Sold to the lowest bidder! Artwork by Claude Monet, Frida Kahlo, and Jean Michel Basquiat is bought at bargain prices, through keychains, t-shirts, and water bottles.
Museums have become obsolete. Why spend money to go to a place where you can neither touch nor buy art? It is much smarter to go to any fast fashion store, where you can access a huge catalog of artists that you can even wear. In fact, why go to a mall when any convenience store will do? A place where the works, as well as the faces of the most influential artists, are available for two and a half or if you go somewhere pricier, three euros. As much as we appreciate the catalog that is at our fingertips, certain doubts begin to infiltrate our minds. How did this art come to be in a place so far from the exclusive gates of artistic Eden? These questions are only accentuated when we see the works of artists like Frida Kahlo spread all over the world. It is at the expense of this artist, so faithfully anti-capitalist, that gargantuan revenues are produced. This is not to disregard the aesthetic aspect of art; since the genesis of humanity, walls, clothes or tools have been adorned with art. But this is not limited to its decorative value, there is a complexity that differentiates the aesthetic object from the work of art. This depth is conferred by what escapes what is on the canvas, or, in this case, on the t-shirt. It is the social, political and cultural context in which it is produced. It is the artist's intention that is used as fuel for the fire of profit - ignited by a lighter with a Monet on it.
We have no ambition to engage in philosophical debates, where the purpose, definition or usefulness of art is questioned, we leave those to stuffy classrooms. However, some things have to be made clear, but not without the help of qualified voices. We have the testimony of Sara Shamsavari, artist and coordinator of the course Art, Ethics, and Social Change in Central Saint Martins. Let's start, as is the costume, in the beginning. A work of art is not just a pretty little thing to hang on the wall (or in the closet). As Shamsavari informs us, art "has the power to move us, and, by privileged access to our emotions, can encourage us to think about the world differently." The abysmal potential of art is the reason why many artists produce their work, as a way to create change they deem necessary. Artists like Paula Rego or Jean Michael Basquiat base much of their catalog on this intention. The latter in particular addresses issues that remain relevant today, such as police violence, which are inevitably trivialized when they become the decoration for cell phone covers. The London-based Iranian academic wonders, "I wonder how an artist who was so socially conscious would feel about seeing the mass commercialization of his work."
There is, however, no artist in whom this trend is as prevalent as Frida Kahlo. The Mexican artist, whose introduction is unnecessary, has, not only her art, but her face, spread all over the world. Make-up, forks, condoms, pens, dishwashers: there is no object, new or old, that has not also had a version with Frida Kahlo's face stamped on it. Hyperboles aside, the prevalence of Kahlo's imagery in merchandise approaches the ridiculous, especially considering its impact. Shamsavari summarizes the core of this dissonance: "[Frida] was a militant anti-capitalist, communist and feminist. She was a pioneering fighter in the fields of disability, gender identity and sexuality, long before the public consciousness understood it." The academic reveals that it is precisely because of impact she had, and continues to have, on the way we think, that selling her image at the cheapest price is "reductive and disheartening." One question becomes obvious amidst these complaints: how can this possibly happen? It is again Shamsavari who has the answer: "In Kahlo's specific case, her art and image belong to the Frida Kahlo Corporation, based in Panama. The em- ployee bought the rights from the artist's niece, Isolda Kahlo, in 2005, who served on its board until her death in 2007." But the issue could not be so simple, and the novel gets complicated with the claims of Isolda's daughter, Mara Romero, that it is she who owns the rights to Frida's image. Between family dramas and legal entanglements the origin of what the Iranian artist calls the "ubiquitous presence of Frida Kahlo in tequila bottles, earrings, candles, furniture, in some of which her appearance is altered beyond thought." is unknown. Think of the Barbie that Mattel produced in the artist's image that is almost disrespectful, eliminating her facial hair, including her iconic unibrow.
Shamsavari gives Vogue Portugal a glimpse into the art world. For the academic, the way Kahlo is treated is a reflection of the way this industry treats artists: "In general, art is not strictly regulated, there is little protection for artists and their work. There are many in the cultural industry who behave according to a strong moral code, but there is also no shortage of unscrupulous people," elaborates Shamsavari. As black and white as this narrative may seem at first glance, as in everything, it exists in shades of gray. There are dimensions that need to be explained in the current debate. To put artists as a generic term and put the multitude of all individuals that make up the history of art would be more than unwise. Frida Kahlo and Andy Warhol are artists with messages and political perspectives that couldn't be more different. So too Keith Haring, who, in his lifetime, sought to shorten the distance between the elite who have privileged access to art and the common public through merchandise. "Many artists who are alive choose to collaborate with different institutions and brands as a way to not only make their work accessible but to supplement their income," Shamsavari adds. The art world, often criticized for the exclusivity it privileges, can enjoy the spread of merchandise production. It is a difficult question to navigate, and the singular answer is more than impossible, it is undesirable. The integrity of each artist is unique, each case is a case, and it is impossible for us to establish across-the-board laws. There is no solution in sight for this problem that, with technological acceleration, only gets more complicated. Even if the answer is chimerical, Shamsavari stresses the most important thing: "We must avoid the trivialization of art." The implications are considerable, we risk the devaluation of art as a concept, putting it at a lower price than the t-shirts it helps sell.
Translated from the original on The Butterfly Effect issue from Vogue Portugal, published October 2022.
Full story and credits on the print issue.