Artist Jeff Koons interview: Making Lady Gaga's album cover and the 'empowerment' of art

Koons: 'I think that my works have aspects to them which are very cheerful, that bring about a smile, but at the same time they have the aspect of tragedy'

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The Independent Culture

Norman Rosenthal: Is it contentment and happiness you are striving for? Or something far bigger?

Jeff Koons: I think connection – you know, connecting as a human being with the world, with life, with myself, my family, my community. It’s about connecting through art history... You want to give a sense of empowerment to the viewer. Art empowers you. It continually lets the artist expand their parameters of life experience, what they can become and what art can be. It’s not about this artwork or about that artist: it’s about what art can be for the viewer.

NR One of the things you have spoken about consistently is an erotic response you want your artworks to elicit. Can I just ask you about something else? You said you didn’t want people to laugh when they see your things.

JK I don’t think so – not laugh.

NR There’s nothing wrong with laughter, by the way. It’s a very profound activity.

JK I want people to feel good; I want them physically to feel good. I want them to enjoy life experience. I want them to enjoy their life. I want their life to be vaster... It’s not to feel good, simply – it’s the opposite, it’s to feel more. You want to expand and to feel something even greater than you’re feeling now.

NR Don’t you like to smile? The ecstasy of sex is one thing, which is a pleasurable thing, but there’s also the ecstasy of smiling.

JK Norman, I like to smile, I think that my works have aspects to them which are very, very cheerful, that bring about a smile, but at the same time they have the aspect of tragedy. So they are not just free of this other side. They want really to be balanced, to be full and rounded.

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Artist Jeff Koons poses next to one of his sculptures during a press preview of "Jeff Koons: A Retrospective (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

NR Where is the potential for tragedy in your work?

JK I would say the first thing is just in aspects of mortality, and not necessarily one’s own mortality, but just mortality.

NR You often talk about your art appealing to the middle classes, a kind of American ordinary middle-class life. Do you think that class is important for an understanding of art at all?

JK Education is, but not class. I don’t think you have to be in the upper class to feel enlightenment. Actually, I think it could be even harder for the upper classes; they don’t even have that sense of space to expand to. They already feel that they are at that parameter in some way.

NR Do you think art is invoking people to fulfil their potential, telling people to free themselves? That is very political.

JK I think art can do that, but I think art is  an interaction with content that human beings have structured to in some way explain life experience. And it’s not specifically in one kind of political area that I would like art to have this  effect; I hope that the effect would be vast in different political areas. My issue would be more the sense of people’s self-respect and people finding self-acceptance. It would be just more along the philosophical line about how people embrace who they are and feel they have a platform for the  future. That’s actually quite a big political question.

NR But if you take the big American political issues of the day, like Medicare, do those interest you at all?

JK I have a moral interest in the sense of communal well-being, but I try not to get lost in the specifics.

NR You sometimes talk about politics, but I’ve also heard you say, ‘I don’t want to get involved in politics’. I remember you at a dinner in Berlin when somebody was talking about the next president of the United States, and you didn’t want to get involved in that at all, and you were very specific about it.

JK If you get involved in a specific issue, you seem to limit yourself in other areas. I have always enjoyed my vast area, which I think is more at the core of people being empowered.

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A woman walks past a sculpture by Jeff Koons during a press preview of "Jeff Koons: A Retrospective" (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

NR Do you like this culture of celebrity in which you are part?

JK I think as an artist you have a fantastic position in the community because you have a lot of anonymity, a lot of privacy – most people do not recognise you. You move about the world very, very freely and you can look at things and not be distracted and at the same time you can participate and, hopefully, have some impact in the cultural environment. If somebody comes up and says, ‘I enjoy your work’, it’s a nice thing to hear. But I would have to say I am probably drawn to and have stayed within the traditional fine arts because I enjoy that anonymity, that freedom.

NR How did you come to work with Lady Gaga?

JK The Lady Gaga album cover was really a project where people came to me. It’s flattering when other parts of culture show interest in my work. It’s wonderful to see that some people appreciate things... They get it... They are happy that you are participating, especially if they can represent that to youth too – kids of 15 years old. I actually prefer just to be involved with my own work, making my own art specifically, but at the same time I try to be coordinated and do what’s necessary to help the work have a voice and a chance to be seen.

NR Do you mind if we talk a little bit about commerce and art? You said in an earlier conversation that you enjoyed sales when you were younger.

JK I enjoyed [working in] sales because of a sense it gave of self-reliance, but it was more the communication, the interacting with people and the feeling that both people’s needs were being met. I was making a sale, placing a product; somebody was excited by the product and was happy to acquire the product.

NR What’s the difference between selling a pair of shoes and selling a work of art?

JK As far as the transaction goes there’s not much difference, if any difference at all.

NR So if some guy chooses a Nike pair of sneakers over an Adidas pair, is that the same as choosing a work of art?

JK The reason that he chose the Nikes might have been the construction of them, or maybe he just liked the colour. Maybe he saw the colour and thought, ‘Oh, that blue. I would feel more comfortable with that’. So there’s a reason for that choice and it’s the same with art. People have reasons for their choice. They may see something on a very, very profound level or it could be completely surface.

NR What about the mega prices? Do you think the prices of your artworks are correct, or crazy?

JK I’m making the things that I’m making, doing the things that I’m doing, because that’s what I would like to do and that’s how I’ve always lived my life. I’m surprised at all the success and I’m surprised really at how the art world has been able to gain such a wide platform in such a short period of time. But at the same time I understand that within society art is feeding needs that other areas are maybe not fulfilling.

Extracted from ‘Jeff Koons: Conversations with Norman Rosenthal’ (Thames & Hudson, £19.95)

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