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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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With an interest in Walter Benjamin’s run through kitsch (as he ran from the Nazis) and Clement Greenberg’s attack on kitsch (as he supposedly ran with the CIA), I find that the topic still hasn’t run its course. There’s so much more to say about a German word that doesn’t even have an English translation. Wait, I can fix this. Let’s just use the name Koons as the English translation of kitsch.

koons (n.)(adj.)

21c., high-class American kitsch sold at exorbitant prices. See “kitsch, gaud, and tchochke.”

There. Done. The Koons propaganda machine is not about etymology, politics, racism, entertainment, or even ideology. It’s all about money—preposterous, record-breaking sums of money—as well, I suppose, as the things in life that can only be owned by those with … all the money in the world! Wealth, after all, is the propaganda for a class-splintered society. Money, a symbol of happiness, divides people into two groups that do not mix: Those who spend it to make it, and those who make it to spend it. This puts Koons Corp.—with liquid on loan from the Central Gagosian Bank (Gagosian is listed prominently as one of the show’s major funders along with Bank of America and a humongous worldwide cargo shipping company called Hanjin Shipping)—in a pretty vulnerable position: Being so overtly joyous and gay and gaudy about money in a time of economic instability is bound to create enemies, sooner or later (lucky the old Whitney ziggurat is fortified with a moat that could only have been placed there in jest by the Bauhaus architect of Hungarian-Jewish decent, Marcel Breuer).

Back to Deborah Solomon: “I realized that inflation is the theme of his work. It’s one of the prevailing metaphors of our time, and I think Koons is an ‘inflation artist.’ ” Inflation, she implies, is his medium. Nice! I would agree. Let me expand on this one step further: The price of the work gets inflated by the artist, the dealer, the collector, and the company that owns the world’s ships and cargo containers, on purpose. But why? Money laundering? Tax evasion? To get chicks?

As for me—I am still waiting for the cost of living to come down, for the bargain life, the discount life, the 99-cent-store life (where everything in the “store-of-life” really is only 99 cents). Isn’t Koons’ “propaganda of high prices” telling me the exact opposite? That I should want to pay more? Yes. Isn’t it counterintuitive to spend more when you have less? Yes, it is. But if you practice the art of inflation—an art that is taught at Wharton and on Wall Street—you learn that money can be made by getting people to desire what they don’t have.

For the sake of comedy, please see the Koons Wikipedia site.

Jeffrey “Jeff” Koons (born January 21, 1955) is an American artist known for his reproductions of banal objects—such as balloon animals produced in stainless steel with mirror-finish surfaces. He lives and works in both New York City and his hometown of York, Pennsylvania.

I like the home-town-boy touch. And the inclusion of Jeff’s alternative name, Jeffrey. Thanks for that. And how it establishes that the steel balloons are mirrored steel balloons. So, the artwork does not stand alone in celebration of its own gaud. It’s made more gaudy by reflecting each and every visitor who confronts it.

But to go back for a second to Ms. Solomon’s statement about “perversion.” If the mirror implies that it is “we” who are the work, than this must also mean it is “we” who are the perverts. Does Koons want us to think it is about us? No. I think it is really about him and his personal fetishization of power and manipulation. By claiming that his intentions are sincere—by refusing, in my mind, to fess up to the useful social commentary (or even satire) that his work engenders—Koons opts out of the more pressing critical discussion. “The work is about me,” he seems to say. It is not a satire of global capital propaganda and merchandizing with the aim of waking us up! I would hypothesize, that prior to being discovered by the legendary Ileana Sonnabend (1914-2007), Koons was more a bratty antagonistic Dadaist in spirit. But when he found himself inside enemy lines, past security, he flipped a switch, and entered this game of inflation.

How perverted, then, is Jeffrey Koons? Is he really perverted? Or kind of perverted? Do his teddy-bear-pink-panties equate to a forgivable adult kinkiness, or a less-forgivable subliminal adult child-molester vibe (think Joe the Camel)? Does his Walt Disney-esque airbrushed pornography equate to a short-lived embarrassing rush from observing a private act (and private parts) in a public place? Certainly any mainstream public debate on the topic of Koons’ “perversion” would automatically mark him as an official USA degenerate, soil his reputation, plummet his value, and make him, like Michael Jackson, into a suspect-in-heaven.

Koons can seem, at times, like a criminal who becomes so enamored with his own crime that he virtually brags himself right into prison. When he “made” his “Made in Heaven” series, he was temporarily confused, let’s just say, if he was inspired to create or to propagate. As art, these twisted X-rated billboards bring much complexity and welcomed heinousness to the Koons oeuvre, but as far as propaganda goes, Goebbels would be bored.

What would it take for Koons to slip up and accidentally admit that it was his sincere/insincere intent from the beginning to create an emergent corporate art enterprise taking stolen kitsch blueprints and using aggressive inflationary measures (like context, scale, and production values) to transform them into hard-to-get luxury goods—while smiling and telling all the rest of us to shut up and be proud of Jeffrey? Consider Koons’ mesmerizing confession for the press preview of his retrospective, which was also played on NY Public Radio.

I am enjoying every moment of this, I have to tell you … and I am enjoying it because I really believe in art, I really believe in the transcendence that it has given me. … It has taught me how to feel … to enjoy the senses … and through this sense-perception, it’s taught me how to enjoy ideas, and to experience this very ethereal, ephemeral realm of ideas.

So far, so good. But then, out came this: “Art has taught me how to really become a better human being.” BETTER? Better than who? Better than me? Better than you? No, this wasn’t that slip, where Koons admits to his own snobbish contempt for the American masses who buy un-inflated koons and the American elite who buy inflated koons with total disregard for the rocky history of kitsch, propaganda, and animal magnetism.

Oh better! Now I see. This sounds vaguely like a confession of guilt. Or a road to recovery, from the hangover of the ’80s, I guess. Just keep telling yourself this Jeff, or Jeffrey, or whatever your name is, while I projectile vomit all over the third floor of the Whitney like a car-sick 7-year-old wondering who blew up all the crap in a CVS Pharmacy and stuffed it in a museum. Isn’t it ironic that something could be maximally cheap and maximally expensive at the same time? This is starting to sound less like Nazi Germany and more like America to me. It is, like all Koonses, a weirdly joyful publicity stunt, pulling on the strings of us people who want to imagine that there really is such think as Michelangelo, high up on that scaffolding with his nose and paint brush touching the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, where God’s finger almost touches Adam’s.

***

Koons is an artist who claims that he is hiding nothing. But critics—interrogators—cannot get the artist to answer the questions the way we would like, and so we resort to our own answers: Claiming that Koons is cunningly pretending not to be making fun of the kitsch consumer, not to be behind a social satire that implicates our wasteful and corrupt horrifically racist society by getting us to see that our highest-valued things in life are really nothing but trash, gaudy, kitchy, smears of shiza that nonetheless shock us into laughter and temporarily fill us with an intoxicating sense of erotic pleasure. And that Koons’ flagellant balloons of verbal gas such as “art has made me a better human being,” have to be taken as a brilliant deadpan.

The critics are not actually so divided about Koons. We are all pretty much scared of Jeff—scared that he is, in fact, exactly who he claims to be: So deeply sincere a menace as to warrant expert psychological evaluation. Whether his significant muscle lies in his unyielding and accurate cynicism or his somehow frozen-in-time ahistorical innocence, his masterminding of the art crime of this century is in full swing. His skill at keeping us in a teetering conundrum of his invention—“poor man’s art is beautiful, and rich man’s art is even more beautiful”—is a kind of perfectly balanced “idea”—and a very enjoyable one at that. But also an idea that is rooted in a not-so-innocent German fairy tale about the kitsch-loving volk who were woken at night by a magnetizing, mesmerizing, hypnotic propaganda, dressed up in sexy black costumes with these neat little running-man logos, and led by drums and torches up over the walls of society into a high-class German & Jewish ball where mutual admiration, luxury and refined taste in art, were being celebrated respectfully and well.

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