Jim Sienkiewicz's Blog

Jim Sienkiewicz's thoughts on his own and others' photography

Truth In Advertising

In our contemporary Postmodern, post-structuralist, post-everything period it is not difficult to find oneself jaded or skeptical of another’s sincerity. This is an indelible symptom of the epoch and one which promises to flourish in the years ahead. Art, as mirror of the society it is created in, finds itself prone to the same predicament. Being that authorship has been dead and buried for some time now, how can any of us esteem a work of art to be genuine or of original sentiment ever again?

Thankfully, we have been graced with many such artists who have sought to restore the value and merit of being honest in their craft. With the plague of conceptual, contextual, and hyper-textual art that has ushered forth in recent decades, it is comforting to know that some seek to retain this noble tradition.

What follows are two case studies of particular import. These artists are representative of the prevailing currents within the art world and the framework that surrounds its underlying commercial motivations. Both have remained avant-garde and continued to evolve in their ways of engaging cultural relevance. More than anything else they stand as prime examples of what it takes to be at the top of the artworld and to stay there.

Joel-Peter Witkin
Interviewer: Has your work ever received a very unexpected or especially absurd response?
Witkin: Yes, in an article that was printed recently in response to a photograph. In the picture, there is one man who is missing an eye and another is about to put his penis in that man’s eye socket [History of Commercial Photography in South America, 1984], and the writer thought it was a potato! [laughs] I couldn’t believe it… a potato. [1]

Joel-Peter Witkin’s images have been controversial from their inception. Ranging from corpses to the macabre and romantic depiction of human oddities and sexual taboos, the artist has long existed on the peripheries of contemporary society. Many have dismissed his work as exploitive and little more than shock art, and no doubt more would if not for the sheer beauty and presence of his prints. In the case of Joel-Peter Witkin it is the physicalization of his vision that so eloquently legitimizes his art as of superb caliber. The aestheticization of his subjects has allowed him to explore this iconography extensively and continually introduce greater complexity into his oeuvre.

But the personal narrative of Witkin is equally rich to that of his subject’s. Childhood witness to a decapitation, explorations of his own and society’s sexual boundaries, and a personal fascination with all that would seemingly contradict the beauty his art exudes, anyone who has heard the artist speak is aware of his colorful, if not exaggerated descriptions of his work and life. He is an artist who defies convention but often offends taste – something art has always been thoroughly engaged in, even when it pretends not to be. No self-respecting artist would dare dismiss Witkin, only question his methods. He is the rare, but increasingly conspicuous realization of a Romantic artistic conception: that of the individual whose vision and life mirror each other and exist as unique among the faceless in the crowd. Beauty is created from pain; that of his own and that of his subjects’.

Critics have run the gamut in their perceptions of the artist’s work. Ibid’s Cynthia Chris has stated “Witkin’s altered photographs are representations of some of the most repressed and oppressed images of human behavior and appearance,” while the New York Times critic Gene Thornton has praised him as “one of the great originals of contemporary photography.” [2] It is the spectacle of his work and promotion that keep Joel Peter-Witkin a hot topic amongst art circles. It is impossible to separate the man from his art, which is fortunate for both.

One of Witkin’s more popular anecdotes is that of a medieval juggler’s pilgrimage to a new and magnificent cathedral. While the majesty of the church has commanded the awe and gifts of the elite of society and others of great renown, it is this simple juggler who the artist identifies himself with. This lowly member of the society of his time can put forth no lavish tribute or great deed in marvel of the cathedral, but only offer the humble act he has always known, and begins to juggle before the alter. This is what Witkin believes himself to be doing through his art; creating beauty through the means he possesses. [3] An extremely well-versed and knowledgeable pupil of art history and its traditions, Witkin often employs classical motifs and references within his photographs. His sculptural background finds employment in the construction of his made-to-be photographed installations. Perhaps it is this infusion of the classical into his imagery coupled with the aesthetic sensation of the finished print that make it so hard to ignore the artist’s efforts. Whether a detractor or supporter of Witkin’s images, certainly our attention is commanded.

Now ponder that story of the juggler in the cathedral and consider it in relation to an image of Joel-Peter Witkin taken by his wife. The artist wears a mask that bears a crucified Christ. The mask calls to mind a time gone by and perhaps a dark reference to Poe, but it also symbolizes Witkin’s own relationship to religion. He has investigated various approaches to spirituality and become immersed in several belief systems his traditional Jewish upbringing did not afford. The repeated references in his photographs to Renaissance and Baroque motifs further suggest this traditional streak in his work. Often he will depict scenes of religious significance or deify profane subjects. What this relationship to religion is best understood as however is the complex persona that the artist has created for himself. Witkin often correlates stories of religious meaning with his own aesthetic treatment of what he chooses to photograph. By placing himself behind a mask bearing the image of Christ he is playing a clever joke on us, the audience. He is veiling himself in a conception of religion that not only supports his vision of morality but also fuels the debate surrounding his work. His spiritual sentiments would be easier to dismiss if he were simply relegated to atheism or possibly as one who delights in the ugliness of the world, but instead by stating these objects of attention are indeed the greatest source of beauty, he poses a conundrum that demands our reflection. He is not interested in shocking the viewer, only awakening them to an alternative to the typical perception with which we approach the subject. His dismissal of his art’s shock value can fall on deaf ears however, as when he relays his enjoyment at hearing model Cindy Crawford’s having run for the bathroom after seeing his photographs. [4] Testimony that Witkin is a cunning self-promoter and one who keenly understands the packaging of an artist.

Whatever the case, Joel-Peter Witkin is successful in large part due to the aura that surrounds him. In an age of broadened acceptance and tolerance for what was once viewed as anathema, Witkin’s photographs are thoroughly of his time and certainly bear credence to contemporary discourse.

Jeff Koons
Jeff Koons makes me sick. He may be the definitive artist of this moment, and that makes me sickest. [5]

-Peter Schjeldahl

It is only fitting that Jeff Koons was a commodities trader before becoming fully immersed in the art world. This first hand knowledge of business and marketing has been wholly responsible for his success. Since his creation by Larry Gaggosian and a handful of other top art coterie, Koons has taken Duchamp’s concept of the ready made and turned into big business. A recent auction fetched an astounding $4.6 million for his 1986 Aqualung, [6] and his puppies of various sizes range from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Koons has proven that art no longer need distance itself from media and entertainment, to do so would be to miss out on all the money to be made.

Like many artists who came to prominence in the 1980’s, Koons does not actually produce any of his work. “I’m basically the idea person.” [7] His brand of appropriation and consumerist context were nothing new by this point, Richard Pettibone, Richard Prince, and Sherrie Levine having all greatly contributed to the discussion already. What is unique to Koons is the sheer unabashed way in which he holds the mirror up to a society of brand labeling and media-based identity. His use of pornographic images, Neo-Pop celebrity fetish – really, what artwork is more relevant than a life-size porcelain statue of Michael Jackson and Bubbles, – and his general disregard for any spiritual associations inherent with being an artist have opened our eyes to the ever-approaching horizon of meaninglessness and vacuous vanity Koons has so thoroughly entertained.

It is also not surprising that Jeff Koons only hires the finest artisans and craftsmen to fabricate his pieces. I would certainly hope that with the money his work is commanding he would at least do it the service of demanding absolute perfection in production. Only the best Italian marble workers will do. Teams of assistants are nothing new of course. Throughout much of his career Peter Paul Rubens only painted the faces and hands of most of his subjects, so why shouldn’t a contemporary artist do the same, or if they possess no technical proficiency, à la Koons, why not just hire other artists to do it for you. Andy Warhol’s Factory, and Sol Lewitt’s detailed instructions for others’ production of his artwork find particular relevance in the process of Koons. Like Damien Hirst, who similarly employs scores of assistants to make the work that his name goes on, Jeff Koons has remained at the forefront of what it means to be an artist today; namely not being involved with the making of one’s art. When you work your way through the labyrinth of the artist’s contextual framework and greater insights into linguistic concept, Koons emerges as Minotaur, and a fabulously adorned one at that.

Since we assume an artist’s work is a reflection of their inner world, we must determine that Koons is happiest in the corporatized, auto-erotic cotton candy mill he has created for himself. His oeuvre is a powerful advertisement for himself and the culture that produced him. He relishes the relationship.

Interviewer: What do you think about the fact that the owner of one of the largest advertising firms in the world, Charles Saatchi, is buying your art?
Koons: It’s not negative toward advertisement. I believe in advertisement and media completely. My art and my personal life are based in it. I think that the art world would probably be a tremendous reservoir for everybody involved in advertising. [8]

What Jeff Koons is showing us with his art is not its pertinence to our current society, but instead its agenda as justification for the outright commodification and commercialization of art in general. Artists like Koons evidence the troubles of an art world greatly concentrated on the packaging of the idea. There is nothing original but the concept. And when idea is God, anything goes. Is it coincidence that the artist has been in the game – yes, it is a game – for twenty years, yet his work is currently fetching prices that a decade ago could have purchased Van Gogh’s? Why is it that a contemporary, living artist who does not produce his own work and fills up galleries with assembly line momentum and quantity is esteemed as so valuable despite the complete un-art like nature of his objects? Because he knows how to play the game. Good show, old chap! Artistic tradition, spirit, and virility give way to the same selfish, lazy desires amok elsewhere in contemporary “culture”. He is not simply part of the problem, he is the hydra. And in an artworld increasingly destined to maintain the art star celebrity-ism running wild now, Koons is an oracle of what is to come.

If Postmodernism has taught us anything it is to remain skeptical, and there is little forbearance that money as subject of and motivation for art will cease any time soon, if ever. With an exponentially exploding population of Koons’ objects and the promise of increasingly longer lifespans, perhaps we will live to see the artist’s complete Orwell-ian conquest of collections and museums everywhere. But we might also come to our senses and return to something more befitting of the grace of art, and quite possibly the culturati of the future may look back and reflect on the Dark Age of Koons.

Jim Sienkiewicz



1. Interview with Chris Buck and Christine Alevizakis, http://photographerinterviews.ifihadahifi.com/2001/witkin/
2. Terry Barrett, Criticizing Photographs, p.34
3. Lecture given by the artist at Arizona State University, October 2001
4. Lecture
5. Peter Schjeldahl, Selected Writings 1978-1990, p.307
6. Art & Auction, July 2006
7. Klaus Ottmann interview with the artist, http://www.jca-online.com/koons.html
8. Ottmann

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