Art has always been a way for people to create meaningful, resonant, and engaging experiences — telling stories in new ways, bringing authentic emotions to life, changing the conversation, and drawing people in. Similarly, many smart brands now share those same goals. The major forces that have influenced the direction of branding today have also influenced the way artists are approaching their work. Artists are creating art that isn’t meant to exist in a museum – instead, aiming to make art more accessible and more open in its nature.
The early 1980s saw a fusion between art and commerce, artists such as Andy Warhol and Keith Haring transformed high-art into something that belonged on shelves and in homes rather than just gallery walls.
Andy Warhol famously said “making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art,” which sums up the potential of commerce and art to have a mutually beneficial effect. It’s no coincidence that the avant-garde artist called his studio ‘The Factory’, he embraced the commodification of art and with his advertising background, he created a style that was so distinct and recognisable, it quickly became a brand.
Warhol turned everyday objects into fine art, through his Campbell soup series he fostered his personal brand, but also put Campbell on the map. He did the same for Coca-Cola and Perrier, and even after his death his style has been adopted in product branding today. Last year, Burger King aired 37-year-old footage of Andy Warhol eating a whopper burger during the Super Bowl. What was once documentary footage is now a 45-second ad for the fast-food brand—an exercise in the confluence of art and commerce, exactly the kind of commentary on consumerism that made Warhol famous.
Although many artists have made their mark in terms of branding – Barbara Kruger with her powerful text and image work, and Takashi Murakami with his collaboration with Louis Vuitton – many argue there is yet to be an artist other than Warhol that has been so successful in bridging the gap between the two worlds.
When Keith Haring had the idea for a Pop Shop that would sell branded material, he viewed it as a way of bringing art and activism to the masses. Many of his contemporaries were horrified by the scheme, seeing it as a sellout. Nowadays it seems a prescient move. Haring believed that his art was for everyone and in 1986 he opened his New York boutique which sold posters, shirts, pins, books and more with his art appearing on them.
"Here's the philosophy behind the Pop Shop," he once said, "I wanted to continue the same sort of communication as with my subway drawings. I wanted to attract the same wide range of people and I wanted it to be a place where, yes, not only collectors could come, but also kids from the Bronx.... This was still an art statement." The store did indeed attract kids from the Bronx, but also higher-profile customers, like Madonna.
The way people thought about art and commerce was completely changed thanks to Haring’s Pop Shop. Today's much beloved museum stores didn't exist, at least not in the way we imagine them now. Back then, they didn't offer the massive selection of reproductions, books, art-inspired jewellery, and home goods that we can now find.
A lifelong admirer of Andy Warhol’s, Takashi Murakami sought in his early career to draw inspiration from Warhol’s process and founded his own factory, KaiKai KiKi, which is a fusion of Andy Warhol’s 'Factory'. In 2003 the artist expanded upon his commercial empire with the collaboration with Louis Vuitton to reinvent the traditional monogram. Murakami’s reinterpretation of Vuitton bags helped lay the groundwork for today’s flourishing collaboration culture. The fusion of the art and fashion world helped pave the way for artists like Yayoi Kusama and Jeff Koons to create their own artistic interpretations of a Louis Vuitton bag – introducing a lucrative co-dependency between fashion and art.
The collaboration between the artist and the fashion brand brought in over 300 million dollars in profits for Louis Vuitton. When the merchandise went to market, so too did Murakami, displaying his paintings of the LV monogram in the Louis Vuitton store rather than in gallery demonstrating how the art has become a hybrid of both a commercial and artistic product.
Brian Donnelly (KAWS) embraces both commercial and fine art, he is mindful that his artwork reaches beyond the traditional gallery walls and art aficionados which is why he has a long list of collaborations behind him.
He developed a reputation across New York, Paris, London and Berlin for his practice of ‘subvertising’ – quietly removing billboards and advertisements for luxury brands and painting over them, adding his signature skull and crossbones cartoon motifs, and returning them to their original spot. He was fully aware of the benefits of showing his work in the street and mass-producing pieces in order to build a following.
From designing Kanye West's album cover to working with cult streetwear labels A Bathing Ape and Supreme, KAWS has solidified his iconic status by undertaking a series of carefully considered brand collaborations. The result has led the artist to be aligned with a number of luxury and popular brands, captivating an even wider audience.
If we think of artists as pioneers – creating at the frontline of culture and anticipating what will be next, these creative minds lead the conversation in many ways. Brands that are embracing this kind of collaboration are offering a whole new level of connection with their key audiences.
Emerging artists are now seeking out brand collaborations earlier in their career to help them get recognised by galleries and collectors.