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Tom Penney

The Two Spiritualities: A Look at Jeff Koons

The Two Spiritualities: A look at Jeff Koons Tom Penney


Tom Penney

The Two Spiritualities: A Look at Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons is well known in the art world for subverting conventional ideas of the “spiritual”. Spirituality, a key driving process behind art investigation, is a poorly defined but forceful and ideological entity. A dialectic argument exists on either side of this word – some claim it is intuitive and specialised where others believe it is pluralistic and all-encompassing. When examining Jeff Koons’ work, it at first glance appears to come from a spirituality of the latter type – a “democratic” form of art using symbolism that works amongst anyone and the everyday. By contrast, Koons is situated between this dialectic in an “other” space. Totally ambiguous and surfing the links between opposing theories; his work is veiled in apparent trickery and manipulation. When faced with statements he has made, and the objects themselves, one questions whether the work is ironic or not. We may take some interesting ideas for alternative methods of spirituality from Koons, but will always be unsure as to his seriousness. An argument exists on either side of the word “spiritual” in art. As with all issues in contemporary art, we find numerous conflicts on either side of the word that tear it between trends. One trend in art, reaching an ideological peak in high modernism, has accentuated the individually felt, hermetic and subjective spiritual experience within abstract material qualities. This is well expressed in Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art, expanded on by Rosenberg’s analysis of American Abstraction (that “The act-painting is of the same metaphysical substance as the artist's existence” (Rosenberg, 4, 1952.)), and today promoted by Donald Kuspit. The other stream, forming primarily as a reaction to this model, has emphasised the diverse, conceptual and immaterial and follows an essentially Marxist stream in opposition to the capitalist undertones of American abstraction. Both streams, however, ultimately still aim for the same outcome – a unitary solution – as do the politics they have come to be associated with. In one solution any viewer should experience formal qualities equally, silently and without reference, and in the other spirituality forms in action, experience, dialogue or connectivity. It operates with reference to the outer world - to language systems. The notion of Hegel; that a series of theses and antitheses will eventually resolve into a unitary goal or end point, is an obvious way to examine this contention at first. Surely, when these two conflicting methods cease to vibrate and come to a point of rest, they will have found the perfect unitary spiritual solution they both desire...


Tom Penney

The Two Spiritualities: A Look at Jeff Koons

By contrast, this has not yet been the case, and spirituality, something that cannot be measured or defined, evades resolution and definition and is a word tossed around fairly flippantly. Its very subjective and personal nature means it is impossible to pin down. Just like the utopian project of modernism, to which the theory of the dialectic is associated, it exists beyond reality and in an ideological or other space. In the words of Louis Althusser, “The future lasts for a very long time.” (Althusser, 1995), spirituality will continue to exist “somewhere in the future”; an extended ideology or gratification that drives artists to create, be original, and achieve that which is beyond the everyday (and supposedly the banal). The association of spirituality with the ideal automatically places it within a hierarchy; there being something that exists closer to the top, to the elite, and that there are things that exist in a lower denomination, further from the ideal. That some things can be more “spiritual” than others directly applies to contemporary art and this is reflected in systems of taste and the commercial value of work. For the s ake of this discussion, we will say that abstraction exists at the top of the hierarchy; “Abstraction and luxury are the guard dogs of the upper class.” (Koons, 1993) and that found objects exist at the bottom, alongside the overtly iconic found within kitsch items and religious merchandise. Koons is famous for collapsing this scale to bring the low and high together. His work operates with a spirituality that is furthest from the perceived elite. About his giant topiary puppy (Image 1), Koons says, “Puppy communicates love, warmth and happiness to everyone. I created a contemporary Sacred Heart of Jesus..” and “I‟ve tried to make work that any viewer, no matter where they came from, would have to respond to, would have to say that on some level „Yes, I like it‟”. (Koons, 1993) It is hard to take him seriously where not only the visual flavour of the work disagrees with our notions of taste in its epic banality – its reference to all things cute, homely and “nice”, but the attachment of a spiritual idea, a “contemporary Sacred Heart of Jesus” (Koons, 1993) seems arbitrary and totally contrived.


Tom Penney

The Two Spiritualities: A Look at Jeff Koons

1. Jeff Koons, Puppy, 2000 It seems that Koons, if he were to be serious, wishes to shift the hierarchal spiritual structure to a horizontal one – where any and all things have their value. That many people enjoy the things his work is derived from simply confirms this. A puppy could be appreciated for its cute feelings, or sex could be appreciated for its state of ecstasy – Koons argues that these experiences have meaning for everyday people, just as abstraction means something to the art world. For something to be spiritual or meaningful for everyday people, it could not work with the language of abstraction which has a closed audience. Koons uses referential means, symbolic means, for the populous to interpret the work. The term “kitsch” is used to designate forms of art that take from high art and make it accessible to popular society by referencing the culture or the original it is derived from, rather than actually embodying it. By this referential and symbolic nature, the work can be shunted for its literariness – it is counter-modern. On his piece, St John the Baptist (Image 2), Koons has said “I use the Baroque to show the public that we are in the realm of the spiritual, the eternal” (Koons, 1993) The Baroque becomes a symbol of the desired – the over-ornamental is seductive in its quality – but it is merely a reference, something that designates to the audience an object of value.


Tom Penney

The Two Spiritualities: A Look at Jeff Koons

2. Jeff Koons, St John the Baptist, 1988 That the populous loves this kind of imagery is reflected in the success and iconography of Salvador Dalì. A key figure in Koons’ mind has always been Dalì, whom Koons visited when young (Koons, 2007). Dalì’s “brush with kitsch” is represented by those hugely iconic and bombastic images of crucifixion, famously Christ of St John of the Cross (Image 3), that have been criticised as ego-inflators or spectacles, pandering to the religious language of the masses, rather than being seriously “spiritual” on the artist’s behalf. Koons says of Dalì, “What I think is important about him is how he moved from a subjective realm into mass iconography – a higher calling” (Koons, 2007). Koons turns the subjectivity/spirituality model on its head, and suggests that the artwork is more important in terms of the audience’s subjectivity through reception, than through the artists’ self discovery. The iconographic immediacy of Dalì’s cross shifts the reading of the work to one that is amongst people and the everyday; not the cult of formalism. When compared to the below piece of “kitschy” visionary art by Amoraea Dreamseed (Image 4), its easy to see how an image can be filled with readable symbols of symbolically numinous quality; the use of phoenix, world, nodes and baby don the work quite an overflow of spiritual connotations to do with interconnectedness and rebirth. Sometimes the psychoanalytical/spiritual perspective of Jung’s collective unconscious that has


Tom Penney

The Two Spiritualities: A Look at Jeff Koons

informed Surrealism, by using numinous symbols that are “common” to us all, informs this “stock” symbolism especially in today’s visionary movement, and is perhaps curiously expressed by Koons, that “Dalí was in tune with mass consciousness” (Koons, 2007). Exploitation of the numinous derived from ideas like Jung’s collective unconscious is the point where pop culture and spiritual imagery become one. To Koons the numinous symbolic spectacle is important for it allows “something else – a spiritual experience, a manipulation – come into [our] lives”.

3. Salvador Dalì, Christ of St John of the Cross, 1951

4. Amoraea Dreamseed, Ray One: We Are Here, c2008


Tom Penney

The Two Spiritualities: A Look at Jeff Koons

The theorist Rex Butler has investigated the implications of Koons’ spirituality and suggests that although subversive in its disturbing of the “spiritual hierarchy”, the desire to create an idea of spirituality that operates within the popular realm is a positive vision. Works of this type operate spiritually, but without the artist and a necessary connection to mark making and genius. The visual language works in the outside world and is not necessarily reduced to the singularity of the artist and his or her subjectivity or personal symbolism. Of most interest is the way Butler describes the religious dimensions of the work of Andy Warhol, after all, Koons “...can be considered the spiritual heir of Andy Warhol and American Pop Art” (Lanzanova, 2009). To Butler, Warhol may have associated with the machine, but this was his spirituality, to remove his material self from the work, formulating a “virgin birth” as an art outcome. Yves Klein has been discussed similarly in achieving conceptual spirituality through immaterialism. Klein “detest[ed] the mystique of the medium [painting]. To avoid the „artist‟s touch‟ he sprayed the pigment [Klein Blue] on to the canvas...”. Warhol and Koons also share the trait of having work made by other people, remaining purely conceptual authors. This is similar to medieval strategy where illustrators of illuminated manuscripts were to remain nameless – for the work, or the spirit it represented, was to speak out above the ego of its creator. We could say, for example in Warhol’s work, that the spirit of Marilyn Monroe (Image 5), attaining archetypal status as a celebrity, is what speaks to us through the prints and not Warhol’s “mark” especially. This is the same case with Koons’ Michael Jackson and Bubbles (Image 6), where celebrities are the new spiritual icons of today. The use of technology, tools and other fabricators to distance these artists from the art outcome is a democratising or pluralising strategy that theoretically compliments the nature of symbolic rather than formalist imagery – one gives their ego up for the meaning of the symbol, or the work in contact with everyone but themselves.


Tom Penney

The Two Spiritualities: A Look at Jeff Koons

5. Andy Warhol, Marilyn Monroe, 1962

6. Jeff Koons, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988


Tom Penney

The Two Spiritualities: A Look at Jeff Koons

We could therefore at this point conclude that the work of Jeff Koons is spiritually justified; however for many of us there is something more unsettling at play that gives us an uneasy feeling when faced with the idea that this is high or spiritual art. There appears to be something ironic and performative, even subversive at play. Koons is unlike Andy Warhol. Warhol was never a brightly-smiling, well-built, salesman-like man and maintained a private, obsessive and religious self that gives him a deeper subjective dimension. Jeff Koons seems totally face value. He doesn’t seem to fit the classic model of the anarchic, outcast and therefore deep-thinking artist, nor does he seem to fit a sceptical tradition. If we were to consider him a postmodernist, where work is both inside and outside of itself critically, we would have to assume that Koons is making some sort of critical comment. The inclusion of comical farm animals in St John the Baptist (Image 2) seems to downplay any religious symbolism, as if there were a hidden joke. We won’t ever know, because it is presented with such a strong deadpan persona. “Not only does Koons make supremely wink-wink, nudge-nudge works of art, he seems to play, 24-7, a HAL 9000-voiced sitcom character named "Jeff Koons" who makes deadpan art just like Jeff Koons's” (Plagens, 2005). Performance-as-persona is always an ambiguous medium because it is never known what precisely is or is not a performance. In conceptual movements it can be a subversive technique that is employed to disorient and confuse deliberately. It is purported that Yves Klein had an aura of “...charming, but utterly fake spirituality...” (Godfrey, 60, 1998). It seems that postmodernism, in retrospective of the spiritual projects of modernism says “wouldn’t it be nice if the spiritual were real?” but always with a hint of bitterness or cynicism in the background. In this view, a persona would need to be employed to express the spiritual optimism any contemporary thinking might logically repress. Rex Butler’s more optimistic vision suggests otherwise. Butler believes that Koons’ work contains no irony, but an overcoming of it. He believes that in the work Puppy there is no critical distance between the artist and his work – he is simply making to please, and enjoying the size, form and colour of the object combined with the cute animal it represents. For Koons’ series of pornographic works Made in Heaven (Image 7), made with porn star wife, Ilona Staller, Butler makes the comment that with ejaculation “there is no faking it... In theory at least, male erection and ejaculation cannot be done in two minds, with that split or ambiguous intentionality


Tom Penney

The Two Spiritualities: A Look at Jeff Koons

that characterises post-modernism. What we see with Koons‟ orgasm, as it were, is the pure expression of authorial subjectivity, with no aesthetic or conceptual second thoughts behind it.” (Butler, 2008). It would appear that Butler is suggesting that the pornographic is the height of Koons’ spiritual self. Interestingly, Barnett Newman wrote that “The fetish and the ornament... impress only those who cannot look at the terror of self” (Tekiner, 111, 1992) which means that Koons’ when examining his spirituality lying in fetish and ornament, is both looking at himself and something that contradicts it or distracts from it at the same time. The logical conclusion to draw from this problem is to assume irony or trickery on Koons’ behalf. More optimistically we could argue that Koons has very little complex self to interrogate, and thus all we see is a true bodily enjoyment and happiness without any stereotyped internalised “artists’ struggle”, freeing Koons up to explore basic aesthetic pleasures as freely as he chooses, and suggesting that spirituality can be both a shallow and complex thing, depending on who you are.

7. Jeff Koons, Made in Heaven, 1988 Unfortunately, even this conclusion still upsets us. The fact that there could be no irony upsets Rosalind Krauss who thinks the work is “repulsive” precisely because it has “no message” (Krauss, 1992). It seems that, either way, whether ironic or notironic, or by simply by being of its own awkward category, Jeff Koons is “other” and therefore to be mistrusted. Within the realm of the “other” he is a trickster who knows how to play the game on either side. Where the work appears postmodern and antisubjective, from another perspective it is totally based on Koons’ self and his own ego, especially when Koons makes the statement that he “has become God” (Koons,


Tom Penney

The Two Spiritualities: A Look at Jeff Koons

1993). The art outcomes are fetishised just like any abstract paintings, although they operate for a separate non-art audience. This contradiction leaves us between a rock and a hard place. We don’t know what is ironic or not anymore, thanks to the style of irony, and so the visual and conceptual contradictions we are faced with leave us disoriented. “irony has seeped so thoroughly into the pores of young artists that they don't even know anymore (or if they know, they don't care) that it's irony. Irony has mutated in current art into qualities that seem, deceptively, unironic.” (Plagens, 2005) This irony has fed into mainstream art and has become a default strategy in its own right. Ironically, in order to be taken seriously on the topic of spirituality, I find often my own art strategy has to turn to the ironic. Our optimism and ideological naivety has been overtaken by a darker paradigm. The “postart” idea of Donald Kuspit and represented by Koons, signals the “End of Art” for its apparent lack of substance and its spiritual subversion, but at the same time, the notion of “End Game” forwarded by Duchamp and Rodchenko’s “The End of Painting” (Goddard, 2009) criticise the hypocrisy of abstraction and formalist spiritualism as an alternative dead end. Originally torn between opposing universal solutions for spirituality in art, here they have both become dead ends. The irony or non-irony is a total confusion and perhaps hidden frustration Koons’ art represents. What is most interesting for me about Koons’ work is ultimately the space between the work and the statements around it, not the work or the statements in themselves. If we were to look for a new type of spirituality for art, we are more likely to look towards Suzie Gablik’s reconstructive postmodernists or Roy Ascot’s telematics which have definite but negotiated neo-utopian goals. Koons’ work, although it can be praised for its ability to generate confusion and therefore discussion and debate, is too awkward and difficult for most of us and represents a double “End Game”. Ultimately, Koons offers us an intriguing and seductive idea for spirituality ; that it can be pluralised and celebrated even within the most common or low forms of art and iconography. This creates a problem for any hierarchal or traditional views. By creating something that contradicts a conservatively Western object of morality, virtue and taste, and calling it spiritual from an undermining or left-of-centre pool of philosophy within the context of art, Koons puts a spanner in the works. We cannot


Tom Penney

The Two Spiritualities: A Look at Jeff Koons

ever know if he is being ironic or serious. Koons becomes a mistrusted “other” and he is written off as a trickster. Essentially though, this could be beneficial from within the tradition of the avant garde; for in creating such an awkward space discussions like these are generated and a conceptual level of originality lets us question, reflect and create. In the words of Koons himself; “The only thing the art world does need, is someone to lead it beyond its parameters” (Koons, 1993) .......................................


Tom Penney

The Two Spiritualities: A Look at Jeff Koons

References Althusser, L, The Future Lasts Forever, 1995, The New Press, USA Butler, R, Damien Hirst‟s Death Drive, 2008, University of Queensland Goddard, J, The Avant Garde, lecture at Curtin University Art Department, September 2009 Godfrey, T, Alternatives to Painting, in Conceptual Art, 1998, Phaidon Press, London Koons, J in The Jeff Koons Handbook, 1993, Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London and Rizzoli International Publications, New York Koons, J, Who Paints Better than Salvador Dalì?, 2005, Tate Online accessed 22/10/2009 at http://www.tate.org.uk/tateetc/issue3/salvadordali3.htm Krauss, R, cited in Lotringer, S, Immaculate Conceptualism, Artscribe 90, FebruaryMarch 1992 Lanzanova, E, The Lacma Funds Jeff Koons for 25 Million Dollars, 2009, Arcadia Art Magazine, accessed 22/10/2009 at http://www.arcadja.com/artmagazine/en/2009/03/04/the-lacma-funds-jeff-koons-for25-million-dollars/ Plagens, P, At a crossroads: Peter Plagens on the "postartist", 2005, accessed 22/10/2009 at http://www.thefreelibrary.com/At+a+crossroads:+Peter+Plagens+on+the+%22postart ist%22.-a0129550577 Rosenberg, H, The American Action Painters from Tradition of the New, originally in Art News 51/8, Dec. 1952, p.22, accessed 1/04/09 at http://beauty.gmu.edu/AVT472/AVT472%20Paula/Rosenberg_AmerAction%20Pnter s.doc Tekiner, D, Spirituality in Contemporary Art: Struggles for critical vitality, 1992, U.M.I Dissertation Services, Michigan Other Reading Butler, R, Andy Warhol and the “Religious” Dimension of Contemporary Art, 2008, University of Queensland Dillenberger, J, Religious Art of Andy Warhol, 2001, Continuum Intl Pub Group, London Kuspit, D, The End of Art, 2004, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

The Two Spiritualities: A Look at Jeff Koons  

A look at the paradoxes and implications of the suggestion that deconstructive postmodern art is "spiritual"

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