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Since the early 1980s. Jeff Koon’s has become a magnetic artistic persona open for critical and public opinion. In his adept deployment of the internal promotional mechanisms of what Horkhiemer and Adorno call ‘the culture industry’ to further mass self-promote his artistic persona, Koon’s has attracted the attention and critizism of the art critics and art public alike. In the process, he has created a promotion hype around himself, which matches if not surpasses. That surrounding Andy Warhol two decades earlier. In his own The Jeff Koons’ Handbook the closest Koon’s gets to a broad statement of intent is a professed desire to steer art and the artist from the subservient margins back into a position of social empowerment.
‘ln the art world I have always found everyone very weak. The art world really has been up for grabs. Anybody who has enough desire to lead, it’s there for them to do. Because nobody else wants it. Absolutely not.’
Representing himself through the promotional mechanisms of the culture industry as the art world maverick to take this place at the vanguard, Koon’s openly advocates appropriating the communicative powers of commercial mass media for getting his message across: ‘I want to have an impact in people’s lives. I want to communicate to as wide a mass as possible. And the way to communicate right now is through TV and advertising. The art world is not effective right now.’
His personal appearances in numerous commercial media, television talk shows, glossy national and international lifestyle publications. Street billboards, and ads in “artworld” magazines featuring Koon’s himself, all testify to this professed strategy. On such accounts, Koon’s reveals himself to possess quite a sophisticated business acumen with a keen sense for successfully promoting himself and his art. Indeed, even his most stringent critics may have to concede that promotion and business is the ‘art form’ within which Koon’s execution cannot be faulted. His kinship to Warhol in this respect is plainly evident. I think Warhol’s own comments effectively indicate the commercial aspirations inherent in both artists’ over-arching projects.
‘I want to be an Art Businessman or a Business Artist. Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. During the hippie era people put down the idea of business … but making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.’
That Koons project can quite easily be, and often is, compared to aspects of Warhol’s career is indeed significant. What appear seldom addressed at any great length, however, are the particular socio-economic and historic circumstances of this cultural confluence. I refer here quite specifically to the prolific return to interest in Warhol during the early 1980s following his relegation to relative marginality within influential art world circles for a good part of the 1970s. Interestingly, it is not through producing any new and/or significant work that Warhol finds himself once again culturally preeminent; it is initially as a celebrated figure of influence, as admired artistic role model for several up and-coming young New York artists emerging in a historical context marked by a economic boom in the art market and a prolific expansion in the apparatus of art promotion and publicity. Warhol’s ‘second-coming’ during the early 1980s, enshrined in his untimely 1987 death and continuing unabated today, further coincides with a new ‘postmodern turn’ in North American and European cultural production during the early years of the 1980s. It is within this confluence of economic upsurge and a growing interest in postmodern forms of cultural discourse that Koons shortly thereafter makes his appearance. The preeminence of both Warhol and Koon’s, and the parallels and divergences drawn between them within this particular historic and cultural context is clearly evident. My intent here is to read Warhol and Koons in consideration of how each, in their respective roles as artist and celebrity, suggest behavioral postures for individuals living under seemingly contradictory cultural formations. This contradiction plays itself out between modernist notions of the autonomous and self determining individual subject and capitalism’s economic imperative for sustained accumulation that initiates a process of expanding commodification into the everyday experience.
While comparisons drawn between Warhol and Koons have some merit, Koons, takes many of the characteristics originally associated with Warhol one step further, significantly altering the play of meanings in the process. Both do, however, court controversy, both cultivate a ‘hands off” approach to their artwork, and both understand and actively engage the promotional aspects of commercial mass media. Regarding this fast commonality Koons, although speaking at a much greater length, is playing the role of Warhol, the artist who, more than any other, taught the world to see that, if the medium of the painter is paint and canvas, the medium of the artist (Koons says he is not a sculptor) is himself in the artworld.’ This is to say that both Warhol and Koons adopt self-reflexively performative elements in their respective self-presentations as ‘artist’. This carefully calculated presentation of ‘self as artist’ within the institutional frames of meaning that constitute an artworld has in itself become accepted as a meaningful art form replete with both significance and exchangeable sign value.’ Under these circumstances it is the very idea of ‘art’ embodied by ‘the artist’ that becomes the commodity offered up for consumption, while the work actually produced often assumes a supporting role as a type of exquisite social prop to the primacy of the presentation of self as artist. We may go as far as to suggest that, in Koons case at least, these performative careerist strategies, ‘may be perceived as performance art on a massive scale.’ It is this suggestion of the malleable and performative nature of the social self that both Warhol and Koon’s play with in their respective presentations of artistic persona (to some degree, it is their ‘subject matter’), and which provides the most significant point of comparison between the two in my opinion.
Cultural contexts have altered considerably from the period in which Warhol originally produced his most engaging and renown work during 1962-1968. The apparent influence of mass-mediated culture is now regularly cited in artworld discourse and representation, as art and artist are increasingly known through mass-mediated representation, as brand equity, or celebrity – helped along in no small part by the original success of pop art. Rapid and continuous advancements in mass media technology and production during the post-war decades factor significantly toward ushering in the changes in the perceptive and contemplative faculties of individuals. The sheer ubiquity and proximity of the image deployed in the service of commerce into the terrain of everyday consciousness is a primary catalyst in these shifts of contemporary perspectives.
In the artworld discourses surrounding Jeff Koons, comparisons drawn between the artistic practices of Koons and Andy Warhol are rife. Usually such comparisons touch upon both Koons and Warhol’s relationship to commercial mass culture in their respective work, suggesting that in some way each artist embodies the highly promotional culture we currently live within. Certainly their careerist aspirations reveal similar desires for the recognition and influence promised in fame. As Koons rather frankly puts it, ‘I want to be as big an art star as possible.’ Like Warhol, Koons successfully exploits and is exploited by mass media, the primary means of social acclaim. Discursively amplified as such, both Warhol and Koons can be attributed with effecting significant ‘truth effects’ on artworld discourse. Unlike Warhol, however, Koons does not withhold, or attempt to thwart any association with, a private individual. Warhol’s performative enactment of complete self-submission and consequent self-negation, in accord with the logistics and mechanisms of promotional mass media retains a space of ironic distance or detachment. There is still the idea in Warhol’s silence that this is all an elaborate put-on in which the denouncement is infuriatingly deferred. With Koons, even this space of ironic distance is erased. Any certainties regarding whether Koons is “putting us on’ or if he is indeed ‘for real’ become extremely difficult to arrive at. Claiming mass media as the basis on which his art and personal life is founded, Koons invests in public mass media as a site of private articulation and personal advancement with all the disarming sincerity and earnestness of innocence.
While Warhol may provide the template for individual modes of self-apprehension within post-modern cultural formations, it is Koons who suggests the next stage and offers some suggestion regarding ‘what comes after cynicism”. As post-modern cultural formations throw traditional representational practice deeply into question, Warholian ambivalence assumes a certain cachet in the ongoing disruption of individuals as consuming subjects. It appears certain, however, that detached ambivalence, too, will reach an eventual saturation point and experience a gradual decrease in effectiveness as a disruptive or positioning strategy.
Despite the similarities between Warhol and Koons, there is an immediate and significant difference between the two. Where Koons is verbose and carefully articulate, Warhol would remain silent. Koons eagerly states his opinion, investing his public announcements with personal revelations of the type that Warhol remained mute about even unto his death. Koons is forthcoming in claiming that the pith of his art is communication.
‘Art is communication – it is the ability to manipulate people. The difference between it and show business or politics is only that the artist is freer.’
As Koons understands it, effective communication (communication that ‘penetrates mass consciousness’), must adopt a populist vocabulary. In Western culture, it is the universal vocabulary of salesmanship and commercial mass media that has established itself as the most effective means of penetrating contemporary mass consciousness. For Koons, art, if it is to have any social or political resonance, must adopt these means of communication or risk obsolescence.
‘… if artists do not assume responsibility to start to become great communicators, there is no room left for them in communication. There are computers which store information better than art work, and they communicate much faster; advertising has assumed a role of manipulation; and the entertainment industry has also assumed the role of seduction and manipulation. And if artists do not regain their stance, and communicate to people, I don’t see there being any possibiiity in the future of any activity even called art. You will just have entertainment. And you will have advertising. And people will look back, and they will say, ‘But I heard at one time there was a profession called art.’
If Warhol assumed the position of floor manager in his Factory, Koons is upstairs in the office on the phone, spinning the media and negotiating with contractors. Koons professed intention of empowering himself and art in general, through effective mass communication and the familiar vocabulary of promotional culture is ultimately that which establishes the significant discrepancies between the projects of Warhol and Koons. As Koons himself elaborates,
‘To me, Andy presented Duchampian ideas in a manner the public was able to embrace. Where I differ is that Warhol believed you could penetrate the mass through distribution and I continue to believe you penetrate the mass with ideas.’
In other words, Warhol relied on the mechanisms of mass distribution and repetition inherent to the system of commercial mass media to effect a truth, to penetrate mass consciousness. The actual content, or ‘idea” of that which is repeatedly distributed is secondary, itseIf altered in meaning or import through the very mechanisms that mass distribute it. Warhol makes the dare that not only is content or ‘idea” secondary, it is some sense irrelevant to cultural reception and as such, possibly only worthy of ambivalent response. This, it seems to me, is the gist of Warhol’s entire point. His dead-pan deference to the mechanisms of mass media and of artworld discourse produced significant cultural meaning around Warhol despite his provocative negation of the self and of any individuated ideas that self may have.
Warhol, demonstratively apprehends himself under such conditions of powerlessness with wishy-washy, ‘gee, whizz’ ambivalence in direct opposition to the combative social impatience that broadly characterizes modernist art and artist. Koons, on the other hand, does not cloak himself in ambivalence but presents himself as though acting in good faith as a generous and sanguine narcissist cum art world savior. If mere insertion into the mechanisms of mass culture were ironically declared by Warhol to be an end unto itself, for Koons they allegedly provide only the means, or the platform, for what is really the issue; effective communication presumably about something really worth hearing about. In the spirit of pragmatism and opportunism, Koons claims communication by the most effective means possible as his artistic reason to be.
‘ I am completely adaptable. I will adapt to any situation in order to communicate.’
Additionally, and of equal significance, are the differences in meaning inherent in Warhol and Koons choice of role notwithstanding the similarities in the means employed by both to socially promote that role. Warhol’s performative tactic was to remain a enigmatic cipher; in constant circulation within, and in absolute deference to, the structures of cultural production and promotion. Koons is just as willing to insert himself into the structures of cultural production and promotion, yet he maintains, contrary to Warhol’s ambivalent negation of self, that he has something important to say: that he is “for real’ in some way that Warhol is not.
You could say that Koons engages in a type of auto-reification so complete that it tends to erase itself. The very criteria enabling a distinction to be drawn between the reified and the ‘authentic’ are themselves eclipsed once the field of depersonalisation and commodification expands over the entirety of social life. This, it seems to me, is the disruptive space from within which Koons means to generate meaning.
‘Koons, by stepping in and actually being (in real life) the well-spoken, good-looking sex symbol media superstar that the awkward Warhol could never have been makes a decisive step towards radically altering Warhol’s position. Koons position eradicates the depth and distance from commodity culture. As Superstar, as real capitalist (a former stockbroker), as real playboy with sex object (see Koons’ Made in Heaven), Koons inverts Warhol’s position. Instead of being the alienated artist who mimics commodity relations, Koons himself becomes the authentic reified creation, a Superstar. In doing so, he negates any distance from celebrity and the culture industry. Where Warhol could merely declare that he was all surface, it is Koons who officially becomes homogeneous with commodity society – pure surface.”
Both Warhol and Koons have been discursively and representatively positioned in the many arms of the cultural industry as salient examples of postwar artist celebrities. This hybrid categorization arrived at from grafting celebrity to artist, is part and parcel of a broader postwar cultural process in which celebrity is increasingly appended to many a discursive category; a development never as evident as in recent years. Today, commercial mass media is populated by a steady stream of various celebrity politicians, families, dogs, scientists, cooks, murderers, porn stars….. Propelled by the accessibility to the mechanisms of mass representation and reproduction, as well as individual needs for recognition and affirmation become increasingly channeled towards attaining some degree of celebrity status it is clearly apparent that the enduring influence of Pop Art are continuing their cyclical nature today. One of contemporary art’s most instantly recognizable styles, finding its way into fashion and music scenes, and paving a path for younger artists who are growing up on a diet of consumerism and over-saturated popular culture.
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