“T” and Sympathy

Rhonda Lieberman at a TimesTalk with Jeff Koons

New York

The New York Times's Carol Vogel with artist Jeff Koons. (All photos: Wellington Lee)

From Mel Brooks to Martha Stewart, the New York Times “Arts and Leisure Week” serves up a high-class menu of achievers, live. Alas, I attended “Big Art, Big Ideas” to hear Jeff Koons (according to the brochure) “talk about his career creating sky-high art with sky-high prices,” interviewed by the Times’s Carol Vogel.

Entering the sleek new TimesCenter in Times Square (“by Renzo Piano,” volunteered the nice culture vulture who helped me operate the design-y sink in the ladies' room), I grabbed a coffee in the “Kia Lounge.” A big screen advertised the event’s sponsors (the Container Store, HBO, Rodney Strong Vineyard, Sedona SUVs, and Greater Fort Lauderdale) to rows of dummy JetBlue airplane seats and tables stacked with featured authors’ books, thus setting the tone for entitled consumption, be it closet organizers, vacations, or Art. At the threshold of the plush auditorium, I had to stop, mesmerized by the schlocky display of Times-branded swag: a pink baseball cap with the Times “T” logo (for lady Times readers?) and, worse (for the Times-loving long-term-care patient?), stripey fleece lounge pants in red, yellow, and white with the most hideous imaginable blouse to match, a “T” stigmata at the breast. What better hors-d’oeuvre for Koons’s wildly expensive affirmations of kitsch?

Koons, as always, resembled Howdy Doody’s handsomer brother. Introduced as “the world’s most expensive artist at auction,” the audience (a middle-aged, Upper West Side–looking crowd and a smattering of art-student types) listened up in reverence. Instead of an interview or a conversation, what followed was more like an artist’s infomercial, with Vogel prompting Koons for dates and materials as if she were a dutiful grad student putting together a catalogue raisonné. Rather than probing his unflappable, peculiar Tony Robbins–meets-art-CEO shtick, she just took everything at face value. Beneath a slide show of his oeuvre, the ex–Wall Street broker free-associated about “accepting yourself” and other self-help platitudes, compared his various luxe-kitsch pieces to the old masters, made vague remarks about “the sexual aspects” and anthropomorphism of vacuum cleaners and the (super-expensively refabricated) found objets he produces, overseeing over eighty “in-house” employees for “efficiency.” (“My responsibility is to educate people on what I’m looking for—every moment of the day.”) All delivered in the soothing, condescending tones of a nurse in a mental ward: "You know, Carol, what I really love about art is the ability it has to bring transcendence into your life.” On the screen above them was his Hummel-esque porcelain piglet with three frolicking tots, titled Ushering in Banality: “It’s so important that people accept themselves. Then you can be more objective and transcend.” Carol nodded, in a tasteful black suit. The next image was another porcelain figure, a lady grasping her giant boobies with red talons, Woman in Tub—surprised by a snorkel, a piece inspired by the artist’s uncle’s naughty ashtray: “Carol, children learn about their bodies in the tub . . . and acceptance of the self . . .”

Carol Vogel with Jeff Koons.

Perhaps the most disciplined salesman in the contemporary art world who isn’t himself a dealer, Koons is notoriously “on message.” Clearly, old-master references mingled with self help–isms slathered with gobs of luxury-sales-style condescension is a formula that works! When asked about the sometimes unstable materials of his quasi-found pieces: “A lot of my work has a maintenance aspect,” Koons patiently explained, “Being a collector is a responsibility. We try to educate people about their ongoing obligations.” Throughout, I was appalled to note that Vogel didn't even try to engage any of this material, she just enabled her subject’s self-promotional bubble. (Is this the recent New York Times model of the journalist as stenographer to power?) It was unsettling to watch.

The only breath of fresh air came during the closing Q&A. A rumpled, bearish guy asked: “Regarding prices [like Koons’s recent $23.6 million record for one of his Hanging Hearts in November], is there some level of absurdity that’s going on with your staff of eighty and your readymade housed in a private collection like a treasury note?” I wish this guy had done the interview.

“I’m grateful to the art world for the opportunity,” Koons intoned, apparently oblivious to the understatement. “The artist had better come up with something that is really strong and make people’s lives better than they were the day before.”