Koons’ “Balloon Dog (Orange)” isn’t art, it’s a decorative lawn ornament

Holy-Grail-of-Contemporary-Art

Jeff Koons “Ballon Dog (Orange)” has been sold as “The Holy Grail” of modern art.

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’ “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’ 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’ 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’ 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.

Grovy

Brett Gorvy, peddler of slick schlock art to the ultra rich.

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.

real-balloon-dog

A balloon dog made by a child is no less the source of the essential balloon dog icon than are Jeff Koons’ chrome versions.

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’ 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.

baloon-dog-and-book-end

On the right is one of the balloon dog bookends Koons sued a SF gallery for selling. It’s not even a copy of HIS, its nose turns down while his dog’s turns up. Koons thinks he invented the balloon dog.

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.

Jeff-Koons-clothes

Why stop at producing a commodifiable object, when you can make it wearable as well?

To understand why Koons’ 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.

Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix played his own guitar. He didn’t hire a troop of skilled studio musicians to write and perform music in accordance with flippant ideas about music. Pardon the cheap analogy, but, Hendrix could sing, Koons can’t.

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.

Jeff-Koons-with-stone

Jeff Koons, Justine Koons, and a stone. Let some worker artist get his hands dirty with the actual carving of it. (Courtesy Patrick McMullan)

Below is a recent piece by me – might as well use myself as a counter example – in which it should be apparent that I got really involved with manipulating subject matter, color, texture, composition, and movement, all elements which are off the table when making a copy of a balloon dog. Where’s the artistic pleasure in doing THAT? Yes, I know it’s audacious to compare my own art, in any way, to the Holy Grail of Modern Art, but it happens to be handy and a good example. [At the bottom of this post I share my own 50 ft, inflatable, Sigmund the Sea Monster, which beats Koons at his own game.]

Seafood Spaghetti Sunday

Eric Kuns, Seafood Spaghetti Sunday. digital painting, 2013. Click on the image to go to a video I made about this piece.

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?”

Duschamp-fountain

“‘Fountain’ by R. Mutt” by Marcel Duchamp, 1917, ushered in an era of non-art, or anti-art. It isn’t art, but it put itself on a pedestal, and has subsequently been crowned one of the monumental achievements of art.

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.

duchamp-Mona-Lisa

L.H.O.O.Q. by Marcel Duchamp (1919). Is it art, or just a stunt? Is this breaking hallowed ground, or just spitting on it?

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”.

Artist Paul McCarthy

Artist Paul McCarthy thought everything was art,  from taking out the trash to taking a shit.

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.

artist's-shit

“Artist’s Shit” (1961), by Piero Manzoni. Is it art or is it shit?

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.

pottery

Is exhibiting a urinal in an art gallery so different from exhibiting pottery, and does doing so make one an artist or a curator?

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.

urinal-again

Look at that shit. Here’s “The Fountain” again, on view at The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 2012. Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images. Note that the article I took this pic from states that “The Fountain” is “now highly regarded as one of the most important artworks of the 20th century”.

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.

floor-burger

“Floor Burger” by Claus Oldenburg, 1962. Making giant everyday objects isn’t new in the art world. It’s kinda’ old and musty.

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?

giant-doraemon

A travelling exhibit celebrating Japanese cartoon character, Doraemon. Let’s just slip one of these out, call it a Jeff Koons, and sell it for millions. These are understood as corporate objects used for advertising, and yet, it’s the identical aesthetic as Koons’ sculptures, an inevitable consequence of merely enlarging existing objects.

The sculptures above, or similar ones according to your tastes, could easily pass as the latest wave of Koons’ 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’ 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’ 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.

Elvis-combing-his-hair

Clippings of Elvis’s hair sold for over $100,000. Koons’ Ballon Dogs are the same – they are only valuable in relation to a certain art historical context and the Koons brand name. Otherwise they’d just be garden sculpture.

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’ 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’ 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.

balloon-dog-mini

Authentic Koons Balloon Dog mini, for the budget art connoisseur doesn’t rise above kitsch at all. I guess it would be OK as a key-chain if it had a light on it.

McCarthy-balloon-dog

Similarly, when viewed from the air Paul McCarthy’s 80 foot balloon dog is reduced back to a mere kitsch balloon dog. Who gives a can of artist’s shit?

Once we have identified the prime ideas behind Koons’ 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’ 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’ 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, and not by, say, Eric Kuns?

balloon-Jesus

If only it were cast in chrome and signed by Koons, it would be as valuable as a relic of Christ’s body itself.

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, even if my name is pronounced the same as Koons’s. 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! Look, it says Kuns!” 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.

sigmond

“Sigmund the Sea Monster Dong”, 50 ft high, plastic and rubber inflatable, by Eric Kuns. Click to go to the article about this piece, which also has the uncensored version

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’, 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.

balloon-dog-how-to

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 obsolute, is about as appealing as eradicating music. If I had to pick one kind of art, visual art of 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’ 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)”.

The-Art-Critic-small


If you like this post, you might enjoy these:

Real kitsch versus ironic kitsch

Artist Paul McCarthy makes an 80 ft. balloon dog

Vincent’s dead but he never gets old, and Jeff Koons is already a skeleton

Robert Ryman – Whiting Out Art for Posterity

Buying Barnett Newman’s Art on Faith

My famous former UCLA sculpture teacher’s work being removed

To see my work, go here: all my new work.

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28 thoughts on “Koons’ “Balloon Dog (Orange)” isn’t art, it’s a decorative lawn ornament

  1. I know I’m not the only one, but I like to compare art within the context of its time and place. So it seems fitting that “contemporary ART” has become this representation of what people think art is. We have become a society subsisting on handouts of what were told, and so if someone says, “Hey, this is by Jeff Koons, the ARTIST.” Then we blindly believe it, without giving it any critical thought.

    The Balloon Dog (Orange shit) is actually the perfect mirror of our current culture – spending its money on uselessness (instead of education, health care, basic needs, etc), it’s trivial, and literally, overblown nonsense filled with hot air. We’ve become attached to shiny big things that make us feel important. And the really sad thing is, for anyone out there who doesn’t believe there is a MASSIVE divide between the rich and the poor, here is your booming bright balloon of an example.

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    1. I forgot to mention that it’s fashion. A Koon’s dog is a lot like a Gucci bag. It’s a status symbol. A 58 million dollar status symbol while the majority of our species are doomed to a future of poverty. Bravo! Hooray for glorifying kitsch and meaninglessness!

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        1. Genuine. Koons genius is in his originality plus his use of reflective color.
          He took something common place, a balloon dog, and made it new and interesting.
          There are literally millions of pieces of art out there but only a few that are actually original ideas.

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          1. And yet it is not even an original idea. It’s a mere spin on what Duchamp, Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, and Piero Manzoni among others, had already done long before. How big of a leap was it to go from duplicating Brillo boxes to duplicating a balloon dog? Both are reproductions of something that actually exists, but on a larger scale and with a change of materials. If one is already familiar with the idea of Duchamp’s readymades using mundane objects, and then Warhol’s appropriation of commercial art styles and subjects, than Koons putting kitsch objects in the art context is just a variation on a theme that had already been musty for decades. You say his ideas are the most original in millions of artistic productions, but have you noticed that he is barely able to make intelligible arguments about his work, and shows no sign of having the type of mind that enjoys or goes deep into philosophy? Instead he seems to regurgitate half-baked, namby-pamby, new-age drivel. In fact, his comments on his own art are infuriatingly treacly and trite. He says his art is “generous” and we “don’t need to apologize” for who we are, and a “five year old” can enjoy his work. He said he became an artist because the only thing he could do better than his sister was draw.

            Besides the ideas not actually being very original at all, but rather the fashion of the day in art school, they are not particularly interesting as ideas, as they are only ideas about art, and only variations of the same idea about art, which is in itself just a spin on what had already been said and played out before.

            Your approach seems to be to look at art as about “ideas”. Apply this to your music collection and see what happens. Ask yourself if you listen to any music that is roughly the equivalent of Koons. By this I mean do you listen to music that is a vehicle for sharing an idea about what music should be, let’s say, “conceptual music”? If not, why not?

            I’m far more interested in art (and all the ideas it contains) than I am in ideas about art, especially if those ideas are rather boring. For me Koons is the epitome of the rich man’s artist, hiring others to merely make priceless copies of superficial kitsch crap (that is his only big idea = put kitsch in the art context). How many decades and hundreds of millions of dollars are needed to express this one idea? His grand idea is a one-liner, and for people who ARE seriously interested in ideas and philosophy, it’s thin, thin gruel.

            You say other art doesn’t have ideas or original ideas, but this is because you are ignoring ideas within the art and only accepted ideas of what the art is. So, for example, let’s say that I sign my name on a phone book and call it a novel. Some people might say that I had an original idea, while millions of novelists just go on making the same sorts of novels. But this ignores that I only had the one idea, and each of their novels may be filled with complex ideas. In the same way, you ignore the ideas contained within the content of art, and only acknowledge the one big, easy to grasp, idea about what art is.

            Let me give you another example. You may agree that Pollock is “genius” (I don’t use that word myself) because of his original “idea” of action painting. If this were the case, then he only really needed to do one painting in order to illustrate this idea, and one really wouldn’t need to look at more than a few of his paintings to get it. In reality it’s something else that makes his paintings worthwhile, and the idea is extraneous and just a sort of clue as to how to engage them to fathom what they are actually about. In this way thinking of art as the snippets in art history books completely misses the point of art, converting it to mere objects to illustrate bland philosophical ideas that have no relevance in the world of philosophy.

            Even in Koons case, after we’ve assimilated his grand cliched idea in a minute or two, his art should be about something else that has more sustaining power and justifies making myriad different pieces.

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  2. It just hit me what this is all about. It’s the contemporary art world, these artists’ way to stay – relevant. This kind of “art” reminds me of Miley Cyrus’ cheap tricks – twerking and lighting a joint on stage. It’s not about the music, it’s about the attention and shock. And it works, celebs and the Koons’ of the world are handsomely rewarded.

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  3. Just because you are offended, does not mean you are right. When confronting art contradictory to your own personal opinions about valid contemporary art, it is helpful to remember the artist’s contextual rise to fame within history and specifically art history. Take into consideration Jeff Koons’s own history as an artist, and this may be helpful in understanding his “art star” status today. You don’t have to like him, but regardless of his sculptures’s price tags, he is not going anywhere anytime soon.

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    1. Sure, I agree that if someone is offended it doesn’t make them right, otherwise the “tea party” would be right about everything.

      His work should stand on its own irregardless of some context that makes it important, especially since that context is largely bogus and a facade erected to appease the ultra wealthy. Do you need to know the background of your favorite musicians to appreciate their work? Probably not.

      Besides, I’ve researched Koons background and I’ve been familiar with him for a couple decades, even saw several of his pieces in person in museums. He doesn’t say much about what he’s doing or why, what it might mean, or about his personal life. And neither does anyone else, because there isn’t really anything there.

      His argument is basically that what you see is what you get, and you don’t need to know anything else. It’s THAT superficial.

      Me, I prefer deep art.

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      1. “His argument is basically that what you see is what you get” – Not exactly, that’s Frank Stella’s argument. And if you are familiar with Frank Stella, you will realize the visual dissimilarities between these two popular artists.

        Koons is deep, you just have to have a larger understanding of Contemporary Art, in general. http://www.amazon.com/What-Contemporary-Art-Terry-Smith/dp/0226764311

        How do you get to be the closing exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Art before it moves its museum from the Upper East Side to Chelsea? Not by being superficial.

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        1. I’m familiar with Stella. He may have said that as well, which wouldn’t surprise me. I’m not a fan of Stella either, but he’s a lot better than Koons.

          Koons is known for stating his art has no hidden meanings. From Wikipedia: “Koons has stated that there are no hidden meanings in his works,[5] nor any critiques.[6]”

          I read a couple more quotes by him today along those lines, but moved on to doing other things and didn’t save them. I can dig them up again later if you don’t believe me.

          The problem isn’t that I don’t get Koons or understand contemporary art. It’s that I do.

          Saying that because he had an exhibition somewhere means he’s great is the same as saying that just because someone is elected president he’s got a decent command of the English language. It’s when the ultra famous show no signs of being worthy of it that people start ripping them apart.

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          1. I am versed in Koons speak. Thank you so much though for your thoughtful interrogation into this artist’s psyche.

            My reason for stating Koons will be having an exhibition at the Whitney in 2014 is just meant as a social queue to his status as a prominent artist of this era, regardless of personal sentiments towards him. If I may ruminate on your statement as a metaphor, we may elect a president for a number of reasons, and artist’s are given solo retrospectives for a number of reasons as well. However, we would hope our President of the United States has a decent command of English, the same way we would hope an artist exhibiting at a world renowned institution is not only exhibiting because he’s ultra famous in itself, or insincere to his global prosperity, but rather he’s critical of his own era. Being radical comes in many shades, and it’s the inconspicuously subversive artists like Koons that beat us at our own game.

            I enjoyed reading this post, thank you so much for your thoughtful comments, and most importantly fueling a thrilling conversation. I look forward to your future posts.

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            1. I agree completely with your take on Koons, Eric. I find His work to be distastefully sterile. Good art is a reflections of the times and living in a time with so much turmoil and structural problems whether it be polarization of politics, growing inequality on a global level, or environmental issues, The fact that an artist of the repute of Koons feels the most he can come up with is a shiny bauble of a sculpture, and this thing gets labeled as the holey grail of the art world is disgusting. I could even accept this sculpture had the artist placed it in juxtaposition to a ghetto or an area showing important issues of our times, in which i could see that the intent is not to embrace the attitude of a shiny distraction from reality but rather to expose the tactics of decisiveness and distraction in place within our times. However given Koons’s own past as a Broker and his affluent connections and lifestyle I read the artwork a spit in the face to the issues of our times as well as the artists with integrity who choose to use their artwork as a platform to push important discussion. Couple this with the fact that he does not create his own work but rather claims to be the intellectual basis for the work all the while openly admitting the lack of conceptual elements, shows me he is profiting of the work of others and just as the elites who he panders too. Koons is to me is the shining example of what all conscionable people of our times should despise. When I look at his work I see rococo-esc arrogance and elitism.

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              1. Yes. I’ve thought about this with Hirst as well. With the looming problems of global economic collapse, radical and still increasing inequality, social injustice everywhere, wars of opportunity, loss of privacy or freedom of speech due to the “war on terror”, and the wanton destruction of the environment to the point of changing the climate of the biosphere disastrously, is it possible that the best artists have nothing to say about any of this AND are filthy rich?

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  4. I would say it is boring art, like grotesque art is grotesque. How long can you sit there admiring it? Not long. is the decorative of Koons sculpture comparable to a Boucher room at the Frick or the Botticelli panels in the Vatican or the drcorative power of Van Goghs paintings. Just imagine not one Van Gogh was bought in his life time. Where were the genious critics and collectors then. Art is a elusive thing and to declare Koons a genious now is irrelevant, we will see 200 years from now, but to me art is more a decorative play that should exhibit thrilling manipulation of shape and color not so much a statement. A thrilling artist like Picasso can make profound ststements if he likes but art for statement sake is boring. As the first relic of the rennaissance by Giotto was in part created by children, art without childrens approval must be suspect. Modern adult art critics should be suspect as well.

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    1. It’s definitely boring to me, personally, and I think one can make a lot of arguments as to why it is most likely critically boring for most people. The statement, “kitsch objects taken out of context became fabulous fine art” is itself boring. There are far more interesting things in the world.

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