Do you remember three years ago, when Lady Gaga was still relevant? Me neither, but she said some interesting things about three artists who had allegedly been her inspiration. The first was Marina Abramovich, possibly the most well-known avant-garde artist ever. She’s also the most overrated by a mile. Gaga admires her because of her alleged artistic integrity. Not because of her reusing old ideas or paying her assistants next to nothing, then. The second of Gaga’s artistic holy trinity is Robert Wilson, an experimental theatre director whose work is so bizarre and strange it makes Gaga look as normal as a loaf of bread. The final member of this oddball group was Jeff Koons.
Koons is an interesting one to say the least. He has as many fans as he does enemies, as many people calling him a contemporary master as call him a fraud. His work sells for millions of dollars when it’s ‘just’ a pile of Play-Doh or a statue of Michael Jackson. No one thinks he’s just okay either – you have an opinion on Jeff Koons. If you’ve seen his work, you’ll buy into the cult of Koons, or you’ll think he’s pulling an elaborate trick in order to make money. This is why he’s the artist who best sums up our time: either he’s an incredible, innovative creator like no one else, or he’s doing it all for the money. Or both. He’s all surface and no depth, which reflects the cultural times we have the misfortune to be living through.
The world now is stuffed with minor celebrities who stand for nothing. They are their image and nothing more. The horde of young YouTube stars (who I’m told are actually relevant) are so overly sincere that their audience doesn’t have to think or reflect critically on what they’ve seen. The same is happening in pop music. Taylor Swift, for instance, is all surface. People accept them on a daily basis without as much anger as Koons creates, and here’s why: those people aren’t in the art world. They might be complete nothings, just empty vacuous spaces behind a pretty boy or beautiful girl face, but Koons is an Artist. And the art world is full of snobs.
There’s nothing in Koons we’re not familiar with. Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga, or a shiny Popeye statue – he’s not saying anything new about these things, he’s repurposing their image. Highbrow art about Popeye? Yes. Koons is full of contradictions, which is the source of his power. We can stare and stare until our eyes fall out, but that’s really all there is to it. Koons made three versions of his Popeye statues, each six and a half feet tall and weighing 2,000 pounds. One of them sold for $28m. It’s not like the work itself is interestingly made – Koons has a studio of people to do the hard graft for him. The surface of the statue is the thing itself, it’s not pretending to be any more than an amped up version of something you might find in a little souvenir shop in the tackiest corner of the planet. But that’s the whole point. Koons is selling – and his art is made to be bought by the obscenely rich – tacky souvenirs of our time. Instead of spending a few pounds on a plastic Popeye, spend a few million on a gold one.
Let everyone know you’re obscenely wealthy by buying a Koons, not realising he’s just selling you something you can get for a lot less. But if you’re willing to buy into his image, you’re willing to spend your wealth on it. Koons has created a cult around himself. He perpetuates his image better than a PR manager can, and he’s certainly a better publicist than artist. All that bad artists need to get ahead is a good publicist (Banksy, anyone?), and Koons does his own work. Koons makes you believe that if you take nothing from his work, then you’re in the wrong and he’s a misunderstood genius, like Van Gogh or Duchamp were in their lifetime. Here’s the thing: there is nothing to be taken from Jeff Koons. There is nothing more to his work than the surface. The whole point is that everything is in front of you at once. The work is empty of anything deeper than image, as vacuous as the culture that led to its creation.
Koons has won whatever game he was playing. Retrospectives of his work have taken place all over the world, the cult of Koons line up around the street to take a look at an enormous dog made of stainless steel. Koons, like him or hate him, takes the emptiness of contemporary culture and blows it up to an enormous size in order to ram down our throats just how very barren and obvious culture is right now. Of course this implicates his own work, and of course Koons knows it. He got disgustingly wealthy from it though, so do you think he cares? If you don’t like Koons’ work, take your complaint to the bland, boring people we’ve made famous. It’s their fault he exists, and it’s our fault they exist.
If Koons infuriates you, good. We’ve accepted empty image for far too long. It’s time to stop letting people like Jeff Koons become wealthy beyond belief by peddling this utterly empty, purely-image driven kind of art. It means nothing. It’s time we celebrated people who stand for something, who are more than their image. Stop letting image create our culture. Start letting ideas back in, and we’d be somewhere close to the right track again.