PRINT February 1992


JEFF KOONS HAS DISPLACED much from the larger world to the world of art—objects and the forms of objects, images, and genres of narrative. Among his displaced objects are basketballs and vacuum cleaners. The forms he has displaced include that of a toy rabbit, which was made of inflatable plastic when he found it. To present this form in the art world, he cast it in stainless steel. Having found other forms in kitsch statuettes of various sorts, he has had them reproduced with meticulous care, often at enormous size. Thus a small ceramic figure of a bathing woman becomes larger than life. With oil inks on canvas, Koons has displaced the imagery of liquor ads from magazine pages to gallery walls. And he has used this medium to retell pornography’s familiar narrative, with photos of himself and his wife in postures of apparently ecstatic foreplay and copulation.

Through statements to the press, he presents a Koonsian version of the standard self-help story, about achieving total realization of one’s being through one’s own simple efforts. For example, in the Summer 1990 issue of Flash Art, he told an interviewer that “Jeff Koons is there for people to become who they are.” At that time, he was planning to produce a film called Made in Heaven, which would have shown, among other things, him and Cicciolina making love. “After someone views the film,” said Koons,

they are not going to have this impression of “Jeff Koons is this,” they are going to have the impression that “1 can be this, I am this, I am becoming this.” It’s really communicating becoming. The public will only have a perception of what they can become. Not who Ilona and I are, because we’re going to be giving oneness to them.

The Duchampian device of displacement has been used to import many things from the larger world to the art world. Never before, I believe, has it been used to import the banalities of self-help rhetoric from their usual place in the lower levels of the marketplace. Should we praise Koons for achieving this priority? It might seem that we must praise him. Traditionally, critics and historians have made a great fuss over firsts—the first collage, the first drip painting, and so on. But firsts are in themselves trivial. It is only praiseworthy to do something first if the thing done is worth doing. In my view, there is no value in exporting self-help rhetoric from the marketplace to the art world, for that rhetoric is, at best, empty. Nor is there any value in displacing pornographic images to the art world, unless we put a value on Koons’ knack for attracting the attention of journalists and members of the public naive enough to believe that it is authentically scandalous for a respectable gallery to show pictures of people fucking. This is not only not scandalous in 1991, it has an air of tepid inevitability—and of belatedness. Why did it take so long for such an obvious maneuver to be performed?

The crowds that overflowed the openings of his recent shows in New York and Cologne might be taken as a sign that Koons has transcended the art world and begun to address the entire world, as he has often announced that he wishes to do. But this would be a misreading. Those crowds were drawn not by the power of his porno images, which is middling, but by the frisson of seeing images like this in a setting like that. Koons should attract attention only as an artist, and it is as artworks that his pictures of himself making love to Cicciolina have their fake aura of scandal. If he were to offer these pictures on the porno market, they would disappear in the competitive shuffle. Still, Cicciolina is already a star of porn movies. If Koons sticks with her, maybe he can be a porn star too, the leading man in his own films.

There’s another question to consider: if Koons abandoned the art market for the market in self-help delusions, how successful would he be? At present, his brand of this commodity is so amateurish that, if offered to the general public, it would sink without a ripple. In future, perhaps, Koons will improve his product and compete successfully with the slickest of the hucksters in that market. As yet, he has no career as a peddler of self-help or as Mr. Cicciolina, star of the porno screen. He has a career only as an artist. So he must be judged as an artist of a certain type—a Duchampian appropriator.

Since the appearance of Bicycle Wheel, 1913, Bottle Rack, 1914, and Marcel Duchamp’s other readymades, all manner of ordinary objects and images have been subjected to esthetic recycling. The process that generated the spectacle of Koonsian sexuality in an art gallery has been working nonstop for nearly eight decades. Often it has seemed to be a plodding, even a bureaucratic process, especially since the early 1960s, when art schools began to teach it. The addition of Duchampian—or Warholian-displacement to the pedagogical routine produced and continues to produce much boring art. Yet Koons’ art is not boring, for it commits so notable an offense against its chief device: his use of displacement reverses its meaning.

With the accidental quality of its elegance, Duchamp’s Bottle Rack affronted art-world demands for the essential and the necessary—that is, for esthetic absolutes. His respect for the beauty of this object was also an affront to a set of values the art world shared with the larger world—the hierarchy that places manufactured objects at the bottom and handmade works of art at the top. The act of displacement that turned a bottle rack into Bottle Rack, the sculpture, showed that a mass-produced object can achieve singularity as an artwork and become more valuable than most handmade works of art. With other acts of that sort, artists have claimed individual sovereignty over a national emblem (Jasper Johns’ “Flags”). They have given the uneasy warmth of personal obsession to chillingly impersonal news photos (Andy Warhol’s “Disaster” paintings), and have put ordinary construction methods at the disposal of private mythmaking (Robert Smithson’s Earthworks).

These are disparate maneuvers, yet each imposes particularity on images or processes that, in ordinary usage, have a tone of generality. What I am calling the Duchampian device of displacement (though it appeared first in Cubist collage) allegorizes the individual’s resistance to institutional generalities. Few artists are thoughtless enough to believe that individuals could survive without institutions. Yet many artists sense that, because it is so great, institutional authority gives an oppressive preponderance to the general and the averaged, the programmatic and the professional. Some artists counter with claims for the authority of the particular, the singular, the individual.

Such artists mock professionalism, though, of course, everyone approves of professional standards in certain situations, and hopes they will be maintained. What oppresses is professionalism’s tendency to extend its rhetoric—its images, language, and styles of self-presentation into nearly every domain of life. Duchampian displacement can register objections to this tendency, yet that is not how Koons uses the device. His displacements assert rather than defy the dreariest generalities of banal taste, pop psychology, and pornographic sexuality, including the cliché of the insatiable child-woman with hairless pudenda. These are emblems of professionalism at its tackiest. In bringing them from the larger world to the art world, Koons is careful to transform them only in ways that preserve their readymade oppressiveness.

As pornography, Koons’ images of himself and Cicciolina are negligible. As a self-help scam, his advice about improving oneself is amateurish. To note that he shows no professional competence as a pornographer or as a pop psychologist is to note that he does not play those roles. For if a pornographer or a pop psychologist is not professional, he is nothing. Only Koons the artist is an undismissable presence. Because he makes relentlessly professional use of an esthetic device—Duchampian displacement many members of the art world feel that they must grant him respectful attention. It is as if our interest in art imposes on us a professional obligation to pay him this respect. However, the debt need not be paid, for an authentic interest in art imposes no obligations of any kind. It is an interest of an unbound, unobligated sort.

In modern times, the best art does not mimic the qualities of institutions. Obliquely, or head on, it lodges objections to institutional authority and works to undermine the force of professional abstractions. Koons’ art celebrates the abstractions, the reflexes, the clichés of professionalism at its most tediously self-serving. This is enough to say in judgment, for it is to the degree that art makes common cause with professional styles and values that it becomes esthetically worthless.

Carter Ratcliff is a writer who lives in New York. He is working on a book on postwar American painting.