The incessant insanity from Washington may have gradually raised Americans’ threshold of tolerance for nonsense, like the proverbial lobster luxuriating in the slowly warming pot, but sometimes one has to take a stand against even the banal and pointless (saving the truly criminal and murderous for another day). I refer, of course, to the $90,075,000 sale of the not-latest but apparently greatest (at least as determined by the group-mind wisdom of the art market) of Jeff Koons’s balloon-animal sculptures, “Rabbit (1986).” Made in stainless steel, the 41-inch-tall bunny, modeled after a swimming-pool toy, is one of an edition of three, supplemented with one artist’s proof, according to Andrea K. Scott in The New Yorker. It has a curious provenance as well. The painter Terry Winters bought it from Sonnabend Gallery in 1986 for $40,000, selling it a few years later to S.I. Newhouse, owner of Condé Nast (publisher of The New Yorker), for a cool million, for a $960,000 profit. Newhouse’s heirs have just reaped an enormously larger windfall, earning a return on investment of $89,075,000, give or take (minus commissions). Even more piquant in this tale of financial greatness are the players: the broker was Robert Mnuchin, an art collector himself, and the father of Steven Mnuchin, our current Treasury Secretary; the buyer, it has been revealed, is the hedge-fund billionaire, art collector and philanthropist, Steven A. Cohen, whose modernist and contemporary “trophy” pieces may someday furnish a private museum, probably in his home state of Connecticut.
The staggering amounts of money being invested by the 1% in this story cannot fail to appall and aggrieve those of us who see Koons as a kind of huckster in the Trumpian vein; as well as a descendant of the Pop artist Andy Warhol—now the subject of a large retrospective at San Francisco Museum of Art—and, before him, the New York Dadaist and proto-conceptualist Marcel Duchamp. Their joint legacy that art can be, respectively, whatever sells and whatever the artist decides have had a liberating effect on artists, but not one without the downside of making the market values (and public relations, fashion, and advertising) the drivers of the art world, not aesthetic quality. Que sera sera, we might sing, in honor of the late Doris Day.
My low opinion of Koons falls decidedly into the grumpy-codger Robert Hughes vein. Scott quotes him: “He has the slimy assurance of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida... [Y]ou can’t imagine America’s singularly depraved culture with out him.” Yet she concludes that he is both expensive and great. Kirk Varnedoe, the art historian and MOMA curator, wrote in Artforum in 2003 (again, cited by Scott): “It seemed to me instantly, by involuntary reflex—and it still does by long reflection—that this bunny is one of those very rare hits at the exact center of the target.” Scott continues: “It became an icon of eighties excess (and thus, of white male privilege): fuck like bunnies, make more money, the one with the most toys wins.” It sounds a bit like Arthur Danto’s for-me dubious epiphany of The Brillo Boxes, frankly. Alexander Rotter, a Christie’s executive, went “even a step further.” Here he is, quoted in a Japan Times Culture/Entertainment article:
Rotter said the sculpture is the antithesis of “the perfect man,” Michelangelo’s “David,” which was “carved by one of the greatest artists of all time with a chisel, out of one block of the purest white marble.’ “It’s the end of sculpture. It’s the anti-‘David,’ as I call it,” he said, referring to Michelangelo’s masterpiece. “You can’t go any further away from ‘David,’ still being figurative and a traditional sculpture.”
It’s a telling comment, clever in its false-equivalency logic: Koons = Michelangelo, just with the polarities reversed. It does, however, reveal something about our anitheroic, cynical, even subservient era, when even young idealists have been socialized by postmodernism into bitter knowingness and impotence. Sir Kenneth Clark, in his BBC series Civilisation, remarked that great art like that of the Florentine Renaissance comes from periods of cultural confidence. The postmodernist riposte to this would be a catalogue of the crimes of all civilizations, including the moribund American empire, with its dirty laundry now triumphantly aired by the liberal professoriate. There’s no question but that the western liberal democracies have sinned, and often faltered, but can art and civilization be saved from the alternative to humanism, the brain-dead worship of money and might, wedded to theocratic fantasies, before the world ends with a nuclear bang or an environmental-collapse whimper? Is our late-capitalist decadence still amusing, really? I used to mock the phrase ‘late capitalist,’ in the simpler times of the triumphalist post-USSR 1990s, when we thought it safe to fantasize.—DeWitt Cheng