In this month’s issue of The Brooklyn Rail, poet and art critic John Yau has an entertaining and thought provoking retort to Jerry Saltz’s recent praise of Jeff Koons’ massive fin de siècle sculpture Puppy. Yau basically challenges Saltz for over-enthusiastically associating Jeff Koons’ artistic vision with what Saltz calls “our America.”
This is Saltz’s appraisal of Koons (which comes from the pages of New York Magazine):
Koons’s work has always stood apart for its one-at-a-time perfection, epic theatricality, a corrupted, almost sick drive for purification, and an obsession with traditional artistic values. His work embodies our time and our America: It’s big, bright, shiny, colorful, crowd-pleasing, heat-seeking, impeccably produced, polished, popular, expensive, and extroverted—while also being abrasive, creepily sexualized, fussy, twisted, and, let’s face it, ditzy.
And this is Yau’s critique:
I wasn’t bothered by Saltz’s overheated imitation of Frank O’Hara’s prose, its bad alliteration and doubly obvious onomatopoeia. His goo-goo eyed, love-struck declaration that Koons was “the emblematic artist of the decade” was predictable, but not depressingly so. It was his blithe characterization of “our America” that I had trouble with. When he ticked off “big, bright, shiny, colorful, crowd-pleasing, heat seeking…” it seemed to me as if Saltz were talking about what personality traits he and Koons have in common, their ideal attributes, and that America was actually nowhere in sight.
To me, Yau has a slam dunk here; whoever makes such broad generalizations about “America” does so at his or her own peril. And while it is true that Saltz puts his finger on certain aspects of America, he doesn’t find enough critical distance to say anything productive.
Yau goes on to address wider issues about art and the American audience:
Hasn’t it occurred to Mr. Saltz that museums are multiplexes lumbering into the 21st century, hoping to provide something entertaining for everyone? In Saltz’s America, Puppy is great public art and Tom Cruise is the good, handsome German with an eye patch, trying to save the world from Hitler. (He nearly succeeds.) In multiplex America, we’ve had Tim Burton thinking at MoMA, Mathew Barney climbing the walls at SFMOMA, Marc Quinn’s self-portrait made from his frozen blood at the Brooklyn Museum, and the Disney-packaged animation show at the New Orleans Museum of Art. In my America (call it the Brooklyn Rail), lots of people know that there are works that will not likely ever be shown in a museum or multiplex, or gossiped about in a glossy magazine, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be kept alive above all else and passed on. Their goal is not to be “crowd-pleasing, heat-seeking, impeccably produced, polished, popular, expensive, and extroverted.” (And I’m not talking about what Mr. Saltz calls “savvy art-about-art gestures,” which is a red herring that gets trotted out whenever the audience might be asked to think. The idea that people can think for themselves is frightening, as anyone who reads a museum wall label or gallery press release knows. Better they be spoonfed.)
These comments have stayed with me for a while and make me think about Tarsem Singh’s blockbuster movie The Cell (New Line Cinema, 2000), starring Jennifer Lopez, which so aptly demonstrates the feedback loop between the contemporary museum and the contemporary multiplex– as has been noted in numerous reviews, Singh’s visual language draws heavily on art world superstars such as Matthew Barney and Damien Hirst. In the movie, Vincent D’Onofrio, who is perhaps best known for his acting on Law & Order, plays a serial killer, Carl Stargher, who falls into a coma before authorities can rescue his final victim. Enter J-Lo (who plays the character Catherine Deane) who travels into the killer’s consciousness through a virtual reality device to find Stargher’s own imago– a kind of demonical satyr king à la Matthew Barney.
And as Deane perseveres through the dark recesses of Stargher’s mind, she encounters disturbing events such as the dramatic vivisection of a horse via glass panes which calls to mind Hirst’s formaldehyde concoctions– notably the cross sections of two cows in Some Comfort Gained from the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything.
In an interview with Dike Blair (that originally appeared in Time Out New York), Michael Manson, an Art Director for New Line Cinema, makes some eyebrowing-raising comments about the movie’s audience. Notice how Manson does a complete 180 after Blair’s suggestion:
Michael Manson: …Many times the American audience is not given enough credit for understanding high concept art. I think Tarsem realized that this wasn’t true, that we could make a film with this kind of imagery and that people would get it. They’d know they’d seen things similar to this and were pleased to see a film that was brave enough to show it.
Dike Blair: Well, I’d suggest that 99% of the people leaving the Cineplex have never heard of Damien Hirst or Matthew Barney.
Michael Manson: Perhaps they may not know the reference, but they know when they’ve seen something spectacular and new.
What bothers me is how Manson goes from suggesting that audiences can think for themselves and pick up on intertextual references (“They’d know they’d seen things similar to this”) to condescendingly treating them as consumers dazzled by the novelty of spectacle (“they know when they’ve seen something spectacular and new”).
About eight or so years ago when I was an MFA student, I remember being bothered by a similar comment. Yusef Komunyakaa had come to visit for a “master class” and the discussion had become particularly divided over issues concerning difficulty and the accessibility of poetry. (Komunyakaa, by the way, is quite hostile to innovative art; in his introduction to Best American Poetry 2003, he fires from the hip, aiming at such diverse things as Miles Davis’ fusion period, what he calls “exploratory poetry,” and Robert Rauschenberg’s erasure of de Kooning.) Laure-Anne Bosselaar chimed in saying that she wanted to write poetry that is accessible enough so that it could speak to a soldier in the Iraq War. It occured to me at the time that she was making particular assumptions about what a soldier could and could not understand– in the same way that Blair assumes that movie-goers wanting to see J-Lo couldn’t possibly know the work of Barney or Hirst. This is nothing other than condescension masquerading as decorum.
One of the best single pieces of advice that I got in my graduate workshop days was from Suzanne Gardinier. She said to always assume that your reader is smarter than you are, and this strikes me as the most ethical and dignified attitude to take when writing. It is at once a stance of humility and one that refuses to spoonfeed your audience. And it is, I hope, a strong enough antidote to counter multiplex America.
Michael Leong is the author of the poetry books e.s.p., Cutting Time with a Knife, Who Unfolded My Origami Brain?, and Words on Edge. His creative work has been anthologized in THE &NOW AWARDS 2: The Best Innovative Writing, Best American Experimental Writing 2018, and Bettering American Poetry, Volume 3. His co-translation, with Ignacio Infante, of Vicente Huidobro’s long poem Sky-Quake: Tremor of Heaven is forthcoming from co•im•press in late 2019. His critical monograph Contested Records: The Turn to Documents in Contemporary North American Poetry is forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press in May 2020. He has received grants from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches in the School of Critical Studies at CalArts.