The Society of the Balloon Dog
On irony and its limitations
If you imagine the millions of products broken and discarded around the world each day, you have to wonder why a shattered porcelain statue of a balloon dog is making headlines. The animal in question, a 19-inch tall figurine designed by the artist Jeff Koons, was quite literally knocked off its pedestal by a visitor at a Miami art fair last week. It was not especially rare – 800 of this edition alone were made in 2021 – and it was not original in any formal sense: it was a statue of a balloon dog. And yet something about the accidental destruction of this object has captured the world’s attention.
Within moments of the thing hitting the ground, images of the scattered fragments were spreading on Instagram, while astonished onlookers questioned if they had witnessed some kind of performance. The story has been covered by news outlets across America, Europe and Asia.
Clearly the balloon dog, or Balloon Dog (Blue) to give its imaginative title, possesses some sort of magic that needs to be accounted for. The obvious explanation would refer to art’s conquest by money and celebrity. Koons is almost synonymous with this; if the typical showbiz figure today is “famous for being famous,” his works are expensive for being expensive. The balloon animals are especially notorious as status symbols for collectors with deep pockets and shallow minds. The broken balloon dog was worth $42,000, about the median annual income in the United States. This is actually cheap for a Koons; another of his pieces, a stainless steel bunny with a reflective face, sold for $91 million in 2019, the highest price commanded by a living artist.
Making shedloads of money appears to have been Koons’ goal from the start: unusually for an artist, he has a background as a Wall Street commodities trader. Part of his strategy was to court publicity with provocative work. His stature exploded in the early 90s, after he produced a series of pornographic images featuring himself and Ilona Staller, the Hungarian-Italian porn star turned politician (the pair were married for a time).
So perhaps the magic of the balloon dog is simply a reflection of our fascination with wealth and fame. Even if most spectators are now enjoying the chance to mock Koons, this simply adds to the persona of the “controversial artist” on which his reputation is built. Nothing demonstrates this better than the numerous people allegedly bidding for the remains of the broken object. The artwork is gone, but the attention generated by its destruction means that even its nondescript shards are an investment opportunity.
This is not enough to explain Koons’ peculiar charisma though. Like his predecessor Andy Warhol, Koons uses irony to suggest another, more playful dimension to his work. This is not simply art becoming a commodity, but doing so explicitly and deliberately, embracing its grubby fate with an enthusiasm that begs to be read as a sarcastic gesture.
In the 1980s, Koons presented off-the-shelf items like vacuum cleaners and basketballs in pristine Plexiglass cases, possibly celebrating consumer culture, or possibly ridiculing it. His balloon animals exaggerate the aesthetic qualities of mass-produced objects – their bulbous forms, bright colours and glossy surfaces – in a way that is both banal and strangely alluring. Like many contemporary artists, Koons is really more of a designer, since his works are prototyped on a computer and handed over to artisans to fabricate at scale. All that is left of art is the price tag and the bragging rights, and this can be seen as part of the commentary as well.
None of this is especially profound, but it is integral to Koons’ success. His works feed on the audience’s desire to feel sophisticated, or at least its fear of looking unsophisticated, and the more the plebs scratch their heads in exasperation the more real the sophistication feels.
It is this mastery of shallow irony that really makes Koons a kind of prophet of contemporary society. Yes, it all feels very niche and art world, but in some ways the art world is not so unfamiliar. In his brilliant Reith Lectures delivered a decade ago, the potter Grayson Perry explained the appeal of an irony, using the words of the musician Tracey Thorn: “It is difficult for people in the arts to be entirely sincere about things without looking like they have not thought about it properly.” In other words, a fear of being judged naive makes artists and their audience resort to irony as a defence mechanism.
These are the conditions in which a seemingly ridiculous artefact like the balloon dog becomes a safe bet. But today many of us inhabit a similar environment, thanks to the glass house of online existence where we are visible and performing to each other all the time, and a more general climate of status anxiety that makes us perpetually aware of how we appear to other people. It’s not surprising, then, that our culture is rife with ironic strategies: think of the memes, the inside jokes, the performative kitsch taste, the affected disregard for polite society, the cloying Peep Show style humour, the all-encompassing fear of cringe. It is everywhere, this reflex to always leave open the possibility you aren’t being entirely serious. And yes, I am as guilty of it as just about anyone.
Wait, you say, surely the problem today is that people are too serious; that so many issues are politicised and burdened with existential importance. The point of irony is to deflate this oppressive earnestness, is it not? But as Perry pointed out in his Reith Lectures, an atmosphere of debilitating cynicism encourages people to seek things they can be dogmatically sincere about. In recent decades, artists have become increasingly attracted to politics “because you know it is real, it’s serious, and they want to borrow that power because [they] know that’s something we’re not going to laugh at.”
Irony and sincerity feed-off one another, and even exist together. There was a theory knocking around in the 2000s that, even if culture was becoming more oriented around strongly-held convictions, these would be tempered by an ironic self-awareness. Instead, we now see private codes of ironic humour providing the glue that binds the ideologically likeminded together.
Irony has its place of course. At its best, it is a dialectical force that opens up the richness of life. An ironic gesture is one which negates its own stated meaning, thereby creating an open-ended space of possibility in which thought can roam. But as the balloon dog illustrates so well, this is not how irony tends to function today. It is more often a tool of conformism, a way of playing it safe that prefers the hollow zing of a glib remark to the risk of expressing something potentially uncomfortable. This is understandable given the need to keep some part of ourselves private from the ever-present view of our peers, but it is not necessarily conducive to a meaningful discourse.
Nor is our current brand of irony as subversive as it pretends to be. In fact, it is easily adopted by the powerful and influential, whether it be the shitposting billionaire Elon Musk or the countless provocative comedians who, in truth, just flatter the prejudices of their audiences. Irony is useful because it is slippery. Think the $91 million balloon animal is stupid? You just don’t get it.
Still, there is something especially depressing about the failure of art to rise above this condition. Even if social circumstances will doom most of us to a life of ironic posturing, we still want there to be some cultural practices that fulfil our secret longing for transcendence. Instead, when an absurdly valuable artwork is smashed on the floor, there seems to be virtually no one who believes that something important has been lost.
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