Everything that glitters isn’t art. Sometimes it’s just a highly polished status symbol, in the form of a fashion bauble, for the ultra rich.
Jeff Koons’s “Balloon Dog (Orange)” just sold for $58,405,000 at Christie’s, on November the 12th. If you are fabulously wealthy and missed out, fear not, there are four more copies in four more primary colors. And If one is on a tighter budget, near identical copies could undoubtedly be made for a fraction of the cost, and yet they’d be worthless without the Koons brand-name. This is glib decoration and corporate art, a one-liner heralded as the art-gospel according to an art world luminary. The facile celebration of kitsch that is the Balloon Dog has become cherished in the same way as the Shroud of Turin or the hair of Elvis, not for its intrinsic worth, but for all the associations revolving around it. Largely its quality as art is defined by its price tag, and the act of the ultra rich buying it inflates its status to the highest art. Art is now defined by the 1%, and in this case it’s an ultra slick, invulnerable, and completely superficial reflection of their own wealth and power. The balloon dog is a mere bauble with a fashion name: a status symbol.
This may sound over-the-top and hyperbolic, but it’s precisely the way Balloon Dog was marketed to art buyers at the Christie’s auction. Brett Gorvy, chairman and international head of Post-War & Contemporary Art, had this to say about it:
“At a time when collectors are propelling rare master works to new price levels at auction, the sale of Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dog will be a spectacular event for buyers around the world. This is a definitive icon of the 20th century. The Balloon Dog is the Holy Grail for collectors and foundations. In private hands, the work has always communicated the prominence and stature of its owner. Like Andy Warhol’s portrait of Marilyn, which influenced Koons’s choice of the orange metallic color for Balloon Dog, it is the ultimate masterpiece, instantly recognizable to the art world and public alike. To own this work immediately positions the buyer alongside the very top collectors in the world and transforms a collection to an unparalleled level of greatness.”
The “Holy Grail”?! Apparently the reason to buy this art is so one can be immediately positioned alongside the very top collectors in the world. Balloon Dog is the very incarnation of the concept of a status symbol, which is why it is a Holy Grail. In reality it’s the emperor’s new clothes. Koons’s art assuages the guilty conscience of the ultra rich by removing substance from culture and suffering from reality, while at the same time allowing them to BUY status as a world-class art connoisseur. Koons gives the impression that the best art – and by extension all art, its subjects and content – can be understood, assimilated, and owned with the swipe of a credit card.
And let me just point out the sick irony of declaring Koons “Balloon Dog” as “a definitive icon of the 20th century”. The iconic quality of it, the essential imagery and content, is not his own at all. He only owns the “appropriation” or re-contextualization of it in an art museum context – a wry idea several removes from the original design. Koons is no more responsible for the design and proportions of the balloon dog than is the child who made the one below.
Art audiences can be forgiven for getting confused on this matter, because Koons himself lost all track of reality when he sued a SF art gallery for selling “balloon dog” bookends. You couldn’t cut the irony with a buzz saw. By Koons’s logic, he could sue the little girl who made the balloon dog in the photo above for stealing his stolen idea. Nobody can make balloon dogs anymore, because Koons forgot he didn’t invent them in the first place. Besides which, doesn’t he have enough money and better things to do than sue people? Has it ever occurred to him to track down the original balloon artist and give him a cut?
On top of all that, since when was a balloon dog a defining icon of our age? If Koons had made a giant Pacman, and it was heralded as the symbol of a generation, I could see that, having grown up on video games. Who ever gave a crap about balloon animals? According to Wikipedia, balloon animals have been around decades before Jeff Koons was born, in which case they can hardly be an icon of this era.
Incidentally, one should not for a moment think that Koons is above making extra money above the sales of his primary works for tens of millions. He has a line of clothing with most items in the $2,500 range.
To understand why Koons’s balloon dog is priceless art requires mastering obtuse theoretical posturings, doing rhetorical back-flips through flaming hoops, and a leap of faith; but to understand why it isn’t more than superficially art requires just a little history and a smidgen of thinking. Ultimately it is what it looks like: a joke.
Before I launch into analyzing why “Balloon Dog (Orange)” isn’t any more art than any other bright, shiny object, I want to throw in a more physical and immediate angle. Koons never touched his Balloon Dog, because he has a crew that handles making his art. As an artist myself, that just seems weird and disempowering. It’s like being a musician who doesn’t and can’t play an instrument.
“I’m basically the idea person. I’m not physically involved in the production. I don’t have the necessary abilities, so I go to the top people.” ~ Jeff Koons.
I GET why Jimi Hendrix is a phenomenal musician, and one can watch him exult in his craft. Koons does the musical equivalent of hiring other people to reproduce on a grander scale banal jingles produced by still others.
Maybe everyone isn’t like me, but when I see a drum or a guitar, I wish I could play it. I long to play it. I want to hold it, and make music. So, I can’t imagine being a musician who never touches an instrument. And it’s the same thing with an artist. I like making imagery, arranging compositions, working with color, and making a whole piece come together. There are times when my imagination and my physical body are working together producing something new before my eyes. I can understand why it was pleasurable for the more visceral Abstract Expressionists to fling paint or brush it vigorously on canvas. One could really get into the process of doing that. But Jeff Koons negates all of that by never doing any art himself, and never exercising his own imagination in that realm. In that way, his work is anti-art, just making decisions about which infuriatingly mundane object to pay others to replicate flawlessly, on a larger scale. Koons is like a dancer who never dances, and doesn’t even feel like he needs to stretch his legs. He’s the author who never writes a sentence. He’s like a bird that just sits on his ass mocking flight.
Koons may not touch his own art, but he demands the most consummate skill from his artist assistant underlings, at least 120 in number. Here’s a job listing from Koons on the New York Foundation for the Arts website:
Jeff Koons LLC [ is looking to hire a ] detail-oriented stone carver and sculptor to work full-time with leading contemporary artist in a demanding studio atmosphere. Familiarity with various types of stones, quarries, stone selection, and traditional/digital carving techniques is desirable. Must have realistic, figurative skills and a strong sensitivity to form and detail.
Koons is less an artist than the CEO of an art factory, which is why his product and his person appeal so much to the power elite, who can easily identify with his entitlement to take credit and proceeds for the real work the less fortunate he employs create in his name. It probably also doesn’t hurt that he is white, non-threatening, and a former stockbroker.
The biggest question of 20th century art was “Is it art?”, and the answer was a defiant “Yes! And it’s better than everything that came before!” But it often wasn’t art. It was stunts, pranks, gags, statements, commentary, gimmicks, agitations, provocations, experimental theater/film/music, and you name it… It was no more art than it was architecture, poetry, film, literature, or dance. It may have been imaginative, creative, profound, challenging, and significant, but only “art” by the loosest and most self-serving definition. Why, for example, is “performance art” not just contemporary/experimental theater? When I was the teaching assistant for a “Performance Art” class at UC Irvine, most the students were from the theater department. No surprise there. And why isn’t “video” a branch of film, or “sound sculpture” music? We even have “spoken word art” as something other than poetry or literature. I have no problem with these art forms, but find it quite odd that they are classified as visual art, and are seen as radical departures from, and improvements upon, what was traditionally seen as visual art. Should I call a painting of mine “visual music” and see it as a radical development in music? Maybe things like performance art are considered new and superior hybrids, but that brings us back to the problem of them being taught as subjects in the “Studio Art” department, and not the theater department.
In 1917 Marcel Duchamp kicked it all off by submitted a urinal to an art exhibit. The idea was that the ready-made industrial object trumped individual, hand-made art. Duchamp famously opined:
“Painting is washed up. Who will ever do anything better than [a] propeller?”
We can look back now and it’s obvious that painting wasn’t washed up in 1917. Picasso’s infamous Guernica wasn’t painted until 1937, and all of American “Abstract Expressionism” didn’t come along and take center stage of the art world, displacing it from Paris to New York, until the 1940’s. It’s safe to say Duchamp, however clever, was wrong. Painting wasn’t dead, and his stunt of presenting a urinal as art was just that, a stunt. He had a sweeping vision, and a powerful statement. Traditional concepts of art were too visual, and art was just “retinal”, declared Duchamp, and he wanted to re-infuse thought into art. One only had to apply this tripe to music, declaring it too “aural”, to see the folly of the over-inflated rhetoric. Try applying it to literature, and you come up with “too wordy”. Of course visual art is visual, but it doesn’t mean that it is only visual, or that it doesn’t contain thought or meaning.
Even though it’s easy to see now that Duchamp was as guilty of overstating-the-case as was Stalin or Mao – an apparent aberration of 20th century thought that spread through not only politics and geographies but art theory and art – he is still lionized as spearheading the direction of art going forward. If you go back and look at some of the artists’ manifestos of the last century, they are as revolutionary and bleak as the communist ones. When artist F.T. Marineti declared in his Futurist Manifesto of 1909 that “Here is the very first sunrise on earth! Nothing equals the splendor of its red sword which strikes for the first time in our millennial darkness,” he probably never imagined that such words would be mirrored by the rhetoric of communist tyrants endeavoring to sweep away the past, such as Pol Pot‘s project to clean-slate Cambodia by starting over at the year zero. Such efforts to declare everything that went before worthless, and to plow forward in a new dawn are actually just reflections of an inability to appreciate the complexity and humanity of what went before, kind of like the teenager assuming his or her parents never understood sexual desire. Ultimately, in plowing over all that went before, one inevitably sets up to mow over oneself as well, because one wasn’t any different in the grand scheme of things to begin with.
Somehow it doesn’t matter that Duchamp was wrong a century ago when he declared “painting washed up” any more than it matters that Marineti spoke like a tyrant when he declared, “we want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice“. We admire them for their radical newness itself. We say that they broke ground. But in retrospect it’s a bit more like spitting or flailing on the ground. In the realm of politics they would be madmen, but in art they are visionary geniuses.
Duchamp’s rebellion against “retinal art” still exists today, loosely re-interpreted and recombined with the advent of photography as “painting is dead”, so that REAL “art” has come to mean anything and everything that is not what was traditionally understood as art – meaningful imagery. Anti-art is the new art. Or is it?
Duchamp’s “Fountain” was not art. It was a statement, a stunt, and a provocation. You can call all of these things art, but then you just have to call everything art, in which case it becomes meaningless. I distinctly remember artist Paul McCarthy instructing students at UCLA, including me, that “taking out the garbage can be art”.
I understood that to mean that anything put in an art context, such as a museum, was art. I was annoyed by some of the artists McCarthy introduced us to, like Piero Manzoni, who canned his own shit. The most I could muster in response to the canned shit was a guffaw, like I got the joke.
If we are not going to just call everything art, then we will have to designate some things not art, including taking out the garbage or taking a shit. And I just remembered Paul McCarthy telling us about how he saw a naked man, in public, standing and taking a shit, and how “it was beautiful“. I can hear him saying it, because I used to do impersonations of that speech. I’m going to have to break with McCarthy here and say that taking a shit, however beautiful it might seem, is not art any more than it is agriculture or aeronautics. And displaying a urinal and calling it a sculpture isn’t art either.
The problems with calling Duchamp’s “Fountain” art are that it wasn’t made by him, it can’t be done again, and if it were art the artist would be the one who designed the urinal and not Duchamp. First, if you display something made by someone else and declare it art, than you can’t take credit for it. So, if we were supposed to appreciate the urinal in the same way Duchamp himself marveled at a propeller, than it would be the thing itself and not the act of declaring it art that was the art, in which case Duchamp did nothing different from putting a piece of excavated pottery on display in a history museum.
Obviously this is NOT how we are supposed to understand it, though we are supposed to marvel at the smooth curves, volumes, and angles of the object, which, incidentally, any art student would have to do in order to draw it, so it’s nothing new for an artist to look at an object in those terms. The real art is the genius of presenting a utilitarian object as art, especially when it is a urinal: something to be pissed on. So, it is the idea behind the act of exhibiting a urinal AS art, and it is not the urinal at all. This is also obvious in that no one can exhibit another urinal, or even a toilet, and call it art, because it would be too derivative of Duchamp. The idea was his, and it’s been done. Therefore it is not art, but an idea about art. Otherwise you could exhibit a whole array of styles of urinals and sinks and toilets. But you can’t because the aesthetics are irrelevant, and it is only the idea that matters. What we have left is commentary on art. Call it art criticism or even philosophy if you want.
“Fountain” is not only not art, it is a statement against art, just as was his moustaching the Mona Lisa, or declaring painting washed up. People get so caught up in their art history, and in the authority of their professors and their various books and treatises that they can’t see the obvious. A simple method I use to get around this sort of brainwashing is to apply the ideas to another art form. The musical equivalent would be to set up a urinal in a concert hall, and when everyone was seated, flush it, and declare the sound a “solo”. Would this be the dawning of a new age of music, or just an illustration of an idea criticizing music? How about publishing a phone directory as a novel? Would that be literature or a comment about literature in a physical form?
Someone may counter that even if it isn’t “art” per se, it’s eminently important. Whether or not that’s true doesn’t matter, because it’s still not art. You can say, if you want, that it’s better or more important than art. Historically, however, Duchamp has been vindicated, and the urinal which his contemporaries (the Society of Independent Artists) rejected as “not art” is now pedestalled and marveled at, and its influence on hordes of following artists cannot be denied.
Artist Jeff Koons has made millions and erected a pillar in the esteemed pantheon of art history for himself by making a slight twist on Duchamp’s idea of a banal industrial object being art, though Duchamp was much bolder about it by using a urinal and implying art was a meek substitute for even the lowliest of commonplace industrial creations. Koons, rather than placing a bland industrial object in a gallery, made glorified copies of bland cultural objects (kitsch) and put them on pedestals. His Balloon Dog (Orange) is the most noteworthy exemplar for today.
That balloon dog, as of November 12th, 2013, is the highest selling work EVER by a living artist. THAT, people, is just a giant copy of a balloon dog, and 58 million were spent on it during a time when 23% of American children live in poverty. And I’d like to say that the “Ballon Dog (Orange)” isn’t art, as I did of Duchamp’s urinal, but it has more artistic elements to it. Koons didn’t just display the original, he went through the trouble of arranging for a team of expert sculptors to produce it in his name. The one thing I actually like about his balloon dogs is that they still look like foil balloons, but are made of chrome, so you have a pleasurable sense of simultaneous weightlessness and heaviness. That appears to be an incidental effect and I probably missed the point in ascribing any significance to it, as opposed to basking in the brilliant light of kitsch itself, blown up, aggrandized, and showcased in an art museum. I have to admit that it’s pretty, though so gaudy I wouldn’t want it around. However, because it owes its aesthetic to the person who first twisted balloons into that shape, and is a mere over-inflated copy, I’d call it “decoration”.
Koons wasn’t even the first to take off from Duchamp, Claus Oldenburg made giant sculptures of everyday objects back in the 1960’s.
What separates a Koons blow-up of a balloon dog from some other blown-up object you might see in an amusement park, or at a promotional event for a toy or TV show?
The sculptures above, or similar ones according to your tastes, could easily pass as the latest wave of Koons’s creations. And yet they are worthless. The prize difference is only context. For them to be priceless they must be put in the museum, and thus in an art historical context where they can become important statements, and they must further be attributed to an art demigod. When you look at these giant Doreamon sculptures it is obvious that only a corporation could afford to have them made. Charming as they are, the army of them together are not worth a fraction of a Koons’s balloon dog because they don’t have the deliberate ironic remove that says that they are NOT art in reality, but if the right person makes a copy and says they are art they magically become art. It is that elusive MAGIC that is worth the tens of millions. Or not.
Those Doraemon sculptures are decorations, and I dare say one could get as much or more out of spending an afternoon with them as from staring dumbfounded before the five Koons’s balloon dogs in 5 primary colors displayed in a row for posterity in the most upscale art gallery.
As with Duchamp’s Fountain, in the case of Koons we are meant to appreciate the idea behind the art, and not the art itself, and certainly not the execution, which was done by hired “artisans” and is invisible and absolutely impersonal. As such, the work is not so much art as wry commentary on art in a physical form. It’s value lie not in what it is, but in what it represents. It is like Elvis’s hair clippings selling for $115,000 – if you didn’t know it was Elvis’s hair, it would be garbage.
Is it odd that we have come to value the “art” most which is anti-art, or a mere piece of commentary in a physical form that argues that true art is washed up, that meaning is meaningless, and that kitsch or urinals trounce authentic attempts at art at every turn? Is glazed superficiality itself the height of profundity? Is kicking down someone else’s sandcastle the most exalted form of building ones own?
When Koons’s art is pared down to what makes it significant, it is mere notions and concepts about art, rather than the supposed art itself. As an idea, why isn’t it art criticism? Koons’s art is actually a slap in the face just as Duchamp’s mustached Mona Lisa was. It’s saying, “Here, you want art, I give you a balloon dog. THERE is your art. It’s superficial crap, and what’s more, I blatantly say that my art has no hidden meanings.” Have art audiences confused not being able to fathom brilliant art with anything unfathomable exhibited as art automatically being brilliant?
When Jeff Koons reduces the size of his balloon dogs to sell ever more of them as art trinkets with his brand name, they become virtually indistinguishable from any old kitsch you might get from a 99 cent store, once again proving it is the artificial context that makes them art, and not the objects themselves.
Once we have identified the prime ideas behind Koons’s art, we can then try to ascertain whether or not they are that original, interesting, or even relevant. Because they appear entirely derivative and hackneyed, I can’t muster any enthusiasm for them myself. I absolutely disagree that kitsch trumps art, just as I disagree with Duchamp that painting can’t compete with an airplane propeller. If you think you don’t agree with me, pick your favorite music and ask yourself whether or not it is inferior to the sound of an airplane flying overhead, and if so why you don’t go to the airport to listen to the superior and transcendent music of the planes?
In my opinion the underlying ideas behind Koons’s art are tedious, uninteresting, and ultimately wrong. Therefore we have to go back to the physical objects he makes to find some sort of justification for their status in the art world. Like the Doraemon sculptures, they have been produced in multiple copies, and show absolutely no sign of an artist’s hand, or anything personal about the artist whatsoever. They have all the characteristics of mass-produced objects, and ultimately are identical to them. They are decoration. Though it is the decoration of the rich artist for the rich connoisseur.
In the end, I think the Balloon Crucifixion made by an unknown artist, perhaps the girl in the pic below, is more interesting and innovative than Koons’s or McCarthy’s mere copies of existing balloon dogs. It’s weird and funny. Jesus has a six-pack gut, bazooms, and his crucifix looks like a baguette. But it is also an image of torture, and faith. It’s naivete speaks louder than the art-insider’s cynicism. Would I be wrong in assuming that a giant, chrome version of this balloon savior would be festooned with art-historical accolade and ultimately valued in the millions if it were made and branded by Jeff Koons?
I already expressed the idea of making an enormous version of this, let’s go with 90 feet high, to beat McCarthy’s 80 foot balloon dog. Yeah, you’re right, anyone could have that idea. But, I’m going to claim it’s mine. We’ll also make it out of plastic, since Koons has a monopoly on chrome. Now, if I had the corporate funding or rich benefactors and gallery connections to make this thing, it would be dismissed as irrelevant, derivative, and possibly offensive. Of course, like Koons, I wouldn’t give the actual balloon designer any credit, because I would assume, like Koons, that her creation was worthless until I copied it and infused it with the breath of my own art-luminary-genius. The result would undoubtedly be impressive and there would be a lot of praise for its stunning ambivalence which both questioned and honored spirituality at the same time, and its coolly hyperbolic appropriation of ham-fisted and unintentional kitsch. But ultimately people would look at it and say, “That’s NOT a Koons! ” I’m not a brand name. I’m a nobody who’s thus far made $16 off of his art. The point is that it’s not particularly difficult to come up with more of this kind of drivel, it’s just hard to fund having it produced, arrange for it to be shown, and to be able to brand it with one’s own name.
To prove my point, below is my own attempt at enormous and enormously important contemporary art.
Much of what was held as the most significant art of the 20th century wasn’t art, and it’s divergence from art is ironically what made it seem so important as art. Would that the artists in question had an ability and love of making art BEFORE they decided that it was dead and nobody else could do it, in which case the best thing was to make or commission ironic works about their own artistic sterility, project that onto the human species, and take it to the bank.
If I want a Jeff Koons’s, I’ll just go get me a lawn ornament and stick it on a white box.
And if it’s just a scaled down copy you want, because you like the design so much, you can make it yourself.
Addendum [Feb/3/2015]: I wrote this over a year ago, and since then I’ve learned one important fact, and modified my stance on something. The fact is that Duchamp absolutely, in his own words, did NOT intend for his readymades to be appreciated for their aesthetic qualities. He explicitly chose pieces that were completely uninteresting to him – neither attractive nor ugly – in order to thwart aesthetics.
When I wrote this I was using hyperbole when I said the Balloon Dog isn’t art, but now I prefer to stress that it is art, in a broad context [in the way that literature, dance, music, and architecture… are all art], but does not easily fit within the tradition of visual language art. The Balloon Dog is part sculpture, but mostly a conceptual statement along the lines of Duchamp’s readymades. I like to emphasize this now because I believe much of the antipathy between traditional visual art (which uses visual language) and conceptual art has to do with the notion that conceptual art is a continuation of visual art, replaces it and renders it defunct. Because conceptual art generally only uses visual language at a bare minimum, or not at all, it has about as much in common with visual art as it does with music, and less than it does with theater, film, agitprop, publicity stunts, fashioning exhibits, and other art forms. The odd thing is that conceptual art has been understood to trump image-based art, when it is doing something altogether different. Separating the two genres allows for them both to exist as legitimate avenues of creative enterprise, whereas pigeonholing them in the same cubby forces one or the other to be cancelled out.
You cannot kill visual art without truncating the range of human communication and perception. The idea of killing image-making, or rendering it obsolete, is about as appealing as eradicating music. If I had to pick one kind of art, visual art or conceptual art, I’d pick image-making, because that’s the kind of art I’m more interested in, even if my graduate thesis show was an installation. But I shouldn’t have to make a choice. I prefer a world with both kinds of art.
Lastly, Koons’s work is still enormously overrated because it is credited with being inherently superior to the entire tradition of visual art/complex image-making, which invests mass importance into its rather vacuous shell. It is NOT. It is something else, and not the best example of it, either. If this seems fuzzy, see my new article about “Why People Hate Conceptual Art: Parts 1-4 (so far)”.
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