Hope Against Hope” by Barry Schwabsky
[read it here]

What does Jeff Koons’ art offer our BuzzFeed linkbait world? Not as much as you might think.

Jeff Koons was the golden boy du jour when I started my Fine Art degree. Even as a wet behind the ears art world neophyte, I had a hard time buying into Koons. I got what he was trying to do and liked pieces of it, but it all fell short somehow.

The linked article is in response to Koons’ major retrospective at The Whitney Museum of American Art, it finally gives me language for my ongoing dissatisfaction with Koons.

Koons was an appropriator, like other artists of the time, but his point was always to make a better, more exclusive version of the found object—to borrow his terms, not a degraded version but a luxury one.

His work blossoms, if that is the right word, into an ever more gargantuan effort to create, as if to confound the cool gaze solicited by his art of the 1980s: a visual frenzy of bright colors and clashing imagery on an ever-increasing scale and with ever-intensifying technical demands in manufacture, always more overbearing yet more ingratiating—art as an endless distraction from its own emptiness.

I think art needs to aspire to more than a shoulder shrug, especially a shoulder shrug holding a champagne glass, and even more especially when selling the shoulder shrug bought the champagne. I know that’s his point, but I don’t buy it, literally and figuratively.

I’m a big fan of Warhol. Schwabsky draws out a difference between Koons and Warhol that I like. The comparison highlights the fact that to simply transplant Warhol to the present makes for an ill fit. Warhol doesn’t make sense now and if you’re too young to remember his world it’s really hard to transplant him. What Warhol was presaging is our world, now. Metaphors of commercial exchange are the lubricant that keep our mechanical mental models functioning. It’s difficult for us to think of human interaction in terms other than commercial exchange. As early as the 70’s Warhol changed his tune regarding 15 minutes of fame.

[In answer to the question “What is Pop Art?”] It’s the place where my prediction from the sixties finally came true: “In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.” I’m bored with that line. I never use it anymore. My new line is, “In fifteen minutes everybody will be famous.”

Warhol called it. Is bored dispassion the right disposition, now that we’re in the world he predicted? How can you dispassionately appropriate commercial exchange when all of our interactions want to be BuzzFeed linkbait-esque Tactically Leveraged Networking Opportunities™ on a bed of ubiquitous connectedness? It’s less than a piffle.

Koons, or even a time transplanted Warhol, don’t seem equal to the task of our world. Bland dispassionate appropriation can’t be taken any further. Scepticism or despair seem like viable alternatives.

What if our times are drawing something else out of us? What if our times are drawing generative possibility out of us? Even more risky, what if they’re drawing a vulnerable generative possibility out of us? Koons is decidedly non-vulnerable, and his “optimism,” as Schwabsky calls it, seems irrational. I use the word “irrational” in contrast to Frederic Pistono, with whom I don’t agree on all things but who has described himself as a “rational optimist,” a term I really like. What would a rational optimism that unleashed vulnerable generative possibility look like?

I was recently reminded (thanks Milano crew, and Johnny in particular) of First Nations artist Brian Jungen. You’ve probably seen his work, traditional masks made out of Nike running shoes, a whale skeleton made out of mass produced plastic chairs. This feels like generative work. It also feels like vulnerable work because he’s potentially pissing off everyone. White folks, rich white folks, corporations, First Nations people, fellow First Nations artists, First Nations people who are trustees of cultural tradition etc. He’s standing in a de-centred middle ground in which he’s artist first, and then all of the other things he is after that, in order to comment on all the other things he is after that. He is a brave man in a dangerous place.

But still… Jungen’s work seems ensconced in the rarified, intimidating and not oft frequented air of The Fine Art Gallery. And it’s air that can be bought. That’s not a bad thing, its the sandbox he’s playing in, and it needs to be played in. I say “but still” because I find myself hoping for more.

I guess I’m hoping for a more direct on the streets generative challenge to a producer/consumer/commercial exchange mode of being. There’s stuff out there, I know there is.

What have you seen? What’s on the streets? What’s on the edge of generative possibility?