“One second I’m a Koons/ Then suddenly the Koons is me.” So it shall be written, and so it shall be done — because, as you probably read yesterday, Jeff Koons has designed the cover for Lady Gaga’s new album ARTPOP. Plenty of people yesterday quoted the above lyric, which comes from the album’s lead single “Applause,” but it’s interesting to stop and think about why Gaga’s ongoing attempts at insinuating herself into the art world have led her to the door of the man famous for shooting underwhelming porn with his wife and making huge sculptures of metallic balloon dogs.
There’s certainly a whole lot of mutual congratulation about the Gaga/Koons axis. MTV’s report on the cover release yesterday quoted “Koons scholar Lynne Warren” as saying, “Jeff seems to have really good senses to choose people who are not only at the height of their careers, but are going to be iconic.” This, it seems, is all Gaga has ever wanted: to be accepted by the great and good, to be taken seriously as an Artist. And, y’know, good for her — one of the refreshing things about Gaga has always been her ambition, her refusal to be pigeonholed as “just” a pop singer. Her interest in visual art has informed her strong visual aesthetic, and been responsible for some of the most memorable costumes and videos of our time, so it’s perhaps only natural that she has gravitated more and more toward the art world as the years have gone by.
Only: Jeff Koons? Really? The thing that this entire mutual lovefest rather overlooks is that Koons is pretty much everything there is to dislike about contemporary art — on the whole, his work is sub-Warholian conceptual horseshit, art for rich people about which basically no one else cares. He’s a symbol of the rarification of the top end of the art world, the way in which it’s become a playground for moneyed dilettantes and cash-hungry investors, a great ongoing circle-jerk of vapidity and self-satire. His work has nothing to say to you or me beyond, hey, isn’t it hilarious that people pay me a fortune for three basketballs in a tank or this picture of me having sex with my wife? It’s art because it costs money, capitalism at its crassest and dullest, and if you think I’m being harsh on Koons here, then I give you his own words: “The market is the greatest critic.”
Koons’ defenders would tell you that the banality of his work is the point, man — that he’s an avatar of an age of shallow celebrity and consumerism, and that his entire existence only serves to highlight the superficiality of the people who enable him, and etc. But honestly, it’s well past time that someone called bullshit on this sort of thinking. There are plenty of artists with interesting things to say about our age, but Koons isn’t one of them. The vapidity of his work is a cop-out, and in saying nothing it says, well, nothing. Interestingly, when people have objected to Koons in the past, it’s often been on the basis that his art is too lowbrow, that it’s kitsch, that it’s populist. But it’s not. It might not be high art, but it has nothing to do with the populace — it’s art for people who care about art to argue about, not art that speaks to people. It’s not pop art; it’s “pop” art.
It’s in this respect that Koons differs from Warhol, to whom he’s often compared. Warhol’s concepts of integrating popular culture into art were interesting a) because he did them first and b) because they were, at least at first, somewhat democratizing. They promoted the idea that the divide between high and low culture was arbitrary and unnecessary. Koons’ work has had the opposite effect — robbing popular culture of its popular nature, elevating it to a stratified level wherein it’s another symbol of the divide between the privileged few and the rest of us. As critic Arthur Danto wrote in his essay “Banality and Celebration: The Art of Jeff Koons,” “Koons has found a way out of making high art out of low art… in a way that would not have been possible until the conceptual revolutions of Duchamp and Warhol.”
It’s telling that Koons’ work is often compared to Marcel Duchamp, for the simple reason that Duchamp’s Fountain pretty much put paid to the “But wait, is it art?” question the best part of a century ago. It’s no longer either big or clever to play with the notion of what art is, or to troll the art world, or any such meta-artistic malarkey. If you can make a fortune out of doing so, then good for you, but considering you’re doing the same thing that like-minded pranksters have done for 100 years, you’re not exactly pushing any boundaries.
It’s all rather depressing, really, given that Koons’ original raison d’etre, as this Guggenheim bio suggests, was to “communicate with the masses.” In this, you can’t really conclude that he’s been anything but a whopping great failure, because who outside the art world could give the remotest semblance of a shit about Jeff Koons? And even if they do, what exactly is he communicating? That he’s an artist whose work speaks of nothing? In this respect, perhaps, you can see what he has to gain from working with Gaga, who’s already more famous around the world than he’ll ever be.
And in turn, she seems to feel that she gains some sort of high art legitimacy, ascending from Pop Star Status to Icon Status. But does an entertainer who’s already touched the lives of more people than Koons and all his conceptual chums put together really need his blessing to achieve that goal? If that’s the world that Gaga wants to inhabit, then good luck to her. But she shouldn’t expect anyone else to care.