Jeff Koons’s gift of a giant sculpture to the city of Paris as a gesture of Franco-American solidarity has been met with great opposition since it was announced in November 2016. An online petition launched the following month has racked up more than 6,000 signatures; earlier this month, 24 artists, cultural workers, and politicians issued an open letter rejecting the artwork. The criticisms have raised many issues with the sculpture: its enormous size (80,000 pounds and 38 feet, including its base); the way that its price tag of over $4 million will be paid (through private donations, already secured); the choice of its location (the doorsteps of two major Parisian museums); and its lack of any specific relationship to the terrorist attacks that ostensibly inspired it.
Now, in response to the uproar, the Parisian art dealers brokering the process of the sculpture’s funding, execution, and installation, Jérôme and Emmanuelle de Noirmont, have issued a lengthy statement addressing some of the criticisms of “Bouquet of Tulips” (2016). They list a number of the alternative sites around Paris that were considered, explaining that the Palais de Tokyo stood out because it “is at the heart of a French-American hill filled with symbols of generosity” including an equestrian statue of George Washington, streets named for Woodrow Wilson and John F. Kennedy, and two sculptures commemorating France’s gift of the Statue of Liberty to the US. They compare “Bouquet of Tulips” not only to Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s colossus, but also to Pablo Picasso’s monumental Chicago sculpture, inscribing Koons in the history of great civic monument-makers.
Seemingly addressing the criticism that Koons’s bouquet bears no relation to the terrorist attacks of 2015 and 2016 that inspired its gifting, the de Noirmonts assert that the Koons “is not imagined as a memorial but as a message of hope.” They go on to explain the deep significance of the sculpture’s tally of tulips. “A dozen has symbolized plenitude since the Antiquity,” they write. “Unlike the tradition, the ‘Bouquet of Tulips’ consists of 11 flowers only; the missing 12th one evokes here the absence, the victims lost in the attacks.” This giant symbol of hope — an homage to those killed, yet not intended as a memorial — is a hopelessly mixed message.
However, the most damning detail in the art dealers’ defense of “Bouquet of Tulips” may be their explanation of how Koons was selected. “Shortly after the attacks of November 2015, being deeply touched by the huge number of messages from American citizens expressing their support and friendship to the Parisians and the French people, [then US Ambassador to France] Jane Hartley proposed to Koons to create an artwork that would be offered to the City of Paris in homage to the victims of the attacks,” the de Noirmonts write.
Whatever the distinction between an homage (which the sculpture is) and a memorial (which it is not), the fact that Koons was selected to make this monumental gift on behalf of the people of the United States by a committee of one may be the project’s most fundamental problem. For a symbol being exchanged between two countries that love so much to flaunt their democratic principals — and praise each others’ democratic institutions — the dictatorial selection of Koons is disappointing and completely undermines the piece’s heavy-handed symbolism. Millions may (and do) vouch for Koons’s brand of high-production-value middlebrow art, but at least put a project like this to some kind of public review process and let the public do just that: vouch for him.
Jeff Koons is the Wonder Bread of contemporary American art. A project like this calls for, at the very least, the baguette of contemporary American art — preferably its croissant or pain au chocolat.