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The Darker, More Disturbing Side of Artist Jeff Koons’ Love Affair With Kitsch

Art-world pervert flaunts mirrored balloons, oodles of cash at the Whitney

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Jeff Koons, Inflatable Flowers (Short Pink, Tall Purple), 1979. Vinyl, mirrors, and acrylic; 16 x 25 x 18 in. (40.6 x 63.5 x 45.7 cm). Collection of Norman and Norah Stone. © Jeff Koons (Images courtesy of the Whitney Museum)
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I was listening to critic Deborah Solomon and radio-anchor Soterios Johnson on New York Public Radio around the opening week of the Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art when it hit me that it was finally time for me to weigh in on this gleeful menace of the international art cabal. Not just because Koons is a wickedly interesting artist, but because the Koons retrospective creates an undeniable litmus test for a culture on—let’s call it—the brink.

The exchange I heard on the radio planted a few seeds, I must say, in my head. Here’s how Solomon described one work in the show (a mash-up of pink panties and a teddybear): “In that explicit conversion of eroticism and cuteness, I found basically the definition of perversion.” With the word “perversion,” Soterios seemed to come out of character. “Wow,” he uttered under his breath into the mic and out into the airwaves.

Wow. I would agree. Pretty enticing. But in order for me to permit myself to get sucked into the debate over Koons’ art—which I have avoided for years—I now realize I will have to “go rabbi” on this shit! After all, the Whitney’s subway campaign reeks of propaganda in its deliberate use of the word “mesmerizing”—19th-century German physician Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer’s word for Animal Magnetism. (For a good visual representation of Animal Magnetism, I recommend Leni Reifenstal’s Triumph of the Will.)

So, now I’m rolling. Yet something still keeps warning me not to get sucked up into this … Vacuum Cleaner—not to be another writer sacrificing his language (and all that comes and goes with it) to the roaring bonfire they’ve made over at the Whitney. It’s a matter of economics. Us critics—external brains plugged into these mute artworks like temporary generators—are not really paid so well. But if I am to believe that I’m not merely providing free PR but clarity in a time of cultural disorientation, then maybe this is my opportunity to articulate aspects of the Kulturkampf we’re currently living through.

How then to delve in? I already have. My first step was to type the following into Google: “jeff koons anti-semite.” Why? because this is always the first step made by any remotely curious Jewish intellectual in search of clues. Nothing!

Then: “genealogy surname koons” … … … German! Very German! But so are we all.

Then I began to inquire further into the etymology of the word “kitsch,” and this is what I found:

1926, from Ger., lit. “gaudy, trash,” from dial. kitschen “to smear.”

1926—the same year Mein Kampf came out. Right around the time the young, so-called “failed artist” got attracted to the use of mesmerizing oration, and shortly before this man—aka the führer—revealed his own taste for propaganda (surface) over degenerate art (the underbelly).

One could call a mass-produced, cheaply made, decorative object “kitsch,” claiming it to be in bad taste. But this doesn’t make that object certifiably kitsch—it is just an opinion. Or is kitsch engineered strategically and manipulatively to satisfy the bad taste of its un-cultured consumer? If so, maybe kitsch really is “certifiably” kitsch. (And just who was manufacturing this kitsch stuff anyway?)

So, is kitsch innocent or guilty of its own kitschiness? And who was calling whom kitsch? It was the common working-class Germans who lacked a deeper, more “sophisticated” taste for the sublime art object, while Jews seemed to posses this sophistication and were out in front, creatively and philanthropically paving the way for the avant-garde. Kitsch, then, could have been a shared snobbishness held by the upper class—the German-Jewish cultural elite—expressing contempt for the retarded taste of lower-class Germans and the assembly-line “fake” production of their beloved tchochkes.

tchotch·ke (n.)

1. (Yiddish) “A small object that is decorative rather than strictly functional; a trinket,” also “a pretty girl or woman.”

When Hitler came of age, perhaps he decided that there had to be a purging of art. German kitsch—in all its innocent glory—adored by all Rhine-folk alike—would now seek to save itself, extricate itself, in the form of idealized propagandistic examples of Aryan perfection, from the overall contaminated arts made by the degenerates in art school who hung him out to dry. Now I think I’m getting somewhere: a generational German obsession (budding around the year 1926) with a strong distrust for the real-deal everything, and a strong need for the fake or ideal.

There was a tactical coup under way by the National Socialist German Worker’s Party—street thugs, power-hungry bureaucrats and industrial war mongers—mobilizing under Hitler to divide and conquer the upper levels of allied German-Jew management, using a horrific wedge of racist propaganda and terror to fracture the bonds of power and taste, to drive apart the upper-class Jews from their intermarried and socially interwoven Germans. (Luther, for example, may point to a far older recessive anti-Semitism in German society and elsewhere, but let’s just say that in urban circles of the Weimar extravaganza it was thought to be relatively isolated among religious freaks who were still concerned about the Jew who killed Jesus.)

Watching the 1985 French documentary, Shoah, I recently became intrigued by one of Claude Lanzmann’s revealing hidden-camera interviews with Polish folks still living in the town of Treblinka, Poland, where the Nazis established one of their most infamous extermination camps. The old Polish woman being interviewed revealed an interesting sentiment on camera—that the young Jewesses of her youth had always struck her as the most pretty, and feminine, and desirable girls in the village—they were competition, really.

What the—? I’ve never heard it said that Jewish-anything of that era was desirable. In any case, the Jewish princesses of her tiny village didn’t have to work and would spend time and money on their vanity. Relative to the hardened Polish women, a Jewess—made up with even the faintest trace of eye shadow—would have appeared somewhat gaudy (see earlier definition of kitsch, and tchotchke) relative to her surroundings.

gaud (n.)

late 14c., “jest, joke, prank, trick;” also “fraud, deception, trick, artifice.” Also “large, ornamental bead in a rosary” (mid-14c.); “a bauble, trinket, plaything” (mid-15c.). In some senses, from gaudy (n.) (see gaudy.) In some, from Latin gaudium “joy.”

Basically a little lipstick and some rouge powdered on the cheeks and we arrive at the subtle threshold of deception, ornamentation, sensuality. The Jewish sense of art (taste), can now be linked—through words at least—to an exotic dark expression and charm that is just beneath the surface and extremely hard to resist. Beauty.

I was originally told when I was young that Germany’s anti-Semitism and scapegoatism had to do with tense creditor-debtor relations—ugly bankers. But now I have this nagging sensation that it had less to do with “ugly bankers” and more to do with ugly bankers’ beautiful and seductive sons and daughters.

Before we really delve into Koons, let’s examine one of the most insidious examples of National Socialist propaganda—propaganda that strove to quash the love affair between Germans and Jews in the upper echelons of urban German society. In the problematic children’s book The Poisonous Mushroom (1938), Jews are depicted by the illustrator Philipp Rupprecht (aka Fips) as unshaven, drooling, bent-nosed, pig-eyed, slouching, short, fat, weak, etc.

What strikes me, is that Fips’ illustrations are marvelously accurate depictions of many of the Jews I’ve grown up with—they are even similar, in ways, to the man sitting in front of this computer screen. Fips’ Jews could easily pass as Peter Falk playing Columbo, Adam Sandler, Paul Giamatti, Freaky-geeky Seth Rogen, James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, Orson Welles, and the wild-eyed Allen Ginsberg. Had the German volk absorbed propaganda more to the tune of Shrek, imagine how tolerant they would have been taught to be. Or what if Fips had also drawn examples of grotesque Germans with distasteful features (in the manner of Otto Dix)? That would have clarified to children—and adults with childish minds—that the world is filled with hideous Jews and hideous Germans! But this is why they call it propaganda. Kiddie propaganda—that also works on innocently xenophobic adults who have not matured beyond adolescence or had the opportunity to develop a broader taste for beauty and also for its appealing inversion, which is known as ugly. What if the cartoon that ultimately preaches tolerance and acceptance of all types had instead aimed to encouraged children to become offended by ugliness—say, the ugliness of ostentatious privilege shared among the wealthy upper classes of today, the godawful 1 percent?

***

With this simmering indignation in mind, let’s move to the present Koons show at the Whitney. Is it Koons’ intention to flaunt? Yes. To propagandize? Yes. Or, like Klaus Kinski—in his brilliantly political “Jesus” monologues—to mesmerize? Indeed it is.

With an interest in Walter Benjamin’s run through kitsch (as he ran from the Nazis) and Clement Greenberg’s attack on kitsch (as he supposedly ran with the CIA), I find that the topic still hasn’t run its course. There’s so much more to say about a German word that doesn’t even have an English translation. Wait, I can fix this. Let’s just use the name Koons as the English translation of kitsch.

koons (n.)(adj.)

21c., high-class American kitsch sold at exorbitant prices. See “kitsch, gaud, and tchochke.”

There. Done. The Koons propaganda machine is not about etymology, politics, racism, entertainment, or even ideology. It’s all about money—preposterous, record-breaking sums of money—as well, I suppose, as the things in life that can only be owned by those with … all the money in the world! Wealth, after all, is the propaganda for a class-splintered society. Money, a symbol of happiness, divides people into two groups that do not mix: Those who spend it to make it, and those who make it to spend it. This puts Koons Corp.—with liquid on loan from the Central Gagosian Bank (Gagosian is listed prominently as one of the show’s major funders along with Bank of America and a humongous worldwide cargo shipping company called Hanjin Shipping)—in a pretty vulnerable position: Being so overtly joyous and gay and gaudy about money in a time of economic instability is bound to create enemies, sooner or later (lucky the old Whitney ziggurat is fortified with a moat that could only have been placed there in jest by the Bauhaus architect of Hungarian-Jewish decent, Marcel Breuer).

Back to Deborah Solomon: “I realized that inflation is the theme of his work. It’s one of the prevailing metaphors of our time, and I think Koons is an ‘inflation artist.’ ” Inflation, she implies, is his medium. Nice! I would agree. Let me expand on this one step further: The price of the work gets inflated by the artist, the dealer, the collector, and the company that owns the world’s ships and cargo containers, on purpose. But why? Money laundering? Tax evasion? To get chicks?

As for me—I am still waiting for the cost of living to come down, for the bargain life, the discount life, the 99-cent-store life (where everything in the “store-of-life” really is only 99 cents). Isn’t Koons’ “propaganda of high prices” telling me the exact opposite? That I should want to pay more? Yes. Isn’t it counterintuitive to spend more when you have less? Yes, it is. But if you practice the art of inflation—an art that is taught at Wharton and on Wall Street—you learn that money can be made by getting people to desire what they don’t have.

For the sake of comedy, please see the Koons Wikipedia site.

Jeffrey “Jeff” Koons (born January 21, 1955) is an American artist known for his reproductions of banal objects—such as balloon animals produced in stainless steel with mirror-finish surfaces. He lives and works in both New York City and his hometown of York, Pennsylvania.

I like the home-town-boy touch. And the inclusion of Jeff’s alternative name, Jeffrey. Thanks for that. And how it establishes that the steel balloons are mirrored steel balloons. So, the artwork does not stand alone in celebration of its own gaud. It’s made more gaudy by reflecting each and every visitor who confronts it.

But to go back for a second to Ms. Solomon’s statement about “perversion.” If the mirror implies that it is “we” who are the work, than this must also mean it is “we” who are the perverts. Does Koons want us to think it is about us? No. I think it is really about him and his personal fetishization of power and manipulation. By claiming that his intentions are sincere—by refusing, in my mind, to fess up to the useful social commentary (or even satire) that his work engenders—Koons opts out of the more pressing critical discussion. “The work is about me,” he seems to say. It is not a satire of global capital propaganda and merchandizing with the aim of waking us up! I would hypothesize, that prior to being discovered by the legendary Ileana Sonnabend (1914-2007), Koons was more a bratty antagonistic Dadaist in spirit. But when he found himself inside enemy lines, past security, he flipped a switch, and entered this game of inflation.

How perverted, then, is Jeffrey Koons? Is he really perverted? Or kind of perverted? Do his teddy-bear-pink-panties equate to a forgivable adult kinkiness, or a less-forgivable subliminal adult child-molester vibe (think Joe the Camel)? Does his Walt Disney-esque airbrushed pornography equate to a short-lived embarrassing rush from observing a private act (and private parts) in a public place? Certainly any mainstream public debate on the topic of Koons’ “perversion” would automatically mark him as an official USA degenerate, soil his reputation, plummet his value, and make him, like Michael Jackson, into a suspect-in-heaven.

Koons can seem, at times, like a criminal who becomes so enamored with his own crime that he virtually brags himself right into prison. When he “made” his “Made in Heaven” series, he was temporarily confused, let’s just say, if he was inspired to create or to propagate. As art, these twisted X-rated billboards bring much complexity and welcomed heinousness to the Koons oeuvre, but as far as propaganda goes, Goebbels would be bored.

What would it take for Koons to slip up and accidentally admit that it was his sincere/insincere intent from the beginning to create an emergent corporate art enterprise taking stolen kitsch blueprints and using aggressive inflationary measures (like context, scale, and production values) to transform them into hard-to-get luxury goods—while smiling and telling all the rest of us to shut up and be proud of Jeffrey? Consider Koons’ mesmerizing confession for the press preview of his retrospective, which was also played on NY Public Radio.

I am enjoying every moment of this, I have to tell you … and I am enjoying it because I really believe in art, I really believe in the transcendence that it has given me. … It has taught me how to feel … to enjoy the senses … and through this sense-perception, it’s taught me how to enjoy ideas, and to experience this very ethereal, ephemeral realm of ideas.

So far, so good. But then, out came this: “Art has taught me how to really become a better human being.” BETTER? Better than who? Better than me? Better than you? No, this wasn’t that slip, where Koons admits to his own snobbish contempt for the American masses who buy un-inflated koons and the American elite who buy inflated koons with total disregard for the rocky history of kitsch, propaganda, and animal magnetism.

Oh better! Now I see. This sounds vaguely like a confession of guilt. Or a road to recovery, from the hangover of the ’80s, I guess. Just keep telling yourself this Jeff, or Jeffrey, or whatever your name is, while I projectile vomit all over the third floor of the Whitney like a car-sick 7-year-old wondering who blew up all the crap in a CVS Pharmacy and stuffed it in a museum. Isn’t it ironic that something could be maximally cheap and maximally expensive at the same time? This is starting to sound less like Nazi Germany and more like America to me. It is, like all Koonses, a weirdly joyful publicity stunt, pulling on the strings of us people who want to imagine that there really is such think as Michelangelo, high up on that scaffolding with his nose and paint brush touching the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, where God’s finger almost touches Adam’s.

***

Koons is an artist who claims that he is hiding nothing. But critics—interrogators—cannot get the artist to answer the questions the way we would like, and so we resort to our own answers: Claiming that Koons is cunningly pretending not to be making fun of the kitsch consumer, not to be behind a social satire that implicates our wasteful and corrupt horrifically racist society by getting us to see that our highest-valued things in life are really nothing but trash, gaudy, kitchy, smears of shiza that nonetheless shock us into laughter and temporarily fill us with an intoxicating sense of erotic pleasure. And that Koons’ flagellant balloons of verbal gas such as “art has made me a better human being,” have to be taken as a brilliant deadpan.

The critics are not actually so divided about Koons. We are all pretty much scared of Jeff—scared that he is, in fact, exactly who he claims to be: So deeply sincere a menace as to warrant expert psychological evaluation. Whether his significant muscle lies in his unyielding and accurate cynicism or his somehow frozen-in-time ahistorical innocence, his masterminding of the art crime of this century is in full swing. His skill at keeping us in a teetering conundrum of his invention—“poor man’s art is beautiful, and rich man’s art is even more beautiful”—is a kind of perfectly balanced “idea”—and a very enjoyable one at that. But also an idea that is rooted in a not-so-innocent German fairy tale about the kitsch-loving volk who were woken at night by a magnetizing, mesmerizing, hypnotic propaganda, dressed up in sexy black costumes with these neat little running-man logos, and led by drums and torches up over the walls of society into a high-class German & Jewish ball where mutual admiration, luxury and refined taste in art, were being celebrated respectfully and well.

***

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