• Christopher R. Inwood


Art and Pop Culture

Works of art deemed to be ‘high art’ have been highly perpetuated throughout history,

however over the past generation, ‘high art’ has been seen to dissolve into ‘popular culture’.

According to philosopher David Novitz (1945), this divide has never been present within works of art,

as it was the audiences that determined they were different.1 This collapse of ‘high art’ into popular

culture has occurred because of the effects neo-liberalism has had on the class-liberation of the

contemporary arts audiences. The artwork Puppy (1992) by Jeff Koons will be used to exemplify the

impact that economic neo-liberalism has had on the globe, as well as its impact on the way in which

an artist creates artwork and its interaction with audiences.

Throughout history ‘high art’ has been known as many things, including: ‘highbrow’; ‘insider

art’; ‘art’; and ‘autonomous art’, however ‘high art’ will be used throughout this piece. ‘High art’ was

described by the art historian Julian Stallabrass in 1999 as art done by someone that went to art

school, and it is this reference to schooling and education that provided the artist with the

accreditation to be of the ‘high art’ institution as well as a creator of it.2 ‘Popular culture’ too goes by

many descriptions and definitions, and has been described by the anthropologist and linguistic

professor Marcel Danesi (born 1946) as a lower form of art that provides no profundity on what it is

to exist, and is predominantly reactionary to existence.3 For the general population, the buying

power of ‘popular culture’ has been expanding since the 1920s through a beneficial relation to

technology, media and business.4 This generation has seen the eruption of a debate between the

1 Novitz, David. 1989. Ways of artmaking: The high and the popular in art. British Journal of Aesthetics 29 (3): 213.

2 “By far the most successful definition – though still imperfect – is to say that art is something done by those who went to art school. The closed shop operates with remarkable effectiveness, and you will find very, very few artists endorsed by the gallery system, private or public, who have not been through an accredited course.5” Julian Stallabrass, High ArtLite: British Art in the 1990s, Verso, London, 1999. P 130

3 “Most anthropologists would define culture as a means of organizing and stabilizing communal life through specific beliefs, rituals, rites, performances, art forms, symbols, language, clothing, food, music, dance, and any other mode of human expressive, intellectual, and communicative behaviour that is associated with a group of people at a particular period of time. In Western tradition, it is common to subdivide culture into high and low, according to historically based perceptions associated with aesthetic movements. High culture is considered to be a form of culture that purportedly has a more profound import on human life than does low culture, which is seen as simply recreational and perhaps even base.” Danesi, Marcel, and Ebooks Corporation. 2015. Popular culture: Introductory perspectives. Third ed. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. P 2

4 “Pop culture alludes, on the other hand, to a form of culture that makes little, if any, such categorical distinctions. Its emergence in the 1920s was due, in large part, to unexpected affluence, which gave people in the mass, regardless of class or educational background, considerable buying power. Its spread was made possible by an ever-expanding and ever-reinforcing media-technology-business partnership. Since then, it has played a pivotal role in the overall evolution of American society (and virtually every other modernsociety).” Danesi, Marcel, and Ebooks Corporation. 2015. Popular culture: Introductory perspectives. Third ed. Lanham: Rowman &

Littlefield. P 2


classification of high art and low art, art and non-art, lowbrow art and highbrow art, insider art and

outsider art, and autonomous art and art. The aesthetic of the art object has been commonly used

to try distinguishing one art work from another through a changing ‘environment’ of development,

resulting in a classification of either ‘high art’ or of ‘pop culture’. These classifications of art are

somewhat meaningless, as the object exists in neither state outside of all aesthetic, and can only be

classified until a human, of mind, spectates the artwork to then classify it into either category. 5

Philosopher Novitz suggests that audiences are the solely responsible for the classification of art,

and further suggests that these classifications are effectively a way for the ‘ruling’ class to maintain

control of the subjects discussed within the art, as any subject with a ‘pop culture’ title is often

vulgarised and deemed unworthy. 6 7 This separation between ‘high art’ and ‘pop culture’ has now

predominantly homogenised due to a series of contributing factors, however neo-liberal economics

has had a substantial affect upon the contemporary world and is one of the strongest contributors to

the homogenisation of these audiences.

Neo-liberalism has shaped the approach of government policies since the 1970s, and has

spread across the western world, lead by the American super power and big business.8 These

policies are grounded in the assumption that the governments cannot create economic growth or

provide social welfare and in its stead, private companies and philanthropy can provide this growth

and welfare through relaxation of government’s market regulation.9 Neo-liberalist polices were

implemented to re-establish profitability and control in reaction to the worldwide capitalist crisis

and the growing popularity of socialism, which had undercut the capitalists’ profits and its control of

5 “In particular, (Novitz) denies that there are any substantive aesthetic differences between popular artworks and high art.” "High Art vs.Low Art," in Routledge Companion to Aesthetics 2nd ed. B. Gaut & D. Lopes (London: Routledge Press, 2005), pp. 527-540.

6 “It is merely a matter of social convention to differentiate them.”…” Novitz notes that the customary way of ascribing a higher status to high art and a lower status to popular art is to argue that there are systematic diffrences between works in the respective categories. Yet’“there are neither formal nor affective properties which distinguish the high from the popular in art” (1992:24), nor is there an essential difference in the way works are produced, such as the difference between the individualgenius and a production team. "High Art vs. Low Art," in Routledge Companion to Aesthetics 2nd ed. B. Gaut & D. Lopes (London: Routledge Press, 2005), pp. 527-540.

7 “Since there is no substantive aesthetic difference between low and high artwork, Novitz suggest that the distinction is artificial and constructed to serve a political function, namely to make art avoid political, moral and economic issues, in short, high art, the only acceptable art. High art is art that does not threaten the intresets of the dominant Classes.” B. Gaut & D. Lopes . London: Routledge Press, 2005."High Art vs. Low Art," in Routledge Companion to Aesthetics 2nd ed, pp. 527-540.

8 Bockman, Johanna. 2013. Neoliberalism Context. 12.3. p. 14-15

9 Idib p.14


the economy.10 These policies brought together world markets and powerful states, opening the

world to the capitalist nature of business.11 These private companies developed a world through

which they can profit and not be restrained by the powers of government, and this spread has

created a global free market for private companies and corporations to dominate.

Neo-liberalism economics has helped create the economic environment of the ‘free market’,

which has affected the way the art world operates, as it has been steadily re-privatising since 1985,

and examples of this privatisation include the Saatchi Gallery, Francois Pinault collection Venice,

Leeum Samsung Museum of Art Seoul.12 The privatisation of the contemporary art world, collectors

and Museums has mirrored the early founding and patronage of the early renaissance period, which

allowed the institutionalised ‘high art’ of the renaissance to be exposed to a public audience and

reshaped the boundaries of ‘high art’ and ‘pop culture’.13 This dilution of class was furthered

throughout the 1990s, where the ‘high art’ audience’s ability to govern the art object and its ‘value’

was been reduced as a result of the privatised audience and its need to please these audiences in

accordance with a consumerist ethic.14 This shift in the founding of, and implementations of

contemporary art in reaction to the neoliberalist global structure has freed art audiences from the

dominance of the previous ‘high art’ artists, audiences and their institutions. Class liberation has

been described by the art historian Terry Smith as one of the key contributors to the art of

‘contemporaneity ‘.15 The new neo-liberal founders of art uphold their ethics of capitalist business

practise and implement it in their own institution, aiming to appeal to the masses through

propagation of art that is a spectacle, advertised, of positive imagery, uses popular imagery, and that

is accessible no matter your ability as a previous ‘high art’/’pop culture’ audience member. The

10 Idib p14

11 “Philosopher Michel Foucault agreed that neoliberalism brings together markets and powerful states, but he argued that what makes these states truly neoliberal is using the market to govern, distributing services and benefits according to the market logic of efficiency, competitiveness, and profitability.” Idib p 14-15

12 Barikin, Amelia. ARTPOP: ART, DESIGN AND CONSUMER CULTURE. Lecture, University of Queensland, Brisbane, 23 March 2016.

13 Idib

14 “as Paul A. Trout notes “consumerism Implies that the desires of the customer reign supreme (‘customer sovereignty’) and that the customer should be easily satisfied (how hard should a consumer have to work at buying something?).” Potts, Michael. 2005. The consumerist subversion of education, Academic Questions. 18. 3 p.54

15 Class liberation has been a key contributor of contemporaneity as “the inequity among peoples, classes, and individuals is now so accelerated that it threatens both the desires for domination entertained by states, ideologies, and religions and the persistent dreams of liberation that continue to inspire individuals and peoples.” Smith, Terry. 2009. What is contemporary art?. Chicago;London;: The University of Chicago Press. P6


viewer of artwork is treated like a customer in a shop, however this shop has developed out of Noeliberal

policies and its products are created through capitalist production methods, and the viewer is

treated in accordance with the consumerist ethic.

Cracked Egg 1995–1999

Jeff Koons

Oil on canvas

128 x 99 5/16 inches, 325.1 x 252.3 cm

The artwork of Jeff Koons began to change after 1992 as he started drawing on experiences

with neo-liberal economics, and as a result, produced artworks that encouraged the divide between

‘high art’ and ‘pop culture’ to collapse.16 Koons was exposed to neo-liberal corporations and

economics during his time as a stockbroker on Wall Street and as a membership salesman at the

Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York in 1977. 17 18 His experience on Wall Street taught

16 “Koons shifted the mood of his artwork to more light---hearted themes, from more serious topics such as consumption and sexuality. With this change, he instantly found success with the exhibition of Puppy in 1992.” Harker, Elizabeth. 2011. Jeff Koons. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. P1

17 In 1977 “Immediately he gained employment at the Museum of Modern Art in membership sales. He was tremendously successful at his job at the museum. He increased new memberships, encouraged members to renew, and also increased member donations. Harker, Elizabeth. 2011. Jeff koons.ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. p. 19

18 He left the museum to work on Wall Street, where he sold mutual funds and commodities. During this time he sharpened his business and advertising skills. Koons praised his former profession in a statement he made in The Jeff Koons Handbook” Idib P.20


Koons that salesmen communicate the real morality of society as they work under the neo-liberal

capitalist credo of consumerism of pushing for their private outcomes (sales and profit).19 His time at

MOMA taught him how to please large demographics through the power of attention and

eccentricity, and he applied these skills to contribute to the private gain of MOMA (sales and

profit).20 Koons later developed an art that was forged from these experiences with the market,

which is aimed to please all his consumers, high and low. 21 Koons’ work aims to please

internationally and is physically created by his production house, which facilitates the class liberation

of his audiences, as the work is targeted at all audiences not just ‘pop culture’ or ‘high art’ but

everything in-between. Alone a multi-audience artwork may not please the ‘high art’ audiences as it

shifts the power away from their institutions and beliefs, however, the interaction of Koons’ art

practice with neo-liberal economics, capitalist business practise, and consumerist ethics negated the

need for the approval or funding of the ‘high art’ institutions. His instalment of the work Puppy

(1992) at the nearby Arolsen Castle forced the Documenta 9 audience to pay attention to his art

brand and shifted the attention of the show.22 This instalment mirrors neo-liberal business practices

as the project was funded entirely by Koons and two of his collectors, which meant that it undercut

his competitors at Documenta 9 for attention, kept all his consumers happy, and worked as great

advertising for the ‘Jeff Koons Art Business’.

Koons’ studio is comprised of artists that create his works, as he is the ‘ideas man’ rather

than the creator, or as Grace McQuilten would describe it a ‘designer’. 23 24 This structure is not new

19 “Salesmen are today’s great communicators. They are out there pushing cars, real estate, advertising. That is where the real morality is played out in society today.” Jeff Koons and Robert Rosenblum, The Jeff Koons Handbook. (New York: Rizzoli, 1992) p. 12

20 “As a sales technique to gain donations, Koons adorned himself with sequins and wore a thin mustache to draw attention toward him. By utilizing this method of marketing himself and adopting an eccentric persona with the accompanying costume he changed the mundane act of donating money into a more enthusiastic experience.” Harker, Elizabeth. 2011. Jeff Koons. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. p.19- 20

21“Any trick; it’ll do anything – absolutely anything – to communicate and win the viewer over. Even the most unsophisticated people are not threatened by it; they aren’t threatened that this is something they have no understanding of…The work wants to Meet the needs of the people. It tries to bring down all the barriers that block people from their culture that shield and hide them. It tells them to embrace the moment instead of always feeling that they’re being indulged by things they do not participate in. It tells them to

believe in something and to eject their will….And it’s about embracing guilt and shame and moving forward instead of letting this negative society always thwart us – always a more negative society, always more negative.” Jeff Koons, “From Full Fathom Five,” Parkett 19 (1989):44-47.

22 Reckhenrich, Jö, Martin Kupp, and Jamie Anderson. 2011. "Made in Heaven - Produced on Earth: Creative Leadership as Art of Projection." The Journal of Business Strategy 32 (4): 12-24. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/02756661111150936. http://search.proquest.com/docview/873619910?accountid=14723.

23 Grace McQuilten, ‘Art, design, mis-design’, in Art in Consumer Culture: Mis-Design, Ashgate, Farnham and Burlington, 2011, pp. 9-45.


to the art world, as it has been a common practice for less successful artists to work for and create

the objects that embody the ideas of more successful artists. John Powers is an artist who worked

for Koons in 1995 and painted the Cracked Egg from the ‘Celebrations’ series, however although

Powers was paid $14.50 an hour, the painting later sold at Christie’s in London in 2003 for

$501,933.25 Koons did not physically paint Cracked Egg, he ‘designed’ the work and paid others with

the skills to create it with machine-like precision, while also facilitating the work to be promoted and

sold for much more then Powers himself may have been able to.26 Cracked Egg lays testament to

Koons’ business sensibility, where he has strategically incorporated what he has learned from his

experiences with the free market.27 Koons’ works are at home in a neo-liberal free market, as they

are produced by a large cohort of workers that rely on the salesman to design products for happy

consumption and a healthy profit margin.

Puppy (1992)

Jeff Koons

Stainless steel, wood (at Arolsen only), soil, geotextile fabric, internal irrigation system,

live flowering plants,

1234.4 x 1234.4 x 650.2 cm

24 “I’m basically the idea person,” Jeff Koons once told an interviewer. “I’m not physically involved in the production. I don’t have the necessary abilities, so I go to the top people.” John Powers. 2012. I was Jeff Koons’ Studio Serf, Reflections of a Studio Serf, The New York Times. Aug 19 2012. P.50

25 Idib

26 Idib

27 Idib


Puppy (1992) was installed in Arolsen, Germany, and is Koons’ first work that depicts the

change toward a more pleasing aesthetic and less overtly challenging representation. Puppy is a 12

metre high Behemoth West Highland Terrier, built to appear as a sculpted hedge with thousands of

multi-coloured flowers. At its least significant it is whimsical and playful, and at its most, it is a living

sculpture, natural and alive like us.28 Puppy was critically accepted by the ‘high art’ world of

institutions and critics and the ‘pop culture’ audiences took to it just as enthusiastically. The

acceptance and popularity of Puppy was demonstrated by its recreation in front of the Sydney

Harbor at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1995, in 1997 it was brought and installed in front of

the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, in 2002 it was brought and installed by Brant Foundation in

Greenwich Connecticut and in 2000-2001, was installed at the Rockefeller Center in New York City

for a temporary exhibit.29 These sites of installation are all privately funded institutions of their own

right, and most interestingly, the Rockefeller Center is a symbol of the neo-liberal private enterprise.

Not only did Puppy gain support of the ‘high art’ crowd, but it also gained the recognition of private

enterprise and ‘pop culture’. The accolades for Puppy come about because of its ability to span the

cultural divide appealing to the consumer, the economic market, pop culture, and the old guard of

‘high art’.

In accordance with a consumer ethic, Puppy’s appeal to the consumer is expressed by its

physical appearance, where no elements of disgust are incorporated nor a negative question asked

of the viewer, and they are not made to feel rejected or belittled. Koons’ giant puppy made of

thousands of flowers is embodied in a medium that is also happy and pleasing for the viewer. The

consumer is not alienated from experiencing this work, as it does not require a degree nor a working

history of the visual art nor an understanding of the evolving theory of art to enjoy a giant puppy

made of thousands of flowers. Koons’ work never drives away a customer.

28 “What they found was a shocking simplicity, accessibility and pleasure. Puppy was intensely lovable, triggering a laugh---out---loud delight that expanded your sense of the human capacity for joy. It was a familiar, sentimental cliché revived with extravagant purity, not with the enduring materials like marble of bronze but with nature at its most colourful and fragile. The flowery semblance of fur made Puppy almost living flesh, like us.” Roberta Smith, “Public Art, Eyesore to Eye Candy,” New York Times, August 24, 2008.

29 .” Harker, Elizabeth. 2011. Jeff Koons. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. p. 16<