Vincent Van Gogh died broken and penniless. He could not monetize his talent.
Takashi Murakami figured it out. He makes big money selling cartoonish figures as fine art and licensing his outrageous colors for $5,000 limited edition Louis Vuitton handbags. Murakami is so influential that in 2008 he was the only visual artist included in Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” list. That same year Murakami’s sculpture, “My Lonesome Cowboy,” sold for $15.2 million at a Sotheby’s auction.
What’s the difference? Why did one artist reached such incredible levels of public acceptance while the other had to wait until after his death to be hung in the finest museums and collections? 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 like his predecessors Warhol, Oldenburg and Lichtenstein. Thanks to his power, Murakami counts fashionistas, commercial brands AND art collectors amongst his fans and patrons.
Is that the secret? Is it really as simple as the old line, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know?” Was Van Gogh less successful than Murakami solely because he knew less people?
Malcolm Gladwell calls the folks who know the most people “Connectors.” In The Tipping Point, Gladwell wrote about the importance of these people. “Connectors know lots of people…all of us know someone like this… 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. In Never Eat Lunch Alone he gives three points for building and exploiting his database of people:
- Don’t keep score: It’s never simply about getting what you want. It’s about… making sure that the people who are important to you get what they want, too.
- “Ping” constantly: Reach out to those in your circle of contacts all the time – not just when you need something.
- Never eat alone: The dynamics of status are the same whether you’re working at a corporation or attending a society event—“invisibility” is a fate worse than failure.
Is Ferrazzi’s last point the secret? Was Van Gogh not able to break out of the pack in his lifetime 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 really not what you know but who you know?
In the end does it all come down to networking and marketing? Of course, I would think so because I’m a branding guy and, as the saying goes, “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 talent and hard work there’s more to success than just whom you know.