Art Market

Jeff Koons on What Artists and Corporations Can Do for One Another

Anna Louie Sussman
Jun 19, 2018 8:23PM

A general view at the “LVxKOONS” exhibition at Musee du Louvre in 2017. Photo by Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images.

At the annual David Rockefeller Lecture on Arts and Business each year in New York, a prominent business leader expounds on the “vital connection between arts and business,” according to the program.

This year’s lecture, which took place earlier this month at an auditorium just off Central Park, featured Jeff Koons, who has worked with numerous corporations, ranging from H&M to BMW. Yet even Koons, the poster boy for marrying art and commerce, was coy on the connection between the two. He launched his lecture by acknowledging that he was supposed to talk about arts and business, but had decided instead to talk only about his art.

By contrast, the business world couldn’t have rushed to tout its art credentials more. Robert L. Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts, which hosts the annual lecture, opened the evening by touting the economic impact of the cultural sector in the U.S., noting it accounts for 3.48 million jobs and 4 percent of all U.S. businesses.

Laurent Gaveau, who heads Google’s Cultural Institute, could have talked all night about how the internet giant is using its technological capacity to digitize the art world and connect it with ever-broader audiences. He made the audience gasp when he showed how Google’s powerful cameras captured tiny details of a Marc Chagall ceiling mural at the Palais Garnier. One such detail was a delicately painted family, executed with simple brushstrokes, the woman holding an infant over her shoulders. It was a detail that even Chagall’s own son had never before seen until he came into Google’s labs and “spotted himself as a young baby,” said Gaveau, evoking a chorus of sentimental “awws” from the audience.

The only point in Koons’s lecture in which he briefly addressed commerce was during a discussion of his “Luxury and Degradation” body of work from the mid-1980s, a series of works in which he toyed with his observation that products marketed to low-income consumers are more explicit, while the advertising for luxury products become abstract. It was a warning, he said, “not to fall for luxury, because eventually, you’d be set up for degradation.”

That raised the question of how to think of art, which is regularly advertised to the highest-income consumers in the world, in the abstract language of wall texts or catalogue entry, the linguistic spun sugar that famed dealer Leo Castelli referred to as “myth-making.” After the lecture, Koons disputed that art was a luxury product.

“To me art is not a luxury,” he said. “If you acquire work, and I acquire works, I collect works, it’s really taking on a responsibility to try to preserve that work for future generations. I believe in it as a vessel of information that’s relevant to us as human beings.”

To prove his point, he gestured at his outfit, an elegant navy suit, adding, “I don’t wear any bling!”

But standing next to him, in a crowd of fans patiently waiting for a signature from him or a selfie with him, was a woman holding a signature bit of Koons bling: It was a Louis Vuitton “Masters” bag, a collaboration between Koons and the luxury retailer that featured masterworks of art history on the purse’s exterior, with a brief biography and note on the work in its interior.

To Koons, that handbag symbolized the marriage of art and business at its best. Through Louis Vuitton and his collaborations with other businesses, Koons is able to “to touch a larger mass of people and have them involved with the dialogue of art,” he said. “With the Master’s collection, people would be able to come into contact [with] art and how artists enjoy and reference each other,” he said, noting that they could look inside the bag and learn about the artist—though, arguably, one could obtain that information (“Born near Florence on April 15, 1452, Leonardo da Vinci is history’s primary example of the universal genius”) and a good deal more without ponying up a couple of thousand dollars.

Koons cited other ways artists and corporations can benefit one another, beyond the creation of novel consumer goods. In a conversation between him, Gaveau, and Julie C. Muraco, founder of investment consultancy Praeditis Group LLC, Koons described work he had done with the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT, working with materials and fabrication techniques. Artists, he said, always want to push boundaries, and through their creativity, they can help businesses invent things and become more efficient.

As an artist, Koons said, “you automatically go to the edge of what’s possible in that area and you start pushing to realize other things—to have the materials be more durable, to be able to make something more reflective, or have the colors be more transparent.…That’s why I think the arts are very beneficial to industry, because the artists are focusing on these interests and trying to push materials and other ideas to their limits.”

With his trademark magnanimity, Koons described business as a force for good—for humanism, even, whose impact can help amplify the message of artists who choose to collaborate with companies.

“I think as artists, we care about people, we care about the community, we care about each other, and so it gives an opportunity to be able to share those values with people,” he said.

But, surely, aren’t there are businesses that don’t share the values of artists? Nan Goldin, for example, staged a protest against the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, the makers of the opioid OxyContin, at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in March. Koons didn’t offer any suggestions to artists when deciding which companies to collaborate with. (“I try to do things that I believe are really in the service of my work,” he had said to Muraco during the three-person panel.)

“I think artists have to make their own decisions,” he said with a polite smile, as he turned back to his crowd of fans.

Anna Louie Sussman