Art is the ability to open up to others and to the world. Jeff Koons' unabridged lecture at the Academy of Carrara

The full lecture that Jeff Koons gave at the Academy of Fine Arts in Carrara on April 16, 2019.

We publish below the full transcript, translated from English, of the lectio that Jeff Koons gave on Tuesday, April 16, 2019 at the Academy of Fine Arts in Carrara on the occasion of the awarding of the title of Honorary Academician of the Carrara institution.

It is great to be here today, and it is exciting because we are all here to celebrate life and its becoming. I remember when I was a child, I was maybe three or four years old, I had an experience: my parents saw me drawing half-naked on the ground, and they said, “That’s good, keep it up.” I have a sister three years older, who was better at that time at everything: jumping rope, counting, talking, pronouncing even difficult words well. In short, she could do everything better than me, and when I drew, and my parents complimented me, I had the realization that I too had finally found my way and an area in which I could excel. This experience leads us back to the development of a sense of self, and perhaps each of us in one way or another has experienced something similar.

So, thanks to my parents, I took art classes until the end of high school, and in this way I learned to make drawings of flowers, landscapes, and things like that. But I had no idea what art could really be. Of course, I knew that art had rules (think perspective), however, could this be called art? In my opinion this is not art, but it is learning a technique. I went to the Academy in Baltimore, Maryland, and on one of the first days of school they took us by bus to visit the Baltimore Art Museum. When I saw the works in that famous collection, I realized that I knew nothing about art. For example, I did not know what the Baroque was, I had never heard of Cézanne and many other artists-that experience opened my eyes. And I realized that many of my peers did not survive that moment. The fact that I am here means that I succeeded: that is, I managed to understand that art is not technique, it is not knowledge, but it is what you can contribute to, with your creativity, your feeling, your personal history. Many aspiring artists have never learned to believe in themselves enough, they don’t let go, they don’t open up enough. But that’s the only important thing in approaching art: you have to open yourself completely to art, your story is your foundation. It is like the foundation of a building. You can’t use other people’s cultural backgrounds, you have to refer to your own and open yourself completely to art to be productive. There is nothing more satisfying than finding a foundation in yourself. And this experience, as I said, made me realize that I actually knew nothing about art. Like when one watches a soccer game: maybe you get excited, but you don’t understand anything about it. So I went back to the Academy strong in this knowledge, and I remember very well the first art history class of one of my professors, who further opened my eyes with a painting by Manet, Olympia. When my professor would start talking about how Manet had painted his Olympia, talking about the position of the Olympia, the folds, the symbolism, what was behind the bouquet of flowers or the black cat, he would make us understand the cultural and political references of nineteenth-century France. Art actually transcends, reconnects us to the rest of humanity, to all disciplines of human knowledge, psychology, sociology, history, philosophy, physics... everything is art, it’s something that allows you to embrace all disciplines and transcend them.

So I wanted to be a participant in art, I wanted to acquire a power, and to get there I began to develop a personal iconography, which for me is a vocabulary that allows you to control your own feelings and emotions. I have always loved Dada and surrealism, and when I was in college I was busy making images giving free expression to my dreams, from which I drew sources of inspiration. Also at that time I was very interested in Jung’s psychoanalysis and Nietzsche’s philosophy, which talked about an inner world, but I was aware that this world should not be explored as such. I already felt quite confident, so I rather wanted to open up to the outside world, to realize not an inner dialogue with myself, but a dialogue with the rest of the world. After the Academy of Fine Arts I moved to New York, and at that time my only artistic expression was painting. I had also learned to sculpt, but I had never actually tried my hand at sculpture. At some point I realized that my paintings began to be so heavy and large that the works hanging in my studio defied the laws of gravity, and by placing them directly on the ground they began to turn into sculptural works. And later I began to get into making works such as bunnies and inflatable flowers. But you don’t have to look at them as objects as such: they become works of art the moment they come into relationship with you, because they are made with mirrored surface, and depending on how you move you have different stimuli. The works stimulate, excite, move an interest, and the real art lies in what the works stimulate in you. This is what I was interested in finding. Also, the inflatables are related to human breath: they are therefore inflated with vital energy, and I was also fascinated by the dichotomy with death, represented by the moment when the balloons deflate.

After creating the inflatables, I created another series called The New, a reference to Duchamp’s ready-made, everyday objects that were not to be used, so that they would be new forever. In this case the first dichotomy is between the organic and the inorganic: we humans wear out, and the object that is not used instead remains there, whole, new. Of course there are many sources of inspiration (for example, I was in love with Cubism and Picasso), plus I had the advantage that I was very young. Every age has its beauty, and one of the most fantastic is yours. At your age, around 20-25, there is a different kind of intuition, which is very driven, there is a greater speed of thought, there is energy, there is enthusiasm to cultivate, and each of you should use this energy, because it is extraordinary and makes you feel alive. A real immersion in life.

That was the period when I cultivated this passion for ready-made: I worked until the late 1970s on inflatables and ready-mades, which represent a challenge, something that remains eternal, and makes us reflect on our vulnerability, on the fragility of us human beings. Then I realized that with The New series I had primarily given voice to a feminine world, but actually I also approached something more masculine by coming up with the Equilibrium cycle, with the empty basketballs submerged in a kind of aquarium, which remain perfectly balanced (and this from the mid-1980s). In addition to representing a masculine relationship with the object, Equilibrium is something metaphysical that refers us to a fetal life, to a life before birth, somewhat like the fetus in the womb, which can be something timeless, making us think about the here and now, the moment, but also about what happens after death. Also, going back to The New series, I also chose vacuum cleaners because they made us think of the 1950s, and that also made me think because I have always been interested in sales. When I was a kid I was also a salesman (I used to go door to door selling chocolate and wrapping paper), and what intrigued me most was the moment when the salesman knocks on the door. When you knocked on the door, you didn’t know who was going to open it: you didn’t know who was going to be there, you didn’t know if it was going to be a man or a woman, you didn’t know what smells were going to waft through the door, how the person was going to open the door. This contact with humanity for me was the beginning of the practice of acceptance and the ability to accept. Life is made up of so many mutual needs, of each other, there are not only one’s own-this awareness led me to the idea of Equilibrium.

And in making the various cycles, the various works, I always let go. When I created the inflatable rabbit, I had been following my interests, my desires, thinking about what made me curious, what excited me. And so I came across that figure that then became quite iconic for my art: the idea was to make something that exploded with generosity. Generosity is really important. Art is a generous activity; you have to be generous with yourself and with others to be an artist. We are nothing without generosity: it is true that art first of all satisfies one’s own needs for generosity, but then there is a pull, a higher drive, that leads you to satisfy the needs of the community, of others. It’s like bringing home so much food, knowing that then you can’t eat it all: isn’t it nicer to share it with others? Art is generosity. And objects are just a vehicle, regardless of what they may be and whether they may seem trivial, like the somewhat kitschy trinkets that maybe grandma kept on her nightstand. It doesn’t matter as long as it inspires something, makes you feel something, makes you feel good, makes you like it, let’s think of a childhood memory, for example, when as a child you would walk up to grandma’s nightstand to look at her trinkets. Grandma liked it, and you have a pleasant memory? This is art, it is the relationship you establish with objects and the feelings that this relationship arouses in you. This idea also gave rise to the Banality series, which I started working on in the 1980s, when I spent a lot of time in Italy. With this series I wanted to communicate to people that whatever their story is, that story is perfect, it’s always good. What matters is your body, your mind, what happens to you, getting in touch with your essence, that’s art. Art is the essence of your potential.

I realized something similar by going to visit churches and monasteries. It was an almost dramatic experience, you really felt transcendence, and I wanted my works to communicate in the same way. But I wanted everyone to experience such feelings, so I chose popular subjects that could communicate to everyone. To communicate, anything goes. One’s history, one’s past: we have to accept our history. We are who we are because of our past and our experience, and if there is something that arouses joy or pleasure in you, that is perfectly fine, because it reconnects us to spirituality and transcendence. We find all of this in, for example, Michael Jackson’s sculpture, which to me makes me think of Renaissance sculpture, with the pyramidal shapes reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Pieta, but also Tutankhamun, for example, and it certainly speaks to everyone because Michael Jackson is a popular figure. And with these works I wanted to speak in a way that elicits a feeling to everyone.

After Banality I worked on Made in Heaven and Puppy, a work depicting a little dog in giant form made from 65,000 different kinds of plants, which symbolize the many decisions you have to make when you have to do something. I was interested in this aspect related to control, how to keep everything under control but also how to let go of everything so that then nature takes over. Plants, once let go, are managed by nature. And here again the concept of polarity comes back: keep everything under control and then let it go. Kind of like our little dog when he comes to us when we come home, who is under our control because we call him, but he still exerts his will and is free not to come to us if he wants to.

Related to this reasoning is also the idea that art is not only that created by the artist, but also that created by those who enjoy the work of art. It is up to the viewer to complete what is behind a work. As an artist, you have the ability to create a context and bring someone toward a certain point of view, but you have to do it so that a point of view arouses something in the viewer, which completes the work according to its potential. This all points back to the aspects of control. Control is not a totally negative thing: if we did not act on ourselves with control and discipline we would not know how to do anything. Control is a polarity, and there is always an area where control is not possible: this area is human relationships. And art is also the ability to reflect on human relationships.

The concept of polarity also emerges from the Balloon Dog, the balloon-shaped inflatable. We know that it is made of a material that does not last very long, it is not something made to last for example. In itself, it has a symbolic value, which reminds me of the philosopher John Dewey, who describes life as an organism influenced by the outside world, but not uniquely, but biunivocally. The balloon is a symbol of optimism, but it also represents us; it has so many meanings and so many references, going all the way back to prehistory, that speak to us of discovery and observation. Each of us has our own vocabulary that we have to find and carry around and develop and realize. To me, for example, the inflatable rabbit reminds me of Queen Nefertiti with her very stylized and almost regal profile. The same goes for the sculpture that reproduces a giant Play-Doh: it is not definable, but it reminds me of a game my son Ludwig played, to whom I gave a lot of plasticine, and he one day created a quite shapeless mound, which reminded me of a work of art. This aspect also refers us back to the idea of suspending judgment: I tried to replicate it (almost as if it were my son teaching me) by making something like that but very large, having to do with the 20th century,abstract art and Freudian psychoanalysis.

Another work I would like to mention is the Antiquities series, which refers to my love of 18th-century ceramics. What I like about this stainless steel work is that it plays on gradations of hues, which also change depending on the point of view, and is therefore a work that is activated the moment you look at it. For me it also represents time, it made me think of when I was a kid and I used to eat cornflakes and cereal and I would be enchanted looking at the packaging, the gradations of colors on the box stimulated my imagination. Kind of like music, it’s like music expressed visually: music makes you forget time, because the moment you are caught up in listening you forget time, and I want to represent that with this work.

All the works I have talked about so far were ready mades, mundane, everyday, familiar objects. However, we have to go further: these works represent the fact that in my opinion we have to suspend judgment, remove it from our vocabulary, eliminate hierarchies. This allows us first to accept ourselves and open up to others, and later to accept others. Art means suspending judgment to celebrate people. This is also the role of the artist: to arouse the ability to open up to others. There are people who think they do that but actually don’t do it out of fear and make fun of themselves. At the Academy many of my classmates, I would say 90 percent of them, didn’t continue this kind of study anymore because they didn’t really open up to art, they were afraid. I, on the other hand, always try to look around, and in order not to lose everything I have to accept everything, myself and others. This is art: the ability to open up to others and to the world. Art allows me to seek a dialogue, a physical involvement, like when I visit Baroque works (for example at the Sansevero Chapel in Naples, or the works of Bernini). Art is part of ourselves, our DNA, it is our cultural life, it is a continuous dialogue. Art also changes us on a genetic level, it affects us in a profound and total way. These cultural lines change our lives and flow alongside us making us different people than we are. Art celebrates the past, the contemporary and the future; art helps us find meaning in life. I, with my art, have always tried to be a participant. And that I think means to be a contemporary artist.

Art is the ability to open up to others and to the world. Jeff Koons' unabridged lecture at the Academy of Carrara
Art is the ability to open up to others and to the world. Jeff Koons' unabridged lecture at the Academy of Carrara

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