Society

Jeff Koons, Mastering The Art Of Artificiality

American artist Jeff Koons wows again in a new exhibit at the Beyeler Foundation outside Basel, Switzerland. Divided into three parts – the new, banality and celebration – the show is unapologetically trite but wholly seductive.

Konrad Tobler

BASEL - There was a time when he had to work as a broker to finance his art. Today, Jeff Koons is one of the hottest contemporary artists, and his art has been crowned with a new show at Switzerland's ultra-prestigious Beyeler Foundation outside Basel.

The 57-year-old American artist has called some of his production a Trojan horse -- and when looking at any of Koons' work it's easy to imagine that he uses his art as a kind of trick to subvert commonly-accepted assessments of value and quality.

Playing tricks on art was considered shocking when Koons started out. Many critics had a go at his work, calling it trite and banal. But by now everybody knows that what emerges from his Trojan horses is banality, even the enshrinement of the banal. And Koons himself has become one of the most famous artists of our time. His name is arguably as well-known as Picasso's.

Other things that tumble out of Koons's Trojan horses are the iconic, the monumental, the smooth, the mirror-like, the Baroque, and the highly artificial – all with a Pop Art feel. Yet once that list of components comprising the artist's universe has been compiled, something else becomes apparent: it's not that simple. Which doesn't mean you have to like it – but it does mean that Jeff Koons's art is worth checking out in a new light.

Artist as seducer

Walking through the exhibition at the Beyeler Foundation, another characteristic becomes spontaneously apparent: Koons is a seducer – and a cool one, no doubt about that. And that isn't a reference to his "Made in Heaven" sex games series featuring then-playmate Ilona Staller, a.k.a Italian porn star Cicciolina. Those scandalous bits of art are nowhere to be seen in the Beyeler show and it's no loss.

The exhibit focuses on three big groups of work: "The New" (1980–1987), "Banality" (1988) and "Celebration" (since 1994). What's striking is just how many of these works have somehow ironed themselves into our visual vocabulary even if we've never actually seen the originals before.

What that means is that Koons's highly mediatized work has already found its place in the collective consciousness. He has successfully achieved his mission of creating art for everybody: according to him, "art should have as big a political impact as the entertainment industry, movies, pop music and advertising." Just what political concept underlies the gilt porcelain figure of Michael Jackson with his chimpanzee Bubbles is unclear – but what is very clear, is that the sculpture is as well-known as Jackson's songs.

Jeff Koons has the fascinating ability to appropriate things and insert them into a new context of values. Take the images of Hoover vacuum cleaners belonging to "The New" group. He somehow manages to take the admittedly attractive forms of these everyday items and -- by combining them with very precisely placed neon tube lighting -- turn them into minimalist sculptures. Without these transformations of the ready-made leading the way, the art of somebody like Damien Hirst would be unfathomable.

A strong sense of concept

In "Banality," Koons celebrates the cult of the banal by turning kitsch (or what commonly passes for it) into art. Here the trickster reappears in the deliberately ill-interpreted appropriation of the work of Marcel Duchamps. Koons's pleasure at provocation is heightened by giving it a Baroque twist to the point of sometimes imbuing the work with a sacred quality.

"I use Baroque to show that we are in the realm of the spiritual, the eternal," says Koons. "The Church used Baroque to manipulate and seduce, but in return it gave people a spiritual experience."

It's also entirely possible that Koons uses words like "spiritual" and "eternal" in a Trojan way too, banalizing them the way he does his objects: the things he says tend to be similarly smooth and excessive. But there's a system to it, and despite all the hype and glamour, a strong sense of concept.

Smooth, mirror-like, excessive characterize the third and most exciting group, "Celebration." Here we see Koons not only as a sculptor and a painter but as a technologist: complex technology is used to create this art. It is very far from the mass-produced, and takes a long time to produce after considerable development and experimentation. But unlike early 20th century Futurists, Koons isn't using this technical perfection to celebrate the beauty of a racing car or a bomb: he celebrates the beauty of balloons shaped like dogs, fake Easter eggs, and artificial flowers.

The sheer size of these harmless items turns them into benign monsters, and stretches the concept of sculpture. They mirror not only themselves but the space, visitors, light, architecture -- one thing becomes many, and the final effect is highly seductive.

Rounding out the show are some large paintings -- slices of pie, fake tulips, party hats -- that work along the same principle of hyper-perfection and reveal something quintessential about Koons's art: the beauty of banality has become a fetish.

Until September 2, 2012 at Fondation Beyeler www.fondationbeyeler.ch.

Read the original article in German

Photo - ocad123

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Economy

Merkel's Legacy: The Rise And Stall Of The German Economy

How have 16 years of Chancellor Angela Merkel changed Germany? The Chancellor accompanied the country's rise to near economic superpower status — and then progress stalled. On technology and beyond, Germany needs real reforms under Merkel's successor.

Chancellor Angela Merkel looks at the presentation of the current 2 Euro commemorative coin ''Brandenburg''

Daniel Eckert

BERLIN — Germans are doing better than ever. By many standards, the economy broke records during the reign of outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel: private households' financial assets have climbed to a peak; the number of jobs recorded a historic high before the pandemic hit at the beginning of 2020; the GDP — the sum of all goods and services produced in a period — also reached an all-time high.

And still, while the economic balance sheet of Merkel's 16 years is outstanding if taken at face value, on closer inspection one thing catches the eye: against the backdrop of globalization, Europe's largest economy no longer has the clout it had at the beginning of the century. Germany has fallen behind in key sectors that will shape the future of the world, and even the competitiveness of its manufacturing industries shows unmistakable signs of fatigue.

In 2004, a year before Merkel was first elected Chancellor, the British magazine The Economist branded Germany the "sick man of Europe." Ironically, the previous government, a coalition of center-left and green parties, had already laid the foundations for recovery with some reforms. Facing the threat of high unemployment, unions had held back on wage demands.

"Up until the Covid-19 crisis, Germany had achieved strong economic growth with both high and low unemployment," says Michael Holstein, chief economist at DZ Bank. However, it never made important decisions for its future.

Another economist, Jens Südekum of Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, offers a different perspective: "Angela Merkel profited greatly from the preparatory work of her predecessor. This is particularly true regarding the extreme wage restraint practiced in Germany in the early 2000s."

Above all, Germany was helped in the first half of the Merkel era by global economic upheaval. Between the turn of the millennium and the 2011-2012 debt crisis, emerging countries, led by China, experienced unprecedented growth. With many German companies specializing in manufacturing industrial machines and systems, the rise of rapidly industrializing countries was a boon for the country's economy.

Germany dismissed Google as an over-hyped tech company.

Digital competitiveness, on the other hand, was not a big problem in 2005 when Merkel became chancellor. Google went public the year before, but was dismissed as an over-hyped tech company in Germany. Apple's iPhone was not due to hit the market until 2007, then quickly achieved cult status and ushered in a new phase of the global economy.

Germany struggled with the digital economy, partly because of the slow expansion of internet infrastructure in the country. Regulation, lengthy start-up processes and in some cases high taxation contributed to how the former economic wonderland became marginalized in some of the most innovative sectors of the 21st century.

Volkswagen's press plant in Zwickau, Germany — Photo: Jan Woitas/dpa/ZUMA

"When it comes to digitization today, Germany has a lot of catching up to do with the relevant infrastructure, such as the expansion of fiber optics, but also with digital administration," says Stefan Kooths, Director of the Economic and Growth Research Center at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW Kiel).

For a long time now, the country has made no adjustments to its pension system to ward off the imminent demographic problems caused by an increasingly aging population. "The social security system is not future-proof," says Kooths. The most recent changes have come at the expense of future generations and taxpayers, the economist says.

Low euro exchange rates favored German exports

Nevertheless, things seemed to go well for the German economy at the start of the Merkel era. In part, this can be explained by the economic downturn caused by the euro debt crisis of 2011-2012. Unlike in the previous decade, the low euro exchange rate favored German exports and made money flow into German coffers. And since then-European Central Bank president Mario Draghi's decision to save the euro "whatever it takes" in 2012, this money has become cheaper and cheaper.

In the long run, these factors inflated the prices of real estate and other sectors but failed to contribute to the future viability of the country. "With the financial crisis and the national debt crisis that followed, economic policy got into crisis mode, and it never emerged from it again," says DZ chief economist Holstein. Policy, he explains, was geared towards countering crises and maintaining the status quo. "The goal of remaining competitive fell to the background, as did issues concerning the future."

In the traditional field of manufacturing, the situation deteriorated significantly. The Institut der Deutschen Wirtschaft (IW), which regularly measures and compares the competitiveness of industries in different countries, recently concluded that German companies have lost many of the advantages they had gained. The high level of productivity, which used to be one of the country's strengths, faltered in the years before the pandemic.

Kooths, of IfW Kiel, points out that private investment in the German economy has declined in recent years, while the "government quota" in the economy, which describes the amount of government expenditure against the GDP, grew significantly during Merkel's tenure, from 43.5% in 2005 to 46.5% in 2019. Kooths concludes that: "Overall, the state's influence on economic activity has increased significantly."

Another very crucial aspect of competitiveness, at least from the point of view of skilled workers and companies, has been neglected by German politics for years: taxes and social contributions. The country has among the highest taxes on income in Europe, and corporate taxes are also hardly as high as in Germany anywhere in the industrialized world. "In the long run, high tax rates always come at the expense of economic dynamism and can even prevent new companies from being set up," warns Kooths.

Startups can renew an economy and lay the foundation for future prosperity. Between the year 2000 and the Covid-19 crisis, fewer and fewer new companies were created every year. Economists from left to right are unanimous: Angela Merkel is leaving behind a country with considerable need for reform.

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We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!
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