Written by Arthur C. Danto
I am inclined in my aesthetic judgments to think as the true Kentuckian about whiskey: possibly some may be better than others, but all are aesthetically good.
- Charles S. Peirce
It is widely acknowledged that Jeff Koons is among the most important artists of the last decades of the twentieth century. No representative collection of contemporary art can fail to include one or more of his instantly recognized works. As with every artist, some works are more important than others, but the basis of his importance lies in the general character of his oeuvre as a whole. There is nevertheless little consensus as to how this character is to be identified, or on what basis his importance rests. Those in position to clarify this matter – the major critics of the age – are virtually to a person hostile to the work and even to Koons himself, who seems to have a gift for getting under everyone’s skin, as much through his flat oracular pronouncements, which challenge one or another of the commonplaces through which the critical establishment likes to answer questions of this sort, as through the works themselves. As I was writing this essay, The New Yorker magazine - the cynosure of cosmopolitan sophistication - airily labeled him a charlatan. So it is not as though we can appeal to what the Institutional Theory of Art sometimes calls The Art World – a loose federation of critics and other experts, who decree which objects are works of art and which artists are important. For if we were to poll its members, we would encounter a fair amount of resistance to the idea that Koons is anything more than a clever opportunist who has pulled the wool over the rest of the Art World’s eyes – the kind of thing that has been said of artists whose work made experts uncomfortable since the dawn of modernism. That by itself would be evidence of his importance, if we reflect on how his predecessors were at first received. But surely some better answer must be forthcoming, and the purpose of this essay is to help explain what makes Koons the important artist that he is.
Part of the answer is art historical, if we think of art history as progressive in the way the history of science is. The conceptual development of art from Duchamp through Warhol to Koons is like the punctuated evolution of science from Galileo through Newton to Einstein. But part of it has to do with Koons’s objects themselves, which are less like what, since the achievements of his two main predecessors, what we are prepared to accept as art now, and more like what I think of as items of manufactured ornament. They are like, or often like, objects one might encounter not in art galleries – or at least not in galleries of high art – but in gift shops: objects made to be given because they are engaging or amusing or sentimental: cute animals, engagingly pudgy pink children, comical figures doing various comical things. It is this aesthetic that drives critics, who see themselves as priests and missionaries of high art, crazy. But the objects must have some appeal to a large number of people, or they would not exist. They are not as a general rule useful, not unless they have clocks or thermometers or calendars as appendages. But they appeal to a very wide taste, and Koons might well say that the taste itself is all but universal in modern life. They appeal, one might say, to everyone who has not, to use a phrase Wittgenstein used in a parallel way in discussing philosophy, been corrupted by high art. Everyone likes Koons work, Koons himself might say, unless they have been taught not to. Since people interested in high art have indeed been taught not to find merit in the banal exemplars of Kitsch that are Koons’s paradigms, there is bound to be a conflict in their souls – they like and hate Koons’s work at the same time. But ordinary persons have no difficulty liking them, since they feel no such conflict. Koons has found a way of making high art out of low art – but in a way that would not have been a possibility until the conceptual revolutions of Duchamp and Warhol, and which accordingly links these artists in the progressive series that I noted.
Still, something like the conflict that Koons’s situation exemplifies today has been implicit in the structure of art since artistic production took two directions, high and low, appealing to different markets, which began at some point in the nineteenth century. Accordingly, it will be instructive in discussing what I will call the politics of taste to situate Koons in that historical perspective. The fictions of the American writer, Henry James, made frequent use of artists and persons whose lives were defined through some relationship to artists, and I have found it valuable to use James as a guide, for his art world was in certain ways strikingly similar to the art world we inherited, even if there would have been no way in which he or his readers could have visualized the art of the twentieth, let alone the twenty first century. Indeed, there is an artist in James’s early story, “The Madonna of the Future,” who resembles Koons sufficiently to serve as a model against whom we can get a clearer picture of Koons’s actual achievement. “The Madonna of the Future” is one of my favorite stories, in fact, and I even appropriated James’s title for one of my books. There are obvious reasons why, if there were real artists in the history of art who resembled James’ character, they would be entirely forgotten. What is important for my purposes is that one of James’s artists defines a type to which Koons belongs.
In his story, James in fact juxtaposes two types of artist, neither of whom quite belongs to the historical moment in which his story was written, though each defined a margin of the art world of its time and place – Florence in the latter half of the 19th century. One is an American expatriate of advancing years and meager means named Theobald, who immerses himself so deeply in the art of the city’s great past that he has all but lost touch with the living present. He has set himself the goal, as painter, of equaling Raphael’s Madonna of the Chair, which in James’s time was considered the supreme ultimate of artistic attainment. It was not, of course, Theobald’s intention to copy that masterpiece: the grand museums of Europe were filled with skilled copyists, producing satisfying likenesses of famous masterpieces for the tourist trade; and the parlors of the upper bourgeoisie in America were as likely as not to feature a copy of this sentimental favorite brought back as a cultural trophy. Theobald’s aim, rather, was to produce a Madonna of his own, like Raphael’s only in achieving the same degree of spiritual depth. James’s somewhat callow narrator is not so much skeptical of the artist’s skills, as of whether such an achievement is possible in modern times. Artists live when they live and not at some other time. “People’s religious and aesthetic needs went hand in hand, and there was a demand for the Blessed Virgin, visible and adorable, which must have given firmness to the artist’s hand. I’m afraid there is no demand now.”
The Narrator is no less skeptical of James’s other artist, who gives the public precisely what it wants from art. He fashions comical statuettes – erotic allegories in which a male monkey and a female cat, respectively dressed as man and woman, engage with one another in varying postures of licentious interaction. “It is not classical art, signore,” the artist concedes, “but between ourselves, isn’t classic art sometimes rather a bore?” He assures the Narrator that his works have enjoyed great success. “They are especially admired by Americans. I have sent them all over Europe, - to London, Paris, Vienna! You may have observed some little specimens in Paris, on the Boulevard…There is always a crowd about the window.”
Each of James’s artists is unfazed by the contingencies of history with which James himself was obsessed. “There is always a demand!” Theobald insists Raphael’s version of female beauty –“That ineffable type is one of the eternal needs of a man’s heart.” So the demand would be there if the right artist came along – but “how should it appear in this corrupt age?” But the Cat-and-Monkey Artist – we are not told his name – is equally convinced of the timelessness of his motifs. In his view, the work even embodies a philosophy. “Speaking, signore, to a man of imagination, I may say that my little designs are not without a philosophy of their own. …Cats and monkeys – monkeys and cats, - all human life is there!” And he points out that he has invented the “peculiar plastic compound” in which they are cast: “Delicate as they look, it is impossible they should break…they are as durable as bronze.”
James uses his artistic types to represent what is wrong with the period in which he as well as his characters live. Even if Theobald should fulfill his intention completely, the age would reject his masterpiece completely: Raphael’s aesthetics belongs to the unrecoverable past. Theobald’s vision is too exalted for the crassness of the age. What belongs to – what defines - the present age is precisely the animal couple cast in the synthetic material. If those flirting amorous beasts are art, the age is hopeless. It hopelessness is demonstrated by the popularity of the Cat-and Monkey figurines. One must respect James for considering them art at all. In his day, the cat-and-monkey theme was realized in ceramic figurines, which would at best have been considered amusing bits of bric-a-brac, hardly to be mentioned in the same breath as “The Madonna of the Chair.”
When I discussed Jeff Koons’s work with him in his studio not long ago, I asked what response to it he hopes his work will have. His hope, he told me, is that viewers will become confident of their own judgment and taste. This is a theme that comes up over and over again in his interviews and writing. In speaking of the work in his 1988 Banality show at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York, he told Robert Enright, the Canadian critic, that “it is based on my viewing the Masaccio painting, Expulsion from Eden. I tried to remove bourgeois guilt and shame in responding to banality and dislocated imagery. The best vehicle for me to be able to do that is to operate on the level of sexuality.” And he adds: “The work wants to meet their needs. It wants to meet their needs and create new needs which they would be dependent upon art to meet. I am trying to make art be competitive in our competitive society.” In a text he composed for the catalog of his 1992 exhibition in San Francisco, he wrote, again about the Banality works, “I was telling the bourgeois to embrace the thing that it likes, the things it responds to:
For example, when you were a young child and you went to your grandmother’s place and she had this little knickknack, that’s inside you, and that’s part of you. Embrace it, don’t try to erase it because you’re in some social standing now and you’re ambitious and you’re trying to become some upper class. Don’t divorce yourself from your true being, embrace it. That’s the only way that you can truly move on to become a new upper class and not move backwards.
Using Koons’s formulation, we can imagine a traveler to Italy in Henry James’s time, torn between whether to carry home a hand-painted copy in oil of Raphael’s Madonna della Seggiola, which his family, friends, and visitors might see over the mantle-piece and applaud him for a taste that is really not his – or to buy instead a couple of those amusing, naughty figurines of a cat and monkey, which he really appreciates, and which honestly do reflect his taste. Koons would advise the tourist to go ahead and buy the figurines, and not feel guilty or embarrassed. The imperative is: Be yourself, and don’t pretend to be someone else whom you believe superior to yourself. Your tastes are all right as they are. The California artist, Alexis Smith said “Bad taste is better than no taste at all.” Koons would say: bad taste is as good as taste gets if it is yours.
Koons refers to taste rather than to acquisition – to what one prefers to look at and respond to aesthetically, rather than to what one chooses to purchase. Some of James’s tourists were rich enough to acquire old masters rather than copies – the chief characters in his own masterpiece, The Golden Bowl, were immensely wealthy connoisseurs, who devoted their ample leisure to choosing works of art for a museum to be built in “American City,” for the aesthetic edification of its citizenry. They were faced with decisions in aesthetic philanthropy: which works would most benefit the visitors to their envisioned museum? Works by living artists were another matter, inasmuch as these would rarely find places in museums of fine art in the artists’ lifetimes. It would be with reference to this market that James’s narrator declared there would be no demand for “The Madonna of the Future” that Theobald aspires to paint. It would not go with the changed taste of the times.
Today of course, the situation is somewhat different. Today’s major artists are purchased for private and public collections alike. Koons himself was recently listed in ART NEWS as among “The Ten Most Expensive Living Artists.” Relatively few of those who get to see his work are likely to be buyers of it. Still, it is with reference to their responses that purchases or commissions of his work are ultimately justified. And it is exactly at this point that Koons’s imperatives to viewers to trust their taste, to have confidence in their judgments, come into play. Increasingly, acquisition committees, in deciding to spend the considerable sums required to purchase a major work by Koons, must take into consideration “the artist’s contribution to art history,” to quote a source cited in the ART NEWS article. “The challenge,” according to the collector Kent Logan, is to “anticipate art history rather than chase after it.” And Koons’s place in art history cannot easily be separated his intuitions regarding how his work is received by “the bourgeois,” namely, those whose taste he presumes in showing and making his works. In this he perhaps assumes that he and they have tastes in common – that he comes from the same population as they, that if he likes what he does, they will like it as well – if they trust their impulses. And do not worry whether they ought to prefer something members of an imagined “upper class” presumably considers artistically better. He confides to Enright:
I don’t see a Hummel figurine as tasteless. I see it as beautiful. I see it and respond to the sentimentality in the work. I love the finish, how simple the color green can be painted, I like things just being seen for what they are. It’s like lying in the grass and taking a deep breath. That’s all my work is trying to do, to be as enjoyable as that breath.
There is nothing else to which one could appeal in paying the considerable sums Koons’s major pieces cost. One cannot, for example, point to their workmanship, for though in most cases, and especially in the twenty Banality pieces, there is workmanship of a very high order, it cannot be credited to Koons himself. He does not make the pieces, but has them made by craftspersons who possess the high degree of skill his works require. “I’m basically the idea person,” Koons told Klaus Ottmans in an interview
I’m not physically involved in the production. I don’t have the necessary abilities, so I always go to the top people, whether I’m working with my foundry – Talix – or in physics. I’m always trying to maintain the integrity of the work. I recently worked with the Nobel prize winner, Dr. Richard P. Feynman…I worked with many of the top physicists and chemists in the country.
But workmanship plays a significant role in Koons’s concept of his art. In my studio visit with him, I asked whether he had ever had a moment of “breakthrough” in his career. And he told me of an experience he had had in connection with an invitation to participate in Skulptur Projecte Münster, in 1987 - an invitation that meant a great deal to him. He decided on recasting in stainless steel a bronze sculpture, the Kiepenkerl, that has great meaning for the ordinary people of Münster, symbolizing, as he put it elsewhere, “self-sufficiency, abundance, and moral relationship with the world.” The sculpture, which stands in a public space, represents a man carrying a knapsack, filled with eggs, potatoes, a hare, and pigeons – like the father in Hansel and Gretel, who returns home with food for his family. Koons encountered serious technical difficulties in re-casting the statue, and was almost ready to withdraw because of the distortions created in the process. He told me about consulting a highly skilled steelworker, who examined the casting and saw exactly what had to be done. Koons wrote
This liberating experience offered me as an artist the opportunity to go and create my own objects in such bodies of work as “Banality” where I did not work with direct readymade objects but created objects with a sense of readymade inherent in them.
And this was his breakthrough. When I asked him about the use of stainless steel, which at that period was his signature material, he referred me to the “mercury balls” – those shiny spheres found in lower middle class gardens throughout America, as ubiquitous as pink flamingos.
Kiepenkerl was “readymade” in the sense that it existed as a much loved outdoor work before Koons set about having it translated into stainless steel. By contrast, he actually invented the objects that belong to the Banality series, as if he were chief designer for a line of gift-shop novelties. Except that they were to be handmade rather than mass-produced, and on a gigantesque scale. So he consigned their execution through carving or casting to the finest craftsmen he could find. This had become an artistic possibility though Conceptualism, the late 1960s movement, where the artist would have the idea, and it did not matter who executed it. Duchamp had long before expressed certain contempt for the idea of the artist as someone possessed of a special “eye” or a “hand.” Koons does not have this contempt. Indeed he has too great a regard for the hand and eye not to recognize that he does not posses the skills he demands that his work show. What distinguishes him from the earlier Conceptual artists is that typically, the “hand” and “eye” their works required were not especially artistic or craftsmanlike. It takes almost no skill at all to dig a ditch across a driveway, which was one of Lawrence Wiener’s works of the time, or to release some containers of gas outdoors, in a work by Robert Barry, who did not need to, but could easily have opened the containers himself. Very few artisans possessed the skills needed to execute in porcelain Koons’s “Michael Jackson and his Chimpanzee Bubbles.” It was part of the “idea” of the work that it be the largest handmade porcelain work in existence. Showing such a high degree of craftsmanship is itself part of the concept of banality. “Look at the stitching!” the Italian vendor of table clothes says to the tourists who admire the work for that, when the very idea of craft has all but disappeared from the high art of the Post-Conceptual period. Koons is saying that the bourgeois admiration of fine craft is nothing to feel ashamed of, whatever the art world decrees.
Meanwhile, the attitudes of the common folk of Münster toward the monument that defined their identity exemplifies the idea of morality to which Koons so often appeals, and what it means to have confidence in their own taste and judgment. In stressing this, I think, there is little doubt that Koons shares the political values of Andy Warhol, an idol as well as an influence, who after all made Koons’s art possible in spirit if not in style. Koons’s first show was in the show windows on the New Museum of Contemporary Art in Soho in 1980. Warhol’s first show was in the show windows of the upscale department store on 57th Street, Bonwit Teller, in mid-April, 1961. Though the art world had undergone immense transformations in the intervening two decades, neither show would necessarily have been seen as art by most persons when they were first up, despite the institutional differences between museums and department stores. Warhol’s show consisted chiefly of blow-ups of black and white advertisements from the back-pages of lower-class magazines – advertisements for nose-jobs, cures for baldness, acne, and hernias, and for unattractive bodies like his own – and of panels from familiar comic strips. Almost none but the most sophisticated in 1961 would have hung these on walls, just as few passersby of Koons’s show in 1980 would have displayed in their living rooms the cheap inflated plastic flowers, let alone the vacuum cleaners that Koons showed in the Broadway windows. The difference, of course, is that many passersby in Soho might have seen these objects as art, even if they could not have said what made them art, whereas almost no one in 1961would have seen Warhol’s paintings as anything but background for the garments with which the manikins in Bonwit’s windows were draped. The difference is due to a transformation in culture, for which Warhol was as responsible as anyone.
The reason that viewers would have been blind to Warhol’s 1961 paintings as art was because what dominated consciousness of what was art in 1961 would have been the big brushy paintings by the Abstract Expressionists. Pop Art had not as yet emerged as a defined movement. In the mid ‘60s, Pop artists were eager to abolish the distinction between high art and popular art. By 1980, this had been achieved. By 1980, indeed, Pop Art was high art. One of the amazing happenings in world art in the 1960s is the way that Pop Art became popular as high art. I think it was due in part to the fact that ordinary men and women understood immediately what it was about – it was about what they understood immediately, as part of their world. They did not have to have it explained to them. Inevitably, those who made critical reputations with Abstract Expressionism were defensive. Clement Greenberg had little use for Pop, which he dismissed in interview after interview as “Novelty Art.” He and many other conservative curators were as contemptuous of Pop as those angry critics who had been outraged by the Post-Impressionist paintings that the Bloomsbury critic, Roger Fry, exhibited in London early in the century, which were scorned as hoaxes. By the mid 1960s, viewers no longer had to defer to the superior sensibilities of those with “good eyes.” Everyone in the culture knew Popeye and Mickey Mouse, Marilyn and Elvis, Campbell’s Soup and Brillo pads, hamburgers and hot dogs. These were as familiar to them as Jesus and Mary. Whoever had to ask who or what they were seeing, were not part of the culture. They were in effect from another planet. Pop opposed itself to the art establishment everywhere in the world – in Germany and the Soviet Union, in Latin America and the countries of the Soviet Bloc, even in China and Japan. The subjects of Pop were part of international world culture. That was part of the social revolution of the 1960s.
Koons was a beneficiary of the cultural politics of ‘60s art. Everyone now had confidence in his or her own tastes and values. Critics like Greenberg effectively lost the power they had possessed because of their putative “good eyes,” to say what was important and good. This was in its own way a world revolution in taste, which has left such critics behind. No wonder that the secondary literary on Koons is so often judgmental and angry! There was a scandal when the Stedelijk Museum in the Netherlands paid virtually its entire acquisitions budget for the polychrome wood carving, Stacked, one of an edition of three. It consists of an immense pig, stacked on top of which are a pony, two dogs, and a cartoony chicken. Koons wrote:
I’ve tried to make work that any viewer, no matter where they came from, would have to respond to, would have to say that on some level ‘Yes, I like it.’ If they couldn’t do that, it would only be because they had been told they were not supposed to like it. Eventually they will strip all that down and say “You know, it’s silly, but I like that piece. It’s great.
Stacked is a good example of what Koons’s great breakthrough of 1987 led to – “objects with the sense of readymade inherent in them” - one of the most astonishing bursts of creativity in contemporary art. It is these I would like to discuss in the remainder of this essay.
Let us return to what is regarded as Koons’s first exhibition, New, installed in the street-level windows of the appropriately named “New Museum of Contemporary Art” – as if it were itself a museum of the new. What Koons showed were new objects – in the sense in which “new” contrasted with “used.” New inflatable flowers, and in particular bright new vacuum cleaners. Smart passersby, to the degree that they were prepared to see these as art, would almost certainly have seen them as readymades, and dismissed them as derivative from Marcel Duchamp. Certainly the inflatable flowers would have met Duchamp’s criterion of the readymade: "A point which I very much want to establish is that the choice of these 'ready-mades' was never dictated by aesthetic delectation," he declared retrospectively in 1961. "The choice was based on a reaction of visual indifference with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste...in fact a complete anesthesia." That is, they were more or less aesthetically unnoticeable when part of ordinary life, much like the inflatable plastic bunny before it became one of Koons’s signature works a few years later, when he cast it in stainless steel After the New show, someone of considerable sophistication might have placed inflatable plastic flowers on the dinner table, as ornaments for guests sophisticated enough to perceive them as “Koonses.” But otherwise they would be nearly invisible in back yards or nurseries – or on top of tables in lower middle class households where they would gather dust. They would just be part of the awful furniture of middle class life, like electric fans, plastic pails, cheap garden furniture, garden hoses - nothing any one would look at a second time. But that’s what it would have taken to qualify as ready-mades: no aesthetic distinction.
And this would have been the case with vacuum cleaners, more or less. Unquestionably their newness carried some aesthetic weight, which would be irrevocably lost had they ever been used – much in the way in which Koons’s metal clad glass whiskey containers, which he had refilled and resealed by the distillers, would have lost their value – or some of it - were someone to have broken the seals and drunk the whiskey. Purists can debate whether, aesthetically speaking, the vacuum cleaners qualify as ready-mades, but this overlooks the fact that Duchamp never would have displayed his ready-mades artfully, in multiple groupings of two, three or four units, housed in plexiglass vitrines, illuminated by means of florescent light bulbs – all of which have to be considered part of the work. Koons even sees the electric cords as alluding to Duchamp: they refer to the Three Standard Stoppages, consisting of threads, each a meter in length, that Duchamp dropped from a certain height, to form curved lines. The various works that employ vacuum cleaners thus have art historical references – they refer to what made them possible as art. And so in a way do the standard basketballs in the 1985 works in which they are submerged in tanks of water - or water-like - fluid. These works contain ready-mades – objects singled out for the roles they play in forms of ordinary life, lived in back yards, in middle-class houses, in school yards, where they have what Koons would call “moral” meanings.
But the works themselves, though they contain ready-mades as components, are by no means ready-made in their own right. They are deeply imagined works, designed with fantasy and an almost surrealist imagination. How strange, if one thinks about it, it would be to encounter a fish tank with displayed flotational basketballs – or a plexiglass vitrine with unused vacuum cleaners lit by florescent lights – almost like a ready-made combined with a work by Dan Flavin, preserved in a display case like relics.
Much the same might be said of the works in two series, in which Koons cast ready-mades in stainless steel – “the luxury material of the proletariat” - Luxury and Degradation (1986) and Statuary (1987). These were transformed ready-mades, which happened in both cases to have antecedent identities – luxury items of glass or crystal, which were then clad in steel, giving them an “artificial value” (“degradation”); or ornamental statuary, such as busts of Louis XV for the tourist trade, or Flowers – a notch up from the inflated plastic flowers of 1980. Or Kiepenkerl. These works seem to suggest a criticism rather than a celebration of middle-class taste – as if the middle-class was insufficiently confident in its taste.
The result of Koons’s breakthrough, which took place when he was making his Statuary items, are the Banality works of 1988. These, in my view, constitute his outstanding achievement to date. Nothing quite like them had ever been seen in galleries of high art, and they took the New York art world by storm when shown at the Sonnabend gallery as a group.
I remember people asking me, as they asked one another, whether I had seen the show. It was something one had to see, like Warhol’s 1964 show of Brillo Boxes. It was, predictably, dismissed as “a new low” in the conservative arts journal, The New Criterion. I found them terrifying – “a vision,” as I wrote at the time, “of aesthetic hell.”
They were not based on ready-mades. But they had, in Koons’s language, “the sense of readymade inherent in them.” We all more or less know which ready-mades Koons is speaking of. Here is my description of them from 1989:
Cute figurines in thruway gift shops; the plaster trophies one wins for knocking bottles over in street carnivals; marzipan mice; the dwarves and reindeer that appear at Christmastime on suburban malls or the crèche before firehouses in Patchogue and Mastic; bath toys; porcelain or plastic saints; what goes in Easter baskets; ornaments in fish bowls; comic heads attached to bottle stoppers in home bars.
Koons, I wrote, had claimed this imagery for his own, had taken over “its colors, its cloying saccharinities, its gluey sentimentalities, its blank indifference to the existence and meaning of high art, and given it a monumentality that makes it flagrantly visible, a feast for appetites no one dreamed existed and which the art world hates itself for acknowledging.” They portray, as if from within, the sensibility of the Lumpen middle class, and Koons showed himself in effect to be the Cellini to this taste. The art world wants to say to Koons – “You can’t like these!” To which Koons must reply: “I can and I do. And so, in your heart of hearts, do you.”
As we saw, Koons speaks of the Banality pieces as the result of a liberation. He was free to design objects which might have existed and hence have been ready-mades, but which in fact he designed. Here, I think, we leave the somewhat austere art history with which we have been working – Duchamp-Warhol-Conceptualism – and introduce an artist who figures prominently in Koons’s discourse – Salvador Dali. Dali wrote an important introduction to Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp by Pierre Cabanne, in which he argued that the very idea of the ready-made was self-defeating. But many of Dali’s objects have “the idea of the readymade implicit within them” – his Lobster Telephone, for example – a telephone cast in plastic, like the Cat-and-Monkey knickknacks, but in the form of a lobster. It is a telephone, surrealistically re-imagined. And that is what the Banality objects really are – commonplace kinds of objects re-imagined as surrealistic presences.
Consider just one example – the notorious Michael Jackson and his Chimpanzee Bubbles in glazed porcelain on a gigantesque scale – or gigantesque in any case by comparison with a table-top ornament of the same form as it. The work is in white and gold, like a rococo sculpture from an eighteenth century Bavarian church. The white is worth pondering. Michael Jackson and Bubbles could both be in whiteface – in which case the white represents an objective fact of the work’s subjects. Or it could just be the color of the porcelain, licensing no inference as to the real color of the subjects’ skin. A figurine of Jesus in white porcelain - or John the Baptist – would imply nothing about the color of the subjects’ skin. So the white is ambigious, as Michael Jackson himself is ambiguous in terms both of his racial and gender identity. It would perhaps be unnoticeable if we were dealing with an ornament, say five inches long. But the life-size scale renders the white ambiguous, as between the color of the skin and the color just of the work’s glazed surface. A porcelain sculpture from the Rococo era of a saint, perhaps with the infant Jesus on his or her lap, could fit into a chapel. Candles would be burned before it. People would pray to it, and leave little notes expressing gratitude when their prayers are answered – as with the figures of the fourteen saints in the church of Vierzehn Heiligen near Wurzberg. Celebrities are the objects of contemporary adoration, fans form entire companies of worshipers. So there is another ambiguity. There are perhaps five ambiguities in all – I leave the others to the reader’s interpretative powers to find. That is why these works belong to the post-history of Surrealism as a movement, and why they have that quality of uncanniness that Freud analyzed in a famous essay. In the Banality series, Koons disclosed his true artistic identity. The works are unnatural wonders.
Now and again in his later work – in the Celebration series, for example – Koons again touches the greatness of Banality. An argument can be made that Balloon Dog is his masterpiece. It is a translation into stainless steel of balloons twisted into the shape of a dog – something one buys for ones children at street fairs. It perhaps monumentalizes Obie, the hapless dog that serves as Garfield’s stooge in the comic strip featuring that gluttonous, lazy misanthropic cat. It stands exactly ten feet tall. “It’s about celebration and childhood and color and simplicity,” Koons confided to Ingrid Sischy in a 1997 interview. “But its also a Trojan horse.” The Trojan horse, we know from Homer, was one of Odysseus’s wily ideas, a giant hollow horse, filled with Greek warriors. The Trojans brought it through the gates of Troy, and at night the Greeks massacred them. “It’s a Trojan horse to the whole body of artwork,” Koons said. The ancients had a saying: “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts – Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.”