There was a time when the more you looked at a painting or a piece of sculpture the more you saw. You judged a work by the quality of its ambiguities, by the amount of nuance, shade and subtlety which it contained, and the sort of slow levels of spiritual meaning it revealed or visual stimuli it offered.
This is all over.
Thus standing for ages in front of a painting and letting something subtle and memorable happen to you is the sort of thing your parents or your sweet gay uncle did. There was a mixture of shyness, deep uncertainty and something oddly close to shame in how they looked at a picture.
Now it is the picture’s turn to look at you, and its gaze is brash, cheeky and saturated with instant meaning. The job of the work of art is no longer to smoulder on the wall, but instead it seeks to flash, arouse and tickle.
Jeff Koons is a sort of high priest of what we might call the simple-minded image. He has said that his work contains no hidden meanings, and he seems proud of this. The question is whether his work contains any meanings at all, other than ones which are obvious, crass and silly.
That question, however, is humourless and not quite fair, even if it lingers as you walk out of the gallery having been besieged by the brashness, the cartoon-like vitality and the sheer fun of Koons’s inventions.
The world for him is the one we inhabit; it is filled with advertising, neon, trash, colour photographs, movies, tv images, plastic objects, things waiting to be discarded. There is no culture other than popular culture. Plastic for Koons is what trees were for Corot or skin was for Rembrandt.
Art is a sort of play, getting something familiar and tacky and making it both more tacky and less familiar. Koons moves through the world as a tourist might; he is looking for what is bright and garish and unbreakable to take home. He is a pair of eyes on holidays, fully alert to art history as both delight and burden. He picks out cheap objects, shiny, goofy images and slick pieces of merchandise and makes a fetish out of them; he offers them a sort of iconic seriousness which they cannot possibly bear and thus he creates images filled with irony, sly humor, laughter, mockery and, dare I say it again, silliness.
It is hard not to feel that one of the reasons why Koons’s work is so valuable and so popular is that there is something deeply and bravely juvenile about his imagination. It is difficult to think of him as an adult. It is a sad (or maybe also an uplifting and hilarious) fact about the world we inhabit that the infantile and the juvenile are more fun and somehow richer in texture than the stuff that takes time and intelligence to experience.
You can bring your inner kid to a Jeff Koons show, but the question remains: what do you do with the self which feels puberty coming on while you are looking at his work?
I blame America, but maybe that is too easy. Or I blame Andy Warhol, or I blame some post-modernist theorists, too numerous and obscure to mention. Someone is clearly to blame for establishing the idea that icons from sport or Hollywood or cartoon shows or cheap mass-produced inflatable objects or images from advertising or bad pornography or pieces of general kitch are worthy of the same close attention and reverence (however brief) from artists and visitors to galleries as Jesus on the Cross once was, or his poor sad Mother.