Jeff Koons: Art vs Fabricated Product
Jeff Koons has built a blue-chip art career on the project manager model; without doubt, he is a brilliant designer and stylist. He is to fine art what Madonna is to pop music—a lot of style and biz smarts. Actual artistry—in the traditional sense of having skill in painting and drawing—not really.
Koons came of age during the heyday of “appropriation” — a fancy art world term for copying someone else’s work. Since the 90s, Koons has perfected plagiarism: surfing the net, scooping up imagery at will, and generating falsified objets d’art for two- and three-dimensional fabrication. But maybe we give him too much credit. A personal assistant could definitely have been involved.
But an age gets the art it deserves, yes? Koons rightly predicted that a largely uneducated art consumer, impulsive and flush with cash, would dive straight for art that referenced porn, pop culture, kitsch and spectacle. His production house bet correctly that his targeted customers wouldn’t like art that had “arty” conceptual underpinnings nor would they like art that looked “arty.”
They liked photographs, cereal boxes and ceramic statues that looked mass produced and factory fresh. They didn’t like the telltale signs of one-off, hand-made objects with idiosyncratic brush marks or expressive paint drips.
Years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Koons’ fabrication studio while working as an administrator for the New York Academy of Art. When I arrived, Koons was stationed at a computer composing clown faces. Assistants worked on large canvases screened with topographic shapes reminiscent of paint by number kits. With color chips matched to Koons’ computer print-outs, they painted and blended the shapes, aiming foremost for imperceptible color transitions and suppressing brushstrokes for a “Look, Ma, no hands” finish.
Assistants worked on large canvases screened with topographic shapes reminiscent of paint by number kits. With color chips matched to Koons’ computer print-outs, they painted and blended the shapes, aiming foremost for imperceptible color transitions and suppressing brushstrokes for a “Look, ma, no hands” finish.
The Academy’s students were, up to very recently, ideal studio workers for Koons. Trained realist painters, they could paint with precision. They were dependable–being hungry and in need of employment breeds such. They were also somewhat lost: The greater art world had not yet figured out how to embrace representation again so the budding artistry and native talent of these students lay fallow as there was no viable market for their work.
Skip ahead to the here and now. Last week, amidst a lackluster market for Koons’ more recent work and an effort on the part of his studio staff to unionize, Koons cut his production team by half. He intimated the change reflects the next evolution of his process whereby image transfer and creation will move into a digital mode, from human hand to push of button.
Ruskin, Where Are You
The irony of truly earnest, well-trained artists working as laborers in the fabrication of irony-laced post-modern art objects is cringe-worthy. Koons’ studio production is a modern day extension (perversion?) of the Renaissance studio, where teams of artists working to support the vision of a master artist led to the creation of sublime masterpieces such as Tintoretto’s Il Paradiso. We get Koons’ Gazing Ball ( El Greco’s View of Toledo).
Let me be clear. I am no fan of the sort of pricey art-world merchandise Koons produces. Or at least not insofar as it has become a standard of contemporary art, codifying creative success. He is a brilliant product designer. But he is no artist.
The Academy, on the other hand, has fought an uphill battle to preserve the spirit and skill of gifted practitioners. I suppose it is the romantic in me, but I, too, champion artists who rely solely upon their own powers of mind, hand and spirit to create objects of intention and meaning. Their works are not meant to be art as toy, to entertain rather to enlighten. Their underlying symbolism and aesthetic grace is revealed slowly over time and with sustained observation and contemplation. It begs, yet again, the question of how that level of artwork can ever hope to compete with objects that play to a viewing public looking for a premium thrill and big splash?
On a larger cultural note, Koons’ ascendance in the art world and his exploitation of labor is a tale that speaks volumes of the times we live in as well as times gone by. During the Industrial Revolution, cultural leaders, among them author and artist John Ruskin, spoke out against mechanized mass production obliterating craft expertise.
Ruskin believed mechanized labor robbed human beings of dignity. He longed for a return to the Gothic and the handmade, a stance that seeded the start of the Arts and Crafts movement among the artists and makers of his day.
Perhaps our antidote is similar. In our rapidly evolving, increasingly digital world, we set aside our smartphones, ditch the digital salt mines and return to the soul-enriching work we do with our hands and our hearts.