Jeff Koons Speaks at the CCVA

A picture of a stainless steel elephant, eyes averted flirtatiously and a jolly smile, is projected on the screen in the Carpenter Center lecture hall. “The pink ears could be fallopian tubes,” offers Jeff Koons, the controversial artist who spoke last Thursday. The shiny ears do sort of resemble one of those images found in the reproduction section in a biology book, but with a tilt of the head they look more like greyhounds—hot pink ones.

Whether or not you prefer the dog or female anatomy interpretation, Koons’ open-ended explanation of his own work demonstrates his readiness to have it received in a number of ways. Throughout the lecture, he emphasized his desire to produce objective art.

The lecture started off with a sepia-toned childhood photograph of Koons fondling a box of crayons. Now grown-up and clad in a flashy silk suit, he explained that his art career started at the age of seven, when he began combining Popsicle sticks with an artistic flair, sometimes throwing in crayon drawings if he so desired. He soon realized that his talent exceeded that of his sister, and the newfound sense of superiority gave him a sense of self. Art became his tool for personal exploration.

But Koons soon tired of this sentimentality and felt that he was revealing too much of his sexuality in his work. “I wanted to know about things outside myself,” he says.

He found his answers in inflatable objects. Blown-up lobsters and bunnies somehow connect Koons to the external world. For example, the rabbit that appears in so many of his works is a signifier for Playboy, masturbation, and the Easter Bunny, to name just a few. He feels that the layering of cultural meaning that he is able to employ through his use of inflatables makes his work more versatile.

“The more chameleon art is, the more future it has because we change,” Koons says. In order for his art to survive, it has to be able to appeal to a large and evolving audience. Following this logic, if 10 years from now viewers deem over-sized balloon dogs or inflatable flowers passé, then Koons’ work will be essentially discarded.

To protect his work from becoming dated, he tries to make every piece as objective as possible. He claims, somewhat counterintuitively, that he achieves this by first accepting himself, then accepting others.

“Objective art is learning to look past the self and accept others,” he says. “My needs are as important as your needs. I’m speaking about a form of love.”

In other words, Koons claims he centers his art on the viewer. His detachment from the actual production of the work enables him to position himself as an observer of his own pieces. While he oversees every detail of whatever he envisions—from the planting of a flower in “Puppy” to the placement of one of his porcelain sculptures in a kiln—Koons hardly ever gets his hands dirty.

In response to a question about this separation from the physical production of his work, Koons came up with the story of a clay duck. In the hypothetical, he wishes to make a clay duck but finds that he lacks the dexterity to replicate the form he had imagined. Instead, he ends up with a frog.

“I don’t want the medium to manipulate me,” he says.

Yet the actual ability to produce artwork is a large part of the reason artists are traditionally so admired. Grand statements such as “If you can see something you can make it,” “I believe in power,” and “I try to make things where there can be no aesthetic judgment,” further call into question Koons’ artistic validity by evading the questions and criticisms of the audience. He provides no valid or substantial reason why, if he is so concerned with making his art something for everyone, something that connects to the external world, he doesn’t at least participate in the reality of its construction—not to mention accept the reality of its, and his own, limitations.

Perhaps if he had, then it wouldn’t be so hard to believe that his silk suit and $23 million price tags didn’t contradict his closing note—“I’m being sincere.”