A drawing by KAWS
KAWS is coming to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. This is an ideal opportunity to re-examine comics, popular animation, pop art and popular culture as an influence on contemporary practice.
KAWS’s career began as a graffiti artist in New York, in the early 1990s. He went on to study a BFA and then became a freelance artist working for Disney. By the late 1990s, he was designing and producing limited-edition toys. His career spans commercial, street art and fine art, his output blurring the distinctions between these at one time distinct areas of production. What is interesting here is that Pop Art was seen initially as a genre of Fine Art that commented on commercial culture, a practice like KAWS is quite different, it operates as commerce, his toys selling extremely well in Japan whilst at the same time, his presence at the YSP means that his work is taken very seriously in the world of Fine Art.
These blurrings in the differentiation of disciplines suggest that old definitions for Fine Art are breaking down. Academics writing about the discipline I notice are arguing more and more about what it is and what it should be. These are usually signs that a discipline is facing what is called a ‘Paradigm Shift’. I.e. the reason there is so much new theory about what art is and what it isn’t means that all the old definitions fall short of how the term ‘Art’ is used now.
KAWS appropriates the methods and procedures companies like Disney use to broaden their market base. Initially of course relying on entry sales to cinemas to bring in cash, Disney now has a huge range of associated merchandise that it uses alongside its Disneyland franchise. Yes an artist could comment on this, but like Keith Harring before him, KAWS simply operates like Disney.
Bansky has recently opened a theme park, and when you think about it, is all that merchandise sold at the entrance to the Tate and other national museums any different? It could be argued that this type of art celebrates art under capitalism and in looking for opportunities to extend its markets, only reflects the dominant philosophy of its times.
KAWS in working for Disney would have been exposed to one of Disney’s key selling points, ‘cuteness’. Even though KAWS uses skull and crossbones motifs, all his forms have been rendered 'soft' by curvature. They are like Mickey, the product of a compass.
So in one short step we are back in the world of aesthetics. Why are certain things ‘beautiful’ or ‘seen to be so’. There is arguably an underlying geometric rightness to the psychology as to why we like Mickey Mouse as well as a basic evolutionary necessity.
Steven Gould’s “A biologicalhomage to Mickey Mouse” explains how Mickey evolved from a rather thin rodential form into a more round squat creature with a big head, big eyes, and short limbs. He explains that Mickey was undergoing neoteny: the evolutionary process whereby juvenile features in an ancestor are retained into adulthood in a descendant. Gould also argued that the baby animals we love so much have relatively bigger and rounder heads and eyes, like human babies.
So basically we are hard wired to like babies, thus protecting them from harm and nurturing them when we see them. So those soft curves in a drawing that seem so calming, perhaps strike a chord at the back of the brain that says incoming baby, start calming down and get ready to be nice.
Don't try this at home