Art for the Masses

Jeff Koons
Jeff Koons

Many critics decried the rise of the multiple or editioned artwork in the 1960s as a sign that the purity of art was lost. Harold Rosenberg was no fan. Clement Greenberg, preoccupied with the notion of art for art’s sake, was most vehement in his denunciation, applying the German word kitsch to what he saw as art tainted by consumerism.

He was an egotistical grouch, but who can blame him? The man saw the birth and culmination of America’s most eminent art movement—abstract expressionism—and guided (some would say a little too forcefully) the career of Jackson Pollock.

But he couldn’t hold back the wave of artists who turned the slur of kitsch into a badge of honor. For Joseph Beuys, making works—or “vehicles" of communication, as he called them—that had numerous manifestations was one of the most powerful acts he could engage in as an artist. Andy Warhol took a more overtly opportunistic view of serial art, but elevated the status of multiplicities with his silk screens. Claes Oldenburg is another artist who has usurped the nature of the “fabricated object" and reappropriated it as art. His most recent offering was a cardboard pretzel that came in six varieties.

And now the banner of the multiple has been taken up by another wave of artists. Kiki Smith has made porcelain sculptures that would make a nice conversation piece when displayed at home on a bookcase or coffee table. Cindy Sherman created a Madame de Pompadour-themed tea service in 1990. Just last year Zaha Hadid made a sculpture in multiple to accompany a Guggenheim design show. Jeff Koons shrunk his well-known balloon-dog sculpture way down and offered it up as a kitschy collectible. Jenny Holzer inked golf balls with poetically obscure slogans.

It’s only a matter of time before Damien Hirst jumps on the bandwagon and turns his Natural History series into bookends.

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