|To understand America, explain why "Orange Balloon Dog" is worth $58.4 million.|
The above paragraph sounds pretty good as a summation of America to those not drinking USA#1 Kool-Aid, doesn't it? Once again reinforcing my idea that nobody has a monopoly on insight or understanding of American preponderance at the beginning of the 21st century, I simply paraphrased critic Howard Halle discussing a retrospective exhibition by artist Jeff Koons. (I came across this article while thinking about buying an accompanying book on his work before ultimately deciding against doing so. It was, alas, overpriced and undersized IMHO.) Unless you've been hiding under a rock, Koons is among the most famous pop artists of recent years, sort of a son-of-Warhol if the backlash wasn't so great.
In many ways, Koons embodies the contradiction which is the United States as it attempts to balance culture and commerce, art and artifice:
If I had to sum up American history in a word, I wouldn’t use racism, though obviously that’s a biggie. I’d pick hokum. I put it right up there with liberty, as in “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” a passage which itself could be taken for hokum, written as it was by a man who owned slaves [Thomas Jefferson].But wait, it gets better...
However, I don’t mean the term as it’s generally construed, i.e. bullshit. I refer to this definition: “A device used (as by showmen) to evoke a desired audience response.” As embodied by the oratorical sleight of hand that has sold Americans on everything from snake oil to unprovoked war in Iraq, hokum provides the filling for our proverbial apple pie, baked into such rhetoric as “manifest destiny,” “the lost cause” and “morning in America.” Hokum is also why I think Jeff Koons is the quintessential American artist: His work is a concrete expression of the idea.
Koons in now the subject of an exercise in overkill that trots out nearly his entire career: The vacuum cleaners entombed in fluorescently lit Plexiglas cases; the basketballs eerily submerged in fish tanks; the inflatable toys, tchotchkes, Hummel-style figurines and copies of antiquities, minted in bright reflective steel or carved in wood and granite; the insipid pop-mélange paintings; and most oddly of all, the depictions of himself in flagrante with his former wife, Ilona Staller, the adult film star known as Ciccolina.His larger point is that Americans aren't really trying tp put one over you as many (like myself) routinely suspect. Rather, they have literally drunk the Kool-Aid in buying into the very same shtick they want to sell to the rest of us:
The pieces display an undeniable genius for grabbing your attention (and given the narcissistic appeal of so many mirrored surfaces, how could they not?) but never for very long. Especially with the more recent stuff, your gaze flits from one piece of eye candy to another without much sinking in. Seeing the work en masse only exposes the void at the center of his enterprise, as well as his pretense to populism.
But the exhibit does reveal something much more interesting: Koons isn’t a charlatan as some would have it; rather, he transforms charlatanism into high art. [What a fantastic point if you apply the same idea to America itself.]Ultimately Halle gives Koons' exhibit 2/5 stars. When Pax Americana has well and truly bitten the dust, I suspect future civilizations will give it a mark somewhere in the same ballpark as far as its contributions to humanity are concerned. You take the good with the bad; be thankful for the former and try to minimize the latter:
Collapsing the distance between innocence and guile, Koons is both the grifter and the mark, the stage illusionist and the person in the front row. His output could be read as an unpacking of how conviction is fabricated—a process best summed up by George’s Talmudic advice to Jerry for foiling the polygraph in Seinfeld: “Just remember, it’s not a lie if you believe it.”
I describe Koons above as the quintessential American artist, but it should be noted that American in his case pertains to a particular version of the country, one on which the sun is clearly setting, yet one also struggling—violently at times—to stay in charge. Koons’s aesthetic dovetails neatly with this reactionary climate, much like the 19th-century academic painters before modernism swept their reputations out to sea. It would require a revolution on the same order to consign Koons and his art to a similar fate. But that change seems a long way off.