Monday Musing: Defending Jeff Koons, or, Why Don’t You Like My Puppy?

This short essay is inspired by a comment made by our own Timothy Don in his wonderful Negotiation of June 13th. As I wrote in the comments, Timothy is one of the few people writing on art at the moment I truly enjoy and profit from reading (Arthur Danto being another).

And let’s be honest, friends, art criticism is a foul business. Most people engaging in it would get a punch in the nose if they tried to write that way somewhere else. For the most part, it’s pretentious, jargon-obsessed junk. As Clement Greenberg once mentioned, “The fact is that most art writers are cold; they’re usually people who wouldn’t be able to survive writing about anything else.” And I’m glad I brought up Clement Greenberg here. The man could write very clearly about what are often difficult ideas. I love the guy. Love to read him, love to think about what he had to say. But it ought to be mentioned here that he was wrong, completely wrong. And Timothy Don is a wonderful writer on art, and he has many Greenbergian impulses and he’s sometimes wrong too.

He’s not wrong in his impressions and much of his analysis. He’s generally hitting the nail on the head with that. But he’s wrong in his aesthetic judgments. He’s wrong, as Greenberg might have put it, in his taste. Now that’s not to say that Timothy Don has bad taste. I know the man and I can tell you that his taste is impeccable. The more important point is that he thinks there is taste at all, which is why, after a great reflection on why he began to appreciate Basquiat despite himself, he still feels he has to draw the line at Jeff Koons. But there is no such line. The Greenbergian moment is over. It’s over. The Kantian argument lost. All there are now are many things and the struggle is to figure out what they are and why they are interesting. And because of that fact there is no reason to be so hard on our little friends like Mr. Koons. Mr. Koons was trying to liberate us from our Greenbergian fetors.

We must learn to love Jeff Koons.

Indeed, I would say that the thing that was first being called postmodernism a couple of decades ago is only really coming into its own now. Partly that’s because it isn’t so ‘post’ anymore, its just the way we apprehend the world. More and more, it is simply natural. You could call this a new naturalism, though it’s a naturalism so thoroughly interfused with the artificial that the distinction just isn’t interesting anymore. And this allows for a new immediacy, a new sincerity.

In an elegant little essay by Douglas Coupland of Generation X fame, something of this same point is made about Jeff Koons. One of the things that probably infuriated people so much about Koons was the way that he came off as such the glib ironist. It seemed like he was sneering at everyone and everything even as he made a killing off the 80s art boom.

But Coupland suggests that that really wasn’t Koons’ attitude at all.

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To watch Koons speak in interviews, he is always maddeningly espousing warm, gooey, puppy love for his creations – and he answers every pointed question with the same beatific smile, like the Pope playing poker. While the work can sometimes appear dazzlingly, shamelessly shallow, he himself tells us that it possesses untold hidden depths – the polar opposite of Warhol. Koons’ work is detached yet also sentimental. Or… is it? He has never, as far as one can tell, presented any evidence of ironic detachment from his source material and its spawn. Which means that he is either a very cool cucumber – cooler than Warhol – or he’s the Rain Man of the art scene. Is his work deep? Is it shallow? Is he for real? Is he a shaman? Is he an idiot savant?

When he made his stupid giant puppies and his annoying little porcelains he loved them, he thought they were important and meaningful. And he was confused by the rancor directed his way. “My puppy is so beautiful,” he was saying. “Why don’t you love my puppy?” But we didn’t listen. We were so smart. There was no way we were going to fall in love with his dumb fucking puppy. Rabbit

The fact is he was right. He was teaching us how to live aesthetically in this world, sort of like Warhol tried to do before him but one step further along. If you can love the puppy you’ve achieved a certain kind of freedom. You’ve achieved a new level of sensibility adequate to a situation of absolute aesthetic pluralism (Arthur Danto). Now that makes certain kinds of distinctions impossible, it ruins the capacity for taste in the way Greenberg meant it, but it’s immensely liberating as well because it puts you right back squarely in this world, the one we’re actually inhabiting now. It allows a hell of a lot of the things that are out there to become beautiful again. Beautiful not as the authentic object with its aura from times past. Beautiful in a new way. Beautiful like a porcelain figurine of Michael Jackson and his frickin monkey. If you can love that little figurine, really love it, no pretending, than you’re going to be OK. You’re going to be better than OK. You’re going to be in love with the world again because an almost infinite array of potential aesthetic pleasure is going to open up to you.
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Now those of you out there committed to criticism in its more robust sense, to Greenbergian attitudes or others, are having a hard time here. You’re disgusted maybe. But I don’t think you should be. Because the most liberating aspect of Koons’ work is that it just doesn’t impose an aesthetic criterion beyond itself. One can still like abstract expressionism and the fact is such things are still being produced. In a way, Gerhard Richter is a version of Jeff Koons. He also realized that there is little reason in the aesthetic world of the present to confine yourself to any one trajectory of taste or to this or that aesthetic criterion. Richter was just a lot more uptight about than Koons. And hey, that’s OK if you still want to be uptight about art. There’s lots of uptight art out there for you.

But if you’re willing to give it a go, Koons can be interesting therapy. Clement Greenberg was talking about Donald Judd one day and he said, roughly, ‘these boxes are OK, but they just don’t have the right proportions. If they were more interesting as boxes they would be better’. Now that’s a man, God love him, who is unwilling or unable (or both) to allow the possibility of another criterion. Judd wasn’t thinking about his boxes that way. And Jeff Koons’ Puppies are not meant to be looked at as Judd’s boxes are. According to Koons, his puppies are meant to be a symbol of ‘love, warmth, and happiness’. I don’t know, I think that I’m prepared to believe that they are symbols of exactly that. In a funny way, it took a lot of balls to make cuddly art. You have to tip your hat to the man, the little bear has a button in its hand that says ‘I Love You’. Damn.

Here’s a last shot. Coupland puts it this way and I find the comment persuasive. Enjoy.

Most older artists have chosen to opt out of the ironic/post-ironic discourse (‘Let the damn kids figure it out’), but for the young, the irony/post-irony discourse is as common as oxygen, and to ignore it is to will irrelevance onto oneself. But the consensus seems to be mounting in both the art and Jacksonliterary worlds that, in order to jump dimensions, one has to play with all polarities of irony: heartfelt confession morphing into old sitcom punchlines morphing into Serzone blankness. In other words, being Jeff Koons.

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