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Sunday, September 7, 2014

Jed Perl's review of the Koons Retrospective in "The New York Review of Books"

Jed Perl continues his quixotic tilting at wind mills in his latest review of the Koons phenomenon.That something must be said to deflate this conflation of art and global finance goes without saying.There is a slightly queasy sensation when we behold  the commercial event surrounding the work but also the work itself, an emotion that the early critics felt spoke to Koons being an artist that they had yet to come to terms with.The notion of the avant-garde that keeps pulling the rug out from under the complacent Bourgeoisie is the paradigm they use to justify his historical significance.Weren't the French academicians appalled by Cezanne and Van Gogh; the New York press by the Armory show?

Anxious to be on the right side of history the apologists go to no end to convince us that Koons is the latest turn in the on-going dialectic toward perfect self-consciousness, bringing us closer to our inner essence, which they stupidly imagine to be a love of kitsch. If you look at the work dialectically it does not in any way serve as a heightening of self-consciousness that counters any synthesis as did the work of Cezanne, for example, but rather represents a collapse of any tension between the individual and society. In my review of a show at the MFA in Boston, that placed the work of the Impressionists side by side with the work of the Academy, I demonstrated that  artists like Monet were more in touch with the scientific tradition of optics that had informed the work of someone like Chardin, than the academicians who painted in a fatigued version of chiaroscuro and were unable to take the next step toward color perception in painting. If you assume that the essence of the Impressionists and for that matter Matisse was to paint crudely and assume that any time you witness that crudeness in art it is a sure sign that the artist is the next Matisse, you are putting the cart before the horse and in fact create a perverse paradigm that only bad taste can assure that an artist's work is of enduring value. Monet was studying color theory, bringing painting back to the perceptual roots of the Renaissance and the Baroque and Van Gogh was searching in the tradition of the Christian saints for a way to overcome not just the spiritual smugness of his time but to make his life more meaningful. They were both reactionaries,i.e. backward looking, in their attempts to move painting forward. They were more self-conscious than their contemporaries and more aware of the the traditions that shaped European painting.

Look at Cabanel and Bouguereau if you want to see  precedents of Koons. They too leave you with a queasy feeling in your stomach. Unctuous, syrupy, cloying. In some sort of intellectual legerdemain, the contemporary critics imagine Koons to be cutting edge but as Perl says there is no way he can be put in the same category as the ascetic Duchamp, whose leap out of the visual still remains hard to process today. He is rather the protege of Warhol who saw the individual as merged into the commercial.That abandonment of the self into the commercial is the goal of all the rich businesspeople who buy Koons' work. They make their billions by seeing the masses as Play-Doh, just material to exploit. If we are as emotionally devoid of seriousness as Koons proclaims, we are ripe to enter a strange sort of paradise of the end times where we surround ourselves with kitschy possessions and kitschy emotions and dissolve our lives into some sort of colorful puddle. Are we at the end of history where Hegel's Absolute is the media and the tension between the heft of the individual and the media is erased.

.Just as the academicians were a symptom of the decadent Bourgeoisie of the 19thc, whose pseudo- classical vision of mankind had no relation to the facticity of the lives of real people so Koons is the wet dream of the class of global kleptocrats who envision the masses  acquiescing absolutely to their drive to sell us more and more things. I agree with Perl that something is rotten in the state of Denmark and quote Shakespeare's  quintessential paragon of self-consciousness:Hamlet:

"Oh God I could be bounded by a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space-were it not that I  have bad dreams."

(In my article on the topos of modern culture I place Koons in the context of Western Nihilism)

I can be followed on twitter @mugar49


  1. Martin, if you had not written this I would not have even bothered to think about the great Jeff Koons. I enjoyed your essay and the Jed Perl review as well. Both well written. After reading them I have to say that Cabanel and Bouguereau too were "a part of the history of our times" in the 19th century and that didn't save them from the academic scrap heap - their superficiality why Matisse rejected them and their high gloss polish. ( I think the Douanier Rousseau learned to paint monkeys' asses from them though). Matisse also repeated the story of how each time Bouguereau had to stop to take a piss it cost him ten francs. Really, Isn't making fun of the middle class is a tired idea? Money is success, right? The late Cozy Cottage painter was a multi-millionaire. So was LeRoy Neiman (born LeRoy Runquist - a not so catchy a name for Playboy Magazine readers). Here in Boston we have the great illustrator and perfect Boston artist Jamie Wyeth at the MFA. Speaking of which, I have not been to the MFA since I was a guard in 1979/80 and arranged to get myself stationed inside the great Chardin retrospective during its entire run. Or when I was put for weeks at a time with JMW Turner's Slave Ship. Or Munch's Summer Night's Dream (The Voice). I prefer meaning in art not Twinkies. Koons himself worked at MoMA in NY selling museums subscriptions and he bragged about how many he sold to a friend of mine. He was always good at selling things. Maybe Koons should make solid gold Twinkies and they can be placed in front of the new Whitney Museum or in front of one of those new glass towers I read about for the 1% of the 1%. I bore myself just writing about him now...

  2. Thanks for all the great historical anecdotes. The twinkie sculpture is surely next on his agenda. If you could eat his sculptures they would taste like junk food.

  3. Dear Marty,

    I just read your latest essay on Koons and Perl. You certainly write devastatingly well, and impale the victims of your prose like those victorious barbarians who stick the heads of their tribal enemies on poles outside their village compound..

  4. Here is an email from Jed Perl in regards to this article:

    Dear Martin,

    Thanks for the shout out. Quixotic I'm not so sure about. There's the suggestion of some delusion in quixotic. And I'm very clear about all of this, including the hopelessness of the situation.

    Very best,

    1. I always saw Quixote as an idealist.

    2. I guess the truth Perl speaks changes nothing of the zeitgeist. Perl is an idealist like Quixote. But he must continue to speak out.Truth to power.

  5. Here is an excerpt from an extended essay on Koons by John Wronoski that extends beyond the Koonsian phenomena:"As Guy Lesser has pointed out, it is now almost a hundred years since Ezra Pound enjoined his fellow artists to “make it new,” and perhaps it is time either to rejuvenate the aesthetic his enjoinder has summoned into existence, to question just what it means to make something new after a century of self-conscious efforts to do so, to turn against the notion of the new entirely, even if only as a matter of kindred perversity, or to recognize finally that it is, in fact, simply old."

  6. From a friend of Larry Deyab: "He is a Saatchi creation, the gate keepers are laughable. It's all about money and that's it. Control top down artists truly are meaningless and yet idiots line up pathetically screaming look at me! Under these conditions we are left to be part of what I consider the remade avant-garde."

  7. John Walter Wronoski for me, the question boils down to: can art be great and yet visually inane, offensive, or even simply stupid? i think there is quite a lot that can be said about koons's art, that it has conceptual and critical dimensions similar in some ways to warhol's (and equally ambivalently, too), and others even more interestingly nihilistic, but there is no getting around the fact that looking at it is completely ungratifying, even stultifying, like a visit to a really over-the-top lawn sculpture emporium in Fort Lauderdale or Long Island. it does thereby satisfy one post-modern desideratum, but that doesn't make it great art. more likely great social action (to the extent that one reads it along similar lines to the way i do), as it insinuates this visual filth, at extraordinary prices, into the homes of the most odious, self-important, and arrogant among us, effectively auto-criticizing their values and way of life from within.