Archive for July 2012

The Economist Coming Out of Jeff Koons’s Obscene Kitsch, Again.

Culture Bites: The Economist Coming Out of Jeff Koons’s Obscene Kitsch, Again.

By Fernando Gómez Herrero, fgh2173@gmail.com

 

Introduction.

If kitsch is the official tendency of culture… everywhere (Clement Greenberg)

To talk about Camp is therefore to betray it (Susan Sontag)

You can always point in the direction of the advanced degree in arts and culture as one sure wheel that propels the cart towards endless criticism. Have a feel of the lightweight pockets and prove right the sly smiles of Don Dinero. But at least you know how to parse the grammar and compare print and contrast digital editions of a recent idiotic article promoting the true obscenity of aesthetic banality for a global elite speaking mostly in the English language. The curiosity of the cat run this time, appropriately at Heathrow, into one excellent item that helped put in perspective, a year later, a previous entry (“On Jeff Koons’s “Made in Heaven,” Or Artistic Banality,” www.fernandogomezherrero.com/blog/?p=68). Bite twice then. Would you believe the good luck?

 

No, I do not often read the Economist. But I feel I should after this happy encounter. The cover, “Banksters: Britain’s price-fixing scandal and its global impact” (July 7th-13th, 2012), caught my attention. What inspires this interrogation of operative criteria of cultural goods is the roughly half a page about the American artist Jeff Koons (born Jan. 21, 1955, according to Wikipedia information; www.jeffkoons.com/). There is something puzzling and symptomatic here that, I find, exceeds the individual name in question, and which I want to get to. Hence, I rehearse my old pedagogic trick, what I like calling the global positioning system (smaller cousin of Jameson’s “cognitive mapping:”): who says what about whom, where, when, how, against whom, what is going on, what’s the point, what the payoff, who wins/loses (the political formula), etc.? Let us begin.

 

 

There are meaningful, if minute differences between the two versions, the digital (www.economist.com/node/21558235) and print, credited as being the original source for the online option. This is by far the most eye-catching and dynamic, most visually stimulating and probably the most user-friendly and global, but how briefly?, in reaching to “the holy trinity of sex, art and money” of a “global elite” explicitly interpellated in the concrete article in question that concerns us here directly. Surely, this is Jeff Koons’s favorite crowd, and you may get glimpses in sections such as the “Evening Hours” by Bill Cunningham included in the Sunday-Style section of the New York Times. I am sure you will have your favorite examples in various national settings.

 

The Catholic terminology will not distract those “art collectors  [who] enjoy seeing themselves reflected in what they buy.” This is the grand finale to a piece of infomercial with zero analytical value in The Economist. I claim there is analytical value in giving it world enough and time: no coyness then and we will get to notice a strategic one on the part of Koons. The manageable piece titled “Sexy contemporary antiquities” constitutes what I would claim to be the capitalistic clearing of the forest of experiential content and also of analytical intelligence, as though it did not matter and it will never matter again. Put dramatically, intelligence has to deal with its opposite, the making light of it, its infirmity and fragility, a malnourishment and destitution, holes of doubts and lack, its evacuation, the broken pieces and smithereens of what must still be desirable feature, call it (aesthetic) axiology, discrimination powers, judgment or evaluation, also situational hermeneutics of mounting skepticism unwilling to go out for the global ride in Koons’s kitsch-and-camp car. Money and lots of it is the core issue in case you had any doubts whatsoever, but you should know how the caged bird sings in the confines of the Economist.

 

The digital version includes seven photographs and the print edition includes only a portion of one of these. The full credits of these photographs go to: Liebieghaus / Norbert Miguletz (5 photos); Jeff Koons / Serge Hasenbohle (1 photo) and one good-looking photo of Jeff Koons himself properly attired in suit and tie, business-like and smiling a pleasant smile, credited to Schirnkunstalle Frankfurt / Alexander Englert. The print version includes a portion of one of the sculptures, number six in the digital-version series, the one titled “Hulk (Friends)” (2004-2012), officially 8 years in the making and 8 will be a returning number shortly. The print version economizes space: it includes no credits, rubric, legend of any kind. There is also no author of the piece. Is this conventional procedure in the Books and the Arts section of The Economist? Am I missing something? The digital version includes all of that, minus the author’s name again, plus the humanizing line “Mr. Koons depicts himself with six of his children,” for the same Hulk figure. There is no description of the materials used in the sculptures. The second Hulk piece, called “Hulks (Bells) (2004-2012)” includes: “Both the airy action figures and the replica Zhou dynasty bell are made of bronze.” The said figures do have a visual feel of inflatable toys. There is no reason to doubt the artist: they are holding what looks like a heavy bell, Titan-like. There is play with the contrast between massive weight and balloon-like weightlessness. No measures.  “Popeye” is said to be “a self-portrait in which Mr Koons both asserts and lampoons the display of male power.” Non-ironically, the final image of Koons includes “Jeff Koons’s enthusiasm for media coverage has been integral to his success.” This must be tested “theater-within-the-theater” market strategy of further self-promotion. No wonder the winning smile.

 

Impecunious fellow humanists should not worry: the business of writing appears subsidiary, subaltern, to the centrality of visuals. Think of any piece of advertisement that must find –or better fight– its place in the ideal imagination of the consumer-customer passing through the shopping area of Heathrow airport to catch the flight in  an already saturated global landscape of image-media saturation. What if the world is increasingly becoming an increasing collection of non-places (Augé) and ramps for landing and takeoff, but also shops where you shop until your drop (“aerotropolis” is the notion promoted by Kasarda and  Lindsay )? Fancy a little “retail therapy”? What about a little Koons? You will need to present images, and less of a “text-rich” document in any user-friendly virtualization of the cultural good for sale. This time we are dealing with Koons’s most recent sculpture, not quite reaching a performance site but moving in such direction. I am inclined to believe that the infomercial that caught my eye is arguably a collaborative piece directly involving the artist and gallery representatives, and even possibly “planted,” who will claim paternity / maternity of this estranged son?, in the “Books and arts” section of the recent Economist edition, an English-language magazine founded in September 1843, claiming to take part in “a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.” Is this an English-only endeavor? Is there any chance of “localizing” the product in other languages in relation to the 19 other cities, besides London (Atlanta, Beijing, Berlin, Brussels, Cairo, Chicago, Hong Kong, Johannesburg, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Moscow, New Delhi, New York, Paris, San Francisco, Sao Paulo, Singapore, Tokyo, Washington, DC)? How do you like this map?

 

“Sexy contemporary antiquities” is short and sweet piece of fluff. Form must take precedence over content since the latter is thin, very thin (Susan Sontag spoke of the content neutrality of camp, its disengaged, depoliticized and apolitical character; but this is also the official ideology of liberalism that promotes “free market” theoretically irrespective of concrete content or product, based on supply-and-demand; isn’t this the dominant rhetoric also inside universities?). It cannot be anything but thin: think the opposite of thick textures or heavy specificities (vernacular English language is not wanted here, this must be airport language, not uncommonly in received-pronunciation). No wonder no author’s name is forthcoming: it does not matter. The only name that does matter in this controlled environment is the brand name of Jeff Koons. What is at stake is the personality of the brand in the same way that corporations are legally “persons,” at least in the U.S. More radically, the only thing that does matter here is the strategic marketing of the cultural good in terms of association, visibility, etc. The account in question is thus shamelessly encomiastic and grotesquely superlative, in some Europe-mediated, American-style vacuity. Call it trans-Atlantic kitsch-and-camp boutique shop for the global elite. The language is euphemistic, soft and bland, limp-wristed, soft-core with double underlining of the soft, light, weak, destitute, etc. All the things you thought could not survive the day of tomorrow, you find them here making a claim for everlasting life in our “sexy” contemporaneity. The claim to “antiquity” is too flimsy for words, free-associating historical precedents for no rhyme or reason (Sontag, again, speaks of the sentimental relation that camp has with the past, here we are dealing with a dubious type of sentimentality publicizing private life and domesticity for humanizing effect, to come shortly). What this infomercial wants –mostly, solely—is to stroke the back of the head of the frequent air-traveler, caress the sore neck, massage the stiff back and apply lotion to the egos, titillate taste buds, arouse the appetite –the imagination of the playful reader may continue unimpeded towards “a private zany experience of the thing,” as Sontag proclaimed about camp duplicity— hatch the golden goose eggs, let us put thus, apropos potential art collectors who may catch sight of the discreet half a page in travels interconnecting the 20 previous cities. I see no distance between the informercial and the artist in question. The paternity that matters is Koons’s brand name publicized in this shameless paean of aesthetic vacuity, claiming ideal-type mirror reflection of a “global elite.” The theme of fertility will also become explicit shortly.

 

Another formal difference between the print version and the digital version has to do with the title. The print version includes in bold letters “Sexy contemporary antiquities.” No reader will miss the deliberate incongruity of antiquity and contemporaneity, no quarrel of ancients and moderns however, since history as a precedent is often alluded to by our kitsch-and-camp artist, in ad hoc and free-association fashion, subjectively and sentimentally so to speak. Popular Americana, the main and only site of inspiration and refuge, is the “end of history,” a dear theme in the U.S. at least since the 1980s, which is when the beginning of Koons’s career. Where else could this type of kitsch go but here? (there is nothing of the extensive dwellings one finds in Peter Greenaway or Derek Jarman, for example). And how sexy is this sexy? How antique, the antique in these hypermodern travels? How fleetingly this contemporaneity that was old yesterday? Still, the infomercial “Sexy contemporary antiquities” is an impulse to generate a virtual record, a simulacra, of a series of exhibition events of the works of art in question (think of decantation of Ganymedes to the precious nectar of the gods, the rituals to religious beliefs, foreplay to jouissance, etc.). Kitsch, however, generates its own self-referentiality around art fairs, exhibits here and there in a geography that is not and cannot possibly be entirely random (it is “first world” of recognizable Europe serving, and servicing, the symbolic production of the “global elite”). Put the somewhat critical writings of Gilles Lipovetsky and Mar Augé together around a fast-paced culture of consumption of visual goods against the attenuation of all localized histories and intricate linguistic vernaculars and it is here that Koons’s silly pieces find their “natural” habitat and    make sense, and an awful lot of awful sense at that if you allow the repetition, with or without penetrating language about and around it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I will put to you that the artist is no reliable source of information about his own art. There is nothing more nor less than the (in-)congruity of salesmanship zeroing in on advertising and selling the stuff. As the saying goes, he will say anything as long as he gets to sell what he wants to sell. And he says little and little of value and it is “stuff,” or even “junk,” and I am advisedly using kitsch-and-camp categories, to which the exorbitant price tag will give the lie. A certain type of popular Americana makes sense in this global timespace of undefined chronologies and geographies, what other competitors are out there?, and yet the choice of advertising platforms is not and cannot be entirely arbitrary. It is Germany and Switzerland news in the London magazine of global economy and not Bolivia and Ecuador or Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikstan, or Venezuela and Cuba, or Arab Spring countries or Arab emirates after all.  Koons’ art is genuinely oblivious of, but also profoundly indifferent about what the “business culture” calls “localization.” The silly and funny, light, uninhibited, unthreatening figures, the Venuses, the Hulks, the Popeyes, the Lobsters, the Monkeys, etc., do not adjust, they do not have to adjust, to any thick-texture specificity circumscribed by a finicky chronology and a specific geography. The ideal is quite the opposite: think of the sign of “free market” –of goods not so much of people– against the more angular and rough sign of “capitalism,” the taboo word hardly ever mentioned publicly in the US, particularly in our Obama years (one can think of parallels, the name of the deity, the pudenda, the salaries made available in increasingly deteriorating contracts also inside universities…). Koons will not catch his fingers using such disagreeable language any time soon (improving upon Sontag’s previous quote, the disengaged, depoliticized and apolitical content-neutrality stance of this kitsch-and-camp art is ideological and political through and through, and the constant reminder of the intended community, the global elite, made explicit by the infomercial planted in The Economist, is the revulsion and offense also alluded to by the intelligent public intellectual recently deceased, that one must handle intelligently). To put it in yet another way: Americana of unpretentious popular goods, mocking longevity, jumping irreverently thick textures and high fences and historic boundaries and customs, foreign languages, intricate geographies, etc., makes the claim to reach the globality of the future of aerotropolis. How else but through selective, relative detachment, superficiality, thinness and levity, a certain unbearable lightness of the English language also cut off from its own historical density? This is the market artificiality in which Koons wants to be. Where else could this kitschy Americana go with its banal, ornamental, visual language of the nothing in particular, of no-message? Global capital has nothing to say, its elites will not talk to those outside its controlled environments, yet they will need posts and totems, saucy girls and perhaps even Hulks and Popeyes for their symbolic texture, hence the “mirror image” proposed by the infomercial, and surely by Koons, is that they can avail themselves to the kitsch-and-camp banality or the implosion of meaning or seriousness. “Sexy contemporary antiquities” is symptomatic implosion and infinite degradation of the critical potentiality of axiological dimension of inquisitive language. The infomercial behaves fittingly in the manner of the “in-the-joke” recognition of a community of the same in relation to capitalist interests that include philanthropy and art collecting. Here, solemn artistic intelligence is not welcome in “wet or dirty weather,” as the famous Soane’s Museum in London is said to have opened during the lifetime of the original owner. But this is history, “true” antiquarianism of an old-fashioned European quality with which Koons has no meaningful intercourse.

 

The thinness of content must accordingly combine with a sustained levity in mood or tone. Lightheartedness. Superficiality. Very Koonsian. Very fitting to the main business at hand that will not come anywhere near, you bet, the current abyss of fiscal meltdowns, economic bailouts and generalized political turmoil inside the aforementioned cityscapes and outside. The whole point appears to seduce the global elite to join some ideological mirage of secluded community via the tawdriness of Americana (the mass-marketed silliness here could become sign of ruling-class self-recognition elsewhere in a strategy that could be called re-branded singularization of recognizable mass-culture serialization of teenage images and comic-book icons largely, so to speak). The fundamental intent appears to be to try to seduce the customer to inhabit a privatized world of artistic goods of prohibitive prices, and not to think much, even to make light of the banalized junkyard, while partaking of a playfulness, as undisturbed and frictionless as possible,  among those who can afford it: thus, eminent kitsch-and camp domain of lightness of being of capitalist privilege.

 

But for how long? How stimulating, how arousing is all of this that is tendered with self-restraint, even poker face, amiable, flaccid smile (I will never forget the accurate line by Beatriz Sarlo about some quintessential American use of the smile in the business environment)? How funny is this fun that comes across as ice-cold business calculation photographed in proper suit and tie and flaccid manners? The garish sculptures emerge irrespective of context wrapped up by the nothing-message constructed in free-associational and inconsequential manner. It is as though the energy of the modernist avant-gardes of the previous century were sucked into the vortex of recycling disjecta membra of popular Americana (Sontag places the origin of camp taste in the 18th century, the Sloan moment say, and one may imagine industrialism and urbanization and the “barbarism” of mass culture as misty antecedents of some of the dispositions that I am trying to underline). It is more coitus and cogitus interruptus than energetic artistic thinking, despite or because of the “sex” language abused by Koons’s self-promotion exercises. A self-respecting humanistic sensibility should not be fooled by this thematization of “sex” graphically, explicitly included in previous paintings talked about in another culture bite, also intimated, ever so discreetly by the advertisement literature.

 

And yet “Sexy contemporary antiquities” is symptomatic of a detachment, a retreat, yet another withdrawal, increasing debilitation, a calculated one, away from “history,” less adult-entertainment and more family-value PG-13 accessibility say, within the eyes on the prize of the minority-elite clientele. There is a determined poverty of the artistic imagination, a closing of the American mind here, a pettiness and misery devoid of penetrating language to address its hows and whys, an empire of dirt, a niggard conditioning, if you wish, constitutive of this postmodernist art of supreme camp, camp and nothing but camp, kitsch and nothing but kitsch, in order words, a minimalism inside the vortex of its own idiom, a “consolidation” inside its own reduced parlance, a baby talk, away from other American idiolects, not to mention other venues of foreign languages of artistic achievement. This is not the iconoclasm of the clean slate made to appear in places with too much history, Italy for instance, for Marinetti. What does Koons’s ethnicity and background mean to his creativity and to the rest of the world aesthetically? (think of the equivalent of Pittsburgh for Andy Warhol’s pop art!). In Koons, there never is much history in the first place. History is a thing of the past, and I wonder what would happen if one played compare and contrast with other examples of kitsch and camp. This is nothing but kitsch and camp that speaks to itself alone, solipsistically. This must be proclaimed a pathology that exceeds the subjectivism of the American artist in question. And this is the kitsch-and-camp Americana that is apparently welcome elsewhere. Yet, how convincingly is it when you take a proper look? Is this parsing the silly meaning making me silly? Is it worth talking to when language implodes in baby talk? But one must address some of this attraction and repulsion. One must open up artistic endeavors, which still show no openness, no becoming. I feel one has to learn to turn negatively and inside out this genuinely silly, profoundly light and deliberately incongruous artwork appertaining to a global-elitist capitalistic being and bring it eye-to-eye and tongue to official mouth, particularly since capitalism disavows its own proper, analytical language and becomes market, which also becomes trade, and hence the self-proclaimed free-traders will advocate the naturalness of a historical march but only reaching the ideal haven, celebration or heaven of sourcing, profits, exchanges, as unimpeded and frictionless as possible, etc. Koons’s deliberately silly art making makes sense here, one ruinous construction among others the future will encounter with grand amazement it took place in the first place.

 

Your GPS will imagine our artist playing up ornamentalism in the global shores of this not-for-profit, or tax-exempt, if not tax-evasion haven. A provocation: what if “culture” is eminently kitsch and camp under our advanced capitalism, currently in unremitting (monetary, legitimacy) crisis? What if capitalism sustains itself via such feeble artistic discourse, such sculptural infantilization? The more explicit eroticism of other works is now gone, or is it pornography?, and I am not placing an automatic negative value-judgment of the latter noun as made explicit in the previous culture bite. The pornography I am addressing here is that of the explicit money amount explicitly included in the brief infomercial (the coyness of the art gallery attendant not being straight with me about how much the Cicciolina paintings cost!). Call it strategic coyness, also good-business manners, that will not touch money in “public displays of affection,” or PDA, as the delightful Anglo-Saxon formula still has it. I want to submit to you that the meaning of obscenity is closer to this dimension than Cicciolina’s graphic displays. The “shock value” is operative and calculated always already within the larger symbolic system of cultural goods within global capitalism, “sex” is the excuse and pretext, think of “sex-text” lately inside virtual modalities of communication, and one can easily put any content into the signs in quotation marks as long as it sells in the marketplace. Koons’s art is, beyond doubt, meretricious, mood-neutral, inarticulate, incoherent, baby talk, kitsch-and-camp implosion of critical language, crystallizing in the adjective of banal, or trivial, comparable with and symptomatic of advertising tendencies embedded in consumerism under capitalism at large.

 

It thus cannot possibly be grand art, but the rigorous, exact opposite of grand, cunningly  smiling side by side the possibility of profit, for example underneath the floral puppy outside the Guggenheim designed by Gehry in Bilbao. Think Gargantuan, disproportionate, silly big, stereotypically American-big-size, garish, intentionally ugly, forcing the good out of the bad, moving the low into “high society,” sanctioned by the unwarranted price tag, against the horizon of market de-regulations in worlds of meida, entertainment and sports for example, and run the semantic field of tawdry and gaudy mocking any inherited notion of tradition or taste. It is then when super-hero imagery acquires an almost cosmic status in the absence of any other explicit transcendentalism of timespace boundaries, political, religious or otherwise. There is correspondingly a dumbing-down, a slimming-down, the logical infantilization of manner, matter and content in the selective serialization of images of the Popeyes, the Hulks, the Venuses,  etc. Pop-art figures are set up individually and repeated following a loose logic of reproduction and selective association with places of prestige (read: a certain Europe), typically presented with a immense minimalism of deliberation, historicism and context.  There is a kind of negativity of thinking, indeed an unthinking, in this kitsch-and-camp that could perhaps be called a postmodernist sprezzatura of manufactured detachment,  ease or distance (think of a phlegmatic, determined salesman always staying in character). There is the occasional “warmth,” the anecdotal item, the brief psychologizing, “personal” or humanizing touch if you wish, a kind of over-compensation for so much lack. It is a shameless type of lack, a lack that makes a virtue of its own vice of not being. If “culture” always presupposes something which is cultivated, this “culture” cultivates nothing, it constructs nothing, no ontology, except its own contingent subjectivism with selective biographical details along the way for incentivizing the selling. The “balloon and metallic” Venus, is described in the digital version as “an eight foot high stainless steel beauty with live petunias” (2010).” And the free association connects it with the prolific reproduction of the prehistoric goddess and also with Justice Koons, the current wife of the artist. This is deliberate disclosure gesture that must have been approved by the artist himself as a good selling point moving away from previous works with a previous wife, Ilona Staller, also known as “Cicciolina,” busty, chunky, huggable and desirable woman, and the Italian nickname must be understood to be playful, warm and affectionate.

 

Think of the antipodes of an eccentric old-fashioned elite high-culture antiquarianism almost pathologically pursuing private hoarding and miniaturization of exotic foreign cultures against the immediate English-world insularity as made evident by Sir John Sloane’s Museum in London (the reference is not entirely gratuitous since Sloane died in 1837 and The Economist was first published in 1843, a mere 6 years in the same metropolis). I wish to draw a stark parallel in relation to the more calculated proliferation, the gross-and-crass pop-culture American extraversion that wishes to jump out of a certain cultural milieu and cover the whole wide world that matters, which is, no mistake here, the institutional world of organizations and foundations, and mostly elite-groups of art collectors who could afford the ownership of such kitsch-and-camp pieces never intended for the masses in the first place (mass-culture elements migrate to rarefied, privileged-minority environments via Koons’s mediation). I would submit to you that such kitsch and camp acts here as signposts of group belonging of such elite members of the capitalist class, but again lightly apropos the sign of capitalism. Allegorically then, Cicciolina is left behind, and there is a more modest and proper “native” choice of a “girl” playing the same Venus game against some grotesque prehistoric precedent. Koons’s kitsch-and-camp is material “girl” adamant about attracting the attention and money of global suitors.

There is ego trip here, and it is, I find, emphatically less charming than the Enlightenment predecessor, call it the contemporary American side versus the historical English side of the Atlantic. Camp thus becomes a shamelessly reduced referentiality of solipsistic and subjectivist popular-American presentation that lingers in child-experience, presumably the artist’s, but this may or may not be biographically true, and it is also immaterial to the true core of the business at hand. You bracket discursivity, and you bring it down to manageable bits and pieces inside controlled-environments, you keep “history” and “society” at some distance, but also aesthetics and art history and artistic societies, influences, debates, styles, etc., and most carefully, other kitsch and camp modalities, and you blow up some kind of inner-child landscape without claims of any kind of substance. And where else would you place such a production if not inside corporations or momentarily inside events welcome by selective foundations? Think of this postmodernity as the exact opposite of the European Renaissance ideal of proportionality and also of the universalist-humanistic ideal of self-transformation through erudition and cultivation, how else if not through critical dialogue with a past that will rejuvenate you. Annihilation of and alienation from “history,” or meaningfulness, ride in tandem. Koons’s Americana is not interested at all in any kind of dialogue. This artistic production speaks to itself and itself only and makes a virtue out of its intellectual fragility and dearth of discourse, scholarship, education, experience, etc. I suppose that it is this pathology that attracts me in a repulsive kind of way. I am not alone in this: Greenberg and Sontag had to negotiate their own attractions and repulsions in two previous moments of art criticism that is our immediate historical precedent (the promise to myself is to pursue other examples in other traditions, for example the Hispanic and Latin American modernist traditions, and see what happens). “Sexy contemporary antiquities” wants to be kitschy and campy mirror-stage reflection of the global elite who “enjoy seeing themselves reflected in what they buy.” Now this line may read ironically, but it is delivered, I submit to you, with the conviction that this is the best literature that money can buy. Kitsch is here king, or queen, and you must not wait for a theory of kingship to come round the global corner of this world any time soon (there is nothing androgynous or provocatively “queer” in Koons, and this was a feature emphasized by Sontag, less so by Greenberg). Still, camp reigns supreme, and yet this is an invidious, light modality of enunciation, with zero denunciation, about absolutely anything on earth. It is as though the sign (say “Balloon Venus (Magenta)” (2008-2012)”) pointed fingers self-referentially, gratuitously asking for a huge price tag, by virtue of circulation inside selected spaces that would increase the price tag by virtue of association, visibility, name recognition in the marketplace, etc. It is a bit like an unreasonable teenager demanding unconditional love and lots of money who being who s/he is, the best thing on earth without question.

The infomercial free-associates with no ground (Venus, the concrete sculpture, like the prehistoric totem, like the current wife of the artist, saucy girl, etc.). I find this to be the artist’s same strategy, the informercial is in this precise faithful mouthpiece of kitsch-and-camp self-presentation. There is something of a sentimental-retro feel to Koons against avant-garde kitsch and camp, a repeated Americanization of the world of art so to speak, that tries to capitalize, perhaps for one or two more decades, on the exhaustion of difference that such artistic novelty must have signified, mostly in the original European setting and how such sensibility and such style crossed over the Atlantic and became quintessentially American, mass-marketed, Disneyfied, etc. This kitsch-and-camp combination, and I am making our two friends ride the same light tandem bicycle, does not and cannot ever tolerate the proximity of any other friends, call them moods, modalities or dispositions, thrown out there into the wet or dirty weather of (art) history. The gist of the meaning behind “Sexy contemporary antiquities” accordingly is the implied imperative to buy them, if what you want is to see yourself reflected in the deliberately incongruous and nonsensical circulation of visual cultural goods claiming global-elite status, but not intellectually. This is the “sex” of this visual culture of capitalistic value.

Does Parsing the Silly Meaning of the Infomercial Make You Silly?

But there is more. Let us take a closer look at, linger and tarry with the negative if you wish, in relation to the language, simple if not simplistic, of the infomercial explicitly interpellating the ideal community, the global-elite readers and interpreters of the Economist. Back to the heading: there is a smaller, red-letter line above title: “Jeff Koons’s new sculpture.” And there is a smaller-letter-size, also bold: “Goddesses, hulks and cartoons inspire Jeff Koons.” The double cynical attitude exemplified by the sayings, “Say anything you want as long as you spell my name right,“ and “the customer is always right. No business like show business: the entertainment and advertisement logic that this infomercial is putting to good use bypasses intellectual content, at least in the confines of such controlled environment. But the world must be wider and wilder. Who needs a writer’s good name in search of a few good readers when the main business is to call the attention of potential art collectors recognizing themselves in the kitsch-and-camp mirror of a global community of the same business? (I recognize myself in the confines of The Economist readership caught up in a certain geography of money, I like myself in such self-recognition, I may be tempted to buy some Koons’s kitsch and camp to remind me of such belonging to a global elite, without making a big fuss out of it, because I can afford such lighthearted mood, etc.).

 

The repetition of the name of the artist leads the way to the grotesque superlative: “America’s most famous living artist…”, and the name, for a third time, “is an ambitious perfectionist.” Now, that should embarrass the allegorical figure of embarrassment itself in the garden of earthly delights, think Hieronymus Bosch. But there is no space for disagreement: the digital version includes the Facebook “like-only” option, and the submit option through Linked-In (this is comparable to the automatic or default computer mechanism that allocates the maximum grade, the fabled “A,” to enrolled students in the conventional course that some institutions of higher learning have implemented, surely with the well-being of faculty in mind,  lest they forget to pay respects to customer-consumer satisfaction protocols inside a global horizon where critical evaluation is increasingly persona non grata, or in the vernacular, unsexy noncontemporary antiquity). There are also other modes of digital transmission (Tweet, E-Recommend, In-Share, Reddit, Public Recommend on Google G+1): this is all about the dissemination of a self-enclosed capsule largely irrespective of time and place.

 

But there are locations and locations, and some have more (capitalist) value than others. The impresario idea is to seek intercourse with those who have greater value and get some of that yourself. The online version of the article implodes locality, in a sense, making it more multi-directional and also unpredictable if you will (but of course the reader has to be able to have the right information and be able to find such magazine, the artist, the works, etc.). There are frames of intelligibility inside which Koons is operating in the same way The Economist is doing much of the same in relation to the collectivity of readers and interpreters with specific set of interests, priorities, etc. , call it market share or niche. The print edition includes a double European and German location (Basel and Frankfurt), where Koons’s sculpture is to be exhibited. This is about announcing, but also creating a public, virtual record, a memorial of sorts, that could last at least briefly inside contemporaneity. This is a controlled environment and the stakeholders, as the typical language has it, are first and foremost the artist himself, but also the galleries, foundations, etc. Everyone has a stake in the promotion, circulation and value-acquisition of the brand name (incidentally, the infomercial avoids the name of camp and kitsch, in case such proper naming disincentivizes potential buyers). Language is ancillary to the seven selected images available in the digital version. It is not allowed to distract from the visual reproductions that unequivocally point in the direction of the brand name, the artists’s, operating globally, no apparent boundaries in the worldwide web. It is Koons’s virtue to have created a style that is instantly recognizable, which means that variation games can happen only within such horizon of automatic and easy recognition (nothing of the Protean quality of Gerhard Richter, for instance, to mention a German combinatory-playful variety of artistic chameleonism).

There is here nothing technical, elaborate or –the money God forbid– academic. See:

“He [Koons] experiments with digital technologies, pushing materials to their limits and testing craftsmen’s skills, while taking care to hide the evidence of these processes. A Koons piece is always partly about the exquisite appearance of the final product.”

What is the meaning of the final line except the interplay between the “partly” and the “exquisite” around a perceptible lack of meaning that speaks of digital experimentation in relation to “sculptures”? What limits? What skills? Hiding not only the processes, but the evidence? Koonsian hiding of craftsmanship must be underlined. One must imagine a team hiding behind the brand name.

The game is anticipatory. Think of a strip-tease:

“Six long-awaited new Koons sculptures are being unveiled this summer. “Balloon Swan” made its debut at the Beyeler Foundation in the Swiss town of Basel during the art fair. The 11.5-foot (3.5-metre), stainless-steel bird, with a shiny magenta finish, is the latest instalment in the artist’s bestselling “Celebration” series. The series was originally conceived as a way for Mr Koons to communicate with his estranged son after he and his Italian wife were divorced. An earlier work in the same range, “Hanging Heart,” briefly made Mr Koons the world’s most expensive living artist when it sold for $23.6m in 2007.”

 

Switzerland of all places is the prime location or the advertisement site in relation to the central value signifier: money! (there will be a final reference to tax-evasion havens in the end). Do you get the adjectival titillation –the “long awaited, the best-selling, most expensive– in relation to the sign “money” quantifying for real the specific works inside the realm of visual arts, entertainment and media? The big-money amount, nothing but the number-one, or supreme superlative will do here, is attached to one piece with the temporal adverb “briefly,” the quintessential modern adverb. How briefly? How does that fleeting timeframe matter in relation to the increasingly faster capitalist rhythms? The infomercial refers to an anticipatory event that relates to a forthcoming exhibit in the favored context of international money, not any kind of Europe, and a certain niche Europe at that if you wish, the happy few privileged cocoonnish, cuckoo-clock variety, boutique Europe, as it gets to be projected internationally to be consumed, imitated, parodied, etc. It is here that this kitschy-and-camp Americana may find its momentary habitation, its “hotel civilization,” with a certain, unrepentant flair for a retro-historical repetition of a style almost a hundred years old (an interesting take would be to chase down how Koons is received, appreciated, etc. in other localities). This is the geography inside which the sign “Koons” travels (www.fondationbeyeler.ch/en/foundation), with or without the sentimental touch of a father seeking contact with his estranged son after the fallout with Illona Staller, the Hungarian-born Italian porn actress here left deliberately unnamed (www.cicciolinaonline.it).

 

Sex sells. The article does it too obviously, ever so discreetly:

“The series has always had a perverse side, but “Balloon Swan” is arguably the most sexually evocative so far. Mr Koons sees the sculpture as a “totem” that is “phallic from the front” but displays “sexual harmony on the side”. From the back, he points out, its buttocks look like breasts.”

There is no arrangement of these body parts in the language that is chronically under-developed. How to understand the perverse quality? How to understand the logic of the first “but” clause that modifies the previous sentence adding “arguably most sexually evocative”? And what about the second, harmony versus phallic lack of harmony? Are we meant to label buttocks like breasts as inharmonious swan? Plausibly, there is a second-language quality to this English language-disply that is in no way second to the conventional merit to the light touches, or even strategic evasions and deviations, parallels and silences of Koons himself about his own art-making.

 

 

More:

“Sex has long been a Koons theme, so it is remarkable that he has waited until now to make classic full-bodied female nudes. In Frankfurt at the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, as part of a 44-piece sculpture retrospective, he has unveiled two goddesses of love. “Balloon Venus” looks like a “Celebration” sculpture but is actually the first work in the artist’s new “Antiquity” series. Inspired by the Venus of Willendorf, a tiny fertility goddess discovered in Austria and dating from around 23,000BC, Mr Koons’s sculpture proposes a new kind of idol—a high-tech grande dame whose untouchable polished surfaces reflect the viewer. Where the goddess is corpulent, Mr Koons’s Venus is palpably pregnant. For Mr Koons creativity and procreativity stem from the same root; his current wife, Justine, is expecting his eighth child.”

 

Classic could possibly mean what in this context of sustained kitsch and solid camp? Antiquity amounts to what in relation to this flat or one-dimensional postmodernity of uncertain timespaces inside which kitsch and camp appear incontinent and rather shameless? The idol of the global-elite tribe is of an “untouchable polished reflecting surface” thus blowing out of all proportion the venerable prehistoric tininess? Do care and mindfulness have the necessary patience to try to put the jigsaw bits and pieces of sense here? The mounting suspicion is that this type of discourse is fitting to what I would call salesmanship of the incongruous writing style, which proposes a quick jump from one small bit to another small bit, cuts short and cuts and pastes short bits and pieces of language and adds them up to others, and this one to another small portion following an additive, almost visual logic that mocks sustained linguistic contiguity and congruity… The paragraph sinks semantically the closer you get to it with or without a magnifying glass: this is the righteous judgment of your advanced humanities degree, which your immediate circumstance will not celebrate monetarily. Paragraph sequence is shipwreck of artistic sense, which kitsch and camp mock. I am tempted to suggest a visual logic of juxtaposition, cut-up and cut-out method, a kind of “shock-and-awe” method, if I am allowed to transpose geopolitical language to contemporary marketing waters inside which Koons is natural fish. Bye, bye to “Made in Heaven” and Cicciolini’s close-up explicitness, and welcome thus of a deliberate “soft-core” approach to art-making that still however does not disentangle from the foreign entanglements of the language of sex (think musically of the transition from dissonant bebop to cool jazz, from John Coltrane to Chet Baker, and there is something of this commercialized attenuation that one can detect in other art forms, occasional eruptions of bratness notwithstanding, for example in the context of Young British Artists, Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, etc.). Koons is much less shrill than these English counterparts. And one may pose the provocative question if we are not mostly dealing with variation-game marketing strategies. I imagine our artist would probably say that there is nothing to be shrill about.

There is an attenuation of the suggested perversity accordingly? But it never was “wild” in Koons in the first place, or “dissonant,” and upsetting, if you wish, to the point of being transformational, much less transgressive, or value-inquisitive table-turning, not even with Cicciolina’s “foreignness” being explicitly and graphically present. I repeat the marketing focus, in Koons, is never punk, despite or because the occasional close-up pornographic “unveiling” with himself in it (tellingly, he is not revealing himself in them if you recall!). Koons’ art is emphatically not about revelations or transformations. The appropriate mood response to his Hulks and Popeyes and Venuses will be probably left out to the discretion of the buyer, who is always right by virtue of buying. There is something about gloss and mirror image, the “you may come close but don’t touch,” the banalization process that underlines the semantic core broken into small bits and pieces  without elaboration. The writing is thus scrupulously para-sensical, if not entirely nonsensical. It mocks declarative, assertive sense. There is no sense of projective, desirous dislocation, no counter-, re-formation, much less revolutionary desire for other forms and there is the collapse of historical forms, all of them. There is an eerie static quality to these sculptures, a kind of motion-pictures without the motion, frozen, isolated, fish-cold cutouts out of social waters brought lifeless to non-descript shores together with the detritus of a capitalistic civilization going down and yet incapable of mounting a mood that is not distracted, evasive, light, silly, giggly, child-like, childish regressive… I imagine Koons shrugging his shoulders pointing silently in the direction of auction houses for some works of his.

 

 

Sense is in this kitsch-and-camp vicinity a blend with its negative opposite, like chewing-gum elastic. Art is not meant to provide nourishment, like “gum,” plastic. It aims at keeping you entertained “briefly,” to provide social recognition in elite groups, at least accordingly to the declaration of intent of the infomercial. Koons’s creations are scrupulously anti-intellectual and consistently non-analytical. I want to presume some of the positive, opposite values informing “objective correlatives” that manifestly signify the evacuation of artistic meaning from within the work of art itself (fair to call this exploration and recycling of popular Americana desublimation, culture of intolerance and repression of any horizon of sublimation?). Infomercials wrap these works up in un-developed paratactic, juxtapositional free-associations coming from and going nowhere, fitting into half a page and no more. The “perverse” and the “sex” are attached for cheap effect disrupting this time no children in the middle of the night of messy history (of art). We qua potential customers and consumers are not supposed to be carried away, ever. It is the other side of romanticism. This is a postmodernism that makes no effort to connect directly with avant-garde protestation of forms, with or without a phallic totem resembling buttocks and/or breasts attached to a swan, supposedly. Some of the Foucaultian play with Magritte-inspired referentiality (it looks like a pipe, there is “pipe” attached to it, but is it a pipe really?)? There is a mess of a jumble, and deliberate lack of thought put to good prose. The infomercial goes nowhere with the suggestion of cubism. It stays put in the pointlessness of it all. As in the conventional museum pedagogy in the US nowadays, anyone can join and throw free-associations freely since there is no art-history context. “Had we but world enough and time this coyness, lady, were no crime (Andrew Marvell):” Koons’s art is “criminal” in its strategic coyness, since there is plenty of world, a global-capitalist, world dimension mind you, inside which elite groups circulate and purchase things and talk some, the time is fast-forward time, one or two decades back and forth say with precious little or nothing of value remaining. In point of fact, this is the only time there is. With a geography made irrelevant, think of the “anchors” of such sculptures, historical time has all but vanished as well inside this seemingly eternal postmodernism, this vortex inside which these “sexy contemporary antiquities” get thrown: Koons’s uses of “history” feel improvised, ad hoc, gratuitous and shallow, uninformed, unschooled, sentimental and self-serving, irrelevant, anti-historical in short, like holding a fig leaf briefly covering the pudenda that is not really on display. In his latest sculptures, Cicciolina is gone. What else is there to get close to accordingly?

The mirage will say that Koons’s art-making appears to be coming from nowhere inside the history of the U.S. But it is crass popular Americana not taking itself seriously, and the adverb is crucial mood/mode negatively that has sustained him since the 1980s. This type of pastiche and camp has nowhere to go. There is nowhere to go, it would declare if it were pressed, its face against the wall, hands tied up in the back, to say its truth-content at gun-point in some corner of the global world. But its tongue is cheap otherwise in social gatherings in the same manner that the price tag will be playing its game up and out of all proportion, and what would “proportion” ever be against the background of de-regulation, bailouts and meltdowns? The Economist piece reads like it was written by an unpaid intern, the English language surely passing through the literary touches of native “facilitators” and non-native “influencers.” It sounds like some generic market language about nothing in particular, as it is demonstrated by the video put out by the Foundation Beyeler with introductory remarks by Theodora Vischen freely available through You Tube. The English around Koons is an English deprived of its rich history and thoroughly colonized by capitalist consumer culture with no apparent attachments to thick textures, sustainable ethnicities, fetching localities, emotional vernacular uses, etc. There is thus an eerie, ghostlike, repugnant quality to this Disneyfied superficialization of image-manufacture that still exerts a repulsive fascination in me, akin to the fierceness and magnetism of traumatic forms of pathology in the not so distant past. The fundamental point in Koons’s art appears to be never to leave such “introductory” level behind, never to go deep into anything, not to want to pursue forms that may challenge the immediate present imperfect.

Solo exhibition of Jeff Koons at Fondation Beyeler in Riehen, Switzerland. Walk-through and introduction by Curator Dr. Theodora Vischer.

It would be a mistake to treat the said infomercial –official mouthpiece of Koons’s artistic production, and this is my working assumption– like it was poetry, and I realize that I almost guilty of such misdoing. But I would like not stop at the righteous indignation and fierce vituperation of the impecunious humanist at the purple prose, which, in a perverse kind of way, is conduct becoming to of kitsch-and-camp modalities operative inside systematic failure to penetrate into processes of aesthetic cognition (there is more of a bite in the branding of the Young British Artists (YBA), and this does not mean a more promising state of affairs vis-à-vis the marketplace of art and culture, or a more overall satisfying aesthetic experience if you will, I hope this is clear). “Sexy contemporary antiquities” wants to do a different marketing strategy. It is not the revolution of forms, but more like the reconfiguration of the recognizable forms associated with the brand name, Koons, undergoing “consolidation” in the current global crisis. The euphemism implied in the previous noun in quotation marks defines our conjuncture in domains outside the world of art as well and it is no wonder that individuals such as Koons aim at those organizations, which can afford and allow a certain gargantuanism of deliberately nonsensical creation. And why would they want to be associate with such immense frivolity –think of Bloomberg, the Beyeler Foundation? But turn the question around and sit it on its head: what else but kitsch-and- camp frivolity precisely in our conjuncture? Wouldn’t you want precisely to evacuate critical meaning from aesthetic and intellectual timespaces (history, university, whatever constitutes a collectivity, etc.), in historical moments of immense fragility embedded systematically, assuming that you occupy a position of certain privilege that may feel threatened by most recent avatars? Disturbingly then, what if such infomercial language wins the battle in the best official-historical day over and above your favorite intelligence and thoughtful, historically informed and humanities-schooled language use in environments other than the contrived one we are contemplating here (Economist’s corruption bank practices, or Banksters, the community of readers and interpreters addressed as the global elite, the art collectors who may toy around with the price tag, etc.)? What if the capitalist logic epitomized by the infomercial –pathological, frivolous, fragile, anti-historical, ad hoc and situational language, the language of supreme subjectivism, of nomadic monads and their “enlightened self-interest” as the official prose will have it, etc.—has always already penetrated, taken over and broken down resistances inside university spaces?

 

The challenge is thus for your critical intelligence to imagine the strength of its opposite, the deliberate mocking of the analytical or intellectual impulse, the de-semanticized and de-analytical, or the de-thetic circulation of commercial capitalistic language that primordially wants to publicize, give visibility, and admittedly sell and buy, and do it more and faster, following an endless repetition or reproduction cycle that says nothing of importance about the end of history, or any meaningfulness that would not fit into in docile manner always in such narrow, cynical horizon of “the customer is always right.” Koons’s creations fit admirably into such Procrustean bed. In other words, the challenge is not to restrict oneself to such colossal silliness. Isn’t criticism the identity card of the best humanities and consequently its logical status of persona non grata status inside most institutions of higher learning, at least inside Koons’s original homeland, structured around comparable, if not identical (capitalist) criteria? (the U.S. cannot claim exceptionalism in relation to the maligned “liberal arts” in this regard, I am afraid).

 

Koons’s kitsch-and-camp art-making is symptomatic of capitalistic underpinning of the art-world inside privileged pockets of minority sociability. I wonder if I can press the post-auratic dimension of such works consistently, indefinitely. Still in the mood for more?:

“Metallic Venus” (2010), a saucy gal, marks a more dramatic departure from Mr Koons’s earlier style. The glossy turquoise statue includes a planter of living white petunias. The flowers are an odd touch, suggesting a Pygmalionesque desire to bring her to life. Venus was the Roman goddess of prosperity and victory as well as love. More than any of Mr Koons’s other new works, “Metallic Venus” feels like a dazzling trophy made for the super-rich.

 

Thanks to improvements in three- dimensional-scanning technology, “Metallic Venus” was made in only 18 months, which is fast by Koons standards. By contrast, two of the other new works at the Liebieghaus—“Hulk (Friends)” and “Hulks (Bell)”—took eight years to make. (Collectors who paid in advance for the works may complain that they are still waiting, but it is fashionable to have a multimillion-dollar Koons on order.) The artist explains that initially the technology was not good enough to do what he wanted and the Hulks “got trapped” in a spiral of “reverse engineering, endless scanning and re-detailing”. Mr Koons strives hard to create convincing illusions. The “Hulks” are painted bronze depictions of the inflatable toys that stand in for the green macho man; they look as light as air and have a finish that resembles plastic.”

 

What immediately hits the eye is the poly-syllable (Pygmalionesque), a meaningful reference to Bernard Shaw?, in relation to the incongruous series of adjectives –metallic, saucy, glossy, odd and dazzling—describing the sculpture, also girl and trophy, made for whom but the super-rich who can “possess” it or her? Another trilogy, she/it signifies prosperity, victory, love. Who does not want that, right? Does this appear like a warranted detour into Greek/Roman mythology? Does it feel like heavy scholarly apparatus or something brought ad hoc to fill in historically in ornamental fashion? Interestingly, religious and political imagery is strictly absent, and the lack of reasons as to why this or that choice of images will surely be, if and when pressed, brought down to the corner of individual subjectivity, or improvised, hence banalized. But this not taking hermeneutics seriously, is also artistic strategy not to reveal sources of inspiration and fundamentally process. There is something of this in Koons’s artwork and self-presentation (“Jeff Koons’s enthusiasm for media coverage has been integral to his success,” remember?, as included in the legend of the final image of the virtual version of the article?).

 

 

The second paragraph cuts the historical mythologizing down to its miniature size in its focus on the technological. I would like to suggest to you that this is the nagging core of such banal imagery (imagine the behind the scenes of the factory and the workers in the film Metropolis (1927) by Fritz Lang). The most intriguing aspect of this artwork resides here: its manufacture and process, also over the advertising and the circulation of social energies one may imagine spinning around a goofy cartoon character jumping up and down with a few dollar bills popping out of the eye sockets! But, do not get the fingers of your imagination caught up in the silly imagery of Hulks, Venuses, Popeyes, monkeys, Cicciolinas, etc. allegories of the cave, so to speak. Entertain the thought, if only momentarily, around the illusionism implicit in the invocation of technology and the camouflage of procedures made explicit in the first paragraph (“taking care to hide the evidence of these processes. A Koons piece is always partly about the exquisite appearance of the final product,” my emphasis). Perhaps the most meaningful aspect of such art work is in the vicinity of the speculation of what happens before such final  product hits the global marketplace of cultural goods, and how they may get caught up in the duplicity of bronze and inflatability, the double “passing” of one for the other, and vice versa, the feeling of lightness, dangling from ceilings, lightheartedness if you wish, the plastic-resemblance and what gets intimated as being something else but never quite being there (weight, matter, seriousness, solemnity, etc.).

 

 

The inquisitive mind of the curious cat may be tempted to topple the figures off the table in one iconoclastic gesture and focus on the speculation of such process that hides itself, coyly in such a way that only the mono-syllable brand name, Koons, remains. How to go about the deliberate and conscious production of such intentionally silly imagery playing up some contrasts of matter, but also of (symbolic) use and social function? What sticks out, and what probably remains at the end of the day, is however the parenthesis included in the second paragraph, the saucy girl playing hard to get, so to speak, pointing fingers in the direction of the handsome money marker by the brand name (“multimillion dollar Koons”). The American idiom is eloquent in such regard: “to feel like a million dollars.” Would you feel like a million dollars owning a Koons coyly presenting such a price tag? “Sexy contemporary antiquities” answers, how else?, in the affirmative. Yet, change the glossy, garish colors to black and white, suspend the  dazzling, slow down and think for a minute, what remains intriguing is the operation that produces such cultural objects for a specific use and circulation inside specific social sectors within the capitalistic network of global signification. The undisclosed putting together of such deliberately silly works of art is probably the most provocative dimension and one would need good spies to accomplish such as exploration.

 

In the meantime, one must also learn to keep a straight face in relation to the frivolity and levity of tone –the old prehistoric goddess is a saucy girl, who may also be a trophy wife, obviously. Isn’t this the ideal mood for the desirable consumption that arrests all proportion, logic, and promotes the excessive, silly, bubbly or nonsense among the ideal audience of potential customers and consumers, the “super-“rich, no thick subjectivities are needed, who can afford such consumption and not make much of it, etc.? A focus on process and a resisting mood, a severe one?, may help reframe Koons. And yet, how long can we linger in the imageless exercise of abstraction in relation to such production of cultural objects holding the aura of art-making at some distance? Can we linger in such drastic suspension of images, such iconoclasm, even when we are truly dealing with art-making deliberately inhabiting semantic fields of triviality and even worthlessness? Is it possible to rescue the positive term (worth, value) out of such explicit semantic negativity (worthlessness, content and value-free) in ways that are not automatically subsumed under the dollar value, the “sex” of “Sexy contemporary antiquities” to be sure? Temporality is introduced in relation to the production of the cultural objects in question (18 months, 8 years for the Hulk pieces, admittedly). There is no mention of a team, not even in Koons’s website. We are dealing with the invisible men and women in the artistic Metropolis generating prohibitive objects of consumption for the global elites, not in terms of intellectual complexivity, but in terms of the price tag. The sculptures present themselves effortlessly, amiably, lacking all pretension to anything in general or in particular. Will you take them at face value accordingly? I am suggesting that we should not and yet I realize that the intellectual operation implied in far more complicated than I envisaged at first. Yet I remain in the negative to the previous and the following questions. More radically, will you take anything at face value in the virtual context of this kitsch-and-camp for the global elite against the current Bankster context of financial meltdown and crisis? This is, I would put to you, the true obscenity that Koons’s art is promoting since the 1980s. “I will not suck that lollipop!,” as the humorous Puerto-Rican expression has it. And yet on second thought, is Koons bypassing any possibility of critique of his work privately laughing all the way to the bank (critique or criticism: interrogation of the criteria informing the work, and not the saying “bad things” or placing blame as vernacular Americana tends to assume)? Am I thus blaming him, signaling him out, for being a good or bad capitalist, a good or bad artist, when there are so many? I hope other dimensions are raised rather than the moralizing blame game instead. I almost imagine him mocking the “bad” and saying he wants to be “bad” all the way. What else could kitsch and camp say?

 

The patient reader is already on the alert. The concluding paragraphs of “Sexy contemporary antiquities” will not mend previous inconsistencies and manufactured nonsense:

“Mr Koons sees the “Hulk” and “Popeye” (the subject of the summer’s sixth new sculpture) as self-portraits. It is intriguing that a slim intellectual known for his classy business suits likes to represent himself as a pumped-up muscleman. “Popeye” is a stainless-steel statue in an unusually large range of translucent colours. He holds a silver tin of emerald-green spinach that could also be a pot of money. The messianic figure’s show of physical power is absurd but real.”

 

The self-styling is deliberately cartoonish. The prose is bad (sees as self-portraits?, with an insinuation of a first person addressing himself publicly in the third-person singular). The infomercial says that Koons says Hulk and Popeye are ironic self-portraits. Allegorically, Americana signifies comic-book banality unattached to anything consistent linguistic, social, historical, intellectual, etc. (I am writing these pages when the Aurora, Colorado shooting took place by an alleged “Joker,” in reference to the Batman series, and the memorable performance of Heath Ledger coming back to real life in such a non-banal way). Comic book and cartoon characters are the mirror image –surely unthreatening—of the artist in question always according to himself. How seriously could you take such subjectivity accordingly, since this is not English self-deprecating sense of humor? The next line is priceless. “Intriguing.” When the adjectives arrive, the evaluative-analytical, indeed the “intellectual” disposition goes out the window. In the zero-land of intrigue, a veritable Toys’R’us world, the “slim intellectual” becomes “a pumped-up muscleman.” Why not? The funniest part is the unintentional humor released by this bad piece of writing that is surely trying to make the art of the artist look good. Does it make you feel like reaching for your wallet and acquire the sculpture?

 

 

The infomercial wants to promote a suspension of any reasonable belief system, and seeks an ideal disposition of “crazy” or unreasonable consumption (too much money for nothing, or for something silly, and yet what if the silly thing gets you more money or visibility or sociability of a certain kind?). Popeye presents spinach that could be a pot of money. This is called a messianic figure, which is absurd and real. It is a bit like a second chapter to the great work “Stop Making Sense” (1984) by the music group Talking Heads. Hopscotch: you must jump gracefully from one square section to another, from one noun to another, one adjective to another, one free ad hoc association to another and put it in your head all by yourself while losing all rhyme or reason vis-à-vis works that explicitly proclaim their tongue-in-cheek kitsch-and-camp silliness. They seem to be saying, remember the saucy girl, “yes, and do you want to  be silly with me?” The logic is, let us insist, however not discursive. One can call it capitalistic, but this is easier said than understood. Such “dirty” language is blatantly missing in action in the homeland (security) of Jeff Koons, and mine, at least for the time being. We are dealing with non-sequiturs: a rose is a rose is a rose, the hulk is green and the spinach is also green and so is the color of the left eye of my favorite girl, saucy girl mind you, who also resembles an ancient goddess, who is also metallic while pregnant but not by me, I don’t think, but say anything you want about me as long as you spell my name right, etc. You get the point of the brand name. A strategic of light-touch, frivolous non-sequiturs wrap up Koons’s artistic persona, deliberately, and the artist is only too happy, there is no unhappiness here implicitly or explicitly, over or under the table, to the artistic gesture that fundamentally, with or without plastic-like bronze appearances, present a mirror image, also a glossy chamber pot, to the global elite so that they can see themselves reflected in his kitsch and camp art. Is there anything else? Anything more? Could this “art” welcome the proximity of other (artistic) modalities, values, moods, potential customers, critical evaluators? What does that say about the promotional intent of foundations such as Bloomberg or the Beyeler? Get the “in-joke” group recognition in the “totemic” bird-unveiling sculpture, 11.5 foot (3.5 meter)?

 

Closing Down Shop, for Now.

Capitalism in decline finds that whatever of quality it is still capable of producing becomes almost invariably a threat to its own existence (Clement Greenberg)

I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it. That is why I want to talk about it and I why I can…. It’s embarrassing to be solemn and treatise-like about Camp… The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious (Susan Sontag)

Susan Sontag wrote her “Notes on “Camp” in 1964 (I have used Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York, 1964, pp. 275-292). These are insightful, impressionistic, and unsatisfactory notes, I still find, and I may fall into the same trap decades later, double sin then, while sharing a dose of attraction and revulsion. Clement Greenberg wrote “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” in 1939 (my edition, Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism. Volume 1 (U of Chicago Press, 1986): pp. 5-22), almost thirty years before. I have put both notions, kitsch and camp, together, and I am sure one needs greater specificity since there will be modulations of both going in separate directions, and perhaps more than one reader will take aim, almost in the manner of a crazy joker, at the tandem bicycle riding along, but how happily?, in the early decades of the new global century. How different is our variety of kitsch and camp, say Koons, from the historical kitsch and camp of almost a hundred years ago? Greenberg puts the “bad” of kitsch on the other side, the good side, the “whatever is of quality,” the genuine, the true and the authentic in a culture or any culture. Does your postmodernist navigational GPS in virtual waters easily demarcate such binary opposition? The Hollywood formula still apparently does. Koons does what in relation to the abstract axiological disposition?

 

 

Kitsch is, for Greenberg, cheap and tawdry machine-produced mass culture. The irony, in the American sense of the term, is that we find in Koons the “trickle-up” effect of popular Americana seeking privileged gardens of earthly delight for the exclusive enjoyment of the global-elite, call them by the good name of “art collectors.” Conversely, private spaces, organizations, foundations and the like, “colonize” the symbolic vernaculars of mass and minorities, think of blues, jazz, rock and roll, comic books, b-films and the like. I would argue that Koons re-packages, recycles, re-arranges disjecta membra of popular Americana, and takes bits and pieces to the “celebrations” of the happy few with no other intent other than group self-recognition. This is the “heaven” where he wants to be, and put irony and butterflies, puppies and pubic hair, hulks and popeyes, etc. inside those quotation marks. His art says nothing about the big picture because there is nothing to say. There is also no big picture and the sculptures make a big statement about nothing in particular. Get the irony? The texture, ethnicity, training, upbringing, the America of the 1980s onwards is not engaged politically or otherwise. The banal content of Koons’s work, Hulks and Puppies, Venuses and Popeyes, is, I find, “objective correlative” of the official ideology of (neo-)liberalism. In relation to the ornamental function, it is not fundamentally different from the ad hoc, increasingly discontinuous and de-structured programmatic course content in most American universities offering knowledge to the customers who can afford such prohibitive costs. The disengaged, depoliticized, apolitical character claims of such offerings must be put on its head and officially declared ideological and political through and through. Mutatis mutandis: the houses of higher learning, pick your favorite modality (big public university or small liberal-arts college or Ivy-League, etc. fundamentally operating in the same style in the same league). Is it fair to see genuine differences between Koons and other kitsch-and-camp varieties in the past and present?

 

Now, I find myself clinging to social function to get a better sense of this deliberately nonsensical and silly art. “Sexy contemporary antiquities” is symptomatic and pathological, and the language may be strong, of capitalistic mechanisms of cultural-object production, dissemination and consumption and this is particularly so as soon as we bring into focus the ideal community of elite or minority privilege, at least according to the infomercial “Sexy Contemporary Antiquities,” origin, excuse and pretext in the bull’s eye of these pages. Greenberg’s dichotomies are infinitely less accessible to us now, I find, particularly after the 1980s, since Cultural Studies made its virtuous name out of the bad, the popular, the mass culture, the low, etc. As the joke, sex is “bad” indeed, it is very bad, and when it is very “bad” that is when it gets very “good.” Mutatis mutandis, with culture, and studies, and kitsch and camp. In other words: try to go deeper and radicalize the interrogation of the criteria informing the production of specific works of art, oftentimes disbelieving authorial proclamations. Koons is an easy example of the silliness of declarative purpose. Almost always, what he says about his own work has to be put in the junkyard of history, which he approaches sentimentally speaking and not without a commercially invested cynicism keen on the fast buck.

 

In the meantime, I find myself still liking Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality, in which he comes close to declare that the U.S. is the historical land of natural kitsch and camp. Think also of Venturi’s writings about Las Vegas architecture. There is some truth in how the stereotype has it that the U.S., second-hand or immigrant society from the West predominantly, intensely capitalistic and fragmented with a technological, now digital, core, cannot but look askance at the history of the dominant West, and make,  what else but?, pastiche and kitsch out of it. It is a generalization that still works for me, at least as basic lighthouse in times of so much dark. A few decades after Greenberg and Sontag, we may well be inhabiting successive turns to the same screw of kitsch-and-camp parodies of Western imposition, for example, Yasumasa Morimura, or the historical phenomenon of the colonial Baroque of Indies and the Latin-American neo-baroque in relation to the legacy of the European Baroque. But remembers these things anymore? The work of Jeff Koons is infinitely thinner and flatter. It remains cartoonish, comic-book infantile, stereotypically American, by the bad name of American, inarticulate, bad-ugly-silly, not without a measure of salesmanship, and I have suggested that the main interest may be in its process hidden from public scrutiny. This remains intriguing in the end in relation to art work that is not intriguing at all, that is emphatically not about revelations, consolations, enlightenments, and disclosures, (self-)transformations or denunciations, with or without the “sex” in it.

 

The “sex” is for me the explicit identity made by Greenberg, surely from a position of public- intellectual straight-shooter: kitsch is academia and academia is kitsch, and you can also put camp inside the culture of cultural studies as well (“cultural studies” is now the generic rubric that means little of anything in our times of “consolidation,” as the euphemism has it). Hence, take a good look at the mirror stage and see who gets to enjoy it in its glossy reflection, and who is buying it, etc. Here, I always want to underline the repressive tolerance, in Marcuse’s sense, of theoretical plurality of offerings within the same fundamental mechanism, call it by the “bad” name of capitalism, currently in a severe state or crisis of liquidity, credibility, language, etc. This is the virulence that must be attached to the virulence of kitsch underlined by Greenberg and Sontag and our contemporaneity is almost a century behind, and how sexy and antique is it? These pages have tried to turn Greenberg’s class analysis around, to “trickle up” so to speak, the mass-culture resentment he located in Soviet Russia, fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, and make it travel, or bring it “home” to the global aerotropolis of my Heathrow, your JFK, his Barajas, her Benito Juarez airport, etc. Greenberg forgot to mention the mood and mode of the American peasant side by side how the Russian peasant enjoyed kitsch without effort, bypassing the sophistication of Picasso, say. Such illusion of effortlessness appears important, also in relation to Koons. There is, no doubt, deliberation in the apparent silliness of such works that will rarely linger in the imagination for long. And yet kitsch and camp remain alive, officially and institutionally alive, incontinent and corrosive, burning holes of disbelief so to speak, perhaps these two truants are riding the tandem bicycle everywhere, perhaps this is the hegemonic artistic modality, or at least one of its most visible faces (any Spain that is not Almodovar’s, any America that is not comic-book-character, crass, commercial, any Britain that is not YBA (Young British Artists), how big the Bollywood phenomenon, how extensive the Asian mimicking of the West?, etc.). Greenberg and Sontag remain within a dominant European horizon that is increasingly less than forceful for us now as well. Any creative winds coming from other environments, forcefully?A plebeianization of social forms has been vindicated by some humanistic intelligence, but Koons, as you rightly imagine, is not here intellectually or politically. What he wants is to stick the Palo Alto of his kitsch-camp sensibility to the rarefied circles of minority privilege, get a name for it and make lots of money out of it. And who will blame him for it? Not me. But the following clause should not be to bring down one’s own historical, political and social imagination to the artistic misery celebrated by the “Sexy contemporary antiquities,” a kind of Toys’R’us “Made in Heaven,” which I do not really want for me: “Mr Koons’s icons are spectacular—and unrivalled. His figures have rich associations, immaculate shapes and luxurious materials. They speak to a global elite that believes in the holy trinity of sex, art and money. Art collectors enjoy seeing themselves reflected in what they buy.”

 

 

I close down with the following two samples of economic articles. One by the business editor of The Guardian, Heather Stewart: 1) “£13tn hoard hidden from taxman by global elite (www.guardian.co.uk/business/2012/jul/21/global-elite-tax-offshore-economy);         and 2) “Developing world’s secret offshore wealth ‘double external debt” (www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/datablog/2012/jul/19/developing-world-offshore-wealth-external-debt?intcmp=239, posted by Nick Mead,  22 July 2012). The intelligent reader will be able to superimpose the maps and charts included in these articles and see how they fit with the previous 20 localities editorializing The Economist. The silly content of this kitsch-and-camp finds the form –underline the excessive adjectives in the infomercial, dazzling, spectacular, unrivalled, etc.—and also the social function of minority or elite-group self-recognition inside tax-exempt havens, tax-heavens, and theoretically perhaps even evasions, with or without direct connection with offshore capital stocks… I leave the concreteness to the economists who know how to chart flows of capital, sourcing, investments, meltdowns, bailouts, etc.

 

 

The GPS: Who says what about whom, where, when, how, against whom, what is going on, what’s the point, what the payoff, who wins/loses (the political formula), etc.? Koons produces self-referential kitsch-and-camp works of deliberate trivia in the context of popular Americana since the 1980s, and four decades later he still goes at it with slight variations against an anti-historical horizon of relative detachment from serious engagement with American society, let alone global society at large. The point appears to be nothing more than making lots of money by selling this grotesquely expensive “silliness” to those who can afford it, who will see themselves “reflected in what they buy,” since they buy “the holy trinity of sex, art and money.” The largest landscape must be the abstraction of capital flows wanting to run frictionless and unimpeded. Here, the mood may be light and the discourse, fluff, at least in an un-intrusive self-fashioning. Koons’s kitsch-and-camp silliness is thus “objective correlative” –the formula being originally T.S. Eliot’s– of a certain global elite of art collectors, at least that is what the infomercial in question would like them to believe. My working assumption has been that such infomercial is de facto if not de iure Koons’s. I find myself in the end doing a dictionary move looking for “silly,” to make sure that the meaning is as clear as rain (weak in intellect, destitute of ordinary strength of mind, exhibiting a lack of judgment, contrary to reason, and the OED etymology delivers “deserving pity, compassion, sympathy, helpless, defenseless, weak, feeble, frail, insignificant, unlearned…”). Are these features one would like to promote, endorse and “celebrate” in what kind of “heaven” exactly, in relation to the “global-elite” dimension (a more muscular language would speak of the “ruling class,” and surely this remains un-American through and through in the sense of exceedingly unusual and vigorously repressed “history,” at least for now).

 

In closing, (historical, aesthetic) intelligence looks at the abyss of its own destruction in the concepts of kitsch and camp, which still must be historicized and socialized. There is here, I still find, vortex and perhaps even pathology, even trauma in the lack of proper intelligibility of this kitsch-and-camp phenomenon still running like mercury through my fingers (would value-mutation come out of this nothing-value or nihilism?). I fail to see, I must say, the “private zany experience of the thing” underlined in the end by Sontag in relation to Camp duplicity, surely hiding away in privatizations of enjoyment and glee of group self-recognition in the million-dollar havens, and heavens, making light of an awful lot of things, aesthetic, political, historical, etc. down there… The self-imposed challenge is to strive to think harder about processes and social relations instead of the fixation of the finished product, the Hulks, Venuses, Puppies, Monkeys, Popeyes, Swans, Cicciolinas, etc. What is truly hard to deal with, and digest, is the banalization and trivialization, the degradation, the cutting down of what you think matters most, most painfully from within, the thinning out, the emptying out, the evacuation of intelligence, of historical sensibility, of care and careful, even poetic language, also in relation to a holy trinity of no concern to Koons, the so-called “languages, literatures and cultures,” within conventional environments of higher education in the U.S. and elsewhere. Are these true gardens of earthly delight fundamentally different from the kitsch-and-camp mechanisms described in the preceding pages? I do not feel like smiling anymore, and certainly not in the suit-and-tie,  bland manners of salesmen and managers and facilitators. And how far has Cicciolina been left behind, partner in “crime,” you will remember, in Koons’s previous work of more graphic nature? Go tell sexy Popeye, contemporary Hulk and the other antiquities that I would rather do spend some time with this foreign saucy girl and that money, big or small, is not needed, really.

 

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