Contemporary Art: Kitsch, Nihilism and Koons


One of the many marvelous illustrations from Miriam Elia's "We Go to the Gallery".

One of the many marvelous pages from Miriam Elia’s “We Go to the Gallery”, a satire of the Ladybird books.

In November 2013, a triptych of Lucian Freud painted by Francis Bacon sold for $142.4 million at auction. It is an overwhelming, practically unfathomable price to associate with an artwork. In this ever booming art market, it might be seen as an inexorable number – art at this point in time was destined for such a high figure you might say. Nevertheless, people have seen fit to question the validity of the prices attached to these artworks. While artworks are being pillaged by the higher spheres of the upper class, works of art are being questioned for their aesthetic value. In contrast to the boom of the art market, general opinion of the state of contemporary art is in a state of crux. There have been an exhausting amount of op-ed articles designed to answer these necessary questions of taste. And a rather hackneyed, yet precise phrase has been trotted out many a time: “emperor’s new clothes”. It come’s from that Hans Christian Andersen tale of the same name. It is about two weavers who promise an emperor a new suit of clothes with cloth that is invisible to those that are either stupid or unfit for their position. The emperor, who was worried that he would not see the cloth sent his two trusted guards to inspect it. Both would not admit that they didn’t see the cloth, fearing that they would be deemed stupid, and thus told the emperor that the cloth looked swell. As it turned out, the townspeople had learned of this cloth and were interested to see how stupid their neighbors were. The emperor then agreed to dress himself in the clothes for a procession through town and was wildly praised by the townspeople, even though he was unsure of whether he was wearing anything at all, and the subjects themselves even had their doubts. But neither wanted to voice their frank opinion for fear of not being able to understand the invisibility of the cloth. It took one confident child to exclaim that the emperor was wearing no clothes at all. This prescient story by Anderson is able to perfectly encapsulate the reactions that many people have to contemporary art that are born out of frustration and drabness. Viewers sometimes feel they are being duped by prosaic artworks that are lights flicking on and off, or some run-of-the-mill abstract work that no one should be trifled to call “great”.  Yet, despite the gloom that many critics and art goers share, there could be a possible answer to this recession in art if we examine past art movements which were well liked greatly in their time, but have not aged so well. They had two separate qualities that contemporary art would eventually suffuse: kitsch and nihilism.

I definitely remember my first real experience of Rococo art. I was in a room in The Frick in New York that was adorned with it. While I was viewing a Fragonard, I was pulled back to the more worldly state of mind when I overheard a lady telling her friend – I presume – that she, “liked the furniture, but found the paintings horrible.” Well, she’s right, despite the reservations I had about her opinion at the time. Rococo art is rather horrible. Many would call it kitsch. In fact, like many great art movements, its name originally came from disparagement. The source of the word “Rococo” comes from the Italian word “barocco” (an odd shaped pearl) and the French “rocaille” (interior ornamentation using shells and pebbles). Critics meant to utilize the word “Rococo” to convey the whimsical nature of it. Back in the 1800’s, critics much preferred the revival of antiquity as seen with Neoclassicism. However, unlike Impressionism, Rococo art has not aged so well. It did have one great master though. That would be the Frenchman, Antoine Watteau. He was the prototype French Rococo artist, without the banal sentimentality. Watteau created an imaginative stage of pomp and aristocratic refinement that was less forceful than the Baroque art that came before him. To put it short, he took his world seriously, despite the deceptive frivolity. Unfortunately though, his followers would not be as endearing. They were fraught with this sexually crazed mania. And they had an insatiable appetite for worshiping this vulgarity. The subjects – aristocrats or nudes – turned into what one can only imagine as modern celebrities. They had that over-intoxicating level of chicness that can become unbearable. The subjects and settings were sentimental. It was completely engaged with emotions and not any negative thought process. If one wants an experience of uninterrupted superficiality, then Rococo art is your best pick. In the end, it suits the very definition of kitsch: objects designed for excessive garishness. Non-essential whimsicality, in essence. No wonder the French Revolution happened.

Fragonard's "The Swing," the archetypical Rococo canvas.

Fragonard’s “The Swing,” the archetypical Rococo canvas.

Dada was born out of disillusionment. It had witnessed that event that would scar Western civilization for the rest of mankind: World War I. Dada was burrowed into anger so much that little can be gleamed from their works. It as if they were still fumbling in a gas attack, drowning into the misery of a previously unimaginable horror. You were not to forget the war; that was the overriding message of their movement. “The beginnings of Dada”, the poet Tristan Tzara would go on to say, “were not the beginnings of art, but of disgust”. It was essential for Dada to channel this bitterness that is more eloquently shown by the war poet, Wilfred Owen; the conscious of a lost generation:

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest/To children ardent for some desperate glory/The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est pro partria mori

The Latin phrase in translation means: It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. It was a lie that Dada would remain steadfast against, but not by a particularly violent stance by any means. If money and business is the primary association with artworks today, then the state of nothingness would be the association with Dada. I’m glad to say, it was nihilism as never seen before or after in the history of art (By the way, I do count that artificial emptiness to be seen in minimalism; Dada was more natural nihilism). The peak of this nihilism is seen with one of Marcel Duchamp’s most famous readymades: “Fountain“. It is actually a porcelain urinal, despite the polite title. It was a work of some nature that was defended as an idea. You see, “Fountain” was a turning point whether I like or not, because an object did not have to be transformed like a marble sculpture has to be, for instance. The artwork relies entirely on interpretation in the context of a museum with complete detachment from everyday life. Art would become the antithesis of human reason. Although I would say enlightenment died with Goya’s “Third of May 1808“, it however truly ceased with Duchamp’s readymades. Art could become anything. It was – and is – false liberation. Other Dada artists were not much better. Their arrangements, I would say, are more sophisticated than Duchamp’s. Some as seen with Hannah Hoch’s photomonages act as sacrifices to a time period, regurgitation of a zeitgeist. It’s better than nothing, but might as well be nothing at the same time. And what’s worse, Dada artwork could tend towards the whimsical, thus firmly establishing itself as a mediocre art movement.

Jeff Koons and his BMW Art Car

Jeff Koons and his BMW Art Car

According to Jeff Koons, he’s “a fucking genius”. As Robert Hughes once disparagingly wrote on him, “Koons really does think he’s Michelangelo and is not shy to say so”. He may very well be the “Michelangelo” of his generation; I guess time will tell about that. He is, however, one of the more fascinatingly empty artists alive. Like Duchamp and Warhol, Koons provokes debate from every person that encounters his work. There’s just love or hate, nothing else. Anyone who is apathetic to his work either has no soul or just doesn’t know anything about art. The debate about the value of his art is what really interests me though. Koons is an artist who is blind to the pain and ecstasy of life. His works are not ecstatic, but plastic. He’s an artist who will take every length to make his art in tune with a delinquent fantasy of sex, celebrity, fame, wealth and extroversion. An extreme reaction to his art would be that he’s an agent to the devil. A praiseworthy reaction would be that he’s nothing short of one of the most ironic, playful and eventually, important artists of the past thirty years. Unfortunately, the Whitney American Museum of Art seems to take up the latter position. Of course, a major – and the first – retrospective of Jeff Koons’ oeuvre was bound to be a blockbuster, especially for a museum that’s moving to its new digs in lower Manhattan next year. It is an important swansong for the Whitney’s current museum on Madison Avenue and this retrospective could be a defining moment in 21st century art. Hopefully, this is the final hour for the pulp-glow of Jeff Koons’ art. His career may go downhill from here on out – a tasty prospect. He’s just hit his peak in this retrospective and probably won’t go any higher. That’s what I hope.

Yet, his works. They’re garishness is tough to look at. They can punch you about like a boxer if you’re not careful. His works are more hostile than anything and are also representative of the limited scope he possesses as an artist. One of his more recognizable works is a porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson with his pet chimpanzee Bubbles. It’s lathered with gold. The craftsmanship is no doubt fine, but unless he’s referencing Byzantium art, then I can’t see the point in the use of gold. Surely a less kitsch-like thing to do, and more original choice in general, would have been to depict Jackson with more humanity, instead of simply appealing to his celebrity status. Celebrities are humans, too. In the end, I always come out with the impression that Koons’ perceived brilliance is in how he suffuses the kitsch of Rococo with the nihilism of Dada. I’m surprised he lectured about Renaissance and Baroque bronzes at The Frick. Surely he would be more at home with Dada and Rococo. They’re very much his expertise. In the end, Mr. Koons has to impress everyone with his sexual interpretations of art that would be better placed in those aforementioned playgrounds of insanity.


Business Art, that great merger of truth, fiction and celebrity. Wasn’t it that poster boy of it, Andy Warhol, who said that, “good business is the best art”? Yes, well, Warhol would know quite a bit about that. He did, after all, decide to make art resemble the assembly line. It is well known that he did not so much as touch many of his screen prints, instead letting his assistants do the work for him. As long as it had his signature, the work had – and still has – significant monetary value. Note I don’t just say “significant value”. Aesthetically, Warhol is valueless. He was the harbinger of thousands of empty artists devoid of vision. Concrete concern for life was thrown out the window – possibly into some black hole that some artworks from these artists represent (and no, in this case, I don’t meant minimalists). In fact, many works from these artists can’t seem to get beyond that initial revolutionary stage of throwing off those chains that had shackled art; that seemingly idealistic idea of reproducing life encountered through real eyes, and not just from the screens of TVs or computers. Too often, artists find it easy to hide behind the zeitgeist of the times. Artists are forever changing the goalposts, figuring out new ways in which to inspire all of us. Unfortunately, Rococo, Dada and Koons-like artists have missed the boat of inspiration. They’ve instead shipwrecked us with their vulgarity. They have chased the chicness. They have intoxicated others with it. Some are still resisting this empty art, this art that has so far fallen from the masterful heights of Western civilization as seen with the Sistine Chapel, that everyone is justified in questioning it. We need art that does not make us prisoners to the ills of our time, but makes us realize the vibrancy of our time. A depiction of a culture shifting, not stagnating. The wheels will turn, and posterity will not remember this art. They would rather remember a civilization, something that Koons is not able to illustrate in his retrograde art.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s