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Jeff Koons And The Paradox Of A Superstar's Phenomenon

The Koons phenomenon -- Jeff Koons himself, his objects, and the discursive reception that surrounds it all -- seems gravely paradoxical.
D.S. Baker

Issue #4, February 1993

Jeff Koons is among the most controversial and intriguing artists to have emerged in the past decade. Like Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol before him, he is concerned with the transformation of everyday objects into art and takes such post-modern issues as high and low culture, context, and commodification of art as the central focus of his work.
— From the Nov/Dec issue of At the Modern, the publication of the San Francisco MoMA
It's the most important visual arts exhibition in San Francisco this year.
The San Francisco Examiner (12/11/92)

Jeff Koons, the self-proclaimed "most written-about artist in the world," now headlining at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, has indubitably attained a certain "star" status. However, the Koons phenomenon — Koons himself, his objects, and the discursive reception that surrounds it all — seems gravely paradoxical. This problem arises because Koons is made out to be a critical commentator in the tradition of the Dadaists, a controversial figure in the footsteps of the avant-garde. Yet, Koons' art historical glory resides in the fact that he is flat — no depth, all surface (even flatter than Warhol). This meaninglessness and banality, if nothing else, is his most important contribution to art.

By (re)contextualizing Koons' use of the avant-garde technique of "appropriation" (its twists and turns through Dada and Warhol), we can see that Koons' specific reconfiguration of Warhol's Pop, makes him the least likely to be given the status of critical commentator. Yet time and time again it is insisted that Koons is a ferocious cultural critic, and one that is challenging established categories in order to shock the public into greater sensibilities. Is Koons playing an art trick? Is Koons duping the media? This paradox in the Koons phenomenon (whichever institutions are responsible) seems to be a tragedy to the well-meaning spectator who wants to know what's going on, wants to get to the bottom of things. However, the spectator may be enticed, encouraged to give a small, cynical laugh. In this multi-media day and age, one can easily be fooled into laughing by the discursive positioning of a phenomenon, the meanings and interpretations that enable the phenomenon itself. Yet ultimately, with respect to Koons, I do not think that laughter is intended.

The retrospective's commentary claims that "Koons' closest analogy is probably to be found in Warhol" and Warhol's ironic wit seems to pervade Koons' entire project, the differences are subtle and discrete. It may be useful to see Koons' transgression of Warhol as comparable, in many respects, to that of Warhol and his "superstars." At the Factory, the superstars parodied Hollywood, with their own brand of divas, queens and sex symbols who performed in Warhol's underground films. Most importantly, the superstars embodied the self-promoted stars, who weren't merely actors and actresses, but embodied actualization of their own fantasies, "acting" as themselves in Warhol's films (i.e. Trash, Flesh, Bad, etc.). Unlike Warhol, the ailing asexual albino, the superstars were able to be created, transformed by Warhol into reified superstars. The movement from Warhol to superstar parallels the slight shift in position which allows Koons to transgress Warhol's Pop and take it a step further in order to negate the boundaries between appearance and reality, art and commodity, surface and depth.

The political/aesthetic strategy of appropriation and its model, the Readymade, were invented by the Dadaists earlier this century as a means to democratize art. Yet Koons asserts that "he's meeting the needs of the people." With respect to today's commercial capitalism, his words have a completely different meaning than did either the Dadaists or Warhols. Duchamp and the Dadaists used appropriation to (re)contextualize everyday items in order to subvert the world of authorized culture and its institutionalized art (cf. Peter Buerger's Theory of the Avant-Garde). Breaking down the notion of high art and merging it with the filth on the streets, the Dadaists sought to sever the ties between artistic production and commodity production. The outspoken Dadaists presented their objects with a furor, and became the signs of the threat of the fall of bourgeois capitalism. Appropriation as a critical strategy held the potential for critical irony and the possibility for the negation of the commodity, with respect to the distance created between Dada and commodity society.

In Warhol's case, this distance from commodity society is problematized. Instead of claiming to stand outside, Warhol tried to assert that he was homogenous with commercial culture. The preeminent Pop artist toyed with this distance, promoting an ambiguous relation to commodity society and the institutions of art. He was suspended between Dada's isolation, transcendence and critical negativity and the encroachment of corporate-dominated commercial culture. He wanted lots of money and fame, strove to use industrial production techniques at the Factory, to merge commercial techniques and subject matter with the institutions of high art. Warhol "claimed" to be a commercial artist and to speak from the voice of the unassuming everyday commercial artist without the pretense that there was a deep meaning or "something more."

If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it.
— Andy Warhol

Yet as much as Warhol appeared to be one with the logic of consumption, there was always a distance (and deep meaning) which constituted the territory for critical irony. Warhol was both the prince of commercial art and uptown celebrity as well as the "bete noire" who cultivated the downtown underground drug/sex scene. Consequently, the meanings generated around Warhol in the 60s were ambivalent (cf. Andreas Huyssen's After the Great Divide). In Germany, his appropriations of Brillo Boxes, Campbell's Soup cans and publicity stills were thought to be a critical commentary on American culture; in New York, they were thought to be mere copies, or a hoax. Warhol's internal contradiction was that as a commercial artist/advertiser, he ultimately used "appropriation" to subvert the official tenets of post-war painting, the New York school of abstract expressionism, and the formalist critique that surrounded it.

Twenty-five years after Warhol, Koons seems to represent a third stage of appropriation. His use of strategy, however, is in a very different context, thus giving it play within a completely different constellation of meanings. Koons, by stepping in and actually being (in real life) the well-spoken, good-looking sex symbol media superstar that the awkward Warhol could never have been makes a decisive step toward radically altering Warhol's position. Koons' position eradicates the depth and distance from commodity culture. As Superstar, as real capitalist (a former stockbroker), as real playboy with sex object (see Koons' series Made in Heaven), Koons inverts Warhol's position. Instead of being the alienated artist who mimics commodity relations, Koons himself becomes an authentic reified creation, a Superstar. In doing so, he negates any distance from celebrity and the culture industry. Where Warhol could merely declare that he was all surface, it is Koons who officially becomes homogeneous with commodity society — pure surface. Rather than making art from some as-yet-unincorporated enclave, Koons is making art from within the structures of institutional art, as part and parcel of the culture industry.

It may not be stretching it to say that at heart Koons is a utopian, even a religious, artist.
San Francisco Examiner (12/11/92)

The Koons objects, like everyday objects, long to be given deep meaning, but all attempts are futile. The Examiner says that "he is holding up a mirror to show what America looks like by grossly imitating the shallowness, perversity and emptiness of commercial society." The keyword in this quote, I think, is "imitate". Koons' mirror is but a hollowed reflection, robbed of all meaning. Koons' (re)contextualizations of cute rabbits, Michael Jackson, alcohol ads and vacuum cleaners serve to remove these objects from their meaningful(less) everyday context by placing them in a museum, the authorized space for meaninglessness in commodity culture. Koons appropriates not to reinvigorate the meanings of the meaningless everyday, but rather to reverse this, to remove the meaning from the everyday. Unfortunately, this experience becomes tainted if we've had any contact with the phenomena of mass media spectacles and Koons himself. Koons' readymade vacuity goes unmodified; what we see is really what we get.

I believe that I'm going to be a major, major player in end-of-the-century art. But I'm not really an egotist. I was born clever and I'm trying to reveal this to other people so they can enjoy life as fully as I am.
— Jeff Koons

The Koons persona must also be understood to lie on the surface. He is a devilishly handsome white stockbroker-playboy turned to art, and he makes little claim for being anything more. Without the depth of an outside position, Koons' words must be understood as none other than the vacuous and commonplace words of a confident bourgeois entrepreneur. Similarly, the superstars Candy Darling or Ondine would speak for Warhol about art, politics, etc. in his interviews. Not knowing the larger context of these topics, they could readily proffer straightforwardly unreflective comments. As a superstar, Koons is naively unsuspecting of his complex position within historical institutions. Koons, positioned as stockbroker/entrepreneur, removes the last vestiges of depth, conceding his historical status completely to commercial culture. Not trying to be a world-historical artist, Koons' importance resides in his complete manifestation of the slick surface.

Koons is not exploiting the media for avant-garde purposes. He's in cahoots with the media. He has no message. It's self-advertisement, and I find that repulsive.
— Rosalind Krauss

I don't mind having Koons try to put one over on us, but is seems dangerous (if not disastrous to the state of mass spectatorship) that the discourses and interpretations surrounding the art world play Koons straight, granting him depth as a critical commentator. The interpretations, meanings and histories which surround and seem to preexist the Koons retrospective constitute a potentially hazardous position for the well-meaning spectator. In doing so, the Koons exhibition and the phenomena surrounding it bring "cynical spectatorship" to the Bay Area. The tendency "allows one to be simultaneously both above it all and complicit with it," while allowing us to "feel like we're in on the joke, rather than being the butt of it" (Joe Sartelle, "Cynicism and the Election," Bad Subjects, Oct. 1992). In order to survey the indeterminate meanings surrounding the status of art and the art world, we must look beyond the media's exaltation of Koons. His meaninglessness ought not to be taken too seriously; for those who truly care about the state of American culture, the Koons phenomenon may come as a slap in the face.

D.S. Baker is an artist/student in Oakland.

Copyright © 1993 by D.S. Baker. All rights reserved.