He is too savvy to resolve these contradictions. Raising the questions generates more attention than answering them would. In an interview with Time magazine last spring, he fretted about the need to "rebuild the wall between the commercial art and the fine art I do." By September, he expressed the opposite sentiment.
"It's really all the same to me," he said. "When I did my fashion work, I studied the history of fashion, and I thought about how to create interesting things based on that history. I also studied the history of art and tried to create interesting forms based on that. It's pretty much the same process."
We have been here before - 40 years ago, during the spectacularly enigmatic trajectory of Andy Warhol, a master of blurring boundaries between high and low art. Warhol divided serious critics and delighted rich collectors, he elevated Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe into contemporary deities, and did it all with an impenetrable poker face.
Murakami cites Warhol and Jeff Koons, a pop artist with a flamboyant, baroque sensibility, as his idols and role models. But while Warhol adored the imagery of mass production and Koons reinterprets souvenir-stand kitsch, Murakami is out to update an assortment of Japanese traditions: the iconography of ancient animist religions, 16th-century screens, 19th-century woodblock prints and 20th-century cartoons. He disdains distinction between fine and popular forms, or between art and craft, and says his approach finds its ultimate expression in his monumental cartoon characters.
"I'm not making fun of consumer culture. I'm improving on it. If you think of someone creating a new computer operating system, they're looking at the older version and not criticizing it exactly, but finding room for improvement. I'm conscious of history, and I think I can make something better than what came before. ... Mr. Pointy is the culmination."
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