While we have Damien Hirst, Americans have Jeff Koons – artists united in dividing public and critical opinion. Koons' reputation is as King of Kitsch, Boss of the Banal, Sultan of Superficial. We tend to be suspicious when fun enters the art equation.
I took the family to see Koons's Popeye Series show at the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park, a trompe-l'oeil spectacular. Painted aluminium casts of inflatable toys – lobsters, monkeys, walrus and caterpillar beach floats – are juxtaposed and intertwined with everyday objects like chairs and ladders, while on the walls hang fabulously exuberant paintings based on the eponymous spinach-muncher. Rothko it ain't. There was clearly no one plumbing their depths of their soul; no tears, no expressions of transcendence.
That's not to say no one was moved. "Wow!" was the most frequently heard word, and my four-year-old daughter looked round, wide-eyed. "I have to be an artist when I'm older," she gasped. The only negative response was to one painting, Elvis, a double image of a nude blonde, which attracted the ire of my 15-year-old stepdaughter, who's a born-again Christian: "It makes me laugh," she snorted. "The men are looking at it as if it's some piece of art. It's disgusting. We're supposed to be covered up."
"If only Adam and Eve hadn't eaten that apple..." I said. She smiled through gritted teeth. I was tempted to show her Koons's Made in Heaven series on his website when we got home, the pieces based on his rumpy-pumpy sessions with his then-wife, the porn star La Cicciolina. Apart from Elvis she'd loved his stuff, though, so I refrained.
Even before we knew the pieces were painted aluminium (they really are staggeringly lifelike), there was the almost irresistible urge to touch – the 15-year-old failed to resist, the four-year-old slapped her hand – and beside each piece a black-clad young thing hovered anxiously. All very different from the recent Tate Modern exhibit, a revival of Robert Morris's 1971 installation Bodyspacemotionthings, which was all about physical interaction – an obstacle course of see-saws, ramps, and tightropes. When it first opened there was pandemonium, apparently – "people became very over-exuberant," according to the current Tate curator Kathy Noble, who reinstalled it this time round. Hands-on it certainly was, and though no one went as bonkers as in 1971 (men were seen swinging weights on chains around their heads), 23 came a cropper despite the inevitable raft of Health and Safety measures: cuts, banged heads, rope burns and bruised ribs were the order of the day. Mind you, it doesn't take an obstacle course to cause injuries: two years ago during the Shibboleth 2007 run, 15 people fell into Doris Salcedo's crack in the floor of the Turbine Hall. None were blind, as far as I know, but all of them, I'm forced to conclude, were stupid.
Koons says there are no hidden meanings in his art. At the other end of the spectrum there's art that's freighted with meaning – art that wouldn't exist but for the cause it's pushing.
When we left the Serpentine, we were assailed by the noise from what sounded like a Slipknot gig across the park. Drawn towards it, we realised that there was a protest in progress – except that the distorted war cry blasting through the loud-hailer seemed to be "We want sausages!"
We never did find out what the cry actually was, but closer inspection revealed that it was part of a demo across the road from the Iranian embassy – and on the railings hung a different kind of art, a million miles from Koons's feelgood paeans to positive thinking. The only similarity was that there were no hidden meanings in the collages of bloody images from the Tehran protests and scrawled paintings depicting the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni as Satan: this is art as weaponry.
The protestors roared and danced, but on their faces the expressions were desperate. "I'm not happy about this," the four-year-old fumed when we'd explained about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the "stolen" election. "I'm going to write to that man saying, 'I'm not giving you any of my money unless you stop what you're doing'. I'll write it in big letters so he knows I'm shouting." That'll do the trick.
John Walsh is away