Jeff Koons x Louis Vuitton: An Internal Debate

29 November 2017

By Cassandra Langenskiöld - Jeff Koons is a name that may escape your lips when discussing kitsch, and you may certainly be familiar with his large-scale sculptures of shiny balloon animals and suspended basketballs in glass vitrines. He also became the most expensive living artist in 2013 when his Balloon Dog (Orange) sold for $58.4 million. His art, and his personality, is somewhere on the verge of being intentionally market-driven yet somewhat enigmatic, leading many to theorize whether what we see is really art, or a strange variety of self-branding.

This spring, with the most recent editions released this autumn, Jeff Koons collaborated with fashion conglomerate Louis Vuitton on a series of bags entitled ‘Masters’. The collection includes a large range of Louis Vuitton’s signature bag models with masterpieces by ‘great’ artists such as Turner, Manet, Van Gogh and Rubens. The most memorable paintings include Claude Monet’s Waterlilies and, of course, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. The exteriors of the bags portray reproduced masterpieces chosen by Koons, together with the traditional Louis Vuitton embellishments in gold. Koons has also added his own initials in mimicry of the ‘LV’ monogram, as well as rabbit-shaped keyrings in an overt nod to his infamous balloon sculptures. The interior linings of the bags include a short biography about the artist and selected painting.

Many reviews and personal opinions, expressed both on social media and in numerous publications, reprimand Koons and Louis Vuitton for slandering these masterpieces and reproducing great works in the form of commercial consumer goods. However, the aspect of the collaboration that is most disconcerting is not Koons’ ‘disgracing’ of the paintings; in fact, the mingling of high and low culture has not only been historically explored within the arts, but exposes classical masterpieces to individuals who rarely interact with them. It is undoubtedly the case that many people feel almost alienated from classical, and even contemporary, art. ‘Masters’ is a simple and effective way for Louis Vuitton to engage a broader audience with older, more classical art. And yes, obviously, Louis Vuitton products are only affordable or even imaginable for very few individuals. This is especially the case as the ‘Masters’ collection is only available in a handful of selected stores, unavailable for purchase even online (Koons, with his trademark social unawareness, pointed out “well, they can walk by the windows of Louis Vuitton and enjoy them.”). But even social media exposure does something; it connects people with the art, even if not in a traditional or institutional way. People, rightly so, become fascinated when art is fused with something they know; in this case, it is handbags, which millions of people around the world use on a daily basis.

But where this collaboration takes an unfortunate turn is the actual aesthetic of the bags; they are simply not beautiful. They look like expensive versions of cheap tourist products you could buy on the side of a dingy street on summer holiday.

It also fails to communicate as original, though not in an intended way. Though there exists a complex mind-set towards Koons’ art, it can be appreciated that his approach to art-making was, and to an extent still is, establishing discourse about the nature of art. Are they art objects, or are they simply part of the market? Is Koons an artist, or is he a very skilful businessman? And does an artist need to be one or the other? The styling of the bags is quite unexpected, with garish reds and purples mixed with the subdued stokes of the paintings; however, there is still something missing. There is nothing that seems tremendously original, new or thought-provoking. It is simply a reproduction, and Louis Vuitton is selling extremely overpriced prints. It is, dare I say it, boring.

Even the act of reproducing great masterpieces is no longer considered extremely shocking or even thought-provoking. We live in an age of reproduction, and images are constantly being reused and remodelled. Perhaps the lacking element of this collaboration is that Koons choose the most predictable works of art: Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, Klimt’s The Kiss, and Manet’s Dejeuner sur L’Herbe. How many times have we walked past a stand selling Mona Lisa tote bags and iPhone cases?

And this is where the real debate comes in; is this Koons’ purpose, or did it his message get lost in translation somewhere? Koons’ oeuvre is generally comprised of elevating the banal, and selling it for millions at that. Is that what this is? But in an interview with the New York Times (Friedman, 2017), Koons seems to have taken this project surprisingly seriously. “They touch on the metaphysical: the right here right now and its connection to the past and the future. They’re about shine, the basics of philosophy, passion, what it means to be a human, what it means to be an animal, the idea of transcendence...working on this, I felt a sense of my own potential, and the sharing of that with a large community…it’s a great platform for communication.” Is the picture we are getting something completely unintentional?

Another misstep with this collaboration is that Koons has failed to include even a single female artist. While it is indisputably true that many significant works in the artistic canon (that is, the traditionally accepted, linear art history) are indeed white Western males, that does not mean that Koons had to stick to that explicit theme. But, in a perfectly hideous and ironic way, it all ties together; Koons, a white, Western male artist, chooses ten white, Western male artists to create a collection with a white, Western male-pioneered fashion brand.

You either love it or hate it. 

You can find the collection here.

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