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That's right, we're talking about Von Dutch.

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Daisy Alioto on what Hulu’s Von Dutch documentary can teach us about intellectual property.

The Curse of Von Dutch (Hulu) tries so hard to make a murder mystery happen they gloss right over the mystery I was actually interested in: how the work of Kenny Howard aka “Von Dutch” was licensed to the fashion brand in the first place. 

According to The New York Times, Howard’s daughters sold the Von Dutch naming rights to Michael Cassel in 1996. A name that became a lot more problematic in 2004 when Howard’s neo-nazi sympathies were revealed. Tracey Mills gets the documentary’s final word, pointing out that Von Dutch belongs to the people now. The $80 trucker hats do not discriminate!

Hulu chose the angle they wanted, hurtling the three-part series towards a criminal climax. The idea of separating the art from the artist belongs to the documentary’s denouement. However, intentionally or unintentionally, the story of Kenny Howard offers a far more realistic framing than the “art or artist” binary. 

When it comes to modern values mapped onto the artwork (or, god forbid, intellectual property) of a departed artist there are really three nodes of memory to consider: the art, the celebrity and the commercial entity. These nodes vie for supremacy over time, but there is never one winner, rather, public perception pinballs between them in an infinite cycle.

Consider the case of Basquiat and Tiffany’s. There is the art, the painting Equals Pi at the center of the Tiffany’s ad campaign. Then there is celebrity, Basquiat as a public figure, the reason that the campaign exists at all. Finally, there is Tiffany’s as a company. 

“The art world made Basquiat’s art into a luxury brand (it often brings in over seven figures at auction), and it seems Tiffany’s is aiming to take that even further,” explains ARTnews. Friends and fans of Basquiat are used to the corporate node profiting off the celebrity node. What they want is for Tiffany’s to leave the art node alone. 

“That « They » speculate and monetize, commercialize and manipulate every manifestation of this rebellious genius is not to my taste but that is the game. But leave deciphering his message to those who know or leave it alone,” wrote Basquiat’s former assistant Stephen Torton. After all, UNIQLO x Keith Haring doesn’t change the meaning of the work. There’s no forced connection with Tokyo (where Haring briefly worked) as there is between Basquiat and Tiffany’s signature blue.  

Back to Von Dutch. The more money an artist is able to make in their lifetime, the less likely it is that their primary mode of memory will be commercial, because the estate will be funded enough by art sales to use celebrity in service of the artwork. Clearly, that wasn’t the case with Kenny Howard. But in 2021, the corporate node of the artist is the most vulnerable to cancellation. Kenny Howard the neo-nazi can tank a company and a public reputation. You can’t cancel art. You can, however, overexpose art by separating the trucker from the trucker hat one too many times. 

After watching The Curse of Von Dutch, my husband pointed out that the intellectual property narrative, overshadowed by the flashier criminality highlighted in the documentary, is nearly an exact parallel to what happened with Ed Hardy–except that Hardy is still alive. Designer Christian Audigier leaned into the celebrity node of memory at Von Dutch, eventually killing sales by splashing the logo (artwork) on too many products worn by too many celebrities. He then did the same thing to Ed Hardy. 

Time is the greatest corrective. The artwork rises again. According to Lyst, “searches for Von Dutch have increased by 148 percent on the site in the last year,” The New York Times reports. Now it is the secondary market not the branded storefront. Now it is, Kenny who? 

The final point I want to make is about lifetime earnings. Equals Pi, the painting at the center of the Tiffany’s ad campaign, was purchased as Sotheby’s London for $253,000 in 1996. Now, it would likely go for seven or eight figures. Basquiat’s estate would see none of that money, although they can prevent a painting’s owner from violating copyright.

Artist Resale Royalties are an existing legal concept, but they are basically impossible to implement post facto. Much of the excitement around blockchain-backed digital art comes from coding resale rights into the original version of the digital artwork. When the artwork changes hands, a royalty is automatically paid to the artist. Many people think this is a good thing! 

Because of the way that art circulates in modern life, the artwork and the celebrity and the corporation all need each other. But the hardest thing to monetize is the hardest to kill–and so Von Dutch lives on, this time with more context. — by Daisy Alioto

The Dirt: The real curse of Von Dutch is predictably, money.