artwork truly highlights the type of insight he had into celebrity culture, as well as how much he thought it permeated different aspects of society. Mao is an example of how even politics and political figures can be commodities to people, as he saw Mao as a figure of a mass cult following and driver of a propaganda machine–the same way he viewed advertising of everyday products like coca cola bottles.

But it’s also important to note, as the essay argues throughout, that Warhol clearly in his background and his reaction to the opportunity to create artwork is a victim to the system he is critiquing. Warhol though he sought to demonstrate the character of consumerism was very much so driven by his own capitalist tendencies, having created Mao for some part because he thought it would have been profitable. His life therefore is an interesting example for how commodity fetishism and consumerism are basically inescapable. However, Warhol deserves credit for taking care to address every aspect of celebrity culture, even as it turns his own artwork would become endlessly reproduced and commodified.

Works Cited

Bourdon, David. Warhol. Abrams, New York, 1989.

Warhol, Andy, 1928-1987, and José M. Faerna. warhol. Cameo/Abrams, New York, 1997.

Warhol, Andy, et al. Warhol in China. Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern, 2013.

Bibliography (Uncited References)

Elmaleh, Eliane. “American Pop Art and Political Engagement in the 1960s.” European Journal of American Culture, vol. 22, no. 3, 2003, pp. 181-191.

Gelder, Ken. “Reconstructing Pop/Subculture: Art, Rock, and Andy Warhol. by Van M. Cagle. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1995. 240 Pp.” Popular Music, vol. 16, no. 1, 1997, pp. 125.

Hung, Ruth Y. Y. “Red Nostalgia: Commemorating Mao in our Time.” Literature Compass, vol. 12, no. 8, 2015, pp. 371-384.

Kang, Kyoung-Lae. “Warhol”s “Faces” as Mimesis in Mass Culture: Reading Serial Portraits, Outer and Inner Spaces (1965), and Screen Tests (1964-1966).” 문학과영상, vol. 16, no. 3, 2015, pp. 489-515.

Koski, Lorna. “Arts & People: Pop Goes the Warhol.” WWD, vol. 198, no. 103, 2009, pp. 15.

Lago, Francesca D. “Personal Mao: Reshaping an Icon in Contemporary Chinese Art.” Art Journal, vol. 58, no. 2, 1999, pp. 46-59.


Constructing the Valuation of “Art” as Economic & Social/Cultural

Constructing the Valuation of “Art” as Economic & Social/Cultural

Carly Gamson


As a financial asset, art frustrates and counters the contemporary desire to simplify all economical transactions to spreadsheets, quantifiable formulas, and graphical analyses. This level of investment in a single asset class cannot be attributed to irrational and unpredictable behaviors on the part of a few; through this paper, I aim to construct a rational and predictable explanation for the valuation of art by questioning both (1) How and why an artist gains art-world significance and becomes recognized as valuable; and (2) How and why large discrepancies exist in the valuation of artworks produced by a single artist. Drawing from the theory of Pierre Bourdieu, I understand art as a unique asset in that it cannot be adequately explained or rationalized as just one type of capital, and instead must be understood as simultaneously operating as a form of economic, social, and cultural capital (Bourdieu). The aim of my analysis is to construct a model of valuation that brings together the economics of art valuation with the social, cultural, and emotional aspects of art valuation.


In 2014, the international art market broke its previous pre-recession yearly revenue record from 2007 of $51 billion, bringing in nearly $54 billion over the course of the year. It is of course indisputable that we ascribe value and capital to art; we can look back to the cave art of our ancestors 40,000 years ago to confirm the importance of art as a function necessary to the very survival of mankind (Robertson, 13). However, in a time where the art market is a multibillion-dollar industry, and where a single painting can bring in over $100 million at auction, it is worth critically questioning how, and why, we ascribe value and capital to art, to specific artists, and further to specific works of art within an artist’s larger oeuvre. As a financial asset, art frustrates and counters the contemporary desire to simplify all economical transactions to spreadsheets, quantifiable formulas, and graphical analyses. This level of investment in a single asset class cannot be attributed to irrational and unpredictable behaviors on the part of a few; through this paper, I aim to construct a rational and predictable explanation for the valuation of art by questioning both (1) How and why an artist gains art-world significance and becomes recognized as valuable; and (2) How and why large discrepancies exist in the valuation of artworks produced by a single artist. Drawing from the theory of Pierre Bourdieu, I understand art as a unique asset in that it cannot be adequately explained or rationalized as just one type of capital, and instead must be understood as simultaneously operating as a form of economic, social, and cultural capital (Bourdieu). The aim of my analysis is to construct a model of valuation that brings together the economics of art valuation with the social, cultural, and emotional aspects of art valuation. Using the explosive but short-lived career of Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) as a case study and understanding art as not only financially valuable (as economic capital), but also emotionally and societally valuable (social and cultural capital), I examine the value of Basquiat as an artist and the value of specific artworks within his larger body of work (Bourdieu).

PART 1: The International Contemporary Art Market: Economic, Social, and Cultural Capital

The international contemporary art market is ultimately an imperfect market, defying the assumptions that define market efficiency in economics; as scholar Iain Robertson explains: the art market “is an imperfect and asymmetrical place in which prices fail to reflect all published and unpublished data. The assumptions that the irrational trades of art-market players are cancelled out by rational arbitrageurs, that prices instantaneously adjust to available information and that indices capture all economic activity do not apply” (Robertson, 232). With a commodity such as oil or lumber, we can assume with predicable certainty demand: the public will continue to demand at a constant pace unless massive economic and political shifts occur which would be foreseen beforehand. In the case of art, demand is not nearly as predictable or consistent because there is such a small body of potential buyers and because there are so many barriers to access, which constrict the social and cultural value attributed to art by the majority of the public. Barriers to access are consciously enforced: top galleries are extremely selective about who they will sell certain artworks to and when they will do so, meaning that an individual cannot simply purchase an artwork because they have the money to do so. Barriers to access are also culturally and conceptually maintained: auction houses make access to past information and prices difficult to attain, many sales are private and thus go unrecorded, and a great deal of knowledge is required in order to justify value (Robertson). In trying to rationalize and predict the art market, it ultimately becomes a question of demand: so long as there is demand at certain price points, the market will continue to exist.

Understanding demand is not possible from a solely economic approach because ultimately, art collectors are not the same as non-industry art investors and these differences must be accounted for in their financial valuation of the asset. The difference in the amount that an art collector is willing to pay than a non-industry art investor is the difference in risk and reward that the art collector is willing to take on above the non-industry art investor. An art collector has a different risk tolerance because the art collector has different measurements of reward: not only financial reward, but also personal emotional reward and cultural/social capital reward, neither of which can be quantified through a financial valuation or numeric equation. The goal of any investment is to limit risk and maximize return, and in the case of art the purchaser must establish a comfortable balance between risk and reward, which will look very different from that of a non-industry investor (Robertson, 223). Risks to consider include: variability in taste and preference, macroeconomic market fluctuations, inflation, the heterogeneity of the asset, the limited pool of buyers and low demand, illiquidity, the cyclicality of the market, the lack of market transparency, and the imperfections that are built into the market (including: some sales are private, information is not easily accessible and historical information is not public, and unsold artworks are not recorded) (Robertson, 223). Prices are also a product of external considerations, including macroeconomic movements and larger financial market and international and national political contexts (Robertson).

Looking at art from the financial perspective through which we traditionally value assets and investments, the reward does not outweigh the risks. Thus, we must integrate into our model of valuation the social and cultural capital of art at the societal and at the individual level. Since price of an asset is traditionally a function of supply and demand and since demand is dictated by value, we must ask who and what dictates value. In the international contemporary art market, value is largely a function of taste and approval, which is controlled by a limited body of institutions and by the opinion of a few key individuals. Within the art-world, certain galleries, museums, international festivals and fairs, auction houses, critics and writers, and collectors can give institutional validation, and the weight of their opinions corresponds with the institution’s hierarchical positioning. We must still ask how the art-world creates value for certain artists and artworks, and interrogate whether we can predict and rationalize these decisions.

PART 2: The Basquiat Case Study: Giving “Color” to the Blackbox of Value

In the span of a decade from 1978 to 1988, Jean-Michel Basquiat went from being an anonymous street artist operating under the pseudonym SAMO illegally vandalizing the walls of Lower East Side building and the subway trains of New York City, to an internationally acclaimed art-world celebrity whose paintings set record prices at auction and were exhibited in top museums and galleries around the world. Basquiat’s rapid ascent, while exciting and impressive, is not at all irrational or unpredictable, but rather reflects the relationship between economic capital and cultural/social capital when valuing an artist or artwork. Figure 1 is a concept map that visualizes the various nodes that comprise the art-world network system. Drawing from Professor Irvine’s The Artworld as a Network System and the Institutional Theory of Art, I have identified here six broad categories: (1) Publications, Literature, & Theory; (2) The General Public; (3) Art Economics & Finances; (4) Properties of Artwork; (5) Artist; and (6) Art-World Institutions: Museum, Auction House, Gallery, and International Art Fairs & Biennials. Each of these nodes can be further unpacked, and each subsequent node represents smaller inputs that contribute to the art-world network and to the value of an artwork. Not only have I visually integrated the economic value of art with the social/cultural value, but I have also illustrated the importance of scale and the necessity of understanding value from the scale of the individual artist and artwork to the scale of the international art market, both historically and today.

In the Spring of 1984 at a Christie’s auction of contemporary paintings, Basquiat’s painting Untitled (Skull) fetched a then-record price $19,000, a price impressive for any artist at the time, nonetheless a twenty-three year old artist of color who had only been discovered a few years prior. Painted in 1982, Untitled (Skull) had originally been purchased for $4,000 in 1983 from a small group exhibition called Fast at Alexander Milliken Gallery in New York City. Later this May, Sotheby’s will auction this same painting with the expectation that Untitled (Skull) will set a new record for the artist and hammer at over $60 million (Maneker). Basquiat’s current record price at auction was set by Christie’s in May of 2016, when Basquiat’s Untitled of 1982 fetched $57,285,000 (Embuscado). During this coming auction cycle, Sotheby’s will also sell three additional Basquiat artworks in the day sale: Lot 119, Untitled (‘Bird’) of 1982, has a price estimate of $500,000 to $700,000; lot 185, Untitled of 1982, has a price estimate of $600,000 to $800,000; and lot 192, Untitled (Oreo) of 1988, has a price estimate of $700,000 to $900,000. How do we rationalize purchasing a painting at $57 million? How do we predict the future value of a painting at an estimate that exceeds $60 million? How do we account for such a large discrepancy in the price of one Basquiat artwork over another?

How do we understand Basquiat’s value as an artist? Key to understanding Basquiat’s success is a familiarity with him as an individual, with his artwork, and with the New York City emerging art-world scene of the 1980s. Basquiat was extremely ambitious and motivated, famously asserting to Al Diaz, his close friend and co-conspirator of SAMO: “Al, I know that I’m going to be a famous artist, and I think that I’m going to die young” (Jean-Michel Basquiat: Painter to the Core). Basquiat’s raw, artistic energy and charismatic personality fit in perfectly with the Lower East Side club and alternative arts scene of the time; many of the artists and individuals that Basquiat met through this club and alternative arts culture also became well known, such as Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf. It was through this network that Basquiat was able to integrate himself into the larger New York City arts scene, which during the 1980s was especially permeable as alternative culture was being embraced by the more tight cuffed art-world. Basquiat’s ability to accrue recognition and credibility allowed him to cross over into the institutionalized art world and gain economic and political legitimacy and value. In Figure 2, I have constructed a comprehensive timeline of this crucial decade in Basquiat’s life and career as an artist from 1978 to 1988. This timeline specifically draws attention to different factors that contributed to his value as an artist and to the value of his artwork, both historically and today: (1) Influential actors (artists, gallerists, friends, collaborators, girlfriends); (2) Other artists featured in group shows alongside Basquiat; (3) Locations: travel destinations, galleries, clubs, and shows; (4) Artworks; (5) Motifs, symbols, signs, and themes Basquiat employs; and (5) Media and criticism. Unsurprisingly, many of the artworks that are mentioned in the timeline as crucial during his own lifetime are also those that have fetched the highest prices at auction (Figure 3) and also those that are currently in top museums (and thus have accrued immeasurable social and cultural capital), illustrating the relationship between social/cultural capital and economic capital.

How do we understand the value discrepancy of one artwork over another? My findings here are based on research and grounded in the auction results for Basquiat as found on Artnet. Because the auction house is the art-world institution that most transparently establishes the value of an artwork and an artist, this provides a helpful framework by which to understand the value attributed to Basquiat (Robertson, 241-242). Figures 3 and 4 below, which state the highest paid prices for Basquiat at auction alongside the lowest paid prices accordingly, offer statistical data to support my findings (Artnet). Artworks are identified and valued by their internal characteristics: condition, provenance and exhibition history, subject matter, rarity, demand, scale/size of composition, materials/medium, and critical reception/literature. While some artists might have extensive careers in which they primarily work in the same mediums and materials, the same subject matter, on the same scale, etc., Basquiat is a helpful case study because the short-span of time in which he worked limits the body of works that can be examined, and because of the incredible variability in the content, composition, medium, and scale in which he worked.

Discrepancy in the valuation of Basquiat’s artwork is most visibly a product of the medium/materials employed, the scale and composition of the artwork, the context within which the artwork was produced, the provenance and exhibition history, and the critical reception/literature of the artworks. Figure 2 – the color-coded valuation timeline – begins to de-blackbox the role that different factors play in the valuation of an artwork by Basquiat by taking apart the specific factors that contribute to value and addressing them accordingly. Specifically, those artworks that have unique circumstances of production, unique exhibition histories and provenances, or unique narratives attached to them are likely to accrue more art-world value. In the case of Basquiat, a larger scale generally correlates with a higher value. Greater variety and complexity in medium and materials also generally correlates with higher value. For example, works executed with materials such as acrylic, oilstick, metallic paint, and spray enamel on mediums such as canvas or wood panel are valued much higher than works executed with pen, graphite, pencil, or colored pencil on paper or in poster form (Artnet).

Another important factor in valuing any painting that is not clear from a timeline construction, but that is perhaps most easily visible when actually interacting with the artworks is the subject matter and composition. Basquiat employed recurring motifs that permeate his artworks throughout his career, and these signs, symbols, colors, words, and gestures suggest interpretive references and offer biographic indications of time, place, and emotion. This sign-system not only facilitates the viewer’s process of meaning-making when interfacing with an artwork, but also contributes to the valuation of the artwork and correlates to the capital ascribed to the painting. Generally speaking, those paintings that are executed on a larger scale and include a greater and more complex sign-system are perceived as more valuable (Figures 3 and 4, Artnet). This semiotic approach not only uncovers “signs and symbols as systems of expression, meaning, reasoning, and cultural memory”, but also reveals the shortcoming of language as a modeling system for all human communication and activity (Irvine, The Grammar of Meaning Systems). Basquiat’s non-linguistic and unregulated system allows him a degree of complexity, universality, and individuality not afforded by language, which must conform to both our limited ability to express – as we are governed by semantics, grammar, discourse, the human language; we are bound to a sequential, linear representation of thought – and to our limited ability to communicate – as we are limited to communication with those who speak the same language and abide by the same culturally constructed terminologies and structures of communication).


Revisiting our driving questions How do we rationalize purchasing a painting at $57 million? How do we predict the future value of a painting at an estimate that exceeds $60 million? How do we account for such a large discrepancy in the price of one Basquiat artwork over another? we can begin to offer explanatory evidence and construct a rational argument. Ultimately, looking from solely a financial perspective, art cannot be rationalized as a rational or sound investment decision. Once again, the distinguishing factor here is the social and cultural capital and the emotional significance that art holds, which cannot be immediately detected by the marketplace or quantified in a financial analysis of supply/demand or risk/return, but that rationalize the prices at which art is bought and sold. When deciding to buy a work of art, the consideration is: the opportunity cost (cost of lost chances to invest money elsewhere), and the “psychic” returns (the enjoyment and emotional benefits that the artwork has) (Robertson, 235). When constructing a rational and predictable model for art valuation, we must integrate economic capital and social/cultural capital at the societal and individual level, as I have done visually in Figures 1 and 2, and as I have done with the Basquiat case study in this analysis.


FIGURE 1: The Art-World Network System: Integrating Economic Capital with Social/Cultural Capital at Different Scales


FIGURE 2: Deblackboxing Basquiat by Re-Coloring his Decade of Fame


(snapshot provided, please click the link for the full timeline)

FIGURE 3: Basquiat Price Results at Auction: Price Descending

FIGURE 4: Basquiat Price Results at Auction: Price Ascending


Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Forms of Capital.” In Soziale Ungleichheiten (Soziale Welt, Sonderheft 2), edited by Reinhard Kreckel, translated by Richard Nice. 183–98. Goettingen: Otto Schartz & Co. Web. 1983.

Embuscado, Rain. “Here Are Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Most Expensive Works at Auction.” Artnet News. 16 May 2016. Web.

Irvine, Martin, Dr. “The Grammar of Meaning Systems: Sign Systems, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics.” CCTP 802 Art and Media Interfaced. Georgetown University: Communication Culture & Technology Program, Web. 6 May 2017.

“Jean-Michel Basquiat: Painter to the Core.” Jean-Michel Basquiat: A Guide. Christie’s Auction House, 03 May 2017. Web.

Maneker, Marion. “Sotheby’s Ups the Ante with $60m Basquiat Head.” ArtMarket Monitor. 19 Apr. 2017. Web.

Robertson, Iain. Understanding art markets: inside the world of art and business. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2016. Print.

Van Maanen, Hans. How to Study Art Worlds: On the Societal Functioning of Aesthetic Values. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010.

FIGURE 1: The Art-World Network System: Integrating Economic Capital with Social/Cultural Capital at Different Scales

Irvine, Martin, Dr. “The Artworld as a Network System and the Institutional Theory of Art Martin Irvine.” CCTP 802 Art and Media Interfaced. Georgetown University: Communication Culture & Technology Program, n.d. Web. 6 May 2017.

FIGURE 2: Deblackboxing Basquiat by Re-Coloring his Decade of Fame

“Artist Timeline.” Jean-Michel Basquiat. The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, n.d. Web. 5 May 2017.

FIGURE 3: Basquiat Price Results at Auction: Price Descending

Auction results for Jean-Michel Basquiat: Price Descending. Artnet. 8 May 2017.

FIGURE 4: Basquiat Price Results at Auction: Price Ascending

Auction results for Jean-Michel Basquiat: Price Ascending. Artnet. 8 May 2017.