Jeff Koons is a perverted, narcissistic genius who just won’t quit – and we love it. We can’t call his bluff and we can’t catch him out. He’s a savvy little art-hustler but, to be fair, he is also extremely consistent. In the past few months, for instance, he has collaborated with Lady Gaga, seen his Balloon Dog sell for over $58 million, launched a particularly so-so “exhibit/collection” with H&M and announced retrospectives at both the Louvre and the Pompidou next year, all whilst currently showing at the Whitney [Museum of American Art in New York]. On that basis, then, the notion of giving Jeff Koons a negative review feels futile. Is there really any point?
If there is one thing you can’t call Mr Koons, it’s lazy – although he does have a large factory (in both the Warholian and industrial sense) to facilitate his mass production. But the list of things he is called is almost impossible to recount. Businessman, deviant, sycophant, commodities broker, “artist”… Indeed, the latter is the most interesting for its framing within ironic punctuation. ‘Artist’ is, after all, a label loaded with its own complexities, as the collision of artist and celebrity has rendered the term to be almost an inverse signifier: the word that used to stand for someone overflowing with creative talent has come to describe one who utterly lacks it.
Warhol was among the first to fall victim to this problematic romanticizing of the role of the artist in the modern age. Something happened, or should have happened, around of the turn of the century, which allowed art to be popular and still have meaning. It’s that classic pre-teen scenario we all went through with that certain underground indie band we “discovered” who suddenly gained popularity and thus, in our eyes, lost all meaning. But ‘celebrity’ is not the antithesis of ‘integrity’. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be.
The late art critic Robert Hughes’ lampooning of Koons (“He has the slimy assurance, the gross patter about transcendence through art, of a blow-died Baptist selling swap acres in Florida”) stands out for its attack on the gullible collectors and art market as a whole as well as the artist. Some say Koons’ work is indicative of the fall of man, but bold, laudatory statements such as these not only feed into his mythology, but in their simplicity and accessibility are just like Koons’ work.
We’re all looking for a story that convinces us of the strength and significance of art. Pollock and Picasso were both tortured souls and, somehow, that eases our anxiety about their popularity- but Koons’ character is not dissimilar. His early work is rooted in the confusion of fantasy and reality, complicated custody battles and a messy divorce. Just as seeing the chinks in the armour of the likes of Pollock and Picasso reassure us that their mass appeal is secondary to the importance and value of their message, surely these facts about Koons should serve to quieten the retaliation against his ever-growing art empire? Let’s not forget that the young Koons emerged as a fresh-faced young artist straight from the harrowing world of Wall Street, and thus his sculptural exaggerations were always likely to speak the same language as stocks and shares. Whenever has art not reflected its maker?
To dismiss Koons purely because of his background or the financially viable medium through which he presents his work is more than fallacious. It’s juvenile. It’s the act of a 17 year old flicking his fringe and blowing a smoke ring nonchalantly in the direction of a perceived suit not being able to understand his scene. More often that not, though, the more worldly recipient of that sort of slur will take it as a compliment to his relative success. It’s a testimony to how far he’s come; how well he’s played the game since he himself last rolled his eyes in anger at a previous poseur. This is a role Koons loves to play.
In some ways, then, we can think of Koons as an applied performance artist. He lives up to that very identity that we love to hate. He has carefully constructed his persona and, be it through his business nous or public identity, he himself takes on the role of an art work through his very existence. Looking at the way our public profiles are ever-increasingly curated, evaluated, researched and dissected, surely Koons has become the epitome of contemporary society? Dismal as that sounds, Koons has made it work for him, rather than the other way around. Just by talking about his work, we have all become pawns in Koons’ game – and he is winning.
This writer remembers seeing Koons’ Cat on a Clothesline (1994-2001) as part of the Gagosian stand at Frieze last year, and one particularly opinionated young boy offered his own criticism – “This is stupid. I want to touch it”. Our love and hate for Koons succinctly distilled into the vocabulary of a child – just as Koons himself boils down issues of sex and greed to childish balloon animals and toy hearts.
In writing about Koons we are playing into his game, and propagating his myth. In the time spent reading this piece Koons’ market value has probably increased significantly. But what about its artistic value? A more appropriate question might be this: “Does it really matter any more?”
Edit by Nick Artsruni