Takashi Murakami figured out how to monetize talent. He makes big money selling cartoonish figures and licensing his outrageous designs for $5,000 limited edition Louis Vuitton handbags. Murakami is so influential that in the last decade he was the only visual artist included on Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People list. That year Sotheby’s sold Murakami’s sculpture, “My Lonesome Cowboy,” for 15.2 million dollars.
What’s the difference? Why did one artist reach monetize talent to such incredible levels of public acceptance while the other had to wait until after his death to be hung in the finest museums? If we accept that both Van Gogh and Murakami worked hard at their craft and were blessed with plenty of talent, there must be something more.
In his book Superclass: The Global Power Elite And The World They Are Making, David Jochanan Rothkopf writes, “ten percent of the population owns 85 percent of the world’s wealth. What’s more, data suggests that there is an 80/20 rule within the 80/20 rule: The richest two percent in the world own half of all global wealth.”
What does this have to do with the success or failure of artists? According to Rothkopf, “The superclass does not rule by dictate or direct control, nor does it exercise power through conspiracies or cabals. It has a thumb on the scales and exerts influence…via its most powerful activists or motivated subsets.”
Indeed, Van Gogh did not have any way to exercise power or influence. Nor did he have the connections that could lead him to commercial success. In contrast, Murakami has his thumb firmly on the scale and has successfully blurred the lines between art and commerce. Thanks to his power, Murakami counts fashionistas, commercial brands AND art collectors amongst his fans and patrons. So did Murakami’s predecessors Warhol, Oldenburg, and Lichtenstein.
Is that the secret? Is the key to monetize talent really as simple as the old line, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know?” Was Van Gogh less monetarily successful than Murakami solely because he knew fewer people?
Malcolm Gladwell wrote about this in The Tipping Point: “Sprinkled among every walk of life are a handful of people with a truly extraordinary knack of making friends and acquaintances. They are Connectors.”
Keith Ferrazzi is a big believer in the power of connections, too. In Never Eat Alone Ferrazzi gives three points for building and benefiting from his database of people:
Is Ferrazzi’s last point the secret to monetize talent? Was Van Gogh not able to break out of the pack because he suffered from invisibility? Has Murakami reached the pinnacle of artistic and commercial success because he is the master of harnessing media, both analog and digital, to build his brand?
Is it not what you know but who you know? In the end does it all come down to networking and marketing?
Of course, I’m a branding guy so I would think so. After all, if the only tool you have is a hammer, every solution looks like a nail. Still, the idealist in me would like to believe that besides ability and hard work there’s more to monetize talent than just whom you know.