How To Talk About Art: Jeff Koons Edition

Design rendering of Jeff Koons's "Train" at the High Line
A design rendering of Jeff Koons's "Train" at the High Line (image by James Corner Field Operations, Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Jeff Koons, via the High Line Blog)

With plans in the offing for Jeff Koons’s astounding “Train” to dangle preposterously over the heedless noggins of visitors to the High Line, it might just be a good time to polish your talking points regarding the “greatest” of all kitsch artists, so here is a helpful guide.

The very first step in mastering the Koons casual party patter is to state that the man is a “polarizing figure.” Letting everyone know that you know this will help you either stay in your comfort zone or come out swinging.


Next, you’ll want to choose your preferred ’tude from the menu below:

  • Hate him: “He’s a crass businessman usurping good taste, a purveyor of deliberately shallow iconography pawning off his sleazy wares on an irony-soaked public that wants to have its banal cake and eat it too. Not an artist so much as an idea man, his work is actually realized by a huge staff of assistants. What’s more, the stuff he makes is gaudy and meaningless.”
  • Love him: “He’s a curator of pop culture, an aficionado of fun and a rarity —  a fine artist with a sensibility that’s unapologetically attuned to our taste for sleek, flawless, manufactured items. An artist in the great tradition of the Renaissance, he does indeed have a huge staff of assistants who, under his demanding eye, create items that are finely crafted and polished to perfection. What’s more, the things he makes are celebratory.”
  • Amused by him: If your audience is jaded or nonconfrontational, or just plain stupid, the default is to have no opinion. (In fact, keep this in mind as a general #h2taa rule: stay above it. You are way too savvy to go around having opinions. Smile, roll your eyes and adapt a slightly cynical “whatevs” kind of shrug.) Now that you know what the two opinionated sides will be saying, it should be relatively easy to claim that you “understand” both points of view. “Sure, it’s not deep stuff, but hey, the man knows how to make it pretty.” Then steer your way to the bar.

Mr. Big Stuff

Jeff Koons surrounded by reporters and art critics at the press preview to his rooftop show in 2008 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (photo via flickr.com/artcomments)

Koons’s humongous “Train” will be a full-size (70-foot) replica of a 1943 Baldwin 2900 steam locomotive, and is expected to weigh a few tons. It will dangle from a crane specifically designed to pin the monstrous bulk securely to our skyline.

Koons' "Puppy" (1992) at the Bilbao Guggenheim (via flickr.com/lightsgoingon)

In this sense, the proposed sculpture falls squarely into a common Jeff Koons trope: he likes to play with scale, making mundane subjects loom large. Key Koons words here: “play,” “scale,” “mundane.” These contain a decidedly pro-Koons message, implying that the artist is creating a sort of social commentary. But pro-Koonsians will keep their cultural references big and glib: commercial = desire, nature = comfort, shiny = reflection, technology = attainment, sex = happy and big = exhuberant. In fact, everything’s a fucking big-ass birthday party for humankind.

If you hate his work, then you are disgusted that he continues to make large-scale, gaudy, easily digestible stuff: big porn, big balloon dogs and flowers, big terrier pups made of flowers and big valentines hanging from huge shiny ribbons. Of course, you’ll point out, manufacturing big things resonates with the lowest common denominator — you know, the people who love roadside attractions like giant hot dogs and ice cream cones.

The only reason tony collectors of blue-chip art entertain this Trump aesthetic is because Koons has made a very successful career out of massaging only the very finest lizard brains, convincing them that his high-cost visual jokes are valid social commentary. As for this giant train, you’ll say, don’t get you started. How much thought went into that? Either the man’s a drooling toddler, or he’s just out to make big bucks recycling the same tired big-cute-thing schtick. Or both.

Either way, one can have one’s doubts. Sticking to the middle, you can always support the haters and still earn points with the lovers by remonstrating against the tin-eared approach of those High Line officials who think it wise to dangle powerful symbols of precarious construction work over the heads of war-torn New Yorkers. We’ve had our fill with cranes already, in case the (no doubt well-meaning) nonprofit Friends of the High Line hadn’t noticed.


Surely what the High Liners have noticed is money. Whenever one talks about Koons, one is talking about money. And whenever one talks about large public artworks, one is also talking about money. On the High Line Blog, you can get the low down on the money talk:

“Like other recent major public art works in the city, such as Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates, and like the High Line itself, Koons’ Train has the potential to bring significant economic revenue to the City of New York that would far exceed the cost of construction. The Gates cost $21 million, but generated $254 million in estimated economic activity for the city, increasing restaurant business, hotel occupancy, attendance at cultural organizations, and foot traffic at local businesses and attractions.”

Changing the Subject

Nothing says kitschy, I mean Koons, quite like a giant cartoony hanging lobster in the palace of Versailles, where he had an exhibition in 2008. (via flickr.com/laurent_gilot)

Jeff Koons is notorious for being sued. He has, in fact, been sued several times and has won one case. Call that Blanch, short for Blanch v. Koons. The point is, he steals things.

If you hate him, this provides proof that his work lacks imagination.

If you love him, this shows that he’s at the forefront of appropriation art; Blanch provided pivotal leverage for the future of this genre.

Neutrals can always choose to crack a joke about the gorgeous irony behind Jeff Koons, frequent defendant, recently turning plaintiff in a case (settled out of court) against a small gallery/gift shop that was selling balloon dogs. Said plaintiff pilfered the particulars of a popular party prop, whose intellectual property he then proposed to protect.

What’s next, you might ask, sue Tonka?

This move from “Train” to big stuff to money to lawsuits brings me to another general #h2taa rule: change the subject. The purpose is to deflect controversy. Everyone loves funny stories about big shots suing little guys, so neutrals and haters should keep a grab bag of these subject-shifters ready for “Train” conversations.

The Koons balloon dog story made big headlines for its obvious irony. But the fact is, appropriation artists are as likely to sue as any other owner of intellectual property. In fact, big-name artist like Koons, Damien Hirst and Shepard Fairey, all of them appropriation artists in one sense or another, often sue. Shep’s eager legals sued some poor schmuck for making a doll with an “Obey” tagline. Hirst bullied some poor young street thug who’d photoshopped one of his works into a collage.

In fact, one of the most recent lawsuits of this type posits big shots John Cale and Lou Reed of The Velvet Underground against even bigger shots, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Arts: the Velvets are laying claim to Andy’s iconic banana.

Want to change the subject altogether? It’s always safe to say you love Warhol.


Talking points:

  • Koons – polarizing figure; choose yer ’tude
  • Pop culture and banality
  • Businessman, money
  • Manufactured art/assistants
  • Mr. Big Stuff: scale
  • Cynicism vs. happy birthday
  • High Line Park: public attractions and money
  • Scary cranes
  • Funny lawsuits like Hirst and Shep
  • Andy Warhol

#h2taa Rules:
1. Stay above it — You are way to savvy to go around having opinions.
2. Change the subject — The best way to deflect controversy.
3. Say you love Warhol — Who doesn’t?

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