What the Rise of KAWS Says About the Art World’s Ailments

KAWS: ALONG THE WAY, 2013, wood, approx. 18 feet tall; at Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

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If there are art world gatekeepers intent on excluding Brian Donnelly, who has worked under the name KAWS since the mid-1990s, it should be clear by now that they are fighting a losing battle. The artist, 45, has had eight separate museum solo exhibitions. The Brooklyn Museum, having hosted one of them in 2015, will open a “major retrospective” in 2021. This summer, KAWS departed from the elite Perrotin gallery after eleven years and nine solos at the gallery’s locations around the world. Until the inevitable bidding war among mega-galleries over his future is settled, he’ll have to make do with exclusive representation by the Upper East Side powerhouse Skarstedt. Last spring, at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong, one of his paintings sold at auction for nearly fifteen million US dollars. His prolific collaboration with fashion brands ranging from Dior to Supreme to Uniqlo, as well as consumer goods companies like Hennessy, seems only to reinforce his work’s appeal for his collectors, many of whom are celebrities.

Still, there are some dead-enders. KAWS’s paintings of cartoon characters modified with his trademark bulbous skull heads and Xed-out eyes are not to be found in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A prestigious biennial has yet to include one of his monumental “COMPANION” sculptures, which feature a be-skulled and blinkered Mickey Mouse knock-off. KAWS “makes the art world uncomfortable,” Anne Pasternak, the director of the Brooklyn Museum, told the New York Times.1 KAWS and his advocates believe the source of this discomfort is snobbery. Pasternak chalks it up to the fact that KAWS “doesn’t respect . . . traditional hierarchies.” But there are multiple hierarchies within the art world, some defined by socioeconomic standing and others by cultural capital. Discomfort with KAWS is a symptom of the inexact correlation between the former and the latter. KAWS has been well-received by very wealthy collectors, some with significant clout in the worlds of fashion and entertainment. Where he runs into trouble is with the professional scolds who see in KAWS’s oeuvre nothing more than kitsch.

To say KAWS’s sculptures and paintings are commercial and kitschy—even vacuous—is to offer something that’s closer to a description of the work than a critique of it. KAWS is a more sophisticated businessperson than most artists. In a cultural high-wire act, he has managed to link fashion, corporate branding, and fine art to strengthen his work’s value in each discrete sphere. Whether this cycle of promotion and profit is “too” commercial is a question of degree. Given the scale of the art trade today, and the routine traffic between artists and corporate brands in the post-Warhol era, it feels disingenuous to hold the line now, in the particular instance of KAWS, by pleading for the Greenbergian sanctity of aesthetic experience that has been gleefully deconstructed over the past sixty years. Dismissing KAWS’s work as kitsch likewise does little to explain why this particular Saturday-morning TV frivolity, out of the vast graveyard of debased cultural artifacts that artists routinely reanimate, seems to have a unique power to connect to a global audience, including KAWS’s 2.3 million Instagram followers.

KAWS has made figurines, T-shirts, and trophies for the MTV Video Music Awards. But the work he shows in museums and galleries looks a different part, adhering to formats associated with beaux arts traditions. His exhibitions are neat collections of objects easily identifiable as sculptures, paintings, and works on paper. They adhere to fine art conventions without, apparently, coming off as elitist enough to alienate his expansive fan base. KAWS’s work also addresses the complex needs of museums as public institutions. The expectation that serious artworks align in some way with pointed social critique has become increasingly difficult to reconcile with the recognition that many art patrons are the logical targets of that critique. KAWS represents a solution to this contradiction. The bargain works like this: museums display objects that flatter the tastes of collectors in search of validation. Because KAWS’s work leverages name-recognition achieved in the worlds of fashion and entertainment, attendance numbers jump. The result is something that looks like a democratic culture—a corrective to museum elitism. (It is accessible to everyone but the snobs.) Any tension between artist, collectors, and a general public fades away in the shadow of COMPANION. In fact, everyone can feel like a collector, whether they’ve bought into the KAWS enterprise with a multimillion dollar painting or a $14 T-shirt.

This picture of harmony, born of rejecting “traditional hierarchies,” is appealing. But, at a time of real social division, it can’t be sustained without some significant trade-offs. If KAWS is peddling a democratic art, it is worth questioning why its primary motifs should be exhaustion and death. The monumental figures that KAWS has erected around the world mark the triumph of the artist, but they also appear lost in a melancholy stupor. If art world gatekeepers dismiss these objects out of hand, they risk missing in this image of weakness a moment of self-recognition.


The Long 1990s

As a teenager in the early 1990s, Donnelly began writing graffiti in and around Jersey City, where he grew up in a middle-class home. He was soon venturing across the Hudson. KAWS painted his handle, chosen purely for its graphic appeal, in huge letters on trains and the concrete expanses of urban infrastructure. But the aspiring artist found his voice writing over billboards. He learned to work with commercial imagery by taking up the semiotic games initiated by teams of well-resourced marketing professionals.

Key to his artistic development was his response to a campaign for Captain Morgan rum that debuted in the mid-’90s. In a self-aware twist, the company showed the brand’s mascot, a lecherous cartoon ship captain, breaking the fourth wall. Armed with a bottle of liquor, he appears to have torn through the background of another brand’s billboard. The captain leers at conventional photographs of models whose faces have been vandalized with crude versions of his own iconic goatee and mustache. In 1995 KAWS found one of the billboards in New Jersey, near the Holland Tunnel entrance, and embellished it with his own name, essentially doubling—rather than simply erasing—the tagline: “The Captain Was Here.”

By writing graffiti on an ad whose premise was that ads attract graffiti, KAWS took the bait offered by Madison Avenue creatives. He effectively completed the picture. During his years as a student at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, he discovered how versatile this approach could be. Barry McGee, a well-known Northern California street artist, gifted KAWS a tool that allowed him to unlock ad displays on bus shelters and phone booths. Public advertising in New York and other major cities underwent a transformation in the 1990s. Fashion labels like Calvin Klein and Guess blanketed public spaces with the edgy, erotic imagery that had once been the domain of glossy magazines. McGee’s key afforded KAWS direct access to a new stock of images to paint over that were far more seductive than a garish rum ad.

KAWS initiated what he later described as “forceful” collaborations with fashion brands.2 If artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat (among thousands of expressive young people) scribbled graffiti on subway ads in the 1980s, KAWS employed a slower and more deliberate process. He stole the advertisements, painted over them in his studio, and then returned the “collaborative” images to their original sites, where they could be photographed. “I painted with no brush strokes, clean and unobtrusive,” KAWS later told art critic Carlo McCormick. “I wanted people to think that what I did was actually part of the ad campaign.”3 He achieved a commercial look with specialty paint designed for use on animation cells, which he learned to use at his post-SVA day job working on the Nickelodeon cartoon series “Doug.” The soft, bulbous (and vaguely Doug-like) forms he rendered draw out the psychosexual subtext of the ads. His skull forms become the object of a model’s yearning stare. Spermatozoa-like creatures with skull heads snake around models’ bodies or escape from their mouths. KAWS could be zany, too, adding crazy skull motifs to ads meant to attract attention with goofy humor rather than sex. The common element in these works were the Xed-out eyes of the models and cartoon creatures—a trademark that would soon supplant the wild-style lettering of the original KAWS tag. The double X, the skull, and the cartoonish characters that KAWS developed during this period remain the foundation of his visual vocabulary.

Even as KAWS attempted to establish a creative repartee with fashion photographers, the criminal nature of his work meant that his intentions could be hard to decipher. “At the beginning, people thought I had political motivations, like I was doing an antiadvertising crusade,” KAWS told one of his most prominent collectors, actor Tobey Maguire, in Interview. “I’d get hit up from magazines like Adbusters. But that’s not really my thing.”4 The confusion is understandable. Canadian publisher and film producer Kalle Lasn, who founded the influential anti-consumerist publication Adbusters, targeted corporate ads with techniques similar to those KAWS employed, even if the underlying motivations may have been opposed.

In his 1999 book Culture Jam, published at the height of KAWS’s street art career, Lasn laid out a grand theory of cultural struggle: “We believe culture jamming will become to our era what civil rights was to the ’60s, what feminism was to the ’70s, what environmental activism was to the ’80s.”5 The main obstacle to human liberation, as he saw it, was the consolidation of corporate power. Corporations maintained their stranglehold on democracy by mystifying people with dazzling advertisements. “The only battle still worth fighting and winning, the only one that can set us free, is The People versus The Corporate Cool Machine,” Lasn writes. “We will strike by unswooshing America™.”6

Lasn claims the mantle of the Situationist International, the ’60s avant-garde group that had a “half-baked idea about détourning consumer capitalism.” Because the SI had failed to initiate a new, free, spontaneous way of life, Lasn argues, “it’s up to culture jammers to finish the job.”7 The job was primarily an aesthetic one. Striking back at America™ involved “subvertising”: creating parody advertisements (many printed in Adbusters) meant to scramble corporate messaging and deflate its power. Activist groups such as the Billboard Liberation Front took the campaign to the streets by détourning billboards, aiming to free the people from the “postmodern hall of mirrors” with daring feats such as adding the word “Grease” to McDonald’s ads.

KAWS’s modified fashion advertisements bear a strong resemblance to some of the subvertising Lasn championed. Culture Jam, for example, includes a specific call-to-arms against Calvin Klein, one of KAWS’s favorite “collaborators.” In one jaw-dropping passage, Lasn incites his readers by asking them to imagine their own daughters being sexually assaulted by the designer himself and provides a detailed, play-by-play description of the horrific scenario. The recommended strategy for hitting this predator where it really hurts? “Skulling,” or drawing skulls over the faces of models in CK ads.

To his credit, KAWS recognized the rhetoric of culture jamming as embarrassing and overblown. He has disavowed “regular politics” as an impetus for his art, contrasting his motivations with those of the street artist Banksy, who was aligned with Adbusters and produced several covers for the magazine, including one for the 2005 “Art Fart” issue, which features one of KAWS’s skull-head figurines in a spread on sell-out artists. We don’t have to take KAWS at his word when he rejects subvertising. In addition to ingratiating him with streetwear designers who sought him out for apparel designs, his forceful collaborations quickly attracted the attention of fashion marketers like photographer David Sims from Marc Jacobs, who created official collaborations with KAWS by providing him with photographs to modify before they were published in campaigns.

These pre-vandalized images are precursors to the anti-marketing “brandalism” strategies that soon became a favored way for companies to reach cynical Gen X consumers. Instead of uncooling America, KAWS showed how quintessential culture jam techniques could make ads, well, cooler than ever. By delivering the flavor of urban transgression without the aftertaste of actual vandalism or poverty, KAWS’s collaborative ads could become more alluring even as they became more ironic, more of a motivation to consume even as they expressed a knowing, if not critical, attitude about the mechanisms of consumption.

Though they were on opposite sides of a consumerist divide, Lasn and his ilk were just as wary as KAWS of regular politics. In Lasn’s vision, the labor unionists, feminists, environmentalists, and black activists of the Old Left had become sources of division and needed to be suppressed. Lasn heaps scorn on these “special interest ‘victim’ groups vying for a piece of the money and the action.”8 As he puts it, “no longer are Lefties fighting the problem, they are the problem.”9 The political organizations of the past, Lasn argues, would be replaced by a broad front of what he calls throughout the book “meme warriors” who are united in a battle of ideas. On that battlefield, the difficult process of negotiating real political differences, many grounded in structural inequalities based on class and race, would be supplanted by an overarching aesthetic struggle.

Sounded during the Clinton years of political triangulation, Lasn’s battle cry envisions a kind of militant centrism. He advocated radical action, but the ultimate aim was to foster a democratic culture, not to question the structural impediments to democracy. At the center of this culture was a form of street art that sought to harness and eventually redirect the unifying power of corporate communications. If the citizens of America™ hold anything in common, after all, it may be a highly refined advertising vernacular. Culture jammers viewed their work as a collective task to rebuild a culture for all by reclaiming the vacuous symbols of corporate America. KAWS, recognizing exactly the same power in corporate imagery, realized he could use it for individual ends, putting his own signature on what passes for a shared cultural inheritance.

 

Enter Through the Gift Shop

“Graffiti is like building a career,” KAWS told Maguire, and he was quick to grasp the importance of working within global networks to further his.10 Growing recognition as a street artist facilitated his first sojourn to Japan, where, through a friend at SVA, he developed professional relationships with key figures in the Tokyo streetwear scene, including Nigo, founder of A Bathing Ape. In an interview with Juxtapoz, KAWS recalled this as an idyllic time with few creative constraints. “Everybody was just . . . excited about making good fucking stuff: clothing, toys, design, packaging.”11 In addition to collaborating on apparel designs for HECTIC, he was introduced to the Japanese market for high-end toys and collectibles. The first “COMPANION” sculptures were figurines fabricated in an edition of 1,500 by the specialty firm Bounty Hunter.

KAWS made repeated trips to Japan in the early 2000s, eventually opening his own streetwear and collectibles store, OriginalFake, in 2006. It was in this milieu of sneakers, streetwear, and statuettes that he created his first (and most interesting) stand-alone paintings. These curious objects feature small canvases adorned with depictions of characters from “The Simpsons” with crossed-out eyes. Like collectible figurines, the canvases are encased in plastic blister packaging, the cardboard backing of which KAWS decorated with abstracted fragments of Simpsons-yellow body parts. These works were not conceived for art collectors per se, but for toy connoisseurs, manga fans known as otaku, and streetwear aficionados like Nigo, who became KAWS’s primary patron. 

KAWS claims to have had limited exposure to the contemporary art scene in Tokyo: “there were a couple of galleries, but it wasn’t as jumping as I thought it would be.”12 It’s a remarkable assessment, given that KAWS’s formative years in Japan overlap a crucial period for the neo-Pop movement Takashi Murakami spearheaded and codified in his “Super Flat Manifesto” (2000). Through a series of exhibitions and publications beginning in the late 1990s, Murakami contextualized his own work and that of his peers within the wildly complex subcultures of post-WWII Japan. On the surface, Murakami and KAWS have much in common: a slick, commercial look in their paintings and sculptures, a reliance on animated cartoons for source material, a liberal approach to the relationship between art and commerce, and even, arguably, a visual vocabulary defined by Japanese aesthetic concepts of kawaii (cute) and yurui (lethargic). Murakami even organized the first “Super Flat” exhibition at PARCO gallery in 2000, where KAWS had his first gallery show in 2001.

But the comparison goes only so far. Murakami’s work is grounded in a detailed anthropological investigation of Japanese art history and otaku culture—an intellectual undertaking with no analogue in KAWS’s work. As Murakami argues at length in the catalogue for “Little Boy”—the 2005 traveling exhibition that stands as his most complete articulation of Superflat aesthetics—the trauma of atomic bombings, Japan’s defeat in WWII, and the country’s subsequent reliance on the US had led to the infantilization of its culture. The saccharine appearance of Superflat art belies its origins in trauma. As art critic Noi Sawaragi argues in the “Little Boy” catalogue, Murakami’s art “gives form to the distortion of history that haunts Japan . . . by reassembling fragments of history accumulated in otakus’ private rooms and liberating them from their confinement in an imaginary reality.”13 This deep connection to subculture is essential for Murakami, just as the commercial aspects of his project—selling to brands, making collectibles—resonate, in his view, with indigenous Japanese traditions that make few distinctions between fine artists and artisans.

But these reference points are easily lost in translation. What Murakami perceived as a revival of artisan traditions and a refusal of Western conceptions of “high” and “low” could read as Pop nihilism in the US, where vast audiences could enjoy his colorful work without worrying about the backstory—the haunting tragedy of Japan’s recent history muffled by layers of high-gloss paint.

This Americanized Murakami may be a better point of comparison with KAWS, whose trip to Japan inspired him to seek entry to the New York art world as an entrepreneur. His deal with Bounty Hunter left him with about half of the initial run of COMPANION. He put some of the colorful statuettes on consignment in the New Museum store, where they became a sensation. An early adopter, he set up an online retail operation in 2002 to expand on that success, and only then did he start to receive commissions to produce his first life-size sculptures for gallery display.

It is typical for artists to produce prints and editions related to full-scale artworks. KAWS essentially reversed this order of operations. His cast of characters initially rendered as figurines—which started with COMPANION before extending to the Michelin Man, various Smurfs, Cookie Monster, and so forth—could be enlarged in materials like painted bronze. No longer just “limited edition” but genuinely rarefied, these works found eager buyers who were not hunting for collectibles but collecting art. Still, the lingering sense of a hierarchy between the gallery and the gift shop remains a point of lasting creative tension for the artist. “It’s funny that when I work big in bronze it’s called a sculpture, but something I do that’s small and plastic is called a toy,” he told Paper.14 KAWS often casts the freedom to simply make “good fucking stuff,” however the results are classified, as an avant-gardist imperative. Making toys and sculptures is equivalent to breaking down old cultural barriers—in this case, storming the halls of culture through a retail storefront.

But in the same breath that they complain about snobbery, KAWS and his supporters are able to rattle off a canon of figures who have performed similar transgressions, either in terms of borrowing pop culture motifs (Warhol), finding cultural legitimacy through street art (Haring), or commercializing production (everyone from Renaissance printmakers to Koons). KAWS has made reference to some of these touchstones in his art. In one instance, he stole a poster advertising Haring’s 1997 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art and embellished the photo image with a skull-sperm that snaked around Haring at work on a subway platform. KAWS similarly modified an ad Warhol had created for Chanel. This self-conscious canon development seeks to legitimize his work, but it also limits any claim on its disruptive force. It’s hard to transgress a boundary that your own artwork acknowledges hasn’t really existed for some time.

This is not to say that art world snobbery doesn’t exist—just that many of KAWS’s supporters misconstrue its true nature, which has little to do with supposed hierarchies between high and low. Rendering low cultural reference points in a high, sophisticated style ranks among the most common strategies in art over the past sixty years. You could say that this is the dominant mode of contemporary art in general.15 If KAWS is shunned it’s not because he’s been selling too many products or “mining popular culture,” to quote the most tired wall text cliché around. It’s because he’s not doing a very interesting job of it. As art historian Lane Relyea argues, the major distinction in today’s art world is “between successful ‘omnivores’ versus less-esteemed ‘univores.’”16 Murakami’s deep understanding of classical Japanese aesthetics may have earned him accolades in past academies, but his simultaneous grasp of the nuances of the anime series “Neon Genesis Evangelion” demonstrates symbolic mastery that is, according to Relyea, “multidirectional.”

With KAWS it’s a different story. Cookie Monster, the Simpsons, Mickey Mouse, Snoopy, the Smurfs. Years working in Japan in a field adjacent to an intricate manga-rich subculture, and the only trace of his engagement is a statue of Astroboy with his eyes crossed out. The stuff of KAWS’s art isn’t mastered but simply absorbed by anyone growing up in the US or, for that matter, within the sphere of US cultural hegemony. In an uncharacteristically glib remark, KAWS told Carlo McCormick, “I just want to make stuff that no one is ever too stupid to get.”17 This can be taken to mean that he is refusing the sophisticated play of references typical of fine art, which can feel exclusionary to those without a shared knowledge base. But in a more pertinent sense, it hints at how KAWS purges the intelligence of popular culture.

His painting THE KAWS ALBUM (2005) is famous for its multimillion-dollar auction price at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong. It also epitomizes KAWS’s ability to reduce complex source material to simple iconography. The small canvas features the full cast of Simpsons characters, all faithfully reproduced save for the addition of skull faces. The residents of Springfield are depicted in the same formation as the motley bunch of celebrities and icons who appear on the album cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, with the nuclear Simpson family assuming the guise of the Beatles. So far, so dorm-room poster.

In an enlightening interview with artist Gary Panter, KAWS described some hesitation when he was invited to meet Simpsons creator Matt Groening, fearing that the animator would chide him for copyright infringement over works like THE KAWS ALBUM. “I was a bit nervous, but I just thought that this is a show built on references,” KAWS remembered.18 It’s an acknowledgment that the appeal of “The Simpsons” lies in its writers’ deft synthesis not just of cinema and television, but of legitimately “high” culture as well (Homer Simpson’s very name is an ironic take on Classical learning channeled through Nathanael West). The Sgt. Pepper album cover Peter Blake designed stems from the artist’s equally cultivated pop connoisseurship worthy of a dissertation unto itself. Yet despite the appearance of visual abundance in THE KAWS ALBUM, the potential range of reference is constrained. The equation adds up to less than the sum of its parts. The Beatles and “The Simpsons” seem to refer back only to one another, and then, ultimately, to KAWS, whose signature adorns everything. The work expresses a manic drive for familiarity, isolating and regurgitating the elements of pop culture that no one can be too stupid to get. But “stupidity” really is too glib. It fails to capture the essence of KAWS’s project, which is about reaching for bedrock-level awareness of Western culture, where the Beatles and the Simpsons are treated as pure surface icons: brands with a global resonance.

 

Post-Unmonumental

KAWS’s work may disappoint those viewers habituated by the legacy of Pop art to expect a sophisticated play of mass culture signifiers. But his paintings and sculptures in particular invite other forms of connoisseurship. His early “packaged” Simpsons canvases negotiate the competing demands of discrete value systems: of toy collectors and streetwear enthusiasts, on the one hand, and art patrons, on the other. His more recent work for the gallery simplifies matters, tilting the scales toward the conventions of museum display. His polished sculptures stand on pedestals and his exquisitely finished paintings hang on the walls. For an artist with no respect for traditional hierarchies, KAWS’s gallery presentations follow some well-established rules. His self-presentation is part of the packaging for these objects. Despite his industrial-scale output, most studio photographs of KAWS show him alone in his custom-built Williamsburg space, a sharp contrast to the factory-like conditions that Jeff Koons, for instance, frequently shows off. Even as KAWS scales up, his authorship appears to be undiluted.

In some of KAWS’s paintings, SpongeBob and other cartoon protagonists appear fragmented by colorful geometric forms somewhat evocative of Minimal art and geometric abstraction. But these gestures to art history are subsumed by the omnipresence of readily identifiable cartoon characters with Xed-out eyes. The relentless repetition of these motifs in the gallery echoes their repetition—even more relentless and on a far greater scale—on apparel and consumer goods. Like a novelization of a movie, KAWS’s gallery pieces represent the art-ification of an existing cultural enterprise, one grounded in street art and streetwear but also intertwined with corporate media and marketing. Like many artists, KAWS appropriates imagery from television and commercials for his work. Most artists, however, do not have retail licensing agreements with their sources to produce apparel for international chains like Uniqlo. What KAWS appropriates in his gallery work may be the notion of Art. To flip the cliché, it’s as if popular culture were “mining the materials and forms of art history.”

The conservative nature of this approach is consistent with KAWS’s career-long disavowal of critical intent. The only people who refuse to believe him on this point are the curators who have organized his museum exhibitions. There’s a knee-jerk reaction on display in the exhibition catalogue essays written about KAWS: if there’s pop-inspired art in a museum then it must be subversive. If KAWS is painting cartoon characters, then he is exposing “the ideological consumer apparatus through the exploitation of its mechanism.”19 Or, he’s critiquing art world pieties about commerce. If the work is acknowledged as empty and debased, then the emptier and more debased, the better, since the upshot is a reminder that we inhabit a capitalist hellscape barren of meaning. Art historian Germano Celant put it most dramatically: “All that remains is to speak of the void and the nothingness that is in our eyes, those two Xs that by now seem to belong to a blind universe inhabited only by brand names and logos, the two Xs of a world of death.”20 The skull that Celant imagines here is emblematic of a consumerist wasteland—a deathly sign that reveals the hypercommodified reality behind the smiling faces of cartoon mascots. In that sense, this death’s head is far closer to the “skulling” celebrated by Lasn in Culture Jam than anything KAWS has created. 

If KAWS distills mass culture iconography to its most broadly appealing essence, his skull invites an elemental connection with viewers that belies Celant’s “void.” As KAWS puts it, the skull is “limitless in terms of translation: anywhere, in any country, it’s still a skull. You can’t really get more universal than that. But a skull is usually associated with death, so I tried to make it as friendly and approachable as possible.”21 Everyone has a skull, so everyone can relate. In a telling footnote to his catalogue essay on KAWS, museum director Michael Auping observed this relatability in action: “When a large COMPANION figure was placed in front of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in 2012, security cameras caught numerous people sitting with the figure for long periods. Some appeared to be conversing with it.”22 Though lacking in psychological complexity, the pleasingly rounded, hunched over COMPANION figures do stimulate desire. They are monuments to being cute and feeling tired: towering in scale, approachable in affect. Cuteness is often regarded as unserious, so trivial as to be synonymous with emptiness. Yet, as literary critic Sianne Ngai argues, cuteness is an aesthetic “disclosing the surprisingly wide spectrum of feelings, ranging from tenderness to aggression, that we harbor toward ostensibly subordinate and unthreatening commodities.”23 Threat mitigation is the essence of KAWS’s art. Unintimidating to viewers and flattering to institutions, his sculptures are figures of subordination. Appearing weak and barely able to survive, KAWS’s “COMPANIONS” embody art at its most docile.

It almost goes without saying that docility is anathema to the rhetoric associated with most contemporary art, especially the work championed by influential curators and critics during the years of KAWS’s rise in the early 2000s. The exhibition “Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century,” organized at the New Museum in 2007, encapsulated a moment when “materially provisional and structurally precarious” sculpture, often displaying the artists’ virtuosic command of pop culture niches, looked dominant. The work featured in this epoch-defining show represents the exact opposite of KAWS’s materially solid, structurally sound depictions of Mickey Mouse as the walking dead. As “Unmonumental” co-organizer Massimiliano Gioni wrote, the fragmentary sculptural vocabulary was an apt response to a “headless century.” “There isn’t time or distance enough to perpetuate monuments . . . no absolutes are reliable and no hierarchies are consistent.”24 Despite its self-deprecating physical presence, unmonumental art was supposed to be threatening, challenging viewers to revise long-held values and reflecting the chaotic instability of a society turned upside down. Yet this performance of anxiety and complexity, of reveling in dismantled hierarchies, depends on the protected space of the gallery. KAWS’s success within comparable spaces calls into question just how threatening, and to whom, such performances really are. Weakness and docility are relative values. Despite its cowed appearance within the gallery space, KAWS’s work is ultimately independent of it. The museum is just one site for a practice that encompasses global networks of consumption. KAWS isn’t tied to any one umbilical cord of gold.

If anything, KAWS’s career to this point shows that monuments are possible, and that this century does have a head, or several. By achieving maximum visual accessibility, his work can appear anti-elitist without upsetting the actual economic and social hierarchies that fuel art collecting. The fact that those collectors asserting their cultural affinities through KAWS’s monuments may be different from those doing the same with “unmonuments” doesn’t negate the underlying reality. KAWS’s work, in this sense, encapsulates the power structures animating our faux-populist moment. Everyone is potentially included in KAWS’s world; no one is too stupid to understand the skull. Death is the ultimate relatable experience, and KAWS has positioned himself as the artist capable of delivering its iconography. It’s telling, then, that the only works KAWS has created in the past twenty years that don’t bear the trade mark Xed-out eyes are self-portraits: his own head rendered in painted bronze. The artist appears defiant of the deathly, homogenizing icons he offers the world. Titled Permanent Thirty-Three (2008), the work is an ode to immortality.

This article appears under the title “The Weak and the Dead” in the September 2019 issue, pp. 56–65.