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MURAKAMIíS GUIDE TO SUCCESS
by Kay Itoi
 
Takashi Murakami, Geijutsu Kigyo Ron, 2005, Gentosha

Takashi Murakami is a star artist, curator, designer and mentor to young artists. After the publication of his Geijutsu Kigyo Ron (Art Enterpreneurship Theory) last summer, he is also a successful author. In this autobiography of a creative entrepreneur, Murakami explains how he went from having no money at all eight years ago to being a million-dollar artist today (his painting, Nirvana, sold for $1.1 million at Sotheby's New York in May 2006) -- and how other Japanese artists can do the same.

According to Murakami, the Japanese art world is so incredibly backward that if you want to be a professional artist, you must forget about the country's art establishment and break into the Western art market. To do that, though, you must be armed with a good business strategy. "In order to stand up to Western artists, I analyzed the mechanism of Western art. I also polished my skills in creative management, making hypotheses and testing them," writes Murakami.

And, if only a handful of Japanese artists have been internationally successful, he asserts, this is simply because most don't have a strategy like he does.

Many aspects of the Japanese art world make Murakami unhappy. He repeatedly laments that Japanese artists don't understand that art-making is, and should be, a commercial activity. "You cannot create an art piece unless you know how to make and sell it." Murakami is often criticized for "being fussy about money" for an artist, but he doesn't care -- the artists who don't accept the commercial aspect of the art world "are afraid that their work will be revealed to be worthless," he writes.

In this book, which is published only in Japanese, Murakami tells us how he considers it very important to explain the ideas behind his work -- in English. The translations of most Japanese catalogue essays, often done by "self-proclaimed English-speaking Japanese," are terrible to his eyes. He himself is "very sensitive in selecting translators for my essays. That is how I convey my ideas overseas." He reveals how he had five or six translators work on the English essays in the catalogue for "Little Boy: The Arts of Japan's Exploding Subculture," the show he organized for the Japan Society last year. They revised their drafts more than five times. Without such hard work on the accompanying texts, he doesn't think the show would have won so much acclaim.

"[Lack of attention to] small things like that is a reason why most Japanese artists have not been successful overseas," writes Murakami.

He attributes the lack of local contemporary art history to the "classless society" Japan set out to create after its unconditional surrender at the end of World War II. In the postwar democracy, everybody became equal, or at least that was the illusion -- for a long time, 90 percent of the Japanese considered themselves "middle-class." Recently this all-Japanese-are-middle-class mentality has been changing, in the face of new competitiveness following a 13-year recession. Nevertheless, the key point, Murakami writes, is that after the war it was decided that "art should be something everybody can equally appreciate," and this was a mistake -- in the West, art isn't for everybody: "[Art] is an extremely expensive hobby." With no self-identified privileged class after the war, Murakami laments, "Japan failed to create an art market for the wealthy." (More recently, in the booming 1980s, Japan had hordes of super-rich investing in art, but this did not last long enough to create a sustained market.)

Although his works are selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction, Murakami does not consider his artwork "very expensive." It "takes an enormous amount of money and time to create a new thing, a new idea," he explains. "You cannot continue creating art without a sense of business or management."

To understand why an artwork is worth $1 million, he says, one must know that the Western art audience is completely different from that in Japan. Westerners don't care about "those vague, 'oh-what-a-beautiful-color' kind of impressions, as Japanese do," he writes. They "enjoy intellectual 'devices' and 'games' in art." That is why one must "contextualize [his work] in the world's art history."

So what is Murakamiís secret? First, he explains, he worked out the place of contemporary subcultures -- such as manga, animated films and video games -- in Japanese art history. Then he contexualized this unique Japanese culture system with respect to Western art history. In this manner, Murakami, who has a Ph.D in traditional Japanese painting from the prestigious Tokyo National Museum of Fine Arts and Music, was able to present contemporary Japan to Western viewers in a way that was new, critical and attractive -- the perfect formula for the Western avant-garde art market. The fact that his work has sold for $1 million at auction is evidence that he pulled this off successfully.

And yet this success doesn't make Murakami happy -- an especially strange state of affairs, since so much of his work has a gleeful or perhaps dementedly cheerful edge. Throughout the book, this superstar artist expresses anger towards just about everybody, ranging from museum curators, art critics, art schools and the art establishment to his own apprentices.

"Why am I constantly angry like a bulldog?" he asks. "Anger invariably spills out of me. I don't want to remain the way I am -- that discontent drives me much more than my passion for success," he writes. "I don't have a logical explanation for this, but I wonder if 'anger' is what you need to continue expressing yourself."


KAY ITOI is author of In Search of Lost Masterpieces (Jiji Press, 2001).