Jeff Koons’ ‘Ballerina’ Reminds Us That Originality Matters

Jeff Koons’ ‘Ballerina’ Reminds Us That Originality Matters

The artist didn't break any laws by copying a sculptor's work. But he did deprive us of an amazing story about that woman's creativity and imagination.
Robin Ridless

Originality matters. Postmodernist reports of the “Death of the Author” are greatly exaggerated. That’s the unintended message of Jeff Koons’s latest public art project, “Seated Ballerina.”

Koons said in a statement accompanying the installation of his painted, 45-foot-tall inflated nylon sculpture in front of Rockefeller Center last month that it was designed to inspire people to reach their potential. The phrase is grant-proposal-worthy, and seems to have become the mantra of leftist groups seeking government subsidies and central planning of the arts.

But the controversy that soon dogged the balloon ballerina urged another less “progressive” lesson: give credit where credit is due. Though the dispute that occasioned this simple, intuitive sentiment turned out to be dead on arrival, its import lingers. Its sudden and surprising resolution yields insights into the emotional and moral dimensions of artistic appropriation more valuable than those wrung from all our dockets and highfalutin’ treatises on cultural authorship combined.

The Secret Story Behind Koons’ Newest Public Art Project

We may never know how a small porcelain figurine, made by an obscure Ukrainian decorative artist at a state-controlled factory in Kiev sometime after the middle of the last century, came to strike superstar artist Koons as a perfect prototype for his project. Inspiration works in mysterious ways. What we do know is that anger over his “plagiarism” erupted on Facebook when the sculpture that scaled it up was unveiled without attribution. The uproar forced the oft-sued artist—not to brace for yet another litigation—but to reluctantly admit he had obtained permission for the porcelain’s reproduction.

A lover of what progressives of yesteryear would have disparaged as “kitsch,” Koons appears to have had longstanding contacts with the Kiev Experimental Art Ceramics Factory. There he scouted for visual ideas for his Antiquity series, much as he had once perused the stalls of Fourteenth Street for what he regarded as suitably tawdry readymades. The quietly beguiling nine-centimeter sculpture of a young, milky-complexioned, blonde-haired dancer in a blue tutu sitting on a magenta stool while bending over to adjust her slipper apparently fit the bill.

Koons’ remake of it was, he would later say, an invitation to “contemplation.” He contracted to use the piece and another by the same artist, Oksana Zhnikrup, with the successor entity of the factory that had employed her during her lifetime, as well as with her heirs. As mentioned, it was only after the controversy broke out among Zhnikrup’s compatriots that Koons released his exculpating confession about the existence of the license, which was later confirmed by Zhnikrup’s family.

The burgeoning cause célèbre soon subsided into mere ruffled feelings. But why would the already-legally-bedeviled Koons, who lost his most recent litigation, a Paris District Court case, in March, invite more notoriety by not coming clean at the start? One would think the story of Oksana Zhnikrup’s life, that of a female artist who survived creatively and made her mark under a totalitarian regime, would impassion folks more intensely than Koons’s stereotypical blurb. But Koons did the opposite. Associated statements about the sculpture did not just omit the statute’s debt to Zhnikrup. It let viewers believe that Koons had scavenged his model from among anonymous, derelict “found objects.”

The Legality Of Copying Other Artists’ Work

To understand his choice, it might help to remember that copying is a hot topic in the courts these days. Jeff Koons has been named as a defendant five times for replicating homely popular images in his 1980s Banality Series. In defense of his and others’ copying, I have argued, an idea has taken root that supposedly treacly images sourced from the mass market, even if copyrighted, are fair game. They are aesthetic wallpaper. Geniuses like Jeff Koons uplift them—the courts use the word “supersede”—redeeming them from their terminal ordinariness.

Jeff Koons was instrumental in this development. His acclaimed borrowings have long been at the center of his art and of rising judicial tolerance for copies that are judged “transformative” under the copyright exception of the doctrine of fair use. Because of the adoration big-time artists receive in the market and some courts, an implicit myth has grown apace of this doctrine—namely, that really cool artists shouldn’t have to stoop to the formalities of licensing.

It is beneath them to have to compensate working artists for their foundational contributions. It tarnishes the anarchic image many of them cultivate, and is a buzzkill for their muse. This, I surmise, is why Koons cited as a key influence the ancient Venus of Willendorf. Jungian archetypes by unknown, long-dead artists are sexier and safer to invoke than more proximate creators. Presumably, it also explains why he preferred remaining reticent about having opted for a license rather than chancing another court fight.

It is a reticence bred of our celebrity culture’s idealization of the Author, who supposedly died back in the Sixties. What would have been so demeaning about doing right by the memory of a courageous creator and the niche art form within which she worked and was highly respected? There is no argument here, or shouldn’t be, that the giant Seated Ballerina isn’t loftily whimsical as, liberated from its stone medium, it bobs gently in the breeze over the heads of tourists and office-goers at the center of Midtown Manhattan. There is no disputing, in other words, that the piece is transformative—minus the scare-quotes.

This Isn’t About Illegality—It’s About Giving Credit

Koons’s originality is not at stake in this confrontation. He has a talent for recognizing the enchantment of downmarket pieces and communicating it in a glitzier, more ironic way that renders it appealing to avant-garde ideologues and the greater public alike. The issue, rather, is ownership. Having to pay for the use of what someone else owns, as Koons did, is hardly novel, nor problematic for a mega-rich artist like Koons. Koons licenses out his own works, including this one, all the time. Reciprocity shouldn’t be so complicated.

Instead, we’ve gotten bogged down in leftist cultural theory, which is too clever by far, as is the courts’ often tortured adoption of it. I’m reminded by way of example of Blanch v. Koons, where the Second Circuit accepted that copying a photograph is legitimate if it conveys the “fact” of the photograph rather than the photograph itself. Where have abstractions like these led us but to a normative state of historical amnesia?

The public is edified by learning about Oksana Zhnikrup. It is stimulated by pondering the evolution of an early industrialized art form that fruitfully wedded utility and imagination. Yet if it weren’t for the Ukrainians who took pride in their tradition and outed Koons, we’d have probably missed the opportunity. In our postmodern age, we’re too sophisticated to care about such modest precursors. I guess the Ukrainians didn’t get the memo.

Robin Ridless is a lawyer in New York City.

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