Koons is in the news for being sued by people whose imagery he “appropriated” or “stole”, depending on how you look at it. This story is just repeating itself. The latest is that he based his “Fait d’Hiver” sculpture on an advertisement for a French clothes designer, and his “Naked” was inspired by a nude photo of a young boy and girl by photographer, Jean-François Bauret.
He’s been sued before, and for the same reasons, so, I wouldn’t bother to comment on this if I didn’t have a couple new thoughts about it, which have a lot to do with being an artist and making art as I read these stories.
I get appropriation. It’s not so different even from realist painting, or “Fan Art”. You see something you like, you copy it, and you put it in a new context. It’s no longer a publicity photo of Johnny Depp from Pirates of the Caribbean: it’s a lovingly rendered pencil drawing of his visage, which shows off the artist’s patience and ability at reproducing fine detail. There are hundreds, if not thousands of these portraits online. When I was growing up the weekly TV guide that came in the mail was filled with just such drawings. Similarly, when Monet saw reflections of lilies in the water, he wanted to copy/interpret it. The appropriationist works from the same urge to reproduce something and share it AS ART. He or she just goes to mundane objects that aren’t considered worthy of anyone’s interest, looks at them with a critical eye, and re-presents them as art that merits careful consideration. Marcel Duchamp did this with a snow shovel, and Andy Warhol with Brillo Boxes.
Jeff Koons has a kind of nostalgic love of cheesy culture, so he makes copies of junky 20th century cultural artifacts, like balloon dogs.
The Balloon Dog, which sold for $58,405,000, probably is Koons’ best work (or works, because it comes in several different colors). What makes this piece so good, for what it is, is that it looks identical to a weightless foil balloon, but is actually a ten foot high, one ton, mirror-polished stainless steel sculpture. Here you have appropriation of the basic balloon dog design, but it was transformed into something entirely different.
In the case of the balloon dog, the boundaries are clear, and there isn’t a problem about his appropriation. Everybody knows Jeff Koons is not the person who first twisted a balloon to look like a dog. I’m guessing this probably developed over time, kind of like language, with one person elaborating on another’s design. And then it is obvious, and very pleasing, how he completely changed it. We can marvel at the obvious technical brilliance of perfecting the small details, like the twists, the intersecting of the volumes, and the opening of the balloon that becomes the dog’s nose. We’ve all had intimate contact with balloons as kids, and we can appreciate how a little nose we might flick has become something more solid and lasting than we are. Here, Koons really succeeds at helping us see a throwaway piece of culture as beautiful in its simplicity. He has made something pop-able into something indestructible: something insignificant into something monumental. The balloon dog is immortalized. And that’s the nicest thing I’ve ever said about Jeff Koons. A roomful of these things becomes nauseating (like eating a gallon of icecream in a sitting), and the significance of the one clear statement gets swallowed in the glut of a hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars gimmick that says more about money and the art market than it aggrandizes fragments of soft culture previously taken for granted.
Koons runs into trouble when he copies something that can directly be attributed to someone else. This is sticky. Koons “String of Puppies” sculpture was based on a photo by Art Rogers, and Rogers successfully sued Koons for copyright infringement.
I’m going to take Koons’ side on these lawsuits. Koons “String of Puppies” is as removed from the photo he based it on as is his stainless steel balloon dog from the original helium balloon. When you consider that this sculpture was included in his “Banality” series, it becomes unavoidable that he didn’t choose it because he thought it was intrinsically interesting, or original. He thought it was cheesy, with bacon bits on top. So, isn’t it ironic that he was sued for stealing someone’s “original” creation? If Koons thought the photo was at all original, he wouldn’t have used it. The whole point was to glorify the living crap out of something cloyingly trivial. In placing laser-like focus on clichéd, superficial, and sentimental examples of popular culture (kitsch), Koons sought to create novel, momentous, and analytical pieces of high art.
That was his MO. And not Just Koons’s MO, by the way. A lot of other artists – such as Damien Hirst, Richard Prince, Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, Paul McCarthy, and Christopher Wool – use the same gimmick of presenting the trite and impersonal as the deep and universal. Hang in there, I’ll discuss why this tactic is bankrupt further on.
Let me go on a tangent here and share a brief anecdote from art school. I was taking Paul McCarthy’s “New Genre” class (which he pronounced on the first day with a hard “g”, as in “New Jonra”). During “critique” a young woman presented her piece, in which she’d written clichés in a notebook. Things like, “Life is a bitch”. She read off a bunch of them, as Paul nodded approvingly and chuckled here and there. I was vaguely interested at most in just how many of these she’d come up with, until she revealed that she got them all out of a book, and her piece was really about the copying down of them. She lost me there, but McCarthy was unphased. Au contraire. He thought the act of deliberately imbibing clichés was a serious artistic endeavor. So you see, the notion that contemplating clichés is meaningful has been legitimate currency in contemporary art for decades. It was taught to us in the art institution.
If you see Koons’ enterprise as appropriating that which he finds profoundly stupid, in order to seem brilliant, it might make more sense for artists whose work he based his own off of to sue him for slander rather than plagiarism. The proceedings could be entertaining. Imagine the lawyer making the case for his client: “Jeff Koons has publicly ridiculed (insert name of artist) as making art that is so stupid and unoriginal that it exemplifies a profound, underlying universality.”
Jeff Koons’ publicists or lawyers or advisors, or whoever, have probably counseled him to NEVER admit what his art is really about, otherwise he will lose popularity, because people will see him as smug and condescending. Instead, he should use reverse psychology, and claim to be championing the wholesome goodness of kitsch. This he does. He likes to say he is vindicating people’s tastes, and elevating common art into high art, or, eliminating the distinction between the two. He goes on to talk about how important the audience is, and that his Balloon Dog is incomplete without the audience seeing their own reflection in its mirrored surface. The result of all this obfuscation is that Koons comes off as an idiot savant whose work somehow succeeds in spite of him being a kindly artist for the whole family, who embraces trinkets, tchotchkes, figurines, and everything insipid. You see, he’s not a smart-ass poking fun at dumb culture, he himself is dumb, and he’s just being really, really nice. He is the Forest Gump of the art world.
And that is where everything gets treacly. If Koons is not appropriating cheeseball photos specifically because they are vapid, than he’s doing it because they are inherently good, in which case he is stealing. I put my money on Koons being slick and clever. I believe he took images from popular culture which he thought were only interesting in terms of how well they typified tastelessness, and then commissioned oversized porcelain sculptures of them in order to create monuments to banality: in which case he didn’t steal. An appropriation is always of something, and there are many instances where it isn’t plagiarism. It is, however, insulting.
Is appropriationist art bankrupt?
Yeah, I come at this as an artist who is struggling with the technical difficulties of making my own art, which, if it’s going to be better than what I’ve already done, likely needs to be a challenge for me. And then I can’t help but notice that appropriation art eliminates the hardest part of making art. You don’t have to worry about subject matter because it’s a given. This is like doing a cover song. You don’t have to write lyrics or melodies, which makes things much easier. Then there’s the execution of the art, which can be a real uphill battle. But Koons gets around that by hiring world class artisans to take care of that for him. This is like hiring studio musicians to play your cover song for you. All you do is supervise them, if needed.
This really is a good analogy, because it nails it, so bear with me a bit. A song is like a painting or other work of art. And we have been told through Post Modernism and contemporary art theory that it is impossible to make original art, which means it is impossible to write a new song. We know this isn’t true with music because there are new songs in new styles, with new lyrics, cropping up all the time, and this has been going on for decades. But it’s ridiculous to say that a new song is possible, but a new painting is not.
I’ve never believed painting or image-making were dead. How could I when most of my favorite music was composed long after the official death of originality? If musicians could make new songs, artists could make new images. If melody and harmony and rhythm are alive, so are color and modeling and composition…
So, when I make art, I am doing the equivalent of trying to make a quality new song. It’s a visual rock/experimental/electronic/contemporary classical hybrid. And it’s not easy, which is probably why so many artists threw in the towel and declared it impossible. The stakes are high because it’s building on what went before, instead of doing something altogether different. It’s harder to make a solid heavy metal song, that isn’t derivative, for example, when so much metal music has already been made. You’ve gotta up your game.
Subject matter, content, and the realization of the piece are by far the most difficult challenges an artist faces. Making appropriationist work, like Koons or Hirst does, is precisely the same as hiring studio musicians, including a vocalist, to make a cover of someone else’s song, and then share it with the world as your own. This would have to be a cover of something inconsequential or unoriginal, and in a way that altered it, to be consistent. Say, you hire a symphony and choir to do a rendition of the theme song to Gilligan’s Island. Get only the best musicians, and the success will rest on how well they do their parts, irrespective of whether or not your idea is all that good. Without you, there would be no such rendition, even if it could have been done completely without you.
Not only does appropriation sideline the most difficult challenges of art making, it doesn’t offer much once one already understands the premise. I don’t need Duchamp or Jeff Koons to help me appreciate that the banal has a universal quality to it, and that something we take completely for granted, like mass produced items, are pregnant with aesthetics. Once you’ve seen a shovel hanging in a museum as art, you can see a towel hanging on a rack the same way, or a bicycle pump, or anything. I can just look at my desktop.
Look. A pair of prescription glasses. Let’s make them 10 feet high, with the proper prescription, and even replicate the various smudges on them! That’s gonna’ be pretty good. You can look through the lenses, and appreciate all the subtle curves and ergonomics. The nose pads should be particularly interesting. We can drum up jargon about “vision” and how glasses represent our 21st century lifestyle… Why stop with one? Let’s do my two pairs of reading glasses and my sun glasses as well. Now we have a show! Let’s put some glasses on the ground, open, and some folded, maybe some on the wall… I’ll borrow some glasses from friends and family, arrange them on a table, and then pay people to make giant copies of them. Voila! The real difficult parts would have been coming up with the original glasses designs, and making giant copies of existing glasses. But I wouldn’t have to do any of that. I’d just borrow the designs of my own glasses, and pay others to replicate them on the grand scale, and the more exquisite and painstaking their craftsmanship, the more astounding my brilliance.
It’s easy to come up with ideas for appropriation pieces. What would happen if we made giant replicas of ordinary whistles and put them outside where the wind would go through them?! Some could be hanging off of tall buildings. What if you could walk in them while they were blowing?! How about life-sized soap sculptures? Just sit back and let the expert sculptors do the work, and then maybe carve your initials in the finished products to give it that branding.
Appropriations aren’t even really necessary, because once you can see the everyday object or tchotchke as art for yourself, you don’t need to study the lesson again and again and again, just like you don’t need to practice multiplication once you’ve got the idea down.
Art that aspires to be about the underlying philosophical idea becomes useless when we’ve already assimilated the idea, or the idea has become irrelevant, antiquated, uninteresting, or proven wrong. And if that doesn’t kill appropriation art, the Chinese making cheap knock-offs will. Chinese company VLA Sculpture was selling stainless steel copies of Jeff Koons’ balloon dogs over the internet. You could even have the size and color of your choice, and different materials, if you wanted to veer from the original. Below is a price list.
The Achilles heel of appropriationist art is it can be appropriated using its own means. If you hire a sculptural crew to make a giant balloon dog for you, someone else can do the same. If the mundane itself is a universal art, and originality is dead or irrelevant, how can it be that an identical knock-off isn’t as good as an original appropriation? In other words, is the fake hair of Elvis any more precious than the identically faked, fake hair of Elvis?
I fear for Koons that a perfectly replicated army of balloon dogs might make his just another one in the pack: a mass-produced copy-cat.
17 replies on “Koons, Appropriation, and Plagiarism (Again)!”
I’ve never read so many kind words from you about Koons. I shall add to the balance. In ref to this comment:
>Once you’ve seen a shovel hanging in a museum as art, you can see a towel hanging on a rack the same way, or a bicycle pump, or anything. I can just look at my desktop.
Would it not be fair to say that once a concept has been ‘gotten’, as it were, by an audience, that it’s the choice of subject matter and its treatment holds or loses the fascination? Likewise, once you see a conceptual method being deployed, the art is surely also in how it’s deployed. Otherwise we could apply general complaints against conceptual art to all conceptual all past, present and future without ever making reference to the content and treatment. It seems strange to me that conceptual art polarises people so often into pro and anti camps in a way that other approaches to art doesn’t. Nothing is all good or all bad.
You can say there’s art in how a conceptual idea is deployed, except that there’s not that much art involved beyond the idea, and to the degree there is, if it’s left up to artisans to execute who aren’t even worth crediting with having done so, does it signify at all? How much art is there in anti-art beyond the idea? After Duchamp exhibited the snow shovel, there wasn’t really much need for the bottle rack or comb, let alone a variety of shovels, bottle racks, and combs.
If what makes a kind of art significant is the idea behind it, and not really the product or its execution, than recycling the same tired old idea gets wearisome. You’ve gotta’ come up with new ideas, which I think lots of people are doing in conceptual art. Full on appropriation is just one branch of conceptual art, and by me it’s no longer interesting. I also believe the message is no longer relevant, because artists have gotten beyond subordinating art and themselves to the mass produced object, or the mindlessly frivolous snippet of junk culture. More appropriation is like more tenants of Post Modernism, which I think people are also moving beyond.
Conceptual art polarizes people for a variety of reasons, one of which is that it is the most popular form of art right now, and the two richest artists in the world are conceptual artists who steal/appropriate ideas and pay assistants to produce their work for them. When the dominant model is the conceptual, anti-art of surprisingly inarticulate millionaire artists, there’s going to be some resistance. We’ve been steeped in the half-baked, self-indulgent, pseudo-philosophy of conceptual art for so long that people think that is what art is, and forget that it has anything to do with visual language. Ask yourself how much conceptual, anti-music you listen to. That sort of “music” gets unchecked in my Itunes playlists after I give it a chance or two or three, mostly because it’s annoying. Why is conceptual art only dominant in visual art, to the degree that it has displaced visual art as art, and is mostly nonexistent, or unknown in other genres?
I think you just can’t get away with it musically, in the same way you couldn’t get away with it in the culinary arts. Bullshit doesn’t fly when you have to sit down and listen to it, or eat it.
Significantly, conceptual art has never made me think about anything that a well written essay, preferably with pictures, or better yet a film documentary, couldn’t have done better. Concepts are best expressed with language. So when it comes to art, or music, or food, the intrinsic properties of the product are what really matter. I’ve mostly lost interest in conceptual art as a genre, largely out of boredom. Ironically, or not, I am continually on the prowl for new music, which is so much better, across the spectrum. Which reminds me of another odd phenomenon, namely that a lot of people who like almost every kind of art, don’t care for conceptual art. I think it’s the bullshit factor combined with the fame and fortune some of those artists get. Really, a Richard Prince or Christopher Wool cliche painted on a canvas does NOT compare to a great novel. People can see that. They are right to think that if they could do it themselves, or hire someone to if they had the money, there just might not be all that much there.
That came out a bit harsh. I do like some of the stuff Chris Burden did, partly because he made art a life and death enterprise, and never did anything frivolous. Also I’d consider most conceptual art a form of sculpture, and a lot of it is good enough in that realm. I also like any of the environmental stuff. But, with a lot of conceptual art, you really don’t have to be an artist to do it, any more than you have to be a musician to do it. It is not more art, in a traditional sense, than it is music. It’s its own branch of creative enterprise, that would more properly be seen as separate from visual art, instead of replacing it.
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Hi Jeff. I believe I cracked this equation just now, while taking a shower. Why don’t people like conceptual art? Simple. They want from art something interesting to look at. Not to “see”, but to actually look at. let’s say it’s a kind of “reading” of “visual language” that a lot of us enjoy. And while one can “see” conceptual art, like one can see exhibits in the Smithsonian, one doesn’t “read” them visually in the same way. In effect, non-visual art has assumed the position replacing visual art: anti-art replaces art. And if anti-art is antagonistic to art, art may be antagonistic back, at least to the degree of defending it’s own sphere.
Let’s say we go to music to listen to something; literature to read something; and a film to watch something. You go to art and you end up with something to read (“text art”), listen to (sound sculpture), watch (performance art), contemplate as a thing (objects), or investigate (installations). What if you really want something to look at? Somehow conceptual art has been conflated with visual-language art, and is believed to have replaced it and made it irrelevant and antiquated. In reality, sound sculpture is “conceptual music”; performance is “conceptual theater”; text art is “conceptual literature”; most the objects are “conceptual sculpture”; and installation is “contemporary exhibits”. Why are these things taken to have replaced painting/image making, and visual language, which they have less to do with than other traditions? For me, it’s pretty clear, once I see through the haze of obfuscation and utter bullshit. I like art that is visually rich, interesting, and satisfying, just like I like music with similar qualities. Conceptual art is in another category, that is only interesting to look at, or rather “see” in terms of ideas it’s supposed to invoke (unless someone really likes looking at text or a shovel). I can like it. I like Chris Burden’s piece where he had himself shot in the arm. It’s “contemporary theater”, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I cannot like it as replacing painting/image making, and art that is about visual language that can be read.
Also, a funny thing about conceptual art is that it is usually not art about concepts, but rather concepts about art. The Balloon Dog, for example, if one were to get analytical about it, probably involves a lot of ideas about concepts of art, and not much beyond that, other than half-digested tidbits of Post Modern French philosophy. This is most obvious with Duchamp, whose conceptual art was almost entirely about art itself. And his urinal was not meant to be looked at, but to be seen. And that’s why people who love visual art may get nothing from it, and also not particularly care for its argument that visual art is dead, or something to be pissed on.
I’ll make a post about this. And other myths of the contemporary/traditional art debate, such as that “traditional artists ” are conservative and anti-intellectual. Just turn that around and ask if anyone really thinks Warhol, Koons, Hirst, Emin, or Paul McCarthy are intellectual. Robert Hughes boldy stated that Andy Warhol was among the stupidest people he’d ever met.
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I’m wondering what your thoughts are on an artist like Sherrie Levine who goes way further than Koons in her appropriation. Her techniques intentionally eradicate any sign of the artist completely, making an identical copy. Compared to her, Koons’ puppies look completely original. I’m actually really surprised that the lawsuit against him in that case was successful.
Also I’m not sure the positive/negative intention of the artist is a make-or-break factor in defining appropriation art. Whether parodying or glorifying kitsch, there is still a stance being taken. Why can’t Koons be glorifying kitsch? Why must he be lying about his motivations? I would argue that it’s a way more radical stance to defend pop culture take than condemn it. Especially within the contemporary art world.
I forgot about Sherrie Levine. Right, the re-photographer of Edward Weston photos. That work is so academic and tedious, entirely about an obtuse concept about art, that it’s only at all interesting in terms of discussing why it isn’t at all interesting. Imagine someone’s music is a tape-recording of a song by Michael Jackson, played from their own speaker. The idea of that being someone’s music is too thin as an idea to be worth discussing, unless one is forced to write a paper on it or something.
The reason Koons’s stance on kitsch is important is that if he’s transforming it from tasteless kitsch into clever fine art, he is significantly altering it, whereas if he’s just glorifying it as it is, he’s indebted to the author for the content of his work. I’m thinking about that artist, David Irvine, who paints over thrift store paintings (adds in dinosaurs and Star Wars characters and whatnot). In this case he’s used someone else’s art in its entirety. But I doubt any of the original thrift store artists are coming after him. It’s clear that he’s altered their work, and what he’s doing is not dependent on the quality of their work at all. If their work were really good, he wouldn’t paint over it.
This relates to Koons’s stuff. I don’t think he’d appropriate work he thought was really good. The cheese ball images he chose are like the thrift store paintings. They are not successful because they make us think about how cute puppies art (unless we’ve truly become insipid). As I mentioned in my post, Koons called the series “Banality”, and he wasn’t referring to his own work, which he probably thought was a little shocking, savvy, and anything but banal. Banality must apply to the imagery appropriated, which means he thought at the time that it pretty much sucked, which wouldn’t be a leap of the imagination for anyone.
You wrote: ” I would argue that it’s a way more radical stance to defend pop culture take than condemn it. Especially within the contemporary art world.”
I thought about his during the course of a walk an lunch of Khao Soi. What most interested me was not your comment, but just your use of the word “radical”. It took me back 20 years to when I was in art school, and everything had to be radical. There’s something really interesting in that belief.
The idea of something being radical in art is about as possible, interesting, or enticing in 2015 as doing something radical in the bedroom: it’s most likely going to be revolting, and is best forgotten..
So, I wanted to say that there’s nothing radical in the art world. How radical is a balloon dog after Warhol’s Brillo Boxes? It’s the same idea, 30 years later = make a big copy of something from consumer culture. I guess what interests me is the concept that art should be radical in order to be valuable in society.
As for Koons genuinely liking kitsch, well, that’s a bit like a contemporary composer loving elevator music. He could conceivably be nostalgic about it, but to love it without some level of remove, he’d have to be a bit… Come to think of it, he’s not really an artist himself so much as someone who commissions art, and it’s actually possible that he doens’t have good taste in art at all, in which case, kitsch could represent the outer reaches of his aesthetic sensibility. If that’s the case than, again, his appropriations are pure theft.
I really don’t think he’s that dim.
Thank you. I enjoyed your essay. Can I hire my my daughter to copy your words and paste them on my feed and declare them my own? I am truly inspired by your art philosophy. Keep up the good work!
Wow! Thanks. I’m working on a piece about conceptual art, and the problem of confusing it with visual-language art, or picture making. It’s taken me a long time to see this clearly, and then to see what the problem is, at least for me. Though, I’m probably just repeating myself and forgot that I figured this out a while ago, and it just seems fresh.
In the time I took to write this you replied to and got several more posts! I won’t even try to keep up…
You bring up several good points: Did koons steal from or slander—more, but still not exactly, libel—the artists he appropriated from? If parody is a defense against accusations of intellectual property theft is it also cause for a charge of defamation?
The hiring of musicians to play someone else’s songs is a great metaphor for the postmodern excuse for art as it makes the frat house social director who hired my cover band to play at their parties, circa ’68, the only artist present. I’m sure there’s a drawing in that somewhere.
But you did say some nice things about koons’ work and regarding some, but not all of them, I agree. I liked balloon dog(s) until I learned more about how they were made and are marketed. I don’t like them enough to overcome my distaste of all that.
I do like Duchamp and Warhol though. I look at Duchamp as a philosopher who illustrates his own essays. I see Warhol as a magician; you know you are being fooled but that is half the fun. My opinion of koons—the other capitalist appropriationists, too—is that they are neither deep thinkers nor clever entertainers; they are thieves and liars, no better than the wall-streeters they cater to.
…I still want to read s step by step on how you do the digital impasto.
Hi Howard. You wrote: ” I liked balloon dog(s) until I learned more about how they were made and are marketed. I don’t like them enough to overcome my distaste of all that.” Exactly. I think a lot of opposition to conceptual art is that it calls itself art that is inherently superior to visual language art, and the people who make it call themselves artists. In other words, people who might love the Balloon Dog if they saw it on the street, don’t like it when it is held up as the “Holy Grail’ of contemporary art making. Similarly, many would love his giant puppy made out of flowers if they saw it in an outdoor festival, but balk at acknowledging Koons as among the very best artists of the 20th century, when he commissioned someone else to make it, and people aren’t really liking it as “art” to begin with. I, for one, love aquariums. But if you call a salt water aquarium the greatest music of the 20th century, because of the sound of the bubbles, I will protest. Much of what people object to is the context and contextualization, and for good reasons. More about that today. Well, at least I hope to write a post about it. As for Duchamp and Warhol, I like their art when they make art. I’m not as interested in Duchamp’s props for pseudo-philosophy, because, well, I’m not that interested in the underlying philosophy, which I ultimately find refutable (as Picasso stated, he was wrong that art was dead or needed to die, as it happens, before I was born).
I really enjoyed this post, and the comments. I can’t really get anything from Jeff Koons either, but perhaps it is a mistake to say his work is bankrupt when it is so eminently bankable…The art market waited a long time for the silence of Marcel Duchamp to be commodified. Andy Warhol did it to an extent, but he mixed the emptiness up with fame and that became a separate strand. Koons has dedicated himself to reproducing emptiness and he seems good at it. Damien Hirst does I think at least feel a little sheepish (no pun…) that he has no original ideas. Tracey Emin has long since abandoned conceptualism for watercolours and bronzes. Perhaps we get the artists we deserve.
“…but perhaps it is a mistake to say his work is bankrupt when it is so eminently bankable…” Good one! And it’s also worth noting that most of my recent art is digital, and there’s no original artifact to sell, in which case it is considered by many to not only be worthless, but not even real. Of course this would make all of music worthless and not even real, too, so people just need to use their brains a little, but that’s another argument.
I think people deserve more and better art, or at least to be able to find it if it exists, than the conceptual fodder that’s taking up all the proverbial airways. A lot of the objection to big name conceptual art stems from there being a perceived vacuum where the rich, nurturing, sustaining, beautiful, serious, and interesting visual art they crave is nowhere to be found.
I think you may have a book in process here, Eric. Picking one or two strands from what you say:
Art since the heyday of artists such as Chris Burden is art that the public is interested in when it’s produced. I remember going to the first Turner Prize exhibition – it was a long display in the central connecting space to the galleries proper in what is now Tate Britain. Hardly anyone visited the show. Now it’s mobbed, timed tickets, the lot. Practically nobody followed art in the 1970s. It strikes me that artists like Koons, Wool, Prince etc. would have been obscure figures.
Part of what has popularised art is that it has become a blue-chip investment. This has meant greater involvement from large conglomerates and foundations in the funding and running of public galleries, as well as the expansion and accessibility of private collections. It’s surely easier for anyone (and more) people to hold negative views on art when it has this corporatised profile? It’s become a standard to say that artists like Koons reflect the assembly line approach of the society they live in. This fact has meaning, but it doesn’t guarantee anything about the resulting art, nor does it affect the meanings in the art either.
You seem to repeatedly come back to the nature of transformation brought about by an artist. What you say about why people don’t like conceptual art is something that is mostly (though not entirely) irrelevant to those who operate at the top end of the art world. Why I say not entirely is that it doesn’t matter to them what the public outside the art world likes or dislikes, so long as there isn’t a universal condemnation, a regualrly and strongly expressed consensus that would jeopardise public institutions. As long as the public keeps buying tickets to the major shows, the institutions can put it all down to subjectivity and taste. They, I think, would say that the ‘more and better art’ that you refer to isn’t something everyone will agree on. The ‘official’ line, as it were, is always to the effect that this is good because it’s debate. Why I think your main concern is with the nature of transformation is that you often make judgements along a division between what is hands-off / no skill or personal capability in the ‘artist’, and those who have got the skill (regardless of how much it is used). I suppose this might be expressed as a comparison between someone signing an order form and an artist of yore who instructed fabricators on the basis of their own fabrication experience / skill. And maybe the former has some celebrity culture mixed in with it.
On the subject of anti-music, you clearly haven’t been exposed to the industrial music that sprang up in the UK after punk. There were some really great bands – Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, Joy Division – whose music was refreshing because it was against the moribund crap that filled the charts at the end of the 1970s. Some of it was noisy, some even involved trades of insults with the audience, but the dissonances and unmusicality were a reaction to commercial banality, novelty records, TV tie-ins etc. etc. It wasn’t meant to be collected and then reminisced about by people my age now as though it was a great addition to the musical canon. A lot of it was a scream of frustration and boredom. Unfortunately, the synths and electronics they pioneered have gone on to be used to perfect commercial banality. A case of risk aversion as the unintended consequence of risk-taking!
You might find this book I just reviewed of great interest:
Thanks also for the David Irvine ref. Some hilarious stuff there. Dare I say it reminds me of the Chapman Bros? You might find Joseph Donald Myers’ work interesting in respect of appropriation:
PS if you sue ronthroop for getting his daughter to paste your words, remember that this will give his writing workshop a lot of valuable publicity.
Hi Jeff. Great to get up this morning and see intelligent commentary on art.
Funny you should mention Burden, because I’m working on a new article in which I use him, Roxy Paine, and Andy Goldsworthy as examples of conceptual artists I really admire, and whom I think the general public would like if they were properly exposed to them. Significantly, they are not appropriationists, make their own work, and have not eschewed aesthetics. As I said before, the appropriationist strain of conceptual art, starting with Duchamp, is the one that puts people off, and it’s largely blowback because of the anti-art, anti-visual language stance of that approach.
You seem to be saying that even though art has been corporatized on the funding, buying, and selling end, that need not reflect on the actual art. Right. It doesn’t absolutely need to, just as one doesn’t automatically get sick if exposed to a virus, but in the case of Koons and Hirst, if it hasn’t affected them, they are in cahoots with it. Here we have artists who act as CEOs commissioning other people to do the work, and taking credit for it as their vision. Money most artists could never dream of are necessary just to produce the multi-million-dollar productions of these artists. Not only do Koons and Hirst cater to the oligarchy, they are members of it. As I’ve said before, Koons’ mature work is art of, by, and for the 1%.
You wrote: “Why I think your main concern is with the nature of transformation is that you often make judgements along a division between what is hands-off / no skill or personal capability in the ‘artist’, and those who have got the skill (regardless of how much it is used).”
This is how it’s generally seen, and the conceptualists will dismiss said “skill” as “craft”. But it is not just the skill that is in question, but rather visual language itself. Anti-art took a stand against aesthetics and visual language (color, line, form, composition, movement, texture, shapes…). This is easier to understand if we use a musical analogy. Anti-music would be against using melodies or making songs, regardless of the skill involved. Instead, it would use noise, found sounds, or appropriated songs. So, the opposition is NOT that I or other artists are overly fond of handicraft, but rather that we enjoy visual language itself, just as we enjoy music! The resentment is towards anti-visual art and the bold assertion that conceptual art supersedes it in a linear progression of the evolution of art. This belief has been “institutionalized” and was the overriding view when I was in art school.
What, Joy Division and Cabaret Voltaire are “anti music”?! I’m confused. Joy Division had rhythm, chords and melody. They used musical language, so can’t be said to be anti-music, though they could have been against crappy commercial music. Crude music that doesn’t require musical expertise or an extraordinary level of skill is still music. To be anti-music you need to make something that is NOT meant to be listened to, but merely heard. The emphasis would need to be on an idea about music, but could never be music itself. If a band gets up on a stage and expects people to listen to them perform for an extended period, it is not anti-music.
This distinction is something that people are really missing. Visual art is intended to be looked at, and, if you will, read. But Duchamp’s readymades were never intended to be appreciated aesthetically. They were anti-aesthetic.
This is the division between conceptual art and visual art. A conceptual piece, such as the Balloon Dog, may be pretty in a way, but it’s still an affront to true visual art, because its aesthetics are minimal, incidental, borrowed, and subordinate to the idea of what the art is. It may be pretty, but no more so than a lawnmower, or a vacuum cleaner.
Conceptualists, like Duchamp, were wrong. His declaration of the death of visual art precedes the Surrealists and Abstract Expressionists, just for starters, who all carried on the tradition after Duchamp celebrated its death.
That is the kind of conceptual art that annoys people. The conceptual art that declares visual art irrelevant is the same art that gets called “not art” itself. But other “conceptual” art that is about making art not necessarily in the tradition of visual language, does not upset people. They can see it’s creative. It’s not a prop upholding a bold, cynical, and ultimately philosophically reputable, bogus argument. People are objecting to the concepts behind the conceptually bankrupt strains of conceptualism. No, canning one’s shit, for example, is not superior to Monet’s haystacks, and does not prove them to be worthless shit and mere mindless handicraft. It is a minor, cute prank on the sideline of art.
Well, I’m trying to flesh out these ideas. Obviously I don’t have the big picture, but am just forming a viewpoint, which I may reject later myself. The big problem is conceptual art’s claim to replace visual art, and that visual art and anti-art are lumped together. They should be seen as distinct and separate avenues of creative enterprises (as are music and literature), and this would remove a lot of the condescension and animosity between the two, while also allowing people to enjoy both of them for their respective qualities. it’s a lot easier to enjoy Manzoni’s canned artist’s shit, if one doesn’t try to assess it on aesthetic grounds and savor looking at it, and especially if one isn’t supposed to see it as inherently superior to all of Monet’s landscapes.
Thanks for the links. Will check them out. And thanks again for the intelligent commentary, which helped me enjoy my morning coffee.
Thanks – it’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to engage in intelligent commentary. I have a rather repetitive job that requires minimal intellect and maximal energy.
I assume that what you mean by conceptual art replacing visual art is in the sense that pictorial representative formats and skills are useable if unnecessary? Installations and readymades are of course (usually though not always) visual. Many conceptual artists use photography and painting. I suppose your gripe is that to take an advertising photograph from a magazine, or to get someone to take a photograph on your behalf isn’t making art. Where would this place someone like Tomoko Takahashi?
Arrangements of detritus are commonplace approaches you’ll see in exhibitions of minor figures in contemporary art, as well as Takahashi. It’s not exactly uncommon to happen upon collections of various objects placed together in a gallery with a long-winded notice about the work. If there are multiple found objects involved, where is the point at which we can say that appropriation stops and art / skill begins? There are also paintings onto which various objects are attached. If the artist puts all this stuff together with their own hands, is that to qualify it as art in a sense that you would say work by Koons et al isn’t?
BTW – with the bands I mentioned, I refer generally to their acts of taking music apart, often in disgust. See if you can hear some of Three Mantras, Red Mecca, and Second Annual Report. These pieces seem to me to follow a lot of modern art movements in attacking the media they use along with the expectations of them. What makes this stand out for me is that the bands moved on. They didn’t repeat what they did as though it were a signature or logo – think of Anthony Gormley and Rachel Whiteread.
Haven’t got to you latest post, but interested to see how you qualify ‘people’. As I say above about the change in attendances to galleries, responses to art have changed in recent decades. I think it’s no coincidence that cappucino’s are in ubiquity in gallery cafes now – cappucino aesthetics perhaps?
Sorry about your crappy job. I’ve had plenty of temp jobs that mostly challenged my endurance. Teaching is tough in another way, including that it bleeds heavily into my free time.
I don’t argue that conceptual art isn’t art! I argue that it isn’t “visual art”. And as for conceptual art replacing visual art, I’m talking about the idea that conceptual art is more evolved, just as in the example I gave of a new scientific theory making an old one defunct. This was certainly the assumption when I was in art school. If you were doing any kind of painting (that wasn’t a subversive attack on painting), you were a lost cause. The problem is that conceptual art has no more in common with visual art than it does with music or dance or architecture.
A lot of conceptual art is no more visual than the cars, meters, and hydrants outside the gallery or museum. Just because we can see it doesn’t mean that it is visual art. I see nothing wrong with calling performance art “theater”, for example. Theater has visual elements – props, costumes, stage sets – and doesn’t present itself as visual art. Why isn’t dentistry performance art, and therefore visual art? The chair the patient sits in is designed according to sophisticated research into ergonomics, and also fashioned to have a certain aesthetic feel to it. The dentists performs a complex ritual to which the patient is the captive audience. The room is arranged with aesthetic considerations in mind. The answer is that these are minimal considerations and not used to create an image. Visual art revolves around images, even if they are abstract. But not all images are visual art, just as not all writing is literature.
This is really simple. I used a musical analogy in my latest post. I argued that if it doesn’t use instruments, melody, harmony, rhythm, or a coherent arrangement of sounds, it isn’t music. It may be art. Just not music. If I decide to break out of the limitations of music by piling dozens of guitars and then covering them with tar and feathers, it’s art, but it isn’t music. Much of conceptual art is as alien to visual art as that example is to music. In my last article I mention Marina Abromovic sitting in a museum on a chair and museum goers sitting opposite and looking into her eyes. This is theater. It has a live actor, a simple prop, takes place in time, and involves a live audience. But it is shown in an art museum, and her work competes with visual art for funds and recognition. True, someone else took photos of the people who sat opposite her (rather opportunistically), and that is definitely photography, but the core of the piece was the experience of sitting opposite her, and of her spending so much time sitting and being “present” for others.
Visual artists have to compete with conceptual art of all kinds, including what would more accurately be conceptual theater, film, exhibitions, displays, and even landscaping. My main point is that it is a mistake to conflate visual art and conceptual art, because not only are they only tangentially related, conceptual art was conceived in opposition to visual art.
As for anti-art, I’ve probably heard a good deal of it because I’ve been listening to real alternative radio for more than a decade, rather religiously. At one point, however, I made a personal rule. If the music hurt my ears or gave me a headache, I stopped giving it an audience. And at this vantage, it is pretty obvious that I like beautiful sounding music.
But I would still say that if the music involves instruments, notes, melody, harmony or musical structure, it is NOT really anti-music. Imagine an anti-painting painting. The urinal was the anti-painting statement, and it has nothing to do with any of the tools of making a painting. Real anti-music also must not be music. I think I gave the example of someone flushing a toilet as music (or is that in something I haven’t published yet?). THAT would be anti-music. Otherwise it is just one kind of music challenging another. But I might have to sit down and listen to some of the musicians (or anti-musicians) you mentioned. I’ve tried to listen to Throbbing Gristle years ago, but couldn’t really find anything to like in it. I think it’s really safe to say that I’d take music over anti-music any day, just as I’d take food over anti-food. Still have to give it a chance, though.
Takahashi does aesthetic assemblages of found objects. I’ve never been as interested in sculpture as in the more image-oriented side of visual art, but her works seems like legitimate sculpture that I don’t think I would ever have had a problem with, including when I was in my teens.
“And then I can’t help but notice that appropriation art eliminates the hardest parst of making art.” – pretty much sums it up! Nice work.