NEW YORK - Here are a few snapshots of contemporary culture: The Marshall Field's catalog features a silk dressing gown with the Superman logo for $59.95. Nearly 19 million grown-up Americans are regular viewers of SpongeBob Squarepants. J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter saga has proved to be a literary sales phenomenon - among adults.
And through today, the plaza at Rockefeller Center is surmounted by a 30-foot cartoon creature with a tapering head and an oversupply of limbs. His name is Tongari-kun, or Mr. Pointy, and he is the brainchild of Takashi Murakami, the hyper-hip Japanese artist who has become an international celebrity.
Recently, the 41-year old Murakami, 45 minutes late and wearing a schoolbus-yellow slicker, shambled out of a meeting at the Japan Society in Manhattan and sat down for a hasty interview. His granny glasses, unkempt ponytail and scruffy tuft of beard gave him the air of an aging college student.
"I don't make my art intentionally childish just so I can appeal to children," he said through a translator. "Colorfulness, cuteness, simplicity - that's my aesthetic. I take those elements very seriously."
So does the marketplace. Louis Vuitton, which carried his designs last year, is just one style-conscious company that craves an association with Murakami: Target is sponsoring the Rockefeller Center installation, titled Reversed Double Helix, and Citizen issued a limited-edition Murakami watch. Last May, Christie's auctioned off a Murakami painted sculpture, Miss KO2, for $567,000. And Mr. Pointy himself - or rather, one of three identical Mr. Pointys - was recently bought by a French art collector for a reported $1.5 million.
More than an artist, Murakami is an entrepreneur of himself. His KaiKai Kiki company employs teams of fabricators who produce what he designs - more than 40 people in all, in Japan and Brooklyn, N.Y. There, he produces T-shirts, watches, stuffed animals and art, all adorned with his repertoire of large-eyed characters.
The art world has been unstinting in its recognition, handing him solo exhibits at such eminently respectable outlets as the Marianne Boesky Gallery in Manhattan, the Serpentine Gallery in London and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Recoiling from cuteness
Perhaps the most relevant way to measure the success of the Murakami brand is by noting the extent to which his imagery has reached the street. His Vuitton bags sell for up to $4,500 each, but knockoff artists are making a killing on ersatz bags - a fact that delights the artist.
"It's very important to me and very good," Murakami said. "In the consumer world, there's demand for my bags. ... It's really interesting, really exciting."
Still, Murakami faces an uphill battle to be taken seriously. Last year, British art critic Adrian Searle wrote of his work: "I recoil from its cuteness, and the sly, self-conscious and hyper-sophisticated cartoony artiness of what he does."
Even Tom Eccles, the director of the Public Art Fund, which organized the Rockefeller Center extravaganza, tempers his praise: "While he has a deeply personal visual language, he wants to reach a wide audience. Face it: Sometimes you give your child candy, sometimes you give her broccoli."
Murakami is unfazed by criticism and takes the long view. "If people think my work is shallow, that's fine, it's no problem. I hope someone in the future, maybe 20 or 30 years from now, will pay attention to my work, even if it's ignored now."
Ignored it is not, but some viewers may miss the spiritual overtones that the artist says underlie Mr. Pointy and Co. "As one of the characteristics of post-war, impotent Japan, there is a lack of any interest in any particular religion," he said in a lecture last spring. Instead, he continued, Japan's entertainment world, with its gadget-like creatures and adorable mini-divinities, re-creates a kind of "makeshift polytheism."
That may sound like an indictment, but Murakami tends to treat this free-floating spiritual amalgam of traditions as a source of inspiration, rather than a topic for criticism.
Mr. Pointy is Murakami's self-proclaimed "new icon" - a new Buddha. At Rockefeller Center, he is attended by four round-bellied guards. Two balloons painted with all-seeing eyeballs hover above, and pilgrims to the shrine sit on fiberglass mushrooms.
Murakami's public utterances about his work tend to wax vague and self-contradictory. This may be a byproduct of translation, but seems more likely to stem from a fundamental uncertainty about why he does what he does, and for whom.
So does Murakami strive to please himself or a crowd of schoolgirls? Does he court fickle celebrity or scoff at it in favor of long-term respectability? Is his art mocking or sincere? Spiritual or commercial?