What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Koons's Kitsch: Perl v. Schjeldahl

Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog (Orange) (1994-2000)

Jed Perl, in his wonderful, indignant, agitated "The Cult of Jeff Koons" (The New York Review of Books, September 25, 2014), objects to what he sees as a consensus among certain critics, including The New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl, that Jeff Koons’s art is “criticism-proof.” He says, “In The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl, certainly a man of discriminating tastes, basically announced that there was no way of arguing with his [Koons’s] success. Koons is ‘the signal artist of today’s world,’ Schjeldahl wrote. ‘If you don’t like that, take it up with the world.’ ” He further says,

When Schjeldahl regards Koons’s overblown baubles, what he sees is an authentic aesthetic response to the mind-bending pressures of a global consumer society. Our Gilded Age, so Schjeldahl may imagine, precipitates—empowers, even legitimates—this high-tech kitsch vision. But does it follow that those of us who do not respond to the work are in denial—that we are, whether consciously or unconsciously, delegitimizing a legitimate aesthetic? Is Schjeldahl suggesting that the very existence of the work forces some sort of aesthetic embrace? Must it be appreciated simply because it exists (and sells for so much money)? And where does this leave the average museumgoer, whoever that mythical being might be, who has been told even before walking through the doors of the Whitney that whatever scruples he or she has are suspect?

These are good questions. I commend Perl for raising them. The line that Perl refers to is from Schjeldahl’s "Selling Points" (The New Yorker, July 7 & 14, 2014): “It’s really the quality of his work, interlocking with economic and social trends, that makes him the signal artist of today’s world. If you don’t like that, take it up with the world.” I remember reading that passage when it appeared in the magazine and wondering what world he’s talking about – the real world or the art world. Most people in the real world would, I think, consider Koons’s work to be kitsch. Perl calls it “high-tech kitsch.” He also calls it “overblown baubles,” “the apotheosis of Walmart,” “supersized suburban trinkets,” a combination of “in-your-face banality and in-your-face extravagance.”

If, on the other hand, Schjeldahl is referring to the art world, he’s ascribing seriousness to a feverish, fair-driven sphere that he’s previously described as a “circus” ("The Circus," “Culture Desk,”, November 13, 2013), where money is the favorite measure of quality. “Our age will be bookmarked in history by the self-adoring gestures of the incredibly rich. Aesthetics ride coach,” he says in "Changing My Mind About Gustav Klimt's 'Adele'," “Culture Desk,”, June 7, 2012).

So when Schjeldahl says of Koons’s work, “If you don’t like it, take it up with the world,” he seems to be saying, “Look, you can’t change the nature of the times we live in. Big money is now the ultimate arbiter of what is great. Aesthetics rides coach.” This is one interpretation. It’s the one that Perl adopts. He says, “Our Gilded Age, so Schjeldahl may imagine, precipitates – empowers, even legitimates – this high-tech kitsch.”

That’s Perl’s interpretation. It’s a reasonable one. But I don’t buy it. Plutocrats may relegate aesthetics to the cheap seats, but not Schjeldahl. His appreciation of beauty is there in the “It’s really the quality of his work” part of the above-quoted sentence. It’s there in the distinction he draws between Koons and Damien Hirst. In his "Spot On" (The New Yorker, January 12, 2013), he says of the Brooklyn Museum’s 1999 Young British Artists show, which included work by Hirst, “It was too transparently desperate—unlike the pricey frivolity, backed by real artistic command, of our own Jeff Koons.” Note that “backed by real artistic command.” In the same piece, he says, “Hirst will go down in history as a peculiarly cold-blooded pet of millennial excess wealth.” This is close to what Perl is saying about Koons. But Schjeldahl treats Koons differently than he does Hirst. In “Selling Points,” he says, “No other artist so lends himself to a caricature of the indecently rich ravening after the vulgarly bright and shiny. But mockery comes harder when, approaching the work with eyes and mind open, you encounter Koons’s formidable aesthetic intelligence.”

In an earlier piece on Koons, Schjeldahl says, “Can you dislike Balloon Dog (Orange) (1994-2000), a ten-foot-high representation, in chromium stainless steel with a coppery tint, of a cartoony canine formed with twists in a long balloon?” ("Funhouse," The New Yorker, June 9, 2008). Right there, in his pleasurable description (“cartoony canine formed with twists in a long balloon”), I detect a strand of Schjeldahl’s aesthetic. Later, in the same piece, it’s evident in his description of Koons’s Hanging Heart (Blue / Silver) (1994-2006) – “sweet as dime-store perfume.” Schjeldahl’s response to these particular Koonses has nothing to do with “the mind-bending pressures of a global consumer society,” as alleged by Perl, and everything to do with pure delight – the pleasure principle in his experience of Koons’s art.

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