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KAWS And Effect

Words:

Edd Norval
April 9, 2021

KAWS is one of the biggest names in global street art. His reinterpretation of popular culture has at once set him apart from the masses of other artists whilst also helping to integrate his aesthetic language into the lives of a widespread audience. At once relatable and slightly surreal, KAWS is an artist like no other.

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Although sales are only testament to artistic talent to a point, they do indicate how much value the artist has and also how valuable their contributions are to contemporary society at large. The more expensive and the better sold, the more in-demand and therefore, of greater importance the artist is usually thought of. It sounds cold. But cash is the ultimate indicator.  


Rather than just rehashing popular culture, KAWS first put his own spin on it before actually becoming a part of popular culture himself. The high price tags have attracted controversy, particularly from those in the art world who challenge the merit of his productions. Yet, his broad array of works, from paintings to collectible figures, speak of a culture of commodification and demand, much like Andy Warhol’s art did decades before. Most importantly, whatever the price point is - they're always wanted.


Brian Donnelly, the artist’s real name, has read all of the headlines. He’s heard all of the hype. The coverage he recieves however, is often more about the hype itself and the aforementioned price tags than his art. Eschewing any real analysis of his work, cultural critics prefer to understand Donnelly’s part in the bigger picture of a society of production and consumption. This is where the New Jersey artist’s art actually truly thrives, even if that wasn't always his intention.

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Starting out making a name for himself by ‘subvertising’ - which is essentially subverting the message of an advertising poster or billboard - by accessing them through the use of skeleton keys, KAWS' art is and always has been a reflection of society. Creating work in this countercultural space has, over time, established the artist his works in places he would never have imaged. So much of it has been so well received that people now want him to subvertise their product. Such is the fine line between high and low-brow culture. 


This has led to collaborations with people like Kanye West and Christian Dior - cultural pioneers themselves. America is rife with branding, marketing and advertising. It is a hyper-capitalist space where everything has a product, a solution, a supplement. This all comes down to one thing - making money.


So, when we talk about KAWS' art as being overlooked for a good headline - it actually isn’t exactly true. The very fact that his art, which both builds on and satirises big brands, is able to reach the sums it does shines a mirror back onto the faces of the purchasing public and the companies he lampoons. In some ways, you could say that the act of purchasing his goods is as much an artistic expression as the thing being purchased. 

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Famous for his characters that belong in a line up with Mickey Mouse and the Michelin Man, although with an ‘x’ for eyes, KAWS has created his own icons that overlap subtly with popular culture like The Simpsons and Sesame Street, whilst being instantly recognisable in their own space too.


He’s adamant that his work isn’t political, nor some kind of sociological essay. I’m not trying to argue his intentions either. Instead, I’m highlighting that his concern that the reputation surrounding his sales and the accompanying hype outweighs his art may be misplaced. Sure, the hype is real, but it’s also justified. Going from an outsider, biting on the heels of big brands, he has become one of them himself. All without formal artistic education.The headline is the art.


The hype and the price tags are what they are now, but they didn’t get him to where he is. They weren't always this way. His place in the contemporary artistic canon comes down purely to his art, manifested through his unique way of understanding culture and his vision of distilling it into something we want to own, like a Very Talented Mr. Ripley.

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