Monday, September 1, 2014

Jeff Koons: Luxury and Degradation

Jeff Koons is most known for being one of the most controversial, prolific, important artists of the postwar, modern art era. In his career, he has pushed limits and boundaries of mass media and culture, as well as critique globally accepted ideologies and celebrity cult culture. Focuses of his work are generally exploitation of the masses and banality of media, culture, and status symbols.

This summer, I visited the most recent Koons exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York City. This exhibition featured a large spread of different mediums in which Koons sheds valuable light on western culture dating from past to present. The most intriguing portion of Jeff Koons’s work for me was his expositions of 20th century liquor ads. Luxury and Degradation is a series of advertisements that are simply showcased without any editing, frames, or interference, which leaves interpretation of the media to the observer. In other words, the ads speak for themselves.

At first glance, a consumer sees the product, image, and perhaps the slogan. But upon further analysis each advertisement holds an underlying image or message that plays on the subconscious mind. People will see different things in each picture, but whether intentional or not, the images hold deeper meaning about unhealthy subcultural practices and values, than it does the actual product being advertised.

In my opinion, the Hennessy print ad commands most attention because of the blatant misogyny of the slogan, image and context. Buried even deeper, is the double entendre that shows the female temptress who has the power to get a man to do what she wants by using alcohol and seduction. These things combined with the underlying implications that drinking this particular alcoholic beverage will bestow people with the power to “lay down the law.” This ad can be analysed as follows:

Setting: A young Black couple interacts in a modest, warm environment that is painted with a soothing dark orange light (similar color to the Hennessy Cognac itself). An unmade, rumpled bed is visible through the doorway, denoting an intimate arrangement between the couple.
Foreground: The room is the man’s office, and contains all the components of a masculine and civilized environment. The space is well ordered with many books, a telephone, and a desk lamp. Every item is in its appropriate place, indicating the perfect arrangement.

Subject: The male figure looks sophisticated, studious and fully dressed in a civilized sweater over a dress shirt. The ad implies he may be an attorney. He looks smart and in control as he is reading the large book in front of him. The woman, maybe his wife, has interrupted him and offered him a nightcap.

Object: The scantily clad and alluring female is sitting on top of the man's desk, wearing what appears to be his large shirt or sweater. Her legs are bare and crossed, and she is serving him a glass of Hennessey. She is provocative while tempting him away from his work.

Outcome: In one way, “Lay down the law" denotes disciplining your wife by being a dominant male and using alcohol to do it. Drinking Hennessy cognac with a woman means she will let her guard down, and allow the man to show her who is boss. It also means that she has what it takes to distract him from his work or studies by tempting him using stereotypical, performative, female practices. Either way, the couple uses Hennessy as a means to a sexual end. It provides a conduit to achieving power for both the male and the female – and this is illustrated through the advertisement's use of stereotypical and cultural motifs that play on peoples' subconscious desires for success AND successful sex.