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U.S.A. and Jeff Koons Phenomena

An American artist, Jeff Koons, is among the most notorious and fascinating artists to have revolutionized the art world.  Just like Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol before him, his artwork concerned with the conversion of everyday objects into art. 

Jeff Koons is one of the most famous names in recent American art. Growing into fame in the 80s, his honest celebration of kitsch culture earned him global infamy. Koons’ work is now accepted as illustrative of its generation, and as such has been the subject of numerous solo museum exhibitions, for example at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Bilbao Guggenheim, and the  .

Many critics will say that Koons doesn’t just divide opinion; he causes real animosity, and passionate arguments. And the reason for this also stems from his work’s joke-like qualities: not only do some people not ’get’ it, but in not getting it they also assume that they’re being made to look like idiots.

Many accuse Koons of making fun of his audience Only when the joker falls about laughing does the victim realize that they’re the punch line of a joke but nobody knows what the joke is and the joker is not explaining it further.  Some people, when confronted by Koons’ work, are quite disturbed by it because their understanding does not embrace a second-hand store object painted in garish colors as something that could be considered art.

Koons’ source material is kitsch and most people, art world or not, would agree that indeed it is… kitsch.   The big issue with Koons then, if not the source material itself, it is his attitude towards that source material. This issue is always phrased in dual terms because indeed Jeff Koons is ironic and detached and he  is secretly mocking the images he professes to love or perhaps no, he just loves and feels emotional about his source material and the work it consequently gives birth to.

He takes such post-modern issues as high and low culture, context, and moderation of art as the central focus of his work.

Jeff Koons himself says that he is the self-proclaimed "most written-about artist in the world," and he has definitely attained a certain "star" status. Many will argue though that the Koons phenomenon is quite paradoxical. This problem arises because according to the critics 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.

But Koons’ art historical glory resides in the fact that he is ”flat”; even flatter than Andy Warhol.  Lots of critics argue that it is precisely this meaninglessness and banality, if nothing else, that is Koons’ most important contribution to the art world and art history.

So what does he do exactly?  By re-thinking Koons’ use of the avant-garde technique of "appropriation" of everyday objects --its twists and turns through Dada and Warhol – the viewer can see that Koons’ specific interpretation of Warhol’s Pop.  This, many will say, makes him the least likely to be given the status of critical commentator.

However time and time again it is insisted that Koons is a enthusiastic cultural critic and he challenges people’s sensibilities non-stop with his art work.  So, it’s banal, so what? 

The banality is a comment on the world around this artist and he wants the viewer to perhaps get offended… perhaps just notice that not everything that constitutes of important art has to be intense and widely-understood by the audience.

Many critics wonder if  Koons is playing an art trick.  Is he screwing around with the media and the audience?  This paradox in the Koons phenomenon – whether it’s media or the art critics that are responsible -- seems to be confusing to a spectator that is well-meaning and who wants to know what’s going on, wants to get to the bottom of things.

Through Koons’ work the spectator may be tempted and encouraged to be humored and at least have a  small, cynical laugh. In this multi-media day and age, one can easily be fooled into laughing by the cynical representation  of a phenomenon as well as the meanings and interpretations that enable the experience itself.

One is almost tempted to see Jeff Koons as the perfect example of what some of the America stands for – overindulgence, kitsch, copying and sometimes complete lack of originality. 

The retrospective’s commentary claims that "Koons’ closest analogy is probably to be found in Andy Warhol’s work and Warhol’s ironic wit seems to encompass Koons’ entire project, the differences are gentle and discrete.

It may be useful to see Koons’ contravention of Warhol as comparable, in many respects, to that of Warhol and his (non-famous, really) superstars.   At Warhol’s 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 movies that were kitschy on purpose and made fun of the 15-minute fame phenomena.   

Warhol created his superstars and he transformed regular people 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 contradict the boundaries between appearance and reality, art and commodity, surface and depth and meaning of art and the purpose of it. 

Both Koons and Warhol play around with the viewer through their half-joking, half-serious approach to their subjects. 

Koons asserts that "he’s meeting the needs of the people." with his art. With respect to today’s commercial capitalism, his words have a somewhat 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.

Through breaking down the notion of high art and merging it with the dirt and craziness of the streets, the Dadaists sought to sever the ties between artistic production and service production.

The brave, reactionary Dadaists presented their objects with a furor, and became the signs of the threat of the fall of what was considered a bourgeois capitalism.

Their borrowing from everyday was more of a critical strategy that held the potential for critical irony and it was also 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 not as problematic as Koons’.   Instead of claiming to stand outside, Warhol tried to assert that he was homogenous with commercial culture – Koons seems to make fun of it rather than accept it and be inspired by it showing his respect.

The inspirational Pop artist played with this distance, promoting an ambiguous relation to commodity society and the institutions of art.  Many critics say, Koons mocks his world and therefore himself should not be treated seriously.   

Warhol was always suspended between Dada’s isolation, transcendence and critical negativity and the encroachment of corporate-dominated commercial culture.

Warhol wanted lots of money and fame and he was striving to use industrial production techniques at his Factory, to amalgamate 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."

Andy Warhol said: ”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.”

But as much as Warhol seemed to be one with the logic of expenditure, there was always a distance – and many will claim, a lot of meaning -- which covered the territory for critical irony.   

Andy Warhol was both the leader of commercial art and uptown celebrity as well as the black sheep of the same scene who cultivated the downtown underground drug/sex scene. Thus, the meanings generated around Warhol in the 60s were ambivalent.

In Germany, Warhol’s 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, he essentially used his acceptance of the world around him but in a way that threatened the official tenets of post-war painting, the New York school of abstract expressionism as well as the conservative critique that surrounded it.

And now decades after Warhol, Koons seems to represent a third stage of  this pop culture appropriation. His use of strategy, however, is in a different context, thus giving it room within a completely different constellation of meanings.

Koons’ position eradicates the depth and distance from commodity culture. He challenges but in a way that is almost offensive.  His challenge is very similar to Duchamp’s urinal – it makes the viewer feel mocked, it makes the viewer ask himself about the purpose of this type of… art?

Koons inverts Warhol’s position. Instead of being the alienated artist who mimics commodity relations, Koons himself becomes an authentic reified creation, and through the fame of his artwork is himself a superstar.

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.  His art work is a challenge in a way that it presents the viewer with things that could be encountered and seen everyday and not because one made an effort and went to a museum to seek it. 

The Koons objects, like everyday objects, long to be given deep meaning, but all attempts are futile. The Examiner  article said once that "he is holding up a mirror to show what America looks like by grossly imitating the shallowness, perversity and emptiness of commercial society." Koons’ mirror could be a reflection of something that is not art as we think of it.

Koons’ art is cute, balloon, gold rabbits, Michael Jackson with Bubbles, painted in white and gold, alcohol ads and vacuum cleaners.  One can argue that all the objects serve to remove these objects from their meaningful(less) everyday context by placing them in a museum which  is the authorized space for meaninglessness in commodity culture.

One could argue that Koons appropriates not to support the meanings of the meaningless everyday, but rather to reverse this, to remove the meaning from the everyday.

Many of his critics say that this experience becomes infected if the viewer has any contact with the phenomena of mass media spectacles and Koons himself. Koons’ readymade blankness may seem just plain unmodified; what we see is really what we get.

Koons said once: ”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.”

The Koons’ art  seems to be all about surface. One ridiculous argument is that the artist himself is handsome white stockbroker-playboy turned to art, and he makes little claim for being anything more.   But this is not true because there’s much more to him as he challenges the viewer with his art.