IN APRIL 2004, the New York Times Magazine published an excerpt from the then forthcoming book by David Brooks, the newspaper's main op-ed purveyor of commonsense banalities. Titled "Our Sprawling, Supersize Utopia," the essay argued that exurbia--that land of megachurches, McMansions, and endless fields of perfectly groomed grass--was a uniquely American heaven on earth. This paved idyll, Brooks contended, is driven by what he termed "the Paradise Spell":
[The Spell] is ... the tendency to see the present from the
vantage point of the future. It starts with imagination--the
ability to fantasize about what some imminent happiness will
look like. Then the future-minded person leaps rashly toward
that gauzy image. He or she is subtly more attached to the
glorious future than to the temporary and unsatisfactory present.
Brooks may have a fondness for smiling proletarians on tractors, for the spell he describes is none other than the guiding aesthetic premise of socialist realism--which, according to Stalin's cultural commissar Andrei Zhdanov, aimed to look beyond the unredeemed reality of the present to "catch a glimpse of our tomorrow" and thus capture the imminent happiness of "reality in its revolutionary development."
Brooks and Zhdanov are in the air at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art's current Jeff Koons retrospective. The exhibition's gallery guide touts Koons's aspiration to create work that functions as "a powerful vehicle for self-acceptance and a democratic tool to transform the world"; its catalogue praises his celebration of "comfort as the ultimate way to achieve salvation"; and the artist himself, in a foyer video, discusses art's ability "to let people know that everything about them is perfect"--the MCA, in short, presents Koons's work as an embodiment of Zhdanovian-Brooksian aesthetic utopianism, full of transformative promise and hopes of a better tomorrow. The docent tours follow right along: The twinned basketballs of Two Ball 50/50 Tank (Spalding Dr. J Silver Series, Spalding Dr. J 241 Series), 1985, I learned, exemplify the ideal of a balanced life, as does the work's neighbor in the Chicago installation, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988 (this I was less clear on).
Such rhetoric is old hat for Koons, of course. And if the degree to which the MCA aligns its exhibition with such pronouncements is jarring, I suppose there is little for a museum to do. Koons repeatedly stresses that a taking leave of judgment is central to his practice, and so the MCA, working closely with the artist, presents his work accordingly. The installation, filling the museum's two main temporary-exhibition galleries, further excludes any critical narrative: Forgoing overt historical or thematic organization in favor of an open display-floor model, it presents Koons's entire career as one vast, timeless spread. And while a small companion exhibition upstairs, "Everything's Here: Jeff Koons and His Experience of Chicago," acts as a kind of counter to this shiny-smorgasbord effect--presenting local artists such as Ed Paschke and Jim Nutt, whom Koons knew while a student at the Art Institute, it makes a provincial plea to see Koons's universalized kitsch through the particular lens of 1970s Chicago--this effort seems futile. For all the historical specificity we may throw at him, Koons's practice still seems the product of its own planet, some strange and distant inversion of our own.
Glistening and playful, the Chicago show looks great. But faced with such a broad and tantalizing spread, just what are we to make of the frequently overwhelming aesthetic appeal of Koons's work? He tells us, for instance, that his goal in the giant polychrome wood and porcelain works of the 1988 "Banality" series was to capture the feeling "of lying in the grass and taking a deep breath" that he associates with the simple colors and sentimental charms of Hummel figurines, the German ur-kitsch objects on which the series is based. …