Frankenstein in Paradise
(Parkett, December 1997)

A lack of historical awareness can be a sure sign of impending doom: those who do not know the past are condemned to repeat it. But is it not also possible to suffer from a surfeit of historical awareness? Too keen a sense of history can corrupt or perhaps undercut an action altogether, much as a moment of self-consciousness can cause an actor to forget his lines. The anxiety of influence is a malady of this genre, and another occurs when an artist considers not past greats but future greatness. Does every artist not wonder how he will himself be treated by history? Even the Greeks thought art emerged from a desire for immortal glory, though today it takes on a new form: an actorâs "glory" is to be hounded by photographers, while an artistâs is to be dogged by exegetes. Was it not inevitable that an awareness of this situation would enter into artworks themselves? James Joyce once remarked that Finnegans Wake would "keep the professors busy." History had begun to peer over his shoulder, and the consequence was to be a portrait of the artist as a self-conscious man. In short, modernist art about art was poised to become something very different: art about the interpretation of art.
 It is essentially a problem as old as Eden: once you eat the forbidden fruit, how can you patch blissful ignorance together again and become a veritable Frankenstein of innocence? Having been at the epicenter of an art media frenzy, how can an artist such as Jeff Koons not have the din of exegeses ringing in his ears every time he sets out to make a work? It is not a personal matter, a question of conscience, or a probe into the creative psyche, but rather a profound aesthetic issue: how can the artist think for himself? That Koons has found a way is made plain by the unexpectedness of the terms (trust, sincerity, archetypality, objectivity) in which he speaks of his new work, Celebration. And yet, if itâs not surprising to assert that a social contract lies at the foundation of society, must it sound so weird to say that an aesthetic compactöpredicated precisely on such values as trustölies at the foundation of art? The problem of the counterfeit alone attests to its importance, not to mention the immense institutional mechanisms (museums, catalogues raisonnés, scholars) dedicated to determining whether artworks can be trusted. Are they real? Are they good? Are they art at all?

A similar suspiciousness always haunted philosophyâs view of knowledge, to the point where Descartes finally raised it into a principle, universal doubt. Has Koons discovered a concordant phenomenon, a universal doubt that belongs to aesthetics and makes it impossible even to have faith in artworks anymore? Such mistrust would be a logical consequence of half a century of "art that questions the status of art," and also of the gradual dematerialization of the art object. Philosophy had always doubted of knowledge because sensory experience, it thought, is rife with errors which subsequently reason has to correct. Now as art legitimates increasingly abstract procedures of creation, such that a readymade, wordgame, or mere idea can be "art," is it not perhaps inevitable that it take up that old prejudice against the senses? Or perhaps the causal chain is the reverse: as the contemptus corporis endemic to western tradition infiltrates even its aesthetics, must art not decreasingly appeal to the senses? Conceptual artists produce no bodice-rippers, and to whatever extent Duchamp is the patron saint of post-modernism, he is most certainly its first célibataire, its first ascetic, as well. The essentially intellectual thrust of his achievementöin inventing the very idea of the readymade, he tilted the balance away from the material object and thereby forced aesthetics to take note of the pure conceptödid for art what Christianity did for religion: it made the body superfluous. An aesthetics of perception (the Greek root aesthenesthai means to perceive) gives way in Duchamp to an epicene one of conception.

A repudiation of this asceticism was latent in Koons long before the pornographic works of Made in Heaven. Certain early works such as BUNNY were able to turn the readymade on its head simply by no longer treating it puritanically, like a chess move. Instead, they approached it by means of affect and visceral response. BUNNY was pretty, happy, glossy, funny, even beautiful. Might not the simple certainty of a sensory experience revitalize the aesthetic compact? When an artwork inspires a sense of beauty, it is as difficult to doubt the reality of that affect as of a feeling of pain. Thus do the new works of Celebration strive to bedazzle, although beauty may still be too subjective an affect to rely on. An individual might not doubt his own reaction, but does he not hope that others will share it and perhaps therefore dub the work objectively beautiful in itself? The problem of beauty conjoins that of objectivity. It is not a matter of making the artist impartial but of making the work itself more objective. Koons accomplishes this by means of hard lines: the sculptures of Celebration are crisp as cookie-cutters, and the paintings as delineated as stained glass. This is no more epiphenomenal to Koons than the straight edge to Egypt or sinuosity to the Gothic. It is important because in art clean lines are the precondition of empiricism. They induce faith in the senses. In a gradient extending from black to white, there are myriad shades of grayöask someone where any one begins or ends, and the answer will plainly be subjective. But where black clearly abuts white, there the answer will approach objectivity.

While it would be impossible to objectify beauty in this way, Celebration strives for universality by depicting mass-produced goods. Must these not appeal to mass audiences? It is in this respect that Koonsâ work functions as archetype: itâs neither Platonic form nor Jungian symbol so much as good bet. However, the aim is not literally to reach the widest audience possible but rather to evoke familiarity in the widest possible portion of an actual audience. Why? Because the unfamiliar, the mysterious, gives to think. Put paint on a canvas with a severed moosehead and weâre forced to wonder why. But the depiction of familiar things invokes a different system of response altogether, one based less on reason than recollection. The perception of the artwork, in this system, is immediately redoubled by its phantom in memory, the two fitting snugly together like two hands in a handshake, whereas in the other system reason, mutilated, goes looking for its other half, "meaning." Koons chose to cast many of the Celebration sculptures in polyethylene for precisely this effect. This plastic, common in toys, is the material with which children learn how to become adults: oneâs first hammer and gun are always polyethylene. However, in Koonsâ sculptures it points not forward but backward: invoking cognition less than recognition, it turns the focus away from the artist (why did he do that?) and toward the viewer (I remember that!). The very transition from a question to an assertion already indicates an increase in certainty.
 Such a shift of focus is also instigated by the highly reflective facture of the Celebration sculpturesöones not made of polyethylene are composed of a shiny high-chromium stainless steel. This reflectivity is no more incidental to the work than its linearity, since even the paintings mostly depict their subjects against mylar backgrounds, and though the resulting play of light gives the work the appearance of being constantly "on," its import is not purely visual. What does the viewer see as he circles one of the sculptures? It, certainly, but also himself in its surface. It is virtually impossible to see the artwork without seeing oneself. The artist, on the other hand, literally drops out of the picture: toys come from Fisher-Price, games from Mattel, and art from artists, but where do mirrors come from? It is difficult to name a manufacturer because mirrors are designed to elicit not brand-awareness but self-involvementöso too with Koonsâ sculptures. The feedback loop of perception and recollection induced by the familiarity of the subject matter is redoubled yet again by the interplay of appearances. Celebrationâs maxim is not to know but to see thyself.

In philosophy, universal doubt is a kind of feigned idiocy. The thinker pretends not to know anything, then proceeds forward into knowledge by means of self-reflection (I think therefore I am). In art, itâs the opposite: the proliferation of increasingly self-conscious, cerebral work is accompanied by a crisis of faith in art itself. If modernism asked "What is art?", postmodernism responds with "I donât know, Iâm not sure anymore..." Might not the antidote to such a situation be a healthy dose of blissful ignorance? Might not art fall from the apostates to the innocentsöthose who, untroubled by the nature or meaning of art, carry it on with a kind of blind faith? Koons often speaks of his works as meaning no more or less to him than to anyone else. He does not produce art about the interpretation of art, but rather art about the non-interpretation of art. His strategies in Celebration are to make art beautiful (to elicit a gut response), to strive for objectivity (to encourage faith in the senses), to give back the familiar (to sideline reason for memory), and to reflect the viewer (to discourage interpretation of the work in favor of involvement with the self). And the principle behind his strategies is this: if it was knowledge that led to paradise lost, might not idiocy be the only means to regain it?

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