Deep and Low
Madonna's 'Sex' and 'The Jeff Koons Handbook'
In his novella The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West described a bordello in which the girls wore national costumes and entertained clients in bedrooms decorated in the style of each particular nation. Such a brothel really existed. At Mae’s in Hollywood, inmates were chosen for their resemblance to film stars. Having slept with one who looked like Carole Lombard, Garson Kanin proceeded to tell the real Carole Lombard. ‘Lombard laughed and said she would tell Clark Gable, to whom she was married, but then said she wouldn’t, because he would want to go to bed with the girl himself.’ Quoting this story in The Frenzy of Renown, Leo Braudy suggests that because even for a star, his or her body - screened, in photographs, onstage - is divorced from an actual personality, dissatisfaction is bound to set in. ‘My body is not me,’ stars say. ‘Now accept the real me.’ Of course, that ‘real me’ also has to be displayed before being noticed. So, Braudy argues, it, in its turn, follows the body into the discard pile, ‘corrupted because it had to be visible, rather than innately appreciated.’ An act of faith was called for, but in vain. Or could it be that post-modernism has reached the mass market at last, with the result that audiences search not for the ‘real’ but for a continual play of the fictive?
DOCTOR: Have you ever been mistaken for a prostitute?
DITA: Every time anyone reviews anything I do, I’m mistaken for a prostitute.
Drawing in particular on Cindy Sherman, Madonna’s book Sex serves as an extension of the persona she and her publicists have developed. Bound in metal, it features elaborately staged photographs and erotic fantasies bearing the name ‘Dita Parlo’. Is this a complex pun on ‘Dîtes-moi’, an invitation to tell all? Does Dita refer to Perdita, Shakespeare’s lost girl? Or to Dita Paolo, star of Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, a figure on whom Madonna once modelled herself? The question remains open, as questions do in Sex. ‘Any similarity between characters and events is not only purely coincidental, it’s ridiculous. Nothing in this book is true. I made it all up.’ The evidence of one’s eyes, and even the haziest knowledge of Madonna’s personal life as recorded in the press, tell a different story. For her fans, for example, knowing about her supposed fling with Vanilla Ice might give a certain voyeuristic frisson to the photographs in which the two stars pretend to be making love, while rumours of lesbian dalliance will hardly be dispelled by photographs of our heroine naked in swimming pools, embracing Isabella Rossellini or Naomi Campbell. Despite such treats, not much really happens. Rather than being a centre of attention, Dita often has the air of a lonely woman who has wandered into bedrooms where people were having a good time and insisted on joining in. If love is depicted, it results from Madonna’s endless affair with her own body.
‘What is it?’ is also a question that springs to mind about The Jeff Koons Handbook., a publication which resembles a catalogue for an exhibition that has yet to take place. Could it be a prelude to Koons’ d’Offay début, an event which threatens to push censorship laws to or past their limits, since in some cases his cameraman registers nothing more than part of a penis and the vagina into which it has been thrust? Interesting though Koons’ readings of his own work may be, they are not criticism. Nor, we may decide, is Robert Rosenblum’s essay, based as it is on the belief that financial success and artistic quality go hand in hand. Few critics have attempted a full scale reading of Koons’ work, and Rosenblum does nothing to change that state of affairs. But imagine his prose forming ideas instead of platitudes. Take sentences like ‘No matter where we look he figures large’ and imagine how that flabby tissue might turn into hard muscle.
In an interview in the first issue of Journal of Contemporary Art, Jeff Koons described his idea of pleasure. Dining with a group of friends, he recalled, he was moved to propose a toast. How lucky he was, he announced, to be in a beautiful place, surrounded by people he liked… And as he stood there, he remembered, in a state of bliss, it was like being in an advertisement. Here, then, was the ultimate experience: to live in his dreams. That they might resemble other people’s dreams was irrelevant, as irrelevant as the fact that in sharing them his own identity might totter or blur. Not only did he refuse to manifest the slightest fear of this, he advanced towards it with giant steps. This approach has distinguished Americans from Europeans for centuries.
Yet doesn’t his attitude to identity as a rough diamond which needs cutting seem antithetical to the pioneer image, in which wilderness was tamed by men as wild as the frontier itself? A better metaphor would be of America as a land where ideals could assume three-dimensional form. Little wonder that American culture seethes with images of the new man - that new man which, for example, Shakespeare’s Prospero failed to become. Or that artists like Barnett Newman win debates with old-world scholars even as he proclaimed his title, Vir Heroicus Sublimis. Or that an artist like Jeff Koons should begin by honouring ‘the new’, with objects which, metaphorically speaking, drew breath, but in his displays existed as perfect, breathless, sterile and unused. (Shades of Poe, whose heroines achieved perfection only in death.) This is the world as one wants it - devoid of anything busy or accidental, there for complete visual possession.
And physical possession too. With the advent of Cicciolina, Koons’ work immediately became more American, attempting to grasp an earthly Paradise. And here he is at his most characteristic and funny. Prefaced by a phase of ‘Baroque’, where sexual ambiguity and childhood fumblings were offset by the use of animals, either photographed (pigs, seals and a donkey, all live) or sculpted, like the Pink Panther or the wretched Popples of 1988, the advertising for Made in Heaven and the work that immediately follows it combines pastoral idyll with the trappings of striptease and advertising. Amid papier-maché rocks, against an obviously painted backdrop of waves breaking on the shore, Mrs Koons lies waiting to be possessed by her new husband. Jeff in the Position of Adam is the title, yet in Koons’ Eden, Adam remains unfallen. Was Naked of 1988 a previous ‘incarnation’ of Jeff and Cicciolina, as the blurb on the dustjacket of the handbook maintains? Hardly. Nevertheless, it did manifest for the first time the almost terrifying urge to combine an art naively dedicated to great themes - Good, Beauty, Love - with all the panoply of media hype, bad taste and marketing. While curators at the Museum of Modern Art, New York were wasting time debating high or low culture, Koons was ascending to a self-made heaven as the saviour of kitsch, not only forgiving its sins but concentrating on that nasty little frisson it gives us, that sudden rush of excitement that only comes from breaking rules. Is it pornography? In one way, yes. It is meant to have the impact of pornography, at least: something as powerful as it is shocking, something repellent but nonetheless attractive, something (in Koons’ terms) that liberates people. What makes Koons the greatest naive artist and/or the greatest art satirist is the question of means and ends.
Koons’ lengthy run-up to the Made in Heaven series makes Madonna look like an amateur. Yet her work too has involved changes of identity constant enough to satisfy the needs of the market, in other words a certain level of continuity accompanied by a certain degree of apparent change. Is this different from any other business? Does it matter that the audience for popular culture has reached a level of sophistication at which it believes nothing, sees hype for what it is and adopts an ironic stance at all times? If Koons and Madonna picture themselves as porn stars, isn’t this by implication an indictment of the system within which they are forced to operate? If so, they are following in the footsteps of one of last century’s most distinguished self-saboteurs. Seeing that the publicity would kill him, Braudy argues, Oscar Wilde needlessly took up the gauntlet thrown by the Marquess of Queensberry, who accused him of being a ‘sodomist’. Knowing that he would lose, he saw his hours in the dock as a one-man performance, his final masterpiece. Neither Koons nor Madonna is a pornographer nor a porn star. Their use of the metaphor of pornography, however, could be interpreted as a cry for help, even help in the form of open attack. ‘I do not say you are it,’ Queensberry told Wilde, ‘But you look it, and you pose as it, which is just as bad.’ Maybe he was right. Maybe it is even worse, and the work of each conceals a cry for help, help in the return to depth and meaning in a way that is not compromised by the system within which artists are forced to operate. But there is a final possibility, of a complete dissolution of values and expectations, an art that will unite aesthetes and sensation seekers, the educated and the uneducated, and blow the old arguments to smithereens. Rearrange the pseudonym ‘Dita Parlo’ phonetically and it speaks of what we need: ‘A low, deep art’.
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