Friday, April 20, 2007

made in heaven

1. Artworks, which are apparently fashioned to be defiant of existing norms, are often unfocused, incoherent, opportunistic, and not well thought out.

2. The critical community can be seen to have a vested interest in protecting its artists from the masses and the reactionary guardians of the existing canons of taste. They cling like grim death to this charitable endeavor, when a little critical reflection on their part might win them some respect from the soldiers of the status quo.

I don't expect there to be any consensus on what is rebellious, or what the value-significance of the defiance might be. The discernment of rebellion and its value in the above cases, I will grant happily, is at best relative to my system of values, commitments, expectations, and modes of aesthetic reception. I hope in conceding this point, it doesn't mean that my judgments are merely personal, irrational, groundless or without reasons. Concerning the above cases, my judgments are packed with reasons. They are not in themselves capable of providing the end of the story, the foundation, so to speak. They are no more that the basis of my judgments. My skepticism over these cases, moreover is not airtight. In my limited understanding of the works, this is my current judgment. That I may someday change my mind about Ron Jones's chair or Jeff Coons's club-basement iconic sculptures doesn't necessitate that I cease my debasement of them to the condition of con-artistry. The possibility of change of mind has never silenced the yea-sayers, why should it, me?

I hope I haven't given the impression that I am against art that challenges. For each case of critical failure above, a host of examples of artistic rebellion spring to mind. They tower as monuments that changed not merely our aesthetic attitudes, but our lives. For me, reading through Mary Kelly's Post-Partum Document, or attending several of Jonathan Borofsky's installations, expanded more than my sense of artistic boundaries. For one thing, Mary Kelly deconstructs and reconstructs motherhood in a way that expanded the horizons of my male consciousness. Borofsky's work showed me that creativity is more important than mastery of a medium. I am sure anyone touched by art, music, dance, or literature, has a few special aesthetic experiences tinged by the prick of the conscience--the moments when their assumptions were overturned. Art critic for Time Magazine, Robert Hughes, in The Shock of the New, saw this as the dynamic hope of modernism: that art through perpetual challenge and shock will lead to the progressive humanization of individuals and society. Likely many of us have echoes of this modernist optimism floating about our consciousness. I hope so.

Jeff Koons did not become the most famous artist to emerge from the milieu of '80s New York because of his paintings--but they have always been there. He produced works on canvas as early as 1986 in his "Luxury and Degradation" series, which appropriated liquor ads from magazines and reproduced them without alteration in oil ink on canvas. In 1992, an adamant Koons designated the photographs in his notorious "Made in Heaven" series as "paintings." Consisting of images of Koons and his porn-star wife, Ilona Stahler (aka La Cicciolina), engaged in uninhibited sex, the works were printed with oil ink on canvas, each in an edition of three. The designation couldn't account for the loss of uniqueness that echoed in their hybridized status; nonetheless, the series marked the first time the subject of painting usurped the place of sculpture in Koons's practice.

"Made in Heaven" was obviously a major turning point in the artist's career. His personal life collapsed: a significant problem, considering that Koons's life and art had become synonymous; and support for appropriation art was waning as the art market went deeper into recession. That same year, however, he began a series of paintings called "Celebration," which were made the old-fashioned way (as have been all his subsequent paintings)--though not by Koons's hand but by legions of professionally trained artists rendering his computer-generated maquettes. The shift in production values from machine-printed to painted-by-hand coincided with a larger agenda in the art world in the early '90s to reinstate sincerity in place of irony (which had become synonymous with "cynicism"). At the same time, a refrain echoing throughout Koons's art from the '80s to the present--"Everybody I Love You," to cite one of his magazine ads--was brought to the fore through the instrumentality of stock images associated with happy t imes: ribbons and bows, jewelry, toys, birthday cake, and lots of shiny new stuff.

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