Modeled after Japan’s big-budget comics and science-fiction industries, Takashi Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki company openly makes business of fine art, creating everything from auction-record-breaking works to souvenir bibelots. Considering the root of this business model (based on industries that serve otaku or social-outcast nerd culture) and its permeation into Western capitalist culture via its undeniably cute, technically flawless facade (Murakami-branded Louis Vuitton bags, for example), his enterprise in this era of fiscal upheaval has proven impervious to critique that might attempt to devalue it.
So it went for “Murakami at Versailles,” the third exhibition of contemporary art at the famed 17th-century palace. Lambasted by French conservative groups as “Financial Art” that degraded the home of Louis XIV, the show sparked a mounting clash between France’s blue-blood traditionalists and the cultural avant-garde as its September 13 opening date neared.
Right-wing opposition campaigns calling themselves Sauvegarde du Château de Versailles (“Versailles Protection”) and Non aux Mangas (“No to Manga”) collectively garnered more than 12,000 signatures for a petition denouncing the show’s “visual pollution, mental disorder and vulgarity,” and their protests at the palace gates attracted as much attention in the French media as the exhibition itself. Signs reading “The Château is not an advertising company” and “We want democracy at Versailles,” as well as mock-contemporary art crafted by the protestors and hours of anti-Murakami invective caught on video, have swamped French websites. Ultimately, the hype doubled the show’s press coverage, and thus the public’s interest.
At the center of the maelstrom is museum president Jean-Jacques Aillagon. In remarks at the exhibition’s press preview, Aillagon expressed a desire to stage “a confrontation between the ancient and the new,” rather than pleasing the palace bureaucracy. “When a debate becomes a polemic, founded on prejudice and passion,” he proposed, “it’s inadmissible.” He added that such attempts at censure deny the public access to culture. Nonetheless, organizers cowed to pressure on September 30, declaring that future shows at Versailles would be held on the palace grounds alone.
The exhibition—22 works, 11 newly created—follows the tour-route through the royal apartments. Oval Buddha Gold (2007–10), a 20-foot-tall gold-leafed bronze work placed between the garden’s fountains, is a portrait neither of the artist nor of Louis XIV, but it is certainly a most convincing collaboration between old and new royalty.