While I was visiting Boston last week, I had the pleasure of seeing Jeff Koons discuss his career in a lecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. You might know Koons from any number of high-profile sculpture pieces, particularly his inescapable metallic balloon animals from the series Celebration. (An architect friend who went to the lecture with me told me that this series is so pervasive that every mock-up she’s seen for proposed museum renovations includes a sketchy balloon dog or two.) You might know him more specifically as the creator of the most expensive art items ever to come to auction, in at least one case to the tune of $50 million.
Let’s get the pleasant stuff out of the way first. Koons’s room presence surprised me. I don’t know if he’s sincere, or if he’s a very talented imitator of sincerity, or if he’s an imitator who’s come to believe his own imitation, but he manifests as a very pleasant, open person who’s legitimately willing and excited to share himself with the world. Significantly, the same things can be said about a subway flasher, but we’ll lay that aside for the moment. The lecture was a chronological review of Koons’s work to date, starting with his 70’s New York ready-mades. It had an eerie resemblance to the stereotyped family vacation slideshow–picture, rambling comment, picture, rambling comment. People stood in line for this.
And I think that’s significant. Koons is, at least by his self-description, all about accessibility. His point is weirdly old-fashioned: Art is a conversation, a word that he used repeatedly in his lecture, and you can only have a conversation if the people who are listening to you can understand what you’re saying. (Paging Dr. Wittgenstein.) He expressed his own joy in being able to engage in this conversation and a desire to bring Everyman into it. In my book, that idea–in the abstract–puts Koons in some way miles and miles ahead of your average avant-garde artistic pencil-neck, who’s often just trying (if we’re being entirely honest) to show that he’s part of an in-group of similar pencil-necks and to exclude enemy tribes of pencil-necks, not to mention poor old Everyman. (A cynic might be inclined to comment on the marketability of this approach, but that doesn’t mean it’s a false one.)
That all being said, I think Jeff Koons is terrible, and, as telegraphed in this post’s title, maybe literally the worst person in the world. I realize this is a pretty aggressive claim, especially since I just spent some time talking about how I think Koons is a seemingly decent guy along at least a couple of axes. Bear with me.
One of the first sets of installations he discussed was The Equilibrium Series (1985). This featured basketballs floating in large tanks full of water with various tonicities, a little chemistry trick that results in different floating behaviors in the basketballs. While this doesn’t exactly get my blood pumping, it’s a cute take on ready-mades and mobiles that, although not earth-shattering, is at least a little fresher than (say) the installation shown in Serrano’s Piss Christ, which is conceptually a pretty boring Dada idea that’s been warmed up to enrage Midwesterners.
What got my spidey senses all a-tingle during this segment of the slideshow was his invocation of Hegel and Kierkegaard as philosophical inspirations for his art. These are big names to be lobbing around, especially when we’re talking about salt-water magic tricks. It was during his discussion of the Banality series that this little hammer that had been cocked in my head fell.
Banality (1988) is a set of porcelain statues, the best-known of which is probably the gold-plated rendition of Michael Jackson with his chimp sidekick, Bubbles. When the slideshow got to this series, Koons became almost exultant. “The point of this is that the viewer is perfect,” he said.
This is why Jeff Koons is the worst person in the world.
I think accessibility is great and successful art is partly dependent on being accessible to a viewer. (Call for Dr. Wittgenstein. Dr. Wittgenstein, will you please pick up.) The problem is that accessibility and encouraging complacency are kissing cousins, and complacency is the enemy of art. The viewer isn’t perfect. If the viewer were perfect, there wouldn’t be (for example) war or child molestation or disco. An Expressionist would be tempted to say that the best art elevates the viewer by demanding him to countenance a greater truth. At any rate, Koons is deliberately pushing the viewer down with the easy lie that there is not anything greater than the viewer. Which you don’t need an Expressionist to tell you is pretty depressing, all things told.
And this is also partly why I think Koons is up to no good, even if he is sincere. Hegel and Kierkegaard are both philosophers whose ethics, although intensely different, are founded on the premise that there’s something not quite right with Humanity, and that something must change, whether through the social dialectic of history in Hegel or the personal dialectic in Kierkegaard. Koons’s program sits directly athwart both these philosophers, and also athwart the general movement of Western art with which he claims to be in conversation. The Isenheim Altarpiece is not about reassuring the viewer.
So in any case Koons is either very misguided about the general thrust of Western aesthetic and philosophical history or he assumes that we, the audience, are. If the former, he’s an idiot; if the latter, he’s a flim-flam man and a cynic. In either case, things aren’t looking so great. Say what you will about the pretentious artist à la Damien Hirst, but almost definitionally he’s trying to get in touch with some greater ocean of truth through his work, even if the truth is only that he is the most pencil-neckèd of the pencil-necks and worthy of praise.
The fact that he is accessible is what makes Koons so bad. He’s rushed to the lowest common denominator. Everyman walks out of the gallery feeling edified because art isn’t so scary, after all–not because Everyman had the capacities to understand what he’s looking at all along, which is to say, not because he’s been elevated, but because there’s nothing there that he needs capacities to understand. Under the Koons regime, art becomes indistinguishable from pleasant wallpaper, but ever so much more expensive.
We have a word for works that don’t appeal to any truth besides the gratification of the viewer: pornography. This word brings us back to the subway flasher and forward to what I think is in fact the most honest series Koons has ever produced, the infamous Made in Heaven (1989), which features him engaged in various sexual acts with his then-wife, the pornographic actress (and Italian MP) Cicciolina. Because in this series he’s up-front about what he is: a very open, very wealthy pornographer.
Arguments have been made about whether there’s any difference between art and porn or not. I tend to fall down on the tradition that there is. I’d like to think there’s something more to the human being than organs to be satisfied, that there is an ocean of truth out there that art needs to reach towards to be better than Deep Throat and Caligula and Behind the Green Door (to throw out some titles to cater to Koons’s age group). As I left the auditorium, I could only think of the insistent demand of Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo:
We cannot know his legendary head with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso is still suffused with brilliance from inside, like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low, gleams in all its power. Otherwise the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could a smile run through the placid hips and thighs to that dark center where procreation flared. Otherwise this stone would seem defaced beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur: would not, from all the borders of itself, burst like a star: for here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.