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Mr Brainwash - Innovation or Renovation? And does it matter?

Insights from the Street Art scene on the value of product renovation...

LAB recently visited the Mr Brainwash show in New York - a vibrant, uplifting and fun exhibition of bright colours, graphic stenciling and subversion, with clear cultural references and commentary at every turn. Massive grafitti cans exploding with pink paint. A Jim Morrison portrait made of broken vinyl records, and a life size New York Taxi encased in 'Matchbox' branded toy packaging. As much as we enjoyed the ebullience of the show it got us thinking about the real meaning of innovation and renovation, even in art. And as a parallel to product innovation led us to the consider if there is an audience for it, whether it really matters at all.  Much controversy surrounds Mr Brainwash as his work fetches prices in the six figures, commensurate with the top artists around. (The broken record Jim Morrison was sold for $100k.) However, while noticeably striking and appealing, what you see is not new.  Reassuringly familiar perhaps. Obvious references in concept and style to Banksy, and also strong nods to artists such as Warhol with an iconic palette and the smart use of cultural icons of the day.  Bringing together pop imagery and cultural iconography with the subversive tone of the graffiti wall and the reframing of familiar objects as art, Mr Brainwash creates his own Banksy / Warhol / Duchamp fusion. And it looks great. 

However, that many of the pieces are so transparent in their 'homage' does beg the question: is this really worth all these dollars, and what are buyers really paying for? Historically and typically artists that break a mould, create a new style, technique or aesthetic are richly rewarded. While those who follow, pushing the style forward or taking inspiration from these 'first movers' tend not to command such princely sums.  In this case, the familiarity of concept, style and tone still commands pioneer prices. 

Taken together this exhibition suggests a wildly commercial eye. Imagine art created by ad men, strategists, and commercial product designers? Art that is designed to appeal to a segment of buyers and that is not concerned with originality, boundary pushing or aesthetic freshness. Far from being meant to wow the contextually educated intellectuals of the establishment, this is art made for a new audience. Those with the five or six figures to spend who are perhaps unschooled in art history or unconcerned by the historical premium awarded to originality, and are looking instead for a reassuring familiarity of style, concept and tone - something that suggests popularity. And it is this 'new need' which gives value to that which is immediately provocative, unashamedly transparent and even creatively derivative. We learned that there is some controversy about whether Mr Brainwash is in fact a Banksy alter ego, a fake, an experiment even, designed to see how far buyers will go in pursuit of perceived freshness and whether they notice the difference between real and 'faux' originality. 

We see this all the time in commercial 'new product design', actually the branch of it more accurately known as 'renovation' and sometimes confused with innovation.  The borrowing of popular food choices to add new lusture (and fresh price points) to crisps (Thai sweet chilli, Argentinian flame grilled, English roast beef and yorkshire pudding...), the lifting of formats from detergents to breathe vitality into over the counter pharma (gel capsules, fast dissolving liquitabs...) and the transference of 'natural, healthy, organic' terminology, packaging and ingredients to sugar packed cereals to cue health credentials, and therefore price premiums, are just a few of the ways the lazy (or savvy!) marketeer bangs a fast buck. In fact in the 'innovation' world it's a 'quick win', to work on renovation rather than real innovation. The argument being that where there's an audience, a market and an opportunity and where consumer concept familiarity is an advantage and leads to immediate selection and preference, it's a 'no brainer' to pick off the winnings from a smart concept extension or collision. Excuse the jargon! And besides, why embark on real game changing innovation that requires investment and commitment, and that risks time and resource spent on unsuccessful development before hitting the jackpot when there is still the opportunity to yield more fruit by shaking the same old tree?

As a 'no brainer' in the commercial world, it seems Mr Brainwash, whether Banksy or not, has successfully brainwashed unwitting art consumers into paying pioneer prices for 'perceived freshness', for renovation in fact, and all at the expense of artistic originality! So what are we to think of this? Well, in the end market forces dictate prices and value so if there's a willing audience with money to spend then there's a viable market - perhaps then we should all just enjoy the spectacle and be happy that someone is willing to pay near Banksy prices for a Brainwash! After all who are we to argue?