The success of Jeff Koons is worth pondering, even if his works aren’t.
It’s not often I stop in my tracks on hearing news from the world of modern art, but the other day brought an amazing story and an image I just can’t shake. At a Christie’s auction, for $91 million, an unknown buyer laid claim to a metal sculpture resembling a rabbit-shaped balloon. The sales fee alone was $10 million, headlines announced The Most Expensive Work Ever by a Living Artist, critics marveled at the piece — “this deathless bunny cast in silver steel” — and to begin processing all of this, well, you simply have to see the Rabbit.
To prepare bidders for the experience, as Fortune captures the scene, “the piece occupied a temple-like rotunda at Christie’s, displayed in blazing white light on a pedestal under an oculus.” The auction house’s lot essay reflected on the “inscrutability” of the work: “The steel surface of the titular bunny initially appears smooth and balloon-like, the forms reduced to some abstract, Platonic ideal.”
No mere sculpture, explained Christie’s chairman of contemporary art, the three-foot-high Rabbit stands for “the end of sculpture and the antithesis of ‘the perfect man,’ Michelangelo’s David.” How so? Well, David “is young, he’s muscular, he has long arms, strong legs. He’s carved by one of the greatest artists of all time with a chisel, out of one block of the purest white marble. The end of this is not a computer screen because that’s not a carved figure. The end is a small bunny.’”
The creative force giving rise to such insights is one Jeff Koons, a big name in “conceptual art” who brought forth the Rabbit back in 1986 — although, we’re assured by a New York Times art critic, “it continues to speak to us.” His works over the years have fetched some $600 million. This includes an auction price of $58 million for Balloon Dog (Orange), rendered in a fashion similar to the bunny, and $22 million that someone parted with in exchange for a ten-foot-high aluminum sculpture duplicating a mound of Play-Doh. A departure from Mr. Koons’s “Inflatables” series using balloon toys, cartoon figures, and commercial and sexual images, Play-Doh, Christie’s noted, evokes “childhood memories of play and creativity — that age before the constraints of taste and learning have been imposed.”
“Conceptual” captures more than Mr. Koons’s feats of imagination. Apparently, much of the actual labor is done by a sizeable production staff of painters, fabricators, engineers, and other assistants along with contractors, leaving the master to oversee their progress or to concentrate on his next inspiration. An exception would be the artist’s “Made in Heaven” series prepared (in his “Early Work” phase) for the Whitney Museum, in which his hands-on participation consisted of featuring himself and his soon-to-be wife in various pornographic pictures. This was celebrated as a daring assault on the conventions of artistic taste, a “recontextualizing” of the public and private, or something along those lines.
If the uninitiated do not detect much creativity in any of the pieces themselves, there’s certainly enough of it in the writings of art critics who strain to make us see why Mr. Koons and his $91 million piece are so very “important.” They read like entries in a college essay contest in which students are required to reach 1,000 words or more with as much as can possibly be said about the artistic merits of a balloon rabbit. Inspecting the object, a Guardian critic observes that “there is indeed something special about the contrast symbolised by the heaviness of the material used for each statue, and the seeming lightness the motifs give the impression of.” The sum effect is profoundly “counterintuitive.” One might even call it, with the Washington Post’s critic, “a compelling proposition about tensions in our culture between mass popularity and seriousness, between art and kitsch, and between pleasure and shame.”
In so many ways, says the Times writer of Mr. Koons, “he changed the way we see the world, elevating overlooked objects, like inflatables — sometimes giving them a startling, disturbing gravity, and other times just making them bigger, not better.” Perhaps this is why, after learning of the balloon rabbit, I couldn’t stop thinking about it:
because the strongest works imprint themselves on our visual memories with a striking if uneasy singleness. The various curved forms of the “Rabbit” — head, torso and legs — function as a cascade of concave mirrors. Often compared to an astronaut, the creature is at once alien and cute, weirdly sinister and innocent, weightless and yet armored. The idea that something is inside, or nothing is, is equally disturbing. “Rabbit” is intractable, a little warrior, yet it also vanishes into its reflections, which are full of us looking at it.
All so “disturbing,” an accolade in these circles, and naturally even in their ruminations about the silly rabbit we’re not going to get by without mention of some deep, uneasy cultural connection to Donald Trump. Yes, concludes the Post critic, while the Rabbit might “succeed as art,” in the unorthodox style, “Koons effected in art what President Donald Trump effected in politics: He choreographed a total collapse of the distinctions between achievement, fame, wealth, taste and success.” But art critics, like silver bunnies, can vanish into their own reflections, and Republican presidents are a mainstay of the genre whenever cultural decline is the theme. Of Mr. Koons it was said in 2005, by the rare critic who wasn’t impressed: “You can’t imagine America’s singularly depraved culture without him. He fits into Bush’s America the way Warhol fitted into Reagan’s.”
Actually, if there’s political insight to be gleaned from all this, it probably has more to do with inflatable reputations, gullible audiences, and the spell of progressive groupthink — problems that grow only more hopeless with money. If you left the Rabbit on a curb, no one would steal it, but set it in that temple-like rotunda under the blazing light, declare it the “end” or “antithesis” of something or other, applaud its defiance of convention, its challenging of Western norms, etc., etc., and the bidding can start at $40 million.
The decadence of modern, post-modern, avant-garde, “shock” art, or whatever we’re now supposed to call such works, is always easier to see than its temptations. “Subjectivity” is a favorite word of devotees, in frequent reminders that our standards of taste, excellence, beauty, or decency might not be shared by others. And maybe part of the thrill is just to give offense with impunity. Take, for example, those early porno works by Mr. Koons, displayed to this day in the National Gallery of Scotland. What’s so brilliantly achieved in the collection, we read at the gallery’s website, is “blurring the boundaries between fine art and pornography,” leaving the unfortunates who wander by “to make their own decisions about what is acceptable.” Doubtless the drawing power of all such works is as over-hyped by museum curators as the art itself. And to the extent they have a hold on anyone, the Guardian’s critic probably comes closest to the mark:
Koons’s whole aesthetic . . . puts everything on exactly the same level as anything else: the classical sculpture and the Disney ballerina, the basketball, the pig and the baby Jesus. Nothing is greater or lesser or more significant: not the smart new Hoover or the martyred saint. And the works . . . put past and present on equal footing.
That’s the “aesthetic,” although the critic doesn’t catch its most subversive, counterintuitive effect of all: It takes some real doing to reduce so many intelligent people to the level of defending vulgarity and nonsense, and of discoursing on the meaning of Play-Doh and the like as if they were beholding the Pietà.
Such a waste of talent all around, including no doubt Mr. Koons’s. And never mind putting “past and present on equal footing”: They’d all be better off reflecting on the judgments posterity will make. Taking the Christie’s chairman up on his absurd pairing of Michelangelo’s David with the Rabbit, we know that the former has held up pretty well over time, as an achievement of art and humanity. How’s that silver bunny going to look in a few hundred years, if anyone by then even knows where to find it?
We’re left to wonder how many serious and truly gifted artists these days will never get their chance because the collectors, gallery directors, and critics are forever caught up in the latest mania. How many charitable contributions to “the arts,” likewise, are really just subsidies for the self-deluded and overindulged, and how many real causes of charity might be served by all the wealth thrown away on must-have “Warhols,” or whatever?
Perhaps one promising development on this score is the influence of foreign buyers in the high-end modern-art market. In particular, Barron’s reports, “the great hope for growth” lies with newly affluent Chinese collectors, who are finally enjoying the right of super-rich people everywhere to chase after paintings and sculptures that most of us wouldn’t take for free. By all accounts they’re snatching up the stuff, often sight unseen, as they would jewels and gold bars, and shipping it all back to China. It’s the perfect arrangement, the kind of trade imbalance we can learn to live with, and nothing is lost to art in America that we’ll ever miss.