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The Darker, More Disturbing Side of Artist Jeff Koons’ Love Affair With Kitsch

Art-world pervert flaunts mirrored balloons, oodles of cash at the Whitney

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Jeff Koons, Inflatable Flowers (Short Pink, Tall Purple), 1979. Vinyl, mirrors, and acrylic; 16 x 25 x 18 in. (40.6 x 63.5 x 45.7 cm). Collection of Norman and Norah Stone. © Jeff Koons (Images courtesy of the Whitney Museum)
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I was listening to critic Deborah Solomon and radio-anchor Soterios Johnson on New York Public Radio around the opening week of the Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art when it hit me that it was finally time for me to weigh in on this gleeful menace of the international art cabal. Not just because Koons is a wickedly interesting artist, but because the Koons retrospective creates an undeniable litmus test for a culture on—let’s call it—the brink.

The exchange I heard on the radio planted a few seeds, I must say, in my head. Here’s how Solomon described one work in the show (a mash-up of pink panties and a teddybear): “In that explicit conversion of eroticism and cuteness, I found basically the definition of perversion.” With the word “perversion,” Soterios seemed to come out of character. “Wow,” he uttered under his breath into the mic and out into the airwaves.

Wow. I would agree. Pretty enticing. But in order for me to permit myself to get sucked into the debate over Koons’ art—which I have avoided for years—I now realize I will have to “go rabbi” on this shit! After all, the Whitney’s subway campaign reeks of propaganda in its deliberate use of the word “mesmerizing”—19th-century German physician Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer’s word for Animal Magnetism. (For a good visual representation of Animal Magnetism, I recommend Leni Reifenstal’s Triumph of the Will.)

So, now I’m rolling. Yet something still keeps warning me not to get sucked up into this … Vacuum Cleaner—not to be another writer sacrificing his language (and all that comes and goes with it) to the roaring bonfire they’ve made over at the Whitney. It’s a matter of economics. Us critics—external brains plugged into these mute artworks like temporary generators—are not really paid so well. But if I am to believe that I’m not merely providing free PR but clarity in a time of cultural disorientation, then maybe this is my opportunity to articulate aspects of the Kulturkampf we’re currently living through.

How then to delve in? I already have. My first step was to type the following into Google: “jeff koons anti-semite.” Why? because this is always the first step made by any remotely curious Jewish intellectual in search of clues. Nothing!

Then: “genealogy surname koons” … … … German! Very German! But so are we all.

Then I began to inquire further into the etymology of the word “kitsch,” and this is what I found:

1926, from Ger., lit. “gaudy, trash,” from dial. kitschen “to smear.”

1926—the same year Mein Kampf came out. Right around the time the young, so-called “failed artist” got attracted to the use of mesmerizing oration, and shortly before this man—aka the führer—revealed his own taste for propaganda (surface) over degenerate art (the underbelly).

One could call a mass-produced, cheaply made, decorative object “kitsch,” claiming it to be in bad taste. But this doesn’t make that object certifiably kitsch—it is just an opinion. Or is kitsch engineered strategically and manipulatively to satisfy the bad taste of its un-cultured consumer? If so, maybe kitsch really is “certifiably” kitsch. (And just who was manufacturing this kitsch stuff anyway?)

So, is kitsch innocent or guilty of its own kitschiness? And who was calling whom kitsch? It was the common working-class Germans who lacked a deeper, more “sophisticated” taste for the sublime art object, while Jews seemed to posses this sophistication and were out in front, creatively and philanthropically paving the way for the avant-garde. Kitsch, then, could have been a shared snobbishness held by the upper class—the German-Jewish cultural elite—expressing contempt for the retarded taste of lower-class Germans and the assembly-line “fake” production of their beloved tchochkes.

tchotch·ke (n.)

1. (Yiddish) “A small object that is decorative rather than strictly functional; a trinket,” also “a pretty girl or woman.”

When Hitler came of age, perhaps he decided that there had to be a purging of art. German kitsch—in all its innocent glory—adored by all Rhine-folk alike—would now seek to save itself, extricate itself, in the form of idealized propagandistic examples of Aryan perfection, from the overall contaminated arts made by the degenerates in art school who hung him out to dry. Now I think I’m getting somewhere: a generational German obsession (budding around the year 1926) with a strong distrust for the real-deal everything, and a strong need for the fake or ideal.

There was a tactical coup under way by the National Socialist German Worker’s Party—street thugs, power-hungry bureaucrats and industrial war mongers—mobilizing under Hitler to divide and conquer the upper levels of allied German-Jew management, using a horrific wedge of racist propaganda and terror to fracture the bonds of power and taste, to drive apart the upper-class Jews from their intermarried and socially interwoven Germans. (Luther, for example, may point to a far older recessive anti-Semitism in German society and elsewhere, but let’s just say that in urban circles of the Weimar extravaganza it was thought to be relatively isolated among religious freaks who were still concerned about the Jew who killed Jesus.)

Watching the 1985 French documentary, Shoah, I recently became intrigued by one of Claude Lanzmann’s revealing hidden-camera interviews with Polish folks still living in the town of Treblinka, Poland, where the Nazis established one of their most infamous extermination camps. The old Polish woman being interviewed revealed an interesting sentiment on camera—that the young Jewesses of her youth had always struck her as the most pretty, and feminine, and desirable girls in the village—they were competition, really.

What the—? I’ve never heard it said that Jewish-anything of that era was desirable. In any case, the Jewish princesses of her tiny village didn’t have to work and would spend time and money on their vanity. Relative to the hardened Polish women, a Jewess—made up with even the faintest trace of eye shadow—would have appeared somewhat gaudy (see earlier definition of kitsch, and tchotchke) relative to her surroundings.

gaud (n.)

late 14c., “jest, joke, prank, trick;” also “fraud, deception, trick, artifice.” Also “large, ornamental bead in a rosary” (mid-14c.); “a bauble, trinket, plaything” (mid-15c.). In some senses, from gaudy (n.) (see gaudy.) In some, from Latin gaudium “joy.”

Basically a little lipstick and some rouge powdered on the cheeks and we arrive at the subtle threshold of deception, ornamentation, sensuality. The Jewish sense of art (taste), can now be linked—through words at least—to an exotic dark expression and charm that is just beneath the surface and extremely hard to resist. Beauty.

I was originally told when I was young that Germany’s anti-Semitism and scapegoatism had to do with tense creditor-debtor relations—ugly bankers. But now I have this nagging sensation that it had less to do with “ugly bankers” and more to do with ugly bankers’ beautiful and seductive sons and daughters.

Before we really delve into Koons, let’s examine one of the most insidious examples of National Socialist propaganda—propaganda that strove to quash the love affair between Germans and Jews in the upper echelons of urban German society. In the problematic children’s book The Poisonous Mushroom (1938), Jews are depicted by the illustrator Philipp Rupprecht (aka Fips) as unshaven, drooling, bent-nosed, pig-eyed, slouching, short, fat, weak, etc.

What strikes me, is that Fips’ illustrations are marvelously accurate depictions of many of the Jews I’ve grown up with—they are even similar, in ways, to the man sitting in front of this computer screen. Fips’ Jews could easily pass as Peter Falk playing Columbo, Adam Sandler, Paul Giamatti, Freaky-geeky Seth Rogen, James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, Orson Welles, and the wild-eyed Allen Ginsberg. Had the German volk absorbed propaganda more to the tune of Shrek, imagine how tolerant they would have been taught to be. Or what if Fips had also drawn examples of grotesque Germans with distasteful features (in the manner of Otto Dix)? That would have clarified to children—and adults with childish minds—that the world is filled with hideous Jews and hideous Germans! But this is why they call it propaganda. Kiddie propaganda—that also works on innocently xenophobic adults who have not matured beyond adolescence or had the opportunity to develop a broader taste for beauty and also for its appealing inversion, which is known as ugly. What if the cartoon that ultimately preaches tolerance and acceptance of all types had instead aimed to encouraged children to become offended by ugliness—say, the ugliness of ostentatious privilege shared among the wealthy upper classes of today, the godawful 1 percent?

***

With this simmering indignation in mind, let’s move to the present Koons show at the Whitney. Is it Koons’ intention to flaunt? Yes. To propagandize? Yes. Or, like Klaus Kinski—in his brilliantly political “Jesus” monologues—to mesmerize? Indeed it is.

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