Toy Art

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Art-Toys on 1 September 2010

My friend Andrew had always known about this kind of stuff before I did. He took me on the N-Judah into San Francisco’s “real” Chinatown (the Inner Sunset district - not that tourist trap downtown) and into an inconspicuous, fairly ratty store with comic books, video games, playing cards, and books - all in Japanese.

It was like an Asian version of a mall store called Spencer Gifts that we used to go when we were kids, to scope new bongs, incense, and blacklight posters. Except that none of the stuff here was about making kids feel more adult. Most of it, in fact, was about making adults feel more like kids.

In little boxes were squished-down, fat, big-eyed versions of the Ultraman character - a Japanese TV superhero named Hayata who could only be full-on, solar-powered Ultraman for a minute or two to beat up the monsters before the light on his chest changed color meaning he had run out of energy and would return to normal. Of course, the real reason for Ultraman’s limited budget of super powers were the Japanese studios’ limited special effects budgets. And those are the kinds of things any adult who thinks about these kinds of things, thinks about.

But I hadn’t thought about Ultraman in years - not since watching some bootleg VHS copies in college with some computer-nerd friends of mine - a time in my life when I seemed to have more worth as a repository of lowbrow culture than as a student of the classics I was supposed to be absorbing in the Princeton English department.

Of course, eventually the scale tipped the other way. I had read enough, learned enough, and opined enough to know my Plato from my Aristotle, my Brecht from my Artaud, and my Duchamp from my Dali - or at least to make a good case that I did. And, like anyone who paid real money for the privilege of learning all this, I had a stake in maintaining the notion that there was some difference.

But these little, fat, cute, squished-down or, what I’d later learn, were “super deformed” or SD figures, somehow connected my two, formerly distinct worlds for evermore. Down was up and up was down, and I - like a Kabbalistic Tree - was the rod through which energy and information could pass from the high dimension to the low and vice versa.

I kid you not: since that moment, I was able to make a career out of analyzing The Simpsons, Ren & Stimpy, and Pee-Wee Herman. I explained to the intellectuals of New York City why they’d be using email someday, and what hypertext was. I showed them the fractal images given to me by ravers in Oakland.

On the other hand, I brought chaos mathematicians to the attention of pot-heads, Baudrillard to the attention of Simpsons writers, and advanced currency theory to the economy of Second Life. It goes both ways.

See, the SD Ultraman wasn’t just the junk culture output of a cynically executed licensing contract. It was a conscious perversion and celebration of a historically significant superhero. Some artist in a workshop in Tokyo thought, why not MUTATE this guy? And why not do it in a way that comments on all the big-eyed baby figures coming out of Disney, the big-eyed stereotypes of manga, and childlike obsession of boys (or men) with dolls?

And for me, it was the beginning of a journey that the artists chronicled in this book have been on for most of their careers.

The Art-Toy movement brings the infinitely replicable image into the artificially scarce realm of the mass produced object - and occasionally even the one-off, hand-crafted piece. Of course, when an object is absolutely singular and individually sculpted, it will be done so in a way that makes it look as if it were a mass-produced piece of plastic, anyway. Such are the reversals in a genre that derives its voltage from the potential difference of low culture and high, mass produced and hand-made, utterly derivative yet cleverly unique, entirely accessible yet also dependent on a wealth of associations beyond the capacity of anyone - except maybe the artist.

Yet even more revitalizing to a tired, investor-driven arts landscape, the art toy movement is producing artifacts that people want. As any three-year-old knows, that’s the beauty of toys. They give you something to want.

In each of our lives there was a moment before marketers had applied this pure, virgin, uncorrupted state of object desire to the mundane mechanics of our kitchens, commuter machines, or work garments. The overwhelming need to have what we saw coming off assembly lines - those plastic objects looking something like the characters in our TV shows and movies, or simply looking so darn cute - was real. It was as essential to us then as the desire to bed a coed is to a college kid.

The merging of toy with art, along with the self-conscious merging of commercial, synthetic production with highly personal vision, brings the innocence of childhood back into the sinfully market-driven excuse for an arts culture we have today. We look at the art toy and don’t have to ask some paid expert whether we like it or not. (For him, liking it or not isn’t about taste or quality, anyway, but rather about the relative value of the piece in the collections of millionaires.)

Make no mistake about it: the art world, the traditional art world is over. I realized this just a few years ago when I was lucky enough to be inside a billionaire’s apartment in New York. The guy kept taking phone calls between trying to pry some media insight or other from me. One call came in from a friend who had just witnessed something horrible enough to stop the presses: the Jasper Johns picture had gone unsold. What did this mean for both of their collections? The billionaire was a board member of major New York museum, and so he called the head curator and instructed him to organize a Jasper Johns show for the following season.

And how much less crass and commercial is that, I dare ask, than using a TV series to promote toys or toys to promote a comic book? And how much more honest, direct, and celebratory is it to do all this in the light of day, for kids and adults who know full well what’s going on?

Only after that relationship between commerce, media, and object is fully appreciated by the toy and TV show consumer is it even possible for the former collector to become an artist, and former consumer to become an appreciator.

To engage with these works forces us to dispense with something to which many of us still hold dear: the painfully learned ability to disconnect our desire from our discretion, our instinct from our judgment, and our passion from our conformity. Incapable of truly learning the lessons of Duchamp or even Warhol, most of us still retreat to the vain pretense that someone, somewhere is doing something more virtuously and with greater virtuosity - simply because we don’t really like or understand it but someone important says so.

But this work is virtuous. And the people making it are indeed demonstrating a virtuosity as real as the brush strokes of an impressionist. Like the readymades of Duchamp, they appear to come from industrial production; yet they are actually crafted by people fully intending their work to be both played with and related to as objects of art. Like the almost mass-produced silkscreens of Warhol, they employ the processes of mechanical production to infiltrate and satirize consumer culture - at the same time as they join and celebrate it. You can buy a lot of this stuff at the comics store.

And that’s where the Art-Toy movement most undermines art as we currently think about it. Most of it is cheap enough for a kid who simply “likes it” to own. Many works can be had, over the counter, for the less than price of a videogame cartridge. And what’s that to pay for a limited edition Gundam or Bill Yeti?

We have been living for too long in the wake of Walter Benjamin’s prescient but ultimately depressing essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” He correctly demonstrated how photographs of art remove works from their original contexts - the media successfully diminishing a painting’s original “aura” of context and place. Now, and thanks to the Art-Toy movement, we may actually be entering an era when a work of art’s aura is not diminished but enhanced or even created by the media supporting it.

This work affirms the ever-present and indefatigable drive of artists to create inspiring and critically dimensional works no matter the medium, and whatever institutional forces appear to control them.

The pages of this very bright book attest not just to the joyous energy but also to the artistic integrity of practitioners native to today’s media-, market-, and mechanically driven world. This is not a break from art, but the most compelling evidence of its continuity.