When an artwork fetches a record price at auction, the first question everyone silently asks is: “Could it really be worth that?”
The first and best answer, obviously, is “No.” In a sane world, no work of art would be worth $91.1 million, which is the price the art dealer Robert E. Mnuchin paid at Christie’s on Wednesday for Jeff Koons’s stainless steel sculpture “Rabbit.” (The buyer is Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s father.) But then, it’s also true that something is “worth” whatever someone is willing to pay. So there.
What the sale of Koons’s “Rabbit” — an auction record for a living artist — is telling us with special force is that the question of valuation is not just about rationality or irrationality. It is, on a deeper level, redundant.
It’s redundant because we are in a realm divorced from reality. Intentionally so. Koons, more than any other artist, has shown that reality itself is biddable. This is the message behind his long and bizarre career, and it is the message I take away from this news.
With his giant sculptures of balloon dogs, of Michael Jackson with Bubbles, and of himself and his ex-porn star wife having sex, Koons effected in art what President Trump effected in politics: He choreographed a total collapse of the distinctions between achievement, fame, wealth, taste and success.
Koons’s career, like Trump’s, is a phenomenon that looks as if it should have ended at the end of the 1980s. But it didn’t. Koons keeps rising above his various real-world tribulations, in part because — like all people who appear to successfully distance themselves from reality — he is totally fascinating.
You hear him speak about his art and you think he must — he absolutely has to be — talking in jest. No one could possibly spew so much bland and frictionless cant and mean it. Yet people who know him insist that he does mean it. The quality of his art may be all over the place, but his stance is so consistent that one’s initial conviction — that he is ironizing reality — falters. You can’t ironize something you fundamentally don’t believe in.
Like a lot of people who loathe what Jeff Koons stands for, I happen to like “Rabbit” and think it very successful as a work of art. I like Koons’s giant flower sculptures, too — “Puppy” and “Split-Rocker” and a few other individual works.
I’m conscious that Koons desperately wants me to like them — being loved is what they’re all about. But that’s no reason to resist them. They succeed as art not just because they’re lovable but because they make a compelling proposition about tensions in our culture between mass popularity and seriousness, between art and kitsch, and between pleasure and shame. The proposition they make is that if these categories are collapsed (“Watch me collapse them!”) much will be gained, and nothing much lost.
This, of course, is more or less the same proposition that propelled Trump to power. There is much to be said for it. Old assumptions and calcified power structures — left vs. right, populist vs. establishment — are swept away like so many cobwebs.
But the success of the strategy also creates a vacuum, which both Koons and Trump have realized — to their great advantage — they don’t have to fill. At least, not with anything real. They can keep whistling away in a make-believe world.
Koons can pretend, like the artists of the French rococo after whom he models himself, that everything is gorgeous and harmless and good. Trump can pretend that, despite being president, he is in fact still on “The Apprentice” and that he need only look into the camera and repeat a few key words — “winning,” “weak,” “fake news,” “tremendous,” “terrific” and “classy” — and reality will bend his way.
Koons’s art, much like the high end of the art market, floats over facts, sowing deliberate confusion to generate its own new reality. There’s a sense, in other words, in which assigning a $91.1 million value to a work by Koons is like throwing paper towels into a crowd in Puerto Rico. It serves a purpose, it’s a message; but the purpose is not related to towels or Puerto Ricans.
The funny thing about reality, of course, is that it doesn’t actually go away. It is stubborn like that (and it is one of art’s great purposes to remind us of this). And at some point — buyer, beware! — the bubble always bursts.