Double Decadence?

I just read an article in the New York Times about a new Jeff Koons exhibition…at Versailles.

At first, I immediately thought I wouldn’t even like the thought of this exhibition. After all, a Baroque scholar would want to have Versailles shown in its pure, untainted decadence. And if I was there, I probably would get upset seeing Koons’ kitschy, flashy work all over the palace.

But I think that this exhibition poses a really interesting idea. Koons’ work is a commentary on mass-production, pop culture, kitsch, and consumption. For example, Koons’ sculpture Michael Jackson and Bubbles is created in the style of cheap porcelains that can be bought at the dollar store.

I am especially intrigued by this idea of consumption in regards to Versailles. In this sense, wouldn’t Koons’ works seem appropriate at Versailles palace, which is the epitome of European consumption and decadence? These kitsch sculptures even bring up associations of sweat shops, “MADE IN CHINA,” and cheap labor – all which can tie into the oppression of the common people that took place in seventeenth and eighteenth century France.

Of course, I’m pretty sure that Louis XIV would never have owned anything kitsch. The decor in his home would have been a little bit more, um, pricey.

If you read this article, make sure to check out the photo gallery too. What do people think?

*J made an interesting comparison tonight: both Koons’ art and Versailles are quintessential examples of things that are “over the top” – Koons in his ridiculously large balloon animals or stuffed animals cum garden sculptures, and Versailles in, well, every way imaginable.

  • GermyB says:

    I think whoever is in charge of this is taking a bold stance. They’re basically allowing an American artist to come in and make fun of Louis XIV and Versailles. Koons’ references to consumerism are not at all serious – they’re extremely sarcastic. When I visited Versailles, I was impressed, but then sickened by its overindulgence and decadence as I thought of how impoverished the rest of his nation was at the time. I don’t think Koons is out to point out the dangers or drawbacks of consumerism – he’s just using the ‘kitch’ vernacular in ridiculous, funny, unexpected ways. I think this comes out in his comment about ‘what would Louis do?’ in relation to his giant flower sculptures.

    However, maybe I should be glad that the French can laugh at the Sun King.

    All that said, I do think it’s an interesting appropriation for Koons to use (though he didn’t select the location, but is apparently extremely pleased by it).

  • Zillah says:

    Is the “kitsch” quality of a piece determined by its price? I think that there’s plenty at Versailles that counts as 17-century kitsch; it’s just gilded. And there’s lots of it.

    In terms of the exhibit, I think that it provides an interesting commentary on how we decide upon the value of “art”. Do we go to Versailles because we find it beautiful, or because the guide books and the history books tell us to? How do we determine the artistic merit of Koons’ work? In terms of this exhibit, it seems to me that in some ways Koons is doing the same thing that Louis XIV did: appropriating particular images from his society and reproducing them on a large enough scale to overwhelm completely the viewer.

    I don’t particularly like Koons, though I find his work thought-provoking (though appropriation of modern-day kitsch to question the notion of “art” is so cliche). But I don’t like Versailles, either.

  • M says:

    Zillah,
    I think that price can determine if a work is of high or poor quality – so, in that sense, I would argue that price can determine if something is “kitschy”.

    I can see what you are saying about Versailles being kitsch (I used to argue that chinoiserie was kitsch as well). Everything about the palace recalls popular fashion. In another sense though, I don’t think that Louis XIV had lowbrow taste.

  • Zillah says:

    does price determine the quality of a work, or do we hope that it is an indication thereof?

  • Emilee . . . says:

    Do you think Michael Jackson owns that sculpture of himself?

    Creepy.

  • alli says:

    Mon-
    I totally read that article and thought “I need to talk to Monica about this) LOL

    I think it is fascinating to have a Koons exhibition in Versailles. I went to a Dale Chuhuly (sp?) exhibit at Kew Gardens back in 2005 and they way the Koons article was presented reminded me of that show. There is something about Contemporary art being shown in traditional/classical settings that I find truly exciting.
    With Koons, I thought of the same connection as Jeremy. Koons is all about consumption and so is Versaille (hello! It is a symbol of the type of consumption that sparked the French Revolution). I like the juxtaposition of 18th century indulgence and elegance with 20th century consumerism.

    Gosh- I’ve missed talking about art that is non-thesis related!
    Thanks for keeping art alive on your blog. I’d blog about art but I think my fam would boycott.

  • M says:

    Zillah -

    Doesn’t the price system partially function because of the assumption that prices are an indication of quality? If consumers didn’t hope that the level of price reflected the amount of intrinsic quality, then there would be no reason to have price differences for the same item. So, I think that because one hopes that prices indicate quality, prices are ideologically constructed to determine quality.

    Perhaps this is just arguing semantics…

    But I also agree with you – the intrinsic quality of a work or item is not always related to the amount of the price attached. Case in point: J prefers the taste of Western Family cereal over Kellogg’s.

  • Zillah says:

    I suppose it depends on what one defines as quality. If it is the monetary value of something, then of course price determines quality. If you judge the quality of a painting, for example, by its realism (positively), then Bob Ross wins over Miro.

    In other words: is quality determined by factors innate to the work itself?

    Of course the question of quality is always ambiguous and problematic, and, I think is central to the question of whether or not Koons should be at Versailles. Though Koons isn’t part of the permanent exhibited collection at the Moma (from what I can find; I’m probably wrong), he did sell a piece very recently for almost 13 million pounds. So, kitschiness aside, though that price doesn’t come near to Versailles’ value, is it high enough to qualify (ha ha) Koons for a Versailles exhibition?

    Semantics are definitely worth arguing. Why not discuss the meaning of things?

    (Can you tell I’m avoiding my Latin by pursuing this discussion?)

  • e says:

    I have to admit that I’m drawn by that giant balloon dog.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.