The online debate and art exhibition Brand Art Sensation was launched in 2015 in the United Kingdom, in London’s Fitzrovia, alongside a number of advertising billboards that questioned the connections between luxury branding, artist-celebrities’ self-endorsement, and the fine art market. At the heart of the debate, and of the project that culminated in the exhibition, is a critical study of the increasing similarities and consequently blurred lines between luxury product management and high art.
The global art market has seen phenomenal growth in the last few decades. Auction houses sell art at record prices that would have been difficult to imagine just a few years ago. A growing worldwide crowd of the “super-rich” has joined the world’s leading art museums and institutions in the race to collect limited-edition colossal sculptures. “Acquiring art” today, argues Georgina Adam (2014: 134), “tends to stand at the top of the pyramid of needs. After prestige cars, diamond-encrusted watches, a vast house and luxury yacht, comes the desire to own something that others do not have and cannot have: a trophy work of art.” The scarcity on the art market of old masters’ works, for example, has been an important driver feeding the interest and investments of the super-rich in contemporary art. Indeed, super-rich art collectors and global galleries, such as Larry Gagosian’s fourteen gallery spaces, in the super-rich enclaves of New York, London, Paris, Beverly Hills, Rome, Athens, Geneva, and Hong Kong, have contributed significantly to the creation of global artists as celebrity brands.
Branding has always been important in the high-priced art [End Page 49] world. Yet branding does tend to preclude a critical approach not only to the fashionable artist but also to his or her art. Indeed, deciding whether a work of art is any good is no longer a cultural decision concerning aesthetic quality or cultural value but, instead, an economic decision concerning how much super-rich-rich collectors are willing to pay (Findlay 2014: 152).
Simultaneously, and inspired by the thrills and glamour of the seemingly ever-expanding art market, luxury brands from Louis Vuitton to Prada are intensifying their “natural” relationship to the art world in a variety of ways: building eye-catching institutional-looking private museums, collaborating with “starchitects” such as Frank Gehry, and cooperating with artists such as Damien Hirst in the production of luxury goods and artist-endorsed glitzy events. Using fine art as a marketing tool to produce “spillover effects” or an “art infusion,” luxury brands seek to enhance their high-class products even further through their association with art and exclusivity irrespective of the substance of the art (Hagtvedt and Patrick 2008: 381). Art, heritage, high culture, luxury, and sophistication are all interwoven to produce not only luxury brands that collaborate with artists but also artists that cooperate with the luxury-brand advertising publicity machine. Yayoi Kusama, for instance, was a successful international Japanese artist, who, following her collaboration with Louis Vuitton in 2012, became a globally recognized artist and spectacularly popular celebrity.
Emerging from this broader global context, Brand Art Sensation focuses on the links between fine art, commodification, luxury marketing, and luxury branding.
Three influential and very different British celebrity artists—Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, and Grayson Perry—were chosen to symbolize the artist as luxury brand. Utilizing self-publicizing luxury marketing methodologies, all three artists have adopted and adapted luxury-branding strategies and advertising techniques involving popular culture and faux naive or “scandalous” art works, “controversial” behavior, and the building of personality myths. Consider, for example, the use of shocking artworks, such as Hirst’s decaying flesh and large animals in formaldehyde, Emin’s sexually explicit images and narratives (think Polaroid selfies and detailed sexual encounters), and Perry’s paradoxical alter ego character, Claire.
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Brand Art Sensation was imagined as an advertising agency that had received a creative brief to develop three fictional luxury fashion brand...