Koons, Appropriation, and Plagiarism (Again)!

Left: Jeff Koons, “Fait d’Hiver” (1988) (Image courtesy of Christie’s). Right: Naf Naf ad by Franck Davidovici (1985) (image via Naf Naf).

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.

“Naked” 1988, by Jeff Koons.

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.

Someone’s pencil drawing of Jonny Depp, Duchamp’s “Shovel” of 1915, and Warhol’s “Brillo Box” of 1964.

Jeff Koons has a kind of nostalgic love of cheesy culture, so he makes copies of junky 20th century cultural artifacts, like balloon dogs.

Jeff Koons’ “Balloon Dog Orange” (1994-200). mirror-polished stainless steel

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.

Koons on his Balloon Dog in progress.

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.

Jeff Koons, “String of Puppies”, and Art Rogers ‘”Puppies”.

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.

VLA Scultpure’s price list for Koons’ balloon dog clones. Click to see larger version.

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.

~ Ends