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How Jeff Koons sold out – and why his jumbo tulips don’t belong in Paris

14 March 2018

Controversy has erupted in France around the offer by Jeff Koons to donate a sculpture, Bouquet of Tulips, as a memorial to the victims of the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015, to be installed outside the Museum of Modern Art and the Palais de Tokyo. On 21 January 2018, the newspaper Liberation published an open letter, signed by a group of prominent French cultural figures, condemning the sculpture as ‘product placement’, seeing the gesture as ‘shocking’, ‘cynical’ and ‘opportunistic’, and calling for the abandonment of the project. (A group of supporters have since signed their own open letter, published in Le Monde, urging the city to accept Koons’ ‘message of hope’.) The proposed sculpture, standing over 10 metres tall, depicts a giant, hyperrealist hand holding aloft a bunch of helium-balloon tulips cast in metal.

In part, opposition to the proposal may stem from the larger problem of ‘parachuting’ works by well-known artists into public space. Tulips are a motif Koons has already depicted in a series of large-scale works presented both in public and in galleries, and in this respect they indeed, as his accusers argue, seem to engage very little with the particular context they purportedly memorialise. In addition, argue Koons’s opponents, the proposed location of the sculpture eschews the actual sites of the tragedies of 2015 in favour of a high-footfall, culturally prestigious site of tourism.

What further exacerbates these anxieties about the suitability of the offer is Koons’s embrace of Andy Warhol’s dictum that ‘good business is the best art’. For the writers of the Liberation letter, Koons is guilty of promulgating ‘industrial art’ that is ‘spectacular and speculative’, and he and his dealers amount to ‘multinationals of hyperluxe’. Koons’ work, that is to say, has slipped out of the distinct realm of ‘culture’ – which since Romanticism has been expected to offer autonomy and critical distance from our humdrum world – and into mere commerce.

Koons’ early work looked much more like ‘art’, in this post-Romantic sense. As Alison Pearlman details in Unpacking the Art of the 1980s, at the outset of Koons’s career he located himself within a milieu of young New York artists, such as Allan McCollum and Haim Steinbach, who explicitly articulated their work as seeking critical positions on consumer culture. Koons himself was involved with the artistic partnership Collins and Milazzo (C&M), who produced highly polemical texts and exhibitions grappling with the seeming failure of Marxist oppositional strategies, faced as these had been with reappropriation and commodification by the culture industries. C&M propounded, as a response, the potential ‘negative instrumentality’ of the commodity itself, and suggested art enter into the realm of commerce.

This was a relatively unproblematic way to read Koons’ works at that moment. His art certainly re-staged the allure of the commodity, but it did so in ways that mixed consumer desire with altogether more disturbing and dissonant material. Anthropomorphised vacuum cleaners were sanctified like holy relics in tomb-like glass cases. Basketballs floating motionless in tanks were juxtaposed with pastiches of sportswear advertisements in order to display the impossibility of ‘equilibrium’ in a consumer society. Darkened bronze sculptures of dinghies and aqualungs negated their own function as flotation devices or life preservers, connecting them instead to death and drowning. Even as Koons reiterated images of kitsch culture, his vibrantly sensual surfaces seemed to collide the erotic with the deathly, and space-age technology with the infantile, anatomising the fetishism at the heart of the aesthetic lure of the commodity, even as they enacted it.

However, as Koons became more successful, and as he left this milieu behind, his work seemed to increasingly abandon such complexity and contradiction for a more univocal affirmation. If Koons’ theatrical persona as celebrant of the banal, popular and commercial could initially have been read as an ironic parody, part of a strategy consistent with C&M’s position, such a reading becomes increasingly strained over time. Indeed, it becomes increasingly hard to see whether Koons’s work still has ‘content’ at all, or if his creations, rather, are merely commodity objects whose exceptional value stems from their ability – precisely as enigmatic objects whose critical purpose is uncertain – to ensnare commentators into a legitimating discourse. They are, this is to say, in anthropologist Alfred Gell’s terms, cunning ‘traps’ set to garner interpretation (and a judgment as to whether the object is art or not), so producing an art-effect, of sorts, and ensuring cultural significance and economic value. Perhaps even the opponents of the Paris monument have fallen for the ploy, bolstering Koons’ notoriety and offering him the capital of publicity, which can easily be banked.

Bouquet of Tulips might nonetheless be at least haunted by a series of themes from Koons’ early works that make its presentation as a memorial slightly more than arbitrary. The flowers, of course, are redolent of the floral tributes of popular roadside shrines to victims of violent or untimely death – though in fact many of Koons’ other tulip sculptures would seem more keyed in to this interpretation, as they tend to lie scattered on the floor, stalks limp, rather than held aloft by a hand. This iconography might point us to Koons’ longer concern with death – and to the metaphor of (stilled) breath that echoes across the balloons, basketballs, vacuum cleaners and lifejackets.

In this regard, it is perhaps not the irrelevance of the sculpture to the memorial context that is the problem for me, but rather what it might have to say about the events in question. According to Koons’s press release, the hand makes reference to the Statue of Liberty, and through this to the history of American-French friendship, emphasising shared traditions of ‘universal principles of Freedom and Liberty’. The triumphalism of the sculpture, however, recasts these principles – in opposition to an imagined and feared Islamic other, conjured implicitly by the background of the Paris terrorist attacks – through the bland, shiny surfaces of popular culture and consumption that Koons’ work has consistently and emphatically taken as its aesthetic touching point. What Bouquet of Tulips proposes is the cultural commodity itself as the torch of democracy.