If I had to sum up American history in a word, I wouldn’t use racism, though obviously that’s a biggie. I’d pick hokum. I put it right up there with liberty, as in “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” a passage which itself could be taken for hokum, written as it was by a man who owned slaves.
However, I don’t mean the term as it’s generally construed, i.e. bullshit. I refer to this definition: “A device used (as by showmen) to evoke a desired audience response.” As embodied by the oratorical sleight of hand that has sold Americans on everything from snake oil to unprovoked war in Iraq, hokum provides the filling for our proverbial apple pie, baked into such rhetoric as “manifest destiny,” “the lost cause” and “morning in America.” Hokum is also why I think Jeff Koons is the quintessential American artist: His work is a concrete expression of the idea.
Koons in now the subject of an exercise in overkill that trots out nearly his entire career: The vacuum cleaners entombed in fluorescently lit Plexiglas cases; the basketballs eerily submerged in fish tanks; the inflatable toys, tchotchkes, Hummel-style figurines and copies of antiquities, minted in bright reflective steel or carved in wood and granite; the insipid pop-mélange paintings; and most oddly of all, the depictions of himself in flagrante with his former wife, Ilona Staller, the adult film star known as Ciccolina.
The pieces display an undeniable genius for grabbing your attention (and given the narcissistic appeal of so many mirrored surfaces, how could they not?) but never for very long. Especially with the more recent stuff, your gaze flits from one piece of eye candy to another without much sinking in. Seeing the work en masse only exposes the void at the center of his enterprise, as well as his pretense to populism.
But the exhibit does reveal something much more interesting: Koons isn’t a charlatan as some would have it; rather, he transforms charlatanism into high art.
Collapsing the distance between innocence and guile, Koons is both the grifter and the mark, the stage illusionist and the person in the front row. His output could be read as an unpacking of how conviction is fabricated—a process best summed up by George’s Talmudic advice to Jerry for foiling the polygraph in Seinfeld: “Just remember, it’s not a lie if you believe it.”
Conning others, then, begins with conning yourself, which may account for why Koons so often blurs the distinction between irony and sincerity. Whenever I’ve heard him speak, for instance, he’s touted art-historical comparisons to his efforts, or made spiritual assertions for his art, that were so outlandish it sounded like he was either putting you on or manifesting a decisive break with reality. It was probably a little of both.
Still, however implausible, Koons’s spiritual claim for his work points to a preoccupation he shares with Andy Warhol: framing pop culture as a kind of faith. The difference is that Andy was a devout Catholic, channeling a reverence for iconography through Hollywood and Madison Avenue. Koons, like Dale Carnegie, seizes upon the proposition that anything can be made better by reinventing your past or forgetting it altogether.
Koons’s treatment of childhood as a fetish, and his compulsion for maintaining everything he makes in a perpetually pristine state, are the writ of this gospel: a vision of renewal as a form of arrested development bounded by the hermetical seal and the pneumatic plastic shell transformed into radiant metal. But this state of grace confuses solipsism for salvation and also roils with unspoken resentments, disturbing obsessions and fears of chaos.
You can see this in the way the presentation of the aforementioned vacuum cleaners removes them from human touch, like altarpieces from a germaphobic cult led by Howard Hughes. Likewise, the basketballs floating serenely in their tanks speak to the equilibrium of the drowned, while a cast-bronze dinghy would sink like a stone. The bourbon permanently soldered within a stainless-steel copy of a holiday decanter shaped like a toy train compresses the promised redemption of a 12-step program into a single state of denial.
These are but stations of the cross, however, on the way to Koons’s late-’80s foray into pornography. Redacted here to elide some of its more explicit elements, the “Made in Heaven” series of large silkscreened photos on canvases and Murano glass sculptures reprise hard-core porn’s conventions—cream pies, facials and anal penetration close-ups—as transcendent feats, completing Koons’s apotheosis into a demigod of his own imagining. Resembling sentimental greeting cards and gifts from duty-free shops, they were were roundly castigated when first shown, nearly wrecking Koons’s career. But they mark the fulcrum of his oeuvre, the moment he bought into the hokum he’d only flirted with previously. As other observers have noted, “Made in Heaven” distills the instant when Koons became Koons.
Since then, Koons has seemed content to serve as the official artist of the plutocracy, who view his pharaonically scaled kitsch items as both financial assets and as monuments to the triumph of top-down class warfare. But Koons’s use of kitsch isn’t just about providing an opportunity to sneer at the bad taste of the economy’s losers. He understands that kitsch provides comfort, a shield of sentimentality for the little guys unable to bend the world to their will—people, perhaps, like the ones he knew from the largely white, small-town community in which he was born.
Fond memories for the homogeneity of where he grew up often inform his approach, and they may also explain the occasional, sometimes troubling, allusions to race that crop up—most noticeable in his porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson. Trimmed in gold and bleached bone white, Jackson is seen in repose, holding his pet chimp, Bubbles. It’s a tribute from one superstar to another, but the proximity of their faces veers dangerously close to the malicious caricature of African-Americans as apes.
Does this imply that Koons is racist? No. But it does suggest that his nostalgia for his boyhood universe cannot escape its racial parochialism.
I describe Koons above as the quintessential American artist, but it should be noted that American in his case pertains to a particular version of the country, one on which the sun is clearly setting, yet one also struggling—violently at times—to stay in charge. Koons’s aesthetic dovetails neatly with this reactionary climate, much like the 19th-century academic painters before modernism swept their reputations out to sea. It would require a revolution on the same order to consign Koons and his art to a similar fate. But that change seems a long way off.—Howard Halle