Our Daily Bread: Consumption and Religiosity in the Work of Koons and Hirst

by Lucy Cantwell, Winter 2012

The opening last month of Damien Hirst’s spot paintings at all eleven of Larry Gagosian’s galleries brought to mind other partnerships bent on world domination—the Catholic and Orthodox Churches and the artists they employed at their most hegemonic. As Hirst transforms simple materials and references (pills, butterflies, metal and dead animals) literally into gold, it is as if we are watching the Host becoming the flesh of Christ after the blessing of a priest. On the less doctrinaire side of the aisle, concerned less with dramatic gestures dependent on blind faith, Jeff Koons persists as our modern day baroque artist, inspiring the masses through the dazzling, designed approachability of his work. The glittering surfaces of a piece entrance a viewer, not unlike the gilded veneers of Roman Catholic decor.

Hirst is our version of a Catholic priest because he does not work through allegory or representative means, but is rather concerned with a viewer’s direct understanding of the ideas in his work. Ideas are evident, in plain sight, but it takes a leap of faith to grasp them. His art is in fact closest to the Orthodox Church’s idea of the icon—the image of a saint or a scene from a saint’s life is in fact a doorway. When you pray to or venerate an icon, the praise passes directly to the personage the icon depicts.

Hirst’s art is also only concerned with what is directly in the room with you. If he shows a human-scaled minimalist box after Dan Graham or Tony Smith with a cow’s severed head crawling with flies and an insect electrocuting machine in it as in A Thousand Years, it is, as he says, because “I always felt that minimalism was a dead end, and it needed to be about something. So I put dead animals in the boxes” (The Telegraph, October 13, 2009). The dead minimalism is not only made literal (Hirst’s favorite place to be), but also revived. The flies on the head persist in a life cycle of their own (after avoiding electrocution) just as the inevitable limits of an art practice based on reduction and elimination are made apparent and transcended through a simple addition.

This is not a fluke. When Hirst talks about his work, this interest in the literal and straightforward is common. This is different than saying that he is only interested in literal or straightforward themes, but the work is a very obvious reaction to the stimuli around him. On paintings he states (in the same Telegraph interview): “I love Rothko, but I always felt that kind of spiritual thing was a dead end.” Instead, Hirst’s solution is to mechanize the process—to alienate it entirely from himself and that potential spirituality with the aid of a multitude of artist-factory workers, who ultimately produce his spin or spot paintings. Both those series are about color, surface and his interest in resuming painting but not knowing where to start: “the horror of being in a studio with a blank canvas.” In short, they’re about everything they look like, and nothing more.

If Damien Hirst is an icon painter, than that other image and object maker obsessed with the world that surrounds us all, Jeff Koons, is a baroque painter in the strictest Roman Catholic tradition. He uses the most seductive means possible to capture your attention and access your soul. He demands your recognition of the absurdities, large and small, that define our modern lives.

Though there are myriad styles in Koons’s work—like Hirst he is prolific, innovative and restless—they all employ sustained seduction. Many pieces, for whatever else they contain or involve, dazzle with their surfaces: the shiny exteriors painted or machined in the Celebration series, the glowing fluorescence comprising the backbone of his early work with mundane household objects, the living veneer of a giant sculpture like Puppy from 1992. Later he complicated this with machined stainless steel painted to look like inflatable toys.

And when that doesn’t hold your attention, there are naked women: in the body of his ex-wife in the Made in Heaven series, hugging a stuffed animal or pinned the floor in the Banality series, disembodied in the paintings of Easyfun-Ethereal. Sometimes instead the work involves alcohol, as in the pieces of Luxury & Degradation. In short, Koons uses anything he can think of to lure you in.

But what is the message? The reality of Koons is that his message is as simple as Hirst’s—things are crazy around here. All of Koons’s pieces are about his own internal relationships with the world; his surfaces and seductions are no more than manifestations of his fascination with the new, and sometimes lost, attractions of his life. There is no mistake that things have gotten more elaborate as his clout has increased, but the work simply evolved to encompass the new realities. As Gabby Wood puts it in her profile of him in The Guardian from June 2, 2007, “in his case these [aphorisms] appear too earnest to be clichés, and he will tell you something similar about his work. It is not ironic. It is not kitsch. It’s optimistic. It exists in order to make people feel better about themselves. It—and all other objective art from Duchamp to Lichtenstein—is about ‘self-acceptance.’”

This isn’t to say that Koons is only interested in a vague acceptance of all things. He is just interested in honest and accurate self-acceptance of his interest in certain ideas. Jeff Koons preaches accepting the realities of money, fame and infamy, which is also why he needs the viewer to be similarly implicated. If everyone is also seduced, Koons’s ruminations are less of an outlier, and his self-acceptance can come full circle.

For all their similarities, Hirst and Koons are radically different artists. Though they both revel, and subsequently exploit, the excesses of the world, Koons remains hesitant to actually challenge anything substantive in his art. He is a reactionary artist, as the Baroque Counter-Reformation was a reaction to the Protestant heresies of the Reformation. One gets the sense that if he’d come of age fifty years ago, Koons would be at the vanguard of the conceptual movement, out-negating, and out-netting, all the other artists concerned with confronting the excesses and assumptions of pop art and abstract expressionism—he’s mutable.

Hirst, on the other hand, would probably be doing work pretty close to what he puts out now. He’s often labeled a conceptual artist, but it’s somewhat of a misnomer. Conceptual art is concerned with the primacy of the idea as a way to eliminate the conventions, “objecthood” and representation being the most salient, which traditionally made up art. But Hirst likes objects because they provoke reactions, and though his work revolves around ideas, they are expressed through these reactions (originally his own, and later those of the viewer). Hirst, not conventions he sees as useless or limiting, comes first: consider the mass auction he organized directly with Sotheby’s in 2008 instead of through the galleries that represent him and that bankrolled his most important first projects. The disavowal of representation persists in both Hirst and Koons work, however, and it is for this utter belief in the sanctity of themselves and their opinions that they most closely resemble the unflinching orthodoxy of organized religion.