Can A Hello Kitty Painting Really Be Considered Fine Art?

"767778" by Andrew Brandou. Photo: Birdman Photos
Every Friday this summer, Refinery29 explores the passionate, rollicking world of fandom. We’ll take a look at how we organize, create, debate and show our passion for the things we love — the good, the bad, and the loud.
On June 29, L.A.’s Corey Helford Gallery opened an exhibition dedicated to Hello Kitty. Created in partnership with Sanrio in celebration of her 45th anniversary, it’s a dizzying homage to the Japanese little-girl-in-a-cat-costume’s lasting cultural significance. Throughout the 12,000-square-foot gallery, you can find her sitting atop a pink, cat-shaped planet, her eyes moon-like and filled with stars. She’s painted in pillow form, supporting a pin-up girl who sports a red bow and Kitty-printed fishnets. She’s dangling from a pearl necklace; she’s on a cake. She’s a scoop of ice cream; she’s a hat. She is everything and nothing all at once, and she’s a far cry from her humble beginnings as a children’s cartoon invented to profit from Kawaii culture.
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Curators Sherri Trahan and Caro worked with over 100 artists including Mark Mothersbaugh, Paul Frank, Gary Baseman, Kukula, and Kazuki Takamatsu to commission new works for the show. “We wanted them to incorporate Hello Kitty into their own style,” says Trahan. “We’re not looking for them to change who we are to create the fan art. We’re looking for them to be who they are and incorporate the fandom into it.”
When you think of “fan art,” there’s a good chance that stylised sketches of characters from Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or Rick & Morty are what spring to mind. Maybe even Magneto and Professor X living in bliss as a happy queer couple, tenderly baking (which Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy have seen, mind you). There’s a lot of that stuff on the internet — and elsewhere, as fans of those franchises tend to be about as die-hard as they come. But increasingly, there’s also artwork celebrating less obvious (and more stereotypically female) fandoms, like Real Housewives, designer shoes, Disney Princesses, Hillary Clinton, and yes, Hello Kitty. And as the topics that inspire fan art have expanded, so too has its presence in fine art galleries, museums, fairs, and major biennales.
Fan art started in earnest in the 1960s and ‘70s with Star Wars, Star Trek, and Lord of the Rings. It was published in zines and traded at conventions, and therefore rarely seen by people other than fans. This continued through the ‘80s and ‘90s, while in the aughts, websites like DeviantArt and Tumblr provided a community for artists to display and share their work.
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“Written fan creations rose up when it became easy to reproduce them, and the visual arts experienced the same thing as it became more reasonable to reproduce artwork in zines. These were still very women’s interest-heavy, while the more commercial side of fandom (and therefore the more mainstream idea of what that looked like) was being targeted at young men,” explains art historian and fan artist Amanda Niday. “A quick Google of staple fanzines of the time reveal women writers, women publishers, women artists, women who really wanted Spock to be shirtless more often.”
Basically, Niday says, women have always been involved in fandoms — and therefore fan art — but unfortunately, they weren’t always welcomed or publicised. “The spaces women occupied were not spaces that were given with no questions asked,” she notes.
Conversely, it’s fan art that has long struggled for acceptance within the mainstream art world. Perhaps because of its self-contained, anti-establishment origins, “fan art” has historically been a dirty phrase that many “serious” artists — those aspiring more to gallery shows than Tumblr shares — still feel uncomfortable with.

"I spend a lot of time wondering if my art is fan art or not. And I hope that it’s not."

Laura Collins
“I spend a lot of time wondering if my art is fan art or not. And I hope that it’s not,” says Laura Collins, a Chicago-based painter known for her portraits of cultural icons like the Olsen twins, Princess Diana, Anna Wintour, and the Real Housewives. “I won't just paint your favourite singer, or whatever. I have to choose a moment that I genuinely feel is maybe a moment of weakness for that person or just a little bit of a stumble or a slip-up. I mean, I literally did a series of runway models falling.”
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Collins’ gaze is more critical, and more steeped in dark humour, than many other homages. What you understand as fan art may depend on what you think it means to be a fan. Does fandom mean you direct relentless, unquestioning positivity toward a subject? Does it mean you fill your home with themed bric-a-brac? Or does it mean you respect someone or something, and fight for their cultural relevance to be appreciated? And how much is it possible for an artwork to both serious and fanatic at once?
Some in the art world say it comes down to factors like who the artist is, whether or not they have a formal art education, and how they choose to present themselves. “To me, it’s hard to explain, but there's a big difference between fan art that's created with fans that are online, that aren't actual artists, and fan art by artists for whom art is their first love,” says Trahan.
"Kim Richards Pointing At Her Sister" by Laura Collins.
There’s a lot of art in the world that’s predicated on an understanding of the art historical canon. It’s inherently exclusive, and it means to be. The acceptance of Pop art, like Andy Warhol’s soup cans, served to open that up, and now it seems like fan art could be the next frontier. “I think that perhaps fan art has an enticing sense of pleasure and joy in its focus that might generate a greater quality of freedom, agency, and inclusivity. I think the gallery world is slowly responding to this energy,” says Courtney Lee Weida, associate professor of art education at Adelphi University.
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“I was surprised to see Frida Kahlo-inspired art (or fan art) featured alongside Kahlo prints in the Brooklyn Museum gift shop during her recent retrospective,” she adds. “As another example, Lisa Frank, who is the subject of an enormous amount of fan art on Etsy and even has her own tarot deck designed by fans, is scheduled to partake in the upcoming Venice Biennale.”

"Fan art has an enticing sense of pleasure and joy in its focus that might generate a greater quality of freedom, agency, and inclusivity."

Courtney Lee Weida
Some of this can be chalked up to the fact that we’re living in an increasingly nostalgic, fan-focused culture. From Buzzfeed lists to Twitter memes, there’s a lot of space these days to come together over shared obsessions. But when artists are able to harness this generalised sense of nostalgia and use it to make a point, or turn an image on its head, that’s when fan art becomes something worthy of more critical attention. Niday, for example, is well-known for her series of Disney Princesses holding up protest signs with messages like “I Am Not A Prize To Be Won” and “Why Is Mulan Any Different?” While Disney Princess fan art is relatively common on the internet (much to the chagrin of the company itself), these are about something deeper than a mere expression of appreciation.
“The Princess series for me came at a time when I was really feeling like I needed that connection, that inspiration. That old cliche about an artist who just needed to get her feelings out,” she explains. “And so I drew what I was feeling in the languages I knew. I think part of what made other people connect with that series was that they knew those languages, too. And maybe that’s the real power of fan art and fandom.”
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Collins, meanwhile, says she was drawn into painting celebrities because they are “kind of like this weird common family that we all have.”
Since announcing the Hello Kitty show, Trahan says Corey Helford Gallery has received “hundreds upon hundreds” of emails from fans and potential collectors, some of whom are flying in from around the world to see the work. Since art is, as much as some may want to deny it, a business, this bodes well for similar exhibitions going forward. As does the presence of Lisa Frank at the Venice Biennale, and the critical acclaim directed at Maghen Brown’s Game of Thrones fan art at this year’s Every Woman Biennial (formerly known as the Whitney Houston Biennial).
What remains to be seen, however, is just how niche the subjects can get. Imagine: Art dedicated to beauty YouTubers and their myriad feuds. Or mid-aughts fashion trends. Big Little Lies. Kon-Mari. Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. You know, whatever. The possibilities are as endless as our collective dedication allows.
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