Schaffensdrang 4 March 2006Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Culture, Painting & Sculpture.
Tom Ford interviewing Jeff Koons? Only on Iconoclasts. If you can get past Ford's tendency to talk more than his subject (tell me again why artistic egos are such a cliché?) and to interpret for us what it all means as if mere Groundlings just can't get it (think: George W. Bush saying, "America is addicted to oil!"), Koons art is actually arresting.
Koons has a huge, multi-million dollar studio with faithful minions executing his will, making everything from paintings that reference Warhol, put together in a paint-by-number process so that Koons can have final control of the product, to his current project of large statues of blow-up toys.
What fascinated me—despite Ford's cloud of cologne-induced garrulousness—was Koons' description of what it feels like to create and why he uses every-day objects to force a rethinking of our daily, often unnoticed experiences. Whereas Warhol often feels staged or cynical to me, the younger Koons seems to understand intrinsically that, while our mass culture might deprive objects of their meaning through the speed and scale of their production, we nonetheless have meaningful relationships with them. His work playfully mimics kitsch (as in the 1988 statuette of Michael Jackson and Bubbles, in the style of an 18th century French ceramic) or inverts pornographic forms so that staged sex becomes somehow innocent and exhuberant (as in his 1991 series, Made in Heaven).
Karl Marx believed that all human beings had something native to them, their "species-being" (der Gattungswesen), which was marked by the desire to create, to build, to make—our Schaffensdrang. Marx believed that one of the effects of a modern capitalist society was to alienate us, or tear us away from our deepest nature, this Schaffensdrang. Marx was more concerned with the products of labor than with the production of art, but his insistence that there is something innate about creation included the production of art (although he had very narrow ideas of what counted as art). For a few years now, I've been wondering if consuming art—seeing it, listening to it, touching it, eating it, wearing it—is enough to satisfy that urge, or if individuals are all compelled to create.
Consuming artful objects—from philosophy to food, from painting to MTV, from poetry to Brittany Spears—may be instead the focus of our species being. John Dewey argued that art was simply a particular and purposeful organization of "things" such that, when they were experienced by someone else, this organization provoked an affect response, that is, a particular feeling experience. For Dewey, what distinguishes art from other objects is that their very reason-for-being is that consummatory experience, that feeling produced when it's encountered. There is no difference in kind, according to Dewey, between so-called "high art" and popular art or even personal art. That is, Jeff Koons and Tom Ford are not different in kind from the WB or from the picture your four-year-old drew, now hanging on your refridgerator. They are all purposeful organizations of elements, "things," to provoke a particular affect. "High art" in this view becomes merely an artful object that requires education or particular specialized knowledge to interpret, before the individual can experience consummation.
Art is always context-specific, for Dewey; that is, it can only produce a consumamtory experience in individuals from the same or related cultural contexts, because the art's consummation is that it lends meaning to the life-experiences of the individual, shared in some way with the artist. Through imagination and the embodied experience of the art itself, art connects communities together in their consummatory experiences. Art, then, can be judged by its effectiveness in provoking that response within the context of its production and/or consumption. A child's art may be "bad" because it is so limited in its affect to the child and her parents; whereas Brittany Spears's pop music is readily accessible nearly world-wide; and whereas Koons' art may require art history (to understand his references and methods and media) and critique (to understand its cultural significance).
But after all this philosophizing, I am left wondering what is the relationship between my experience of seeing Koons' Balloon Dog (2003, above) and my desire to create something that affects others or speaks that affect to the world?
[Note: For some reason the whole time I was writing this, I could hear my friend Peter making fun of me for sounding like Camille Paglia.]