Flowers by Warhol
Weak, weak, art by the father of art-for-the-rich, Andy Warhol. If this is the best our species has to offer, I’d rather have an elephant or chimpanzee painting. It might have come out better if he’d made it himself.

This is where it’s going to get ugly. In part one I established that the ultra rich have taken control over the fine art world, and in part 2 I examined why the values of the middle class, and art that reflects those values, have been dashed to shit. Now for the upper cut. Are the artists the overpoweringly rich have propped up as the greatest humanity has to offer – and whose careers they’ve fueled while others never get a chance – fashioning bankrupt, gutless, and content-less trinkets for their corrupt masters?

By now, thanks to the real people who went out into the streets to protest rescuing the wealthiest with our own meager nest eggs, everyone has heard of the 1%. Since they are the buyers of art, artists naturally cater their art to the tastes of the 1%. Their tastes, in turn, reflect their values, which include arbitrariness, relativism, entitlement, and a general mindset in league with the amoral excesses of rigged-capitalism and the subjugation of workers. The art in question is slick, impressive, impersonal, expensive, uses techniques of mass production, and has absolutely nothing to say about the human condition, social justice/injustice, the environment, war, or anything that matters. We are left with a gilded turd. All hail.

Let’s get out of the way that the wealthiest, by and large, didn’t get where they are by being nice, honest, or better. I’ll make this quick by quoting art critic, Julian Stallabrass, who summed it up eloquently:

The richer you are, the general rule goes, the dirtier. The 0.1 per cent is composed of crooks, swindlers, tax-evaders and the architects of banking scandals. Old money rests on the foundations built by slavery, drug-dealing and myriad exploitations of the environment and people. The new, very often, on corrupt privatisations, sweated labour, environmental despoliation, and collusion with the military-industrial-surveillance complex.
I think the “dirty” forces Stallabrass lists fall under the umbrella of  “corruption”, which is for humanity the flexing of selfish-stupidity in the service of fortifying the immortality of some egos against the living flesh of the rest. Should artists target their creations to please the tastes of the spoiled plutocrats and oligarchs? If you try to imagine what such art would look like – some sort of meaningless but glitzy ornaments – you get the fashion baubles of Jeff Koons and the pseudo bad-boy, juvenile souvenirs of Damien Hirst.
Before I examine some of their signature pieces, I want to go back to the values of the 19th century burgeoning middle class that critic Jed Perl articulated: fairness, standards, seriousness, and transcendence. Basically, as I argued in part 2, those values level the playing field by permitting anyone who is willing to sincerely apply themselves the possibility of succeeding according to some sort of objective standards. Significantly, the art of, by, and for the super rich shares none of those values. It is purely subjective, flippant, sidelines any objective aesthetic consideration, and can only be produced by the already wealthy.

Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons is the poster boy for the rich man’s artist. His art increasingly looks like Christmas ornaments or mall decorations. They are impressively large, seamlessly perfect, bright, shiny, and absolutely vacuous. I’ve read Koons’ personal statements about his art, and the writing of critics, but I can’t find anything substantive to sink my teeth into. When Koons is asked why he became an artist, he glibly offers that when he was a child drawing was the only thing he could do better than his sister. As to why he produced his “banality” series of sculptures, Koons elucidated:
It was kind of autobiographical. I’m ushering in banality, and it doesn’t matter what people think. I just feel that I have good intentions here about what I’m trying to communicate to people. In a way, spiritually, it’s like I have God on my side or something.

Holy crap is THAT ever lame, and he used the same justification as Bush did for bombing Iraq. That could have been said by a not-very-precocious nine-year old. As a matter of fact, a nine-year old could create Koons’ masterpieces, because the most difficult part of their realization – the making of them – is left almost entirely in the hands of other people he pays to do the work. Just imagine you’re the kid of a billionaire, and think up some art you want your daddy to pay to have made for you. “Um, er, I want a giant Barbie wrestling with Godzilla”. OK, I can’t help but add something vaguely interesting, but, make that sculpture 50 ft high, and it WILL impress! It took one second to think of it. Apparently, Koons is to art what George W. Bush was to politicians. And it IS fitting that Koons was probably the most popular living artist at the same time Bush was reelected. The people had spoken.

Gack! Jeff Koons “Hanging Heart”. Sold for over $23 million in 2007.

The Koons masterwork above, his priceless “Hanging Heart”, is so superficial it’s only distinguishable from mall decorations by the materials it’s made of. Below, a fashion mall in South Korea recognized mall art when they saw it, bought a Koons’ “Purple Heart”, and made a themed shopping event around it.

Mall front advertisement for Koons’ “Sacred Heart” and the mall itself.

I’m just going to take a stab at what these heart sculptures are all about. Lemmie guess, it’s about love. Heart = love. Just found an interview:

I believe that the works are really about vindicating the viewer and, uh, uh, verifying their existence. I mean, uh, the piece needs THEM. Uh, if they move around, uh, the reflections change. It only exists, uh, through their being there… Uh, these works are about the viewer. Hopefully they find, um, some aspect of, of transcendence, uh, in the object…

I think that it captures very well, uh, the concerns of making something that has the kind of joyous aspect of a gift. And, uh, the same time have the sense of, uuuh… It’s about human life, uh, and it could be like a human heart in there almost just like, pul, pulsating. But at the same time, uh, a symbol of, uh, something that’s very, uh, ephemeral and ethereal, uh, uh, spiritual, and, uh, kind of a symbol of, uh, transcendence.

I was wrong. He didn’t say they were about “love”, at least not in THAT interview. But, aside from how often he says “uuuh” there are two things I find very interesting about his stance. One: he absolutely does NOT say that they are ironic, some sort of joke, or at all critical of the kitsch he appropriates. Two: he claims they offer spiritual  transcendence. There’s nothing transcendent about rubbing ones nose in mindless consumer kitsch. For Koons to say his multimillion-dollar mall art is transcendent is as disingenuous as Bush naming the war on Iraq “Operation Iraqi Freedom”. Just call it the opposite and humanity will be baffled, then acquiesce. It’s a bit shocking, but ultimately mind-numbing, that Koons tries to portray himself as making heartfelt spiritual art to vindicate the masses, even if it ends up in the mansion of a ruthless billionaire, sealed off from public view unless it is to be displayed as a trophy. And if you imagine for a moment that his works were produced not by him, but mass-produced by a company, which is possible, they’d lose any pretense of the sublime, and be reduced to what they really are, custom ornaments for the unimaginably wealthy.

You can give yourself a little empirical test to see if Koons’ glitzy objects arouse spiritual elevation. I’ve provided you with two images below. First is one of Koons’ hearts and the other is a sculpture of Ronald McDonald. Look at the one on the left and try to believe that it is transcendent, then look at the image on the right in the same way.

Two spiritual icons by visionary artists.

In my case I find the Ronald McDonald more spiritual because he is offering food and wearing stupid clothes. But also, and more importantly, Ronald is somehow less vacuous than the heart, and there’s more to look at. Of course one would have a different experience of the sculptures in person (though not if Ronald were made of chrome and 30 feet high), but I’m trying to point out that the “spirituality” and “transcendence” Koons talks of is all in the mind of the viewer, and must be conjured by the viewer. In other words, its “transcendence” is completely a matter of belief, subjectivity, and arbitrariness on the part of the audience. It’s value is extrinsic, fully dependent on what you bring to it. Intrinsically, the piece is a monument to blinding stupidity.

If Koons’ art is transcendent, so it this piece of candy.

Koons’s hearts, like his balloon dogs, are icons of our age, but not in the way Koons attests. They are not the icons of the grassroots imagination of the multitude of teeming, struggling humanity, but, like the Golden Arches, a symbol of capitalist excess, and the apotheosis of marketing and branding itself. They are icons precisely because Koons fashioned them and marketed them AS icons.

Here, let me help you imagine it. Voila, a new Jeff Koons, courtesy of my Photoshop skills.

[Note: if you enjoy the sort of image above, see my “Art Prank Criticism” blog post containing a compilation of my Photoshopped parodies coupled with biting criticism.]

This art is not only painfully innocuous, gaudy, and boring, it is also a vehicle for promulgating the corrupt values and paradigm of the plutocratic class. How can art support the continued reign of the 1%? It’s inevitable that when an artist makes a piece, it will reflect his or her beliefs, convictions, and allegiances even if it is not directly about them. Much of our daily behavior is based on some underlying philosophy or belief system, even if we aren’t aware of it ourselves. This is much more obvious to those of us who have lived in different countries and cultures. In China, old people go out in the morning and spit in the street. When I walked on the sidewalk in the early morning it was like walking the loogie gauntlet. They wouldn’t think anything of it themselves. It’s just an old habit, which stems from a belief that people have 4 fluids in them, and one is phlegm, which needs to be expelled after a night’s rest. Art, being a more deliberate and elaborate cultural enterprise than hawking goobers, is necessarily chock full of meaning and orientation, and can easily promote or substantiate an agenda.

There’s something really wrong with Koons’ art that needs to be confronted, and that’s the conviction that originality and authenticity are impossible, in which case the artist makes appropriations, which is just a slick way of saying aggrandized copies. Andy Warhol was the first to make a mega-career out of just copying throwaway imagery from popular culture, ableit with a twist and a hint of lime. There are two enormous problems with this. The first is that it’s wrong. Either humans were never capable of originality, or we always are. When was the cut-off point for originality? Waves of new styles of music have cropped up since Warhol himself died. If originality or authorship were dead we would only have cover songs. The second problem is that without originality, only the privileged artist-marketeers have the wherewithal to successfully appropriate from popular culture. It’s not enough to just copy something, however ingeniously, it needs to be done through the proper institutoinal channels, and have a brand name.

Koons’ hearts are made out of chrome, weigh tons, and took paid artisans thousands of hours to produce. Less than 0.1% of artists could ever hope to fund such enterprises, and thus rhetorically are barred from participating within that art framework. The opposite idea, that genuine originality/authenticity is possible allows any person to potentially make intrinsically worthwhile art, because its worth is related to its unique expression, as opposed to the grandiosity of the depersonalized object in question.

Right, right, the quest for originality has been permanently deconstructed by Postmodernism, and is now considered a naive leftover of a mindset in league with colonialism and cultural imperialism. [I completely dismantle this argument here: How Postmodernism Has Worked Against Us.] Thank God nobody told rock & roll, otherwise the whole genre wouldn’t have bothered emerging, since it developed long after Duchamp taught us that originality was extinct (OK, ok, early Rock is generally thought to have come out of black rhythm and blues, but it went in a lot of new directions, and incorporated many other styles and influences. Sgt. Peppers is no longer derivative.).

Originality has no more been eradicated or used up than has individuality, which is rather more inescapable than we like at some times in our lives. Each person has a story, and an honest conveyance of their existence and unique angle of vision via their personal expression in a medium equals originality/authenticity. Sure, every artist has influences both from prior work and the work of contemporaries, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have their particular angle of vision, which if they develop and hone it, results in a unique flavor or two or three. Hopefully we all have SOMETHING to say at some point in our lives.

Come on people. Isn’t it about time we realize that saying that originality and authenticity is no longer possible for our species is cynical and self-defeating? And might it be possible that we’ve officially believed that artists had nothing new to say for so long that maybe they do again?

No objective artistic standards apply to Koons’ work because there is usually no sign of the human hand, no composition, no color scheme to speak of, and no content. Aesthetics are largely irrelevant. There’s no use of visual language. Therefore appreciation of his work needs to be completely subjective and relative. It is someone’s opinion that his work is brilliant, and someone else’s that it sucks. This relativism takes reason out of the picture, and the winning argument is thus automatically awarded to whoever is richer and more powerful. It is easier for the ultra wealthy to prop of artists who have no content and no discernible personal style – perfectionist copies made by artisans, being eminently impersonal, are the antithesis of a personal style – because there’s nothing to latch onto to criticize. It’s all just opinion in a realm where some people’s opinions matter more than others. If the money of the ruling elite doesn’t give them enough authority, they are fond of accruing to themselves the authority of God, who speaks to them or is on their side. In the end Koons is great because the rich say he is, and God is on his side.

Jeff Koons with a sculpture he never touched in the making, and has admitted is himself incapable of making.

[Note to Jeff Koons. Please make a black George W. Bush with a black pet Barney the schnauzer, and I will stop writing criticisms that nobody sees, because I will have respect for you for taking a jab at the status quo. Plus I don’t have the $$ to pay professionals to make it for me, and I want to see it! You can take all the credit, but throw me a few thousand so I can continue to make my own work.]

What would save Koons’ work for me is if he at least made it himself, because then it would add a sort of “performance” element of heroic devotion, as with realist painters who painstakingly bend their minds and wrists in deference to what is. But his work is exactly like a giant photo realist painting painted by someone else. And this is precisely how his paintings are realized, by a team of young artists sacrificing their own potential to tediously reproduce Koons’ mediocre Photoshop collages onto wall-sized canvases with teeny brushes. I’ve written extensively about this here. This is like paying someone to go on a hunger strike for you. Worse, Koons is himself incapable of making the sculptural works he puts his name on. His oversized “Michael and Bubbles” succeeds at all because of the exquisite detailing and perfectionism of the expert Italian souvenir factory he commissioned to produce it. The parts I find myself liking about it all have to do with the work the artists put into it who made it, such as the treatment of the eyes, and not Koons’ contribution, which was just a flippant idea. Most artists come up with the idea, yes, and then have to go through all the trouble of executing it, and THERE is where the art comes into play.

The craftsmanship of Michael and Bubbles is too fine to not credit the artists who created it. Koons himself hasn’t done any sculpture. He merely gave the order. The rest should be credited to the experts that actually made the piece.

In most of Koons’ work he’s neither responsible for the imagery, whatever aesthetics might be involved, nor the making of it. In short, he’s not responsible for the art, but rather for the managerial decisions commanding its execution. He’s not an artist himself as much as he’s the boss of an art factory, literally and figuratively. And the same could be said of Damien Hirst. [Read my argument against the practice of commissioning other to make your art here.]

I wonder if only a non-artist can truly not get what’s so horribly wrong with paying someone else to make your art. For example, I may be working on a piece and really struggling with perspective, anatomy, lighting, or whatever. And I know there are people who have the skills to fix those parts for me. But it would be odd to have them do that, more than just the slightest touch (the equivalent of a good editor), without giving them credit for it. How can you not credit someone for doing something that you can’t do yourself? So, to have people make something in it’s entirety, which I couldn’t do at all, and then to call it my own work, would just seem like cheating or theft.

I know, we mustn’t ever say that something isn’t art, or someone isn’t an artist. I’m sure Koons is as much an artist as your average undergraduate art student. If pressed, he could probably knock out a decent still life or some other hackneyed idea of art. And surely there’s some creativity involved in selecting which toy to copy, or which consumer objects to juxtapose in what way. But other people besides artists are creative, and you don’t actually need to be an artist to pay other people to realize your ideas, especially if they merely extend to what to reproduce and with what spin on it. Probably anyone with a good liberal arts education and some familiarity with contemporary art could, given half a chance, come up with ideas to rival Koons or Hirst. Novelists often have artists as characters who make a kind of art the author his or herself devised. Try it yourself. Sit down with a notepad and make a list of ideas. How about a 50ft tall anatomically correct Sigmund the Sea Monster? I thought that up in a few seconds. Click here to see what it would look like outside the Bilbao Museum.

And then, the final comeback is going to be, “Well, even if they COULD come up with the idea, they didn’t DO it” (or rather, pay someone else with the requisite skills to do it). True, true, but was it even worth doing?

~ Ends

[See Part 4: Damien Hirst]


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10 replies on “Is the influence of the ultra rich killing art? Part 3, Jeff Koons

  1. It’s like you said, “paying for someone to go on a hunger strike for you.” These corporations (ie. Koons, Inc) don’t allow for the everyday artist to participate. How could they?


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