Even if you aren’t personally familiar with famed Japanese contemporary artist Takashi Murakami, you have surely seen his work.
The pop artist’s brightly colored signature characters have appeared on everything from limited edition Louis Vuitton bags to Supreme shirts to Vans skateboarding shoes.
Having collaborated with celebrities like Drake, Kanye West and Billie Eilish, and institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art and Gagosian, Murakami is, without a doubt, one of the biggest “conventional” artists to try their hand at making nonfungible tokens (NFTs). Despite this, his projects still haven’t blown up to the extent of other prominent contemporary artists like Beeple.
Many are convinced that is set to change, claiming Murakami’s flowers are well on their way to becoming as iconic as CryptoPunks and Bored Apes. After a hotly anticipated but ultimately disappointing NFT launch that coincided with the 2022 crypto collapse, the artist is finally having another go at the medium. A new exhibit at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum shows how Murakami creates original tokens from scratch.
High art and low art
While many take Murakami’s flowers at face value, there is more to them than meets the eye. Inspired by the postwar Japan in which he grew up, these deceptively jolly icons critique the perversion and violence that underscore the country’s otaku and kawaii subcultures.
The stylized imagery of these cultures is becoming increasingly popular in western countries thanks to the export of Japanese manga, anime and video games, and Murakami — taking a page out of Andy Warhol’s book — exposes the commercialization of these mediums by way of embracing and even exploiting them. His studio isn’t so much a studio as it is a full-fledged factory, operated by 25 assistants who help him satisfy the demand for his personal brand.
Unifying Murakami’s scattered oeuvre is his “Superflat” theory, which not only refers to the two-dimensional quality that bridges traditional Japanese visual culture to its contemporary counterparts, but also to the idea that Japan, as a society, makes little distinction between “high” and “low” art — between the art you find in a museum and the art you find on billboards or the pages of a manga.
This, Murakami says, is in stark contrast to the West, where professional critics decide what kind of creative output deserves to be displayed in galleries and what does not. Presently, NFTs are still largely relegated to the second group — a classification he hopes to change.
After finding huge success with traditional media, uncontrollable events and poor timing conspired against the artist’s NFT efforts. Murakami’s first flowers launched right before the downfall of FTX, causing their value to plummet from $260,000 to just $2,200 per token on OpenSea. Displaying a level of humility seldom seen in the worlds of both art and crypto, Murakami paused his sales and apologized to his investors.
He followed up this apology with a lengthy statement saying he would take a step back from the NFT marketplace and figure out how to create digital art that matched the value of its real-world counterparts. He asked himself the kinds of questions that confuse the non-initiated. Should he use ERC-721 or 1155? Did he need IPFS or independent smart contracts? What about opening his own physical storefront?
The crypto collapse left a mixed impression on Murakami, who will be exploring his frustration with the volatility of the metaverse in an exhibit he calls “Unfamiliar People — Swelling of Monsterized Human Ego.” Running from Sept. 15, 2023, until Feb. 12, 2024, it largely consists of mixed media pieces depicting humanoid monsters.
Influenced by traditional ukiyo-e woodblock prints, his familiar kawaii style, and even Spanish painter Francisco Goya’s nightmarish painting “Saturn Devouring His Son” (which a young Murakami remembers seeing on a museum trip with his parents), the distorted figures presented in Murakami’s exhibit comment on the corroding influence of digital technology: the relentless self-promotion on social media and the adulterating anonymity of internet message boards.
His core theme — the swelling ego — not only applies to toxic online discourse but also to the mismanagement of media personalities like Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Sam Bankman-Fried, whose irresponsible behavior has tarnished the reputations of entire industries and technologies.
Despite his negative experiences with making and selling NFTs, Murakami isn’t pessimistic. He believes the crypto collapse, far from bursting an already oversized bubble, will go down in financial history as little more than a temporary setback.
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“Both economically and conceptually,” he tells Magazine, “the current decline of virtual currencies simply marks a shaky transitional period. Therefore, I am not worried at all, and am still running several NFT projects. I will continue to bridge the metaverse and the real world in the art scene.” He thinks that “in the near future, with the rise of young critics and creators who understand the concept, NFT art will become common all at once.”
Standing in contrast to Murakami’s “Unfamiliar People” series are various physical reimaginings of his NFTs, including painted renditions of the Murakami.Flowers. Previously sold at Gagosian, Murakami created these paintings to help secure and stabilize the value of his NFTs, whose floor price on OpenSea remains “as low as it can be.” Some of the paintings, meanwhile, have sold for upwards of $70,000.
Also present at the exhibit is a sculpture of the digital avatars Murakami made in collaboration with RTFKT, a digital fashion and collectible organization known for its work on video game engines, blockchain authentication and augmented reality, in addition to its futuristic sneaker designs.
Inspired by Snapchat’s Bitmoji, Murakami and RTFKT created over 20,000 character models to represent players in online games, each with uniquely designed eyes, mouths, clothes and even behavioral traits. Murakami describes his sculpture as a “cyborg.” Not only because it has a reflective silver surface with mechanical patterns etched into it, but also because the digital avatars on which it is based are part human and part machine.
Changing value in contemporary art
When asked if making NFT art is in any way different from making “traditional” art, Murakami answered: yes and no.
“Contemporary art since Marcel Duchamp has clearly been a world of transcendental conceptual art,” he says, “so I thought that an understanding of the metaverse would come somewhat naturally for the fans of contemporary art. I instantly understood and entered into that worldview, but to my surprise, others didn’t follow. I think the big deterrent has been a certain inability to change the value system of the contemporary art world, and a resulting unwillingness to understand NFTs. Right now, these two words are still completely separated.”
At the moment, most western critics do not see NFT art as art. They think the imagery is “poorly executed and childish,” and insist “the concept of the metaverse is a fraud,” according to Murakami. Their aversion to NFTs — fueled in part by self-preservation — is so fervent that they reject Murakami’s tokens whilst celebrating their painted equivalents. No doubt, the swollen egos of “Unfamiliar People” contain traces of these individuals as well.
Perhaps the western art world should be more like Japan’s. There, the destruction of the Second World War and subsequent occupation by the U.S. army completely dismantled the country’s traditional social structure. As a result, says Murakami, Japan found itself “in a very unique situation where ‘high’ art could not be established” since there were no elites to claim it as theirs and theirs alone. He adds:
“In Japan there is no distinction between high art and low art, and we are bound by the obsession that high art must also be dragged down to the realm of the low and be enjoyable to everyone.”
This, paired with the “demand for iconography reminiscent of Japanese manga and anime,” indicates that Japan should have a rich and vibrant NFT market. However, this is not the case. According to Murakami, plenty of Japanese artists — especially manga artists — are interested in making the switch, but are prevented from doing so by strict regulations that make such ventures unprofitable.
“The virtual currency ecosystem the Japanese government has thought up,” he explains, “is so complicated and negative that the manga or anime creators would not be enticed to leave their normal economic sphere. Therefore, there has been no sign of the NFT market developing at all here.”
The situation isn’t much better in America — at least, not right now. Although the crypto world is gradually picking itself up from the FTX fiasco, NFTs are yet to recover.
After hitting their peak value in January 2022, many tokens plummeted. By September of that year, volumes had all but disappeared and demand had vanished. Murakami’s flowers aren’t the only NFTs raise their floor price; BoredApes and CryptoPunks are in the same boat.
The current situation is so bad that many NFT creators don’t know what to do or where to go next. Murakami is the rare exception, but perhaps that is because — as a renowned artist — his source of status and income isn’t exclusively tied to tokens. For him, creating NFTs is an artistic experiment as much as it is an act of embracing what he (and many others) still believe to be the future of both creativity and commerce.
And Murakami really does believe that. Years after coming up with his idea of Superflat, he argues that the digitization of art has not just verified his theory, but taken it to its logical conclusion:
“I believe the era of Superflat has come to an end, at least for the time being, along with the pandemic. The reason is because the full perfection of the web-based society has now been achieved. In other words, the real Superflat society has now become a reality. And with the rise of the metaverse, unknown zones have emerged that will add even more depth to that definitively flattened society; we could say we are now heading for a hyper-Superflat world.”
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