KAWS: Should Capitalism Be Considered Art?

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit The Brooklyn Museum and attend their latest exhibit, “KAWS: WHAT PARTY”, which showcased the art of the popular street artist and mass toy manufacturer, KAWS. Needless to say, it successfully met my expectations, mainly because my expectations were so low – both for the experience and for the art itself. You would think that during a pandemic art exhibits would be designed to facilitate people through the gallery in a simple and orderly fashion, but the KAWS exhibit boldly defies this logic by making the gallery a trio of rooms in no linear fashion, forcing you to backtrack through crowds of gawking KAWS admirers frozen in awe if you want to see all three rooms. As I shoved my way through the herds of people taking pictures of the Companion figures that bore a striking resemblance to every other sculpture in the exhibit, I came to the shocking realization that almost all of KAWS’ artwork is either a Companion figure, a pop culture character with X’s on the eyes, or a combination of both. Even his most basic creation, the iconic Chum figurine, is just Mickey Mouse’s body with a skull for a head. This can all be explained as simply part of KAW’s message, that consumers

This is a legitimate product sold at the “KAWS: WHAT PARTY” giftshop: a Garfield-shaped piece of wood signed by KAWS himself, for the low price of only $1200. (Photo Credit: Luca S.’ 22)

are only interested in what is familiar to them, and that cash-grab corporate mascots such as Elmo or Mickey Mouse have the ability to create nostalgia within the general public and generate massive profit. KAWS’ work contains similar ideas to that of pop culture artists of the past such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, whose repetitive and unoriginal artwork represented the modern consumerist society that existed only to brainwash the people into instilling emotional value into meaningless products. Andy Warhol’s Campbell soup cans are not famous because of their quality, they are famous because they are familiar, and thus they are labelled as “iconic” and sold on everything from backpacks to keychains. Whether intentional or not, Warhol inadvertently made the Campbell soup can a staple of American culture by making art attempting to showcase how much of a staple it wasn’t.


KAWS’ Companion figures are the modern-day equivalent of this phenomenon, both in their cultural significance and the fat stacks of revenue they generate. However, Brian Donnelly, aka KAWS himself, is nowhere near as interesting as Warhol or Lichtenstein. Born in New Jersey in 1974, he started as a mediocre graffiti artist, going unnoticed by the art world until he travelled to Japan and gained connections to Japanese toy manufacturers, which granted him the ability to begin mass-producing and assembling vinyl figurines, both as sculptures and as overpriced collectibles. Now, limited edition KAWS figurines sell on eBay for up to $2,000, and some of the rarer ones have gone for $6,000 each. In fact, when the “KAWS: WHAT PARTY” exhibit opened, they had already sold out of their cheap plastic figures in roughly a day; you can now find most of them on eBay for exuberant prices. On April 1, 2019, his painting of the Simpsons with X’s over their eyes sold for a record-breaking $14.7 million in Hong Kong, and his merchandise empire continues to grow with fashion collaborations with brands such as HYPEBEAST, Uniqlo, and Nike.

Needless to say, KAWS and his off-brand characters have become their own icons in modern society; they can be seen everywhere from skateboards to crummy stuffed animals. In 2018, KAWS made over $33.8 million from auctions alone, without even taking into account the selling of his trademark figurines, sweaters, shoes, t-shirts, watches, sunglasses, tote bags, stickers, etc. He even received his own Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float in 2012, and his Companion figure was seen floating down the street of Manhattan with the likes of Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog. Many attribute his success to the generally depressing nature of his figures and the growing dissatisfaction with modern society by younger generations; combined with the spread of cynicism through internet culture and the increasingly bleak nature of politics following our last president, KAWS’ eternally grieving statues have never been more relatable.


However, Brian Donnelly’s entrance to the art world has not gone without criticism. Many view his “art” as commercial branding made simply for profit, and have called him everything from unoriginal to uninspired. Others have rejected his style simply because it doesn’t meet the requirements for “fine art”; however, these requirements are extremely vague. European academia defines fine art as “visual art considered to have been created primarily for aesthetic and intellectual purposes and judged for its beauty and meaningfulness,” but others argue that fine art doesn’t necessitate deeper meaning if it demonstrates beauty, skill, or hard work. Should Jackson Pollock’s drunken paint splotches be considered fine art simply because they are beautiful, even if it was only a way to vent his anger instead of harming his family? If a man builds a humongous statue by adding one paperclip to a pile every day, should it be appreciated because of the time and labor it took even if it has no true meaning?

The total price of these vinyl figures is probably enough to buy yourself a nice Toyota Camry. (Photo Credit: Stockx)

If a robotic arm paints a gorgeous masterpiece in 2.4 seconds, can it even be considered art? These are the questions raised by the debate over KAWS’ artwork and its legitimacy, and the argument rages on to this day. Personally, I find his art to be lackluster and mundane. Anyone could create what he makes if they had Japanese workers assembling their “sculptures” like LEGO pieces, and the only bit of originality in his work is the skull head he plasters over other cartoon characters. Even his message of “consumerism is bad, creativity is dead” is one that has been echoed throughout art by artists of the past for decades, to the point that even repetitive art is now being seen as original. But KAWS’ bland and unoriginal style should not discredit his work as being art. If artists like Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Rene Magritte, and Piet Mondrain can be hailed as genius for doing essentially the same thing, should KAWS not be seen as the modern-day equivalent? I do not advocate for his art to receive praise such as “representative of the human psyche and loneliness in the modern age”, as stated by Dr. Simon Maidment, a senior curator of contemporary art at the National Gallery of Victoria. Nor do I justify the outlandishly expensive prices of his vinyl figures simply because they are a rarer color than the rest. KAWS’ figures are not original or good art, but they are art nonetheless. Whether you agree with that statement is up to your own interpretation. Perhaps if you find his characters relatable or his social commentary profound, then I recommend his exhibit at The Brooklyn Museum, which lasts until September 5th, 2021. But if you agree with my ideas and what I’ve laid forth, then go enjoy a Van Gogh or something, you elitist chumps.