- Vladimir Turgenev
OPINION | DETESTING DESIGNERS IS NOT DIFFICULT | A RESPONSE TO KIDULT & CONTEMPORARY "ARTIVISM"
The origins of "artivism" have been hijacked to represent the blandest and most milquetoast overtones of the art world with an aesthetic appropriated from a genuinely significant cultural paradigm and a smugness that would rival that of the most pretentious champagne socialist. writes Vladimir Turgenev.
Let's talk about Kidult. He's a French graffiti artist, and not a terribly good one at that. His works rely on overly-simplistic breakdowns of consumerism with a focus on high-end designers and brands. But the fact that I literally groaned out-loud with annoyance at the news of his recent stunt of spraying "Merry Crisis" over Balenciaga's flagship store in Paris really got me thinking about why this specific brand of "artivism" annoys me so much. I love art, I love activism, and I especially love pieces that synergistically merge medium and message - so why does Kidult make me roll my eyes so hard? The answer is not as simple as street art = bad/brands = good - it is however steeped in the history of street art and anti-consumerist approaches, so I will start at the beginning: Keith Haring.
Keith Haring's work is ultimately what every "artivist" is trying to achieve: a simple but recognisable design with a deeper message about social circumstance that can be recreated on urban surfaces and classic canvas alike. The nature of street art makes it the perfect candidate for message about social change, it is inherently anti-elitist, transformative and iconic. Haring was arrested multiple times for his works which touted sexual progressiveness, pro-AIDS movements and religious rebellion and was greatly obsessed by the notion of creating art that was 'worthy of risk'. It's in this notion, I suggest, that the heart of good street art lies: that your message is worth the vandalism, the danger, the destruction of public (or private) property. It is of course difficult to assign worth to an idea, but let us simplify things by assuming that such ideas are usually revolutionary, inherently progressive and fundamentally supportive of significant societal and cultural change. It is the touting of this style of message that separated Haring's work from a biro scribble on the side of a bus seat or a teenager sprawling his name on the shutters of a closed-down Tesco. There is arguable merit to both kinds of expression, and I'm not saying that petty vandalism isn't a type of art in its own right, but it is excessively clear that Kidult would prefer to fall into the former.
This brings me to my first point: Kidult's - and most of his contemporaries - messages suck. Like, a lot. And I don't mean that in a pro-consumerist way; I am as exasperated by corporate capitalism and the quasi-cult-like reverence of high-fashion brands as the next person. But that is frankly where my sympathy for contemporary street "artivism" ends: what should stand for genuine responses to a rapidly evolving socio-political environment and the authentic 'battle for meaning' has been hijacked to represent the blandest and most milquetoast tones of the art world with an aesthetic appropriated from a genuinely significant cultural paradigm and a smugness that would rival that of the most pretentious champagne socialist. Nobody is going to be blown away by the concept that brands are expensive and monopolistic entities that aren't your friends, least of all the people buying their products and visiting their flagship stores. The "points" that Kidult are trying to make just simply aren't relative or indeed relevant to the methods, locations or scale he uses to make it.
I will further my case for the vapidity of Kidult's messages and how inappropriate they are for the medium he has chosen by taking a look at his 2018 stunt peice "Their Fürher", in which he painted a 10-foot long banner roll along the side of the renovation site of a Chanel stores in the black and red of the Nazi regime, with the double-Cs of the luxury logo replacing the SS symbol. His goal, apparently, was "to expose Coco Chanel’s alleged ties with the Nazis during the French occupation, collaborating with them and providing key info". Jesus Christ, man - where do I even start with this? The whole thing simply screams of that kid who just can't wait to smugly squeal about John Lennon's wife-beating whenever a Beatles song comes on at the pub. Firstly, most people already know about the brief but well-documented and much-discussed romance between Coco and an Abwehr officer. "Exposing" her taking advantage of Jewish expulsion laws to set up a store is not making a statement at all, it is simply using a well-known and incredibly unpleasant historical fact for shock value. So well done, you've regurgitated number 7 on the Buzzfeed list of 20 Shocking History Facts That Will Make You Rethink the World Forever (Number 4 Will Make You Shit Yourself!), but now what? I'm not suggesting that all politically or culturally charged art provide a solution to the problems they bring attention to, but when it's something this mundane, surely there should be something suggested. We've established that there is little to no technical skill involved, zero creativity, and a slightly deeper look past the knee-jerk wow-Chanel-was-a-Nazi reaction reveals that there is absolutely no symbolic interest - so where is the value?
Secondly, I think that it an unfortunate reality that artists like Banksy and Kidult have come to view their medium not as the inherently politically and historically charged response to societal disruption that it is, but as an ephemeral and overtly accessible way to tout shallow, unprovocative and frankly easy messages without fear of discussion of response. It's big, it's brash, it requires no serious skill or style, and it makes it look like a statement is being made. Having "$$$ is the new religion" spray painted on the side of the Philip Plein store really doesn't do anything for anyone, and the unfortunate truth of this brand of "artivism" is that it simply isn't very good, either aesthetically or symbolically. Although the accessibility of the medium once acted as a way to translate genuinely revolutionary and progressive messages, it has now become the champagne socialism of the art world: it says nothing and does even less. It's ugly, it's boring, and it's explaining very basic and over-played messages with the confidence of a white gay who thinks wearing bad makeup and cheap heels gives him the right to call his females friends 'cunty'. Ultimately, I think that what frustrates me the most about Kidult and his contemporaries' work is this: that street art is capable of being used to create so much more beautiful and interesting things than this shit.
Image credit: Tseng Kwong Chi & Keith Haring Art Foundation, Kidult, Hypebeast