Appreciating contemporary art

Jeff Koons: A Certified Extra-Terrestrial

One of the weirdest and most mystifying artists alive today. He is surely as great a celebrant of our existential vacuity and glitzy nihilism as Warhol.

Jeff Koons ‘Woman in Tub’ (1988) Wikiart

Jeff Koons bewilders the artworld. No one is sure whether he is good or bad, or just plain nothing at all. Critics feel free to be scathing. ‘Anuses on rods’ is how his latest large-scale public sculpture ‘Bouquet of Tulips’ (2019), was described by Yves Michaud in the French press recently, and the work itself was vandalised with the graffiti tag ‘bouquet of arseholes’. The piece is supposed to be a memorial to the victims of the 2015 Bataclan terror attack in Paris, and it is as good a point as any with which to begin a discussion of Jeff Koons and the whole of his artistic adventure.

The facts: Koons has established himself as a major figure in the contemporary artworld, regularly selling individual works for tens of millions of dollars. Most people with an interest in modern art have heard of him, and could probably identify something that he has created, even if only in passing. This makes him a genuine A-lister of sorts. Yet there is no general agreement as to his ultimate meaning and value in what might be called ‘higher’ artistic terms, with opinion veering from a contemptuous dismissal at one extreme, to a kind of qualified acceptance on the other, with a great deal of confusion in between. Critic Robert Hughes has described Koons’s work as no more than ‘cat shit’, whereas Roberta Smith in the New York Times has urged us to accept Koons’s ‘beauty’ and ‘mystery’.

We could put all these differing responses down simply to a matter of taste and personal preference, but that’s a dead end and doesn’t advance our insight into ‘all things Koons’. As it happens, there’s a much more interesting angle on how best to understand his work, and get what he’s up to. And it begins with the idea that, to grasp what a contemporary artist like Jeff Koons is really all about, you have to abandon traditional ideas of aesthetics, and come at contemporary art from a completely different angle.

So we now need to make a short digression back to basics. There are some important points to be made here, and they will benefit from a certain amount of repetition. Please bear with me. Classical art is all about ‘beauty’, and classical crafting skills. Artists are believed to be people who create manifestly beautiful objects using specialised skills learned at academies and specialist schools. Artworks tend to be judged on the degree of classical skill evident in the finished product; so a high degree of manifest skill equals a good artwork. Classical accomplishment goes beyond mere hand-eye coordination in that it also involves learning to refine one’s sense of taste, though both these aesthetic realms are essentially a matter of sensuality and sensual capacity. In fact all non-narrative classical art forms — music, painting, sculpture and so on — are almost wholly concerned with sensual experience and its refinement.

But in the early 20th century, with the advent of Dadaism, a new and unforeseen dimension was added to the possibilities inherent in painting and sculpture, namely that of ‘narrative’. We’re not talking here about plot driven narratives — or storylines — of the kind found in drama or fiction, which consist of sequential events leading to a conclusion; what we’re talking about instead is ‘situational narratives’, in which the viewer plugs into information implicit in whatever has been presented to them, and they do this by means of a straightforward apprehending and congruence. In other words, you see something — anything — and you assess what it means.

This may sound very ethereal and complicated, but it’s not. It’s what all of us do all the time. We read the situations we come across in daily life on the basis of simple and obvious evidential clues, and we ‘work out’ from these clues what’s going on. Keys on the hall table mean someone has come back. A light on in the house opposite may mean someone is ill. Doors slamming mean people going to work. Breaking glass can mean trouble. And so on. We don’t need explicit instructions to know what our environment it telling us; nor do we need to be either particularly sensitive or clever. We just look at the obvious.

But how does this fit in with art? Well, the Dadaists realised that there was good fun to be had in breaking the rules of classical aesthetics, especially when presenting absurdist and seemingly bizarre objects in the name of artistic sculpture, and then exhibiting them in unusual settings. The idea was to shock their audiences into submission, though Dadaism was likely more about entertainment than revolution. Yet what was going on below the surface was that all this performative craziness effectively opened the door to a new kind of presentational possibility, in which artworks could become conveyors of narrative information rather than of ‘beauty’, and that this conveying could itself then be orchestrated in various ways, not all of them necessarily playful and absurdist. And at the same time as the Dadaists were changing the rules of sculpture, the rules of painting were also being redrawn by various schools to include non-classical subject matter and non-classical techniques, and this meant that all art forms were now able to employ narrative principles in their composition rather than rely entirely on traditional aesthetics. In other words, artworks no longer had to be classically beautiful to qualify as art; they could instead be portals to narrative.

Let’s try to clarify this as far as is possible. What we are saying is that after the advent of Dadaism, ‘art’ became something you could use for narrative purposes, rather than strictly for the crafting of standalone objects of classical beauty. Paintings and sculptures could — like theatrical props or settings in a movie — be crafted to express any number of ideas in any number of ways. Artworks could now become narrative landscapes and theatrical environments, providing us with thoughts and experiences and perspectives which have nothing to do with classically crafted beauty.

But we have to admit that this transition from aesthetics to situational narrative is not widely understood, and continues to baffle the artworld even today. Many art enthusiasts just don’t get it, and find it impossible to break free of the cage of classical aesthetics, and take on a new paradigm. They don’t seem able to discard tired old ideas of cultural classicism. So every time they encounter a contemporary artwork, they look for signs of skilled technique and sensual beauty; and if they can’t find them, they judge the artwork to be disappointing and inadequate. Phrases such as ‘My five-year-old could do better than that’ and ‘That’s not art !’ are now part of the mythology of modern gallery-going.

Jeff Koons ‘Peg Leg Liberty Bell’ (2008) (Flickr Commons)

Does this mean that the idea of art being about ‘situational narrative’ is essentially too unappealing for even the committed gallery-goer? Are people unshakably wedded to the idea of judging artworks solely on their classically crafted merits? Perhaps so, but this means they are missing out on a lot of good things, because a number of major contemporary artists have for decades been asking viewers to forget about the old ways and instead to join them in exploring new ideas and new perspectives, all located in a different, non-classical realm. And entry to this new realm is really not that difficult to negotiate once you understand how it works.

So what has all this to do with Jeff Koons? Well, the key thing to get at the outset is that his art is all about ‘situational narrative’ as opposed to ‘classical aesthetics’. Yes, even if some of his artworks display evidence of highly skilled (non-classical) crafting, this does not mean they are to be understood as standalone objects within the classical tradition. Koons is best appreciated in quite another way, and from quite another angle; and to reach this new perspective you have to abandon the logic of sensuality and attune yourself instead to the wonders of performative theatrics.

And the quickest possible way to do this is simply to imagine Jeff Koons as if he were some kind of visiting extra-terrestrial, presenting us earthlings with what he thinks is an interesting artistic persona, and what he thinks are interesting artworks. You don’t separate Jeff Koons from his overall presentation — you have to include him in it as part of a total package — and then his whole offering makes sense, probably for the first time. It’s art as a form of theatre, in which the artworks are mere elements in a situational but not plot-driven narrative. Jeff Koons then becomes a type of artistic incarnation, with his artworks as his accompanying landscape. He’s showing us a whole way of looking at things, and a whole way of artistic being, and he’s using crafted objects as a form of instrument. And this way of understanding art also goes for that elite group of contemporary artists – like Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys, Marina Abramović, Gilbert & George, and David Bowie — who have managed to create and sustain an essential performative element to their presentational output.

But is this what Koons intends? Is this how he sees himself, and wants to be portrayed? Maybe not, but that is beside the point: Koons can’t escape what he’s already managed to present us with, and how we might respond to it. The fact is, he’s coming across loud and clear as an ‘extra-terrestrial’ – as a weirdly distinctive oddball out-of-place personality — who happens to be presenting us with his extra-terrestrial take on art, alongside his singular sensibility.

Jeff Koons moving freely among us; New York, 2011 (Wikiart)

Then which part of him is his extra-terrestiality? Well to begin with, Jeff Koons could be mistaken, in appearance, for a senior sales manager in an old style corporate business. He is wholly presentable and unthreatening. He dresses conservatively, and is reassuringly good looking in an executive kind of way. He has a ready smile and an unfailingly positive demeanour, and is always able to explain himself in a self-assured and effortless manner. So far, so good. Yet something doesn’t feel quite right. It’s not that he’s robotic or insincere, it’s rather that he seems to be channelling his thoughts from a strange realm entirely of his own, oddly located at least two or three clicks away from ours, and never quite in synch with the everyday here and now. There is something delightfully weird about his whole shtick. He’s an artworld version of David Icke. And being able to sustain something like this seamlessly and endlessly is – in narrative and presentational terms – a rare gift. Compare Koons with those like Tracey Emin or Damien Hirst, who would love to be weird and interesting but can’t manage it.

So what is the specific ‘narrative’ that Koons is channelling? Basically he’s found a way to connect with — and exploit — a dimension of artistic possibility hidden in plain sight, namely that of the veiled nihilism haunting all glossy and glamorous imagery, especially of a commercial nature. There is always something cruelly unsettling about glitzy perfection, no matter how dementedly we fall under its spell. Yet exploring this phenomenon through art does not equate with satire or caricature — Koons is not making fun of our beliefs — he’s just showing us exactly what our obsessional delight with expensive stuff amounts to, and he’s doing it by crafting artworks which epitomise banality, triviality and commercial meaninglessness. He’s transporting us beyond boredom and monotony into an extraordinary affectless black hole, devoid of even distant hints at depth and profundity, yet he’s managing to make it a fascinating and absorbing experience, captivating in its bleak but glitzy singularity. To browse through a Jeff Koons exhibition catalogue is to enter an amazing world of crafted vacuity, a kind of contemporary art homage to the appetites behind Versailles and Neuschwanstein and other forms of monstrous exuberance; though in having no connection to the demands of stately authority Koons’s art becomes an experiential endpoint in itself. Koons is treating us to a dazzling Instagrammatic nothingness, and the effect is both enchanting and alarming.

Jeff Koons ‘Kiepenkerl’ (1987) (Flickr Commons)

And the decisive factor in favour of arguing that Koons’s art can only really be understood as a form of narrative theatre – a total performance of sorts — is that it avoids generating the kind of bewilderment that is sure to arise whenever you try to assess his artworks in conventional aesthetic terms. What Jeff is doing goes way beyond creating a collection of standalone objects of a classical nature — he is presenting us with an entire experiential performance, and his individual artworks really only gain meaning when seen as embedded in this very theatrical totality.

And having set up our terms of reference, we can now return to our starting point and offer a word or two on Koons’s latest public sculpture, the ‘Bouquet of Tulips’. Was it prudent to ask an ‘extra-terrestrial’ to create a memorial for the victims of a very human atrocity? Maybe not if you were hoping for something safe, forgettable and lifeless – in the tradition of most public sculpture – because ‘Bouquet of Tulips’ is genuinely mystifying, and defies casual interpretation. It’s art from outermost space.

Jeff Koons ‘Bouquet of Tulips’ (2019) Paris (Flickr Commons)

About the Author

Jakob Zaaiman is an artist and writer and was born near Etersheim, North Holland, in 1955. He is currently based in London and New York.

He works mainly with photographs, and is interested only in the troubling and disconcerting aspects of life which can be discovered within the ordinary. Each of his artworks is designed to house its own impenetrable narrative; sometimes self-contained; sometimes reaching out to realms beyond itself.

You can discover Zaaiman’s art in his Artzine gallery.

Originally published at

Artist and writer; artworks, prose and poetry.

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