Balloon dog millionaire
Who’d want to be a visual artist these days. Just as we might caution a child browsing the internet not to click on certain things because you can’t ‘unsee’ them, so it is with artists. All around them, a bombardment of images. Some manmade, some not. They see, they process, they file them in the memory bank to be drawn on when creativity ‘comes a knocking’.
And then, what if your schtick is the everyday banal objects in popular culture. The Kitsch. Enter Jeff Koons. To many he’s a great living artist. A visionary. Some may disagree. Mostly, that’s the point of art. What’s not in dispute is he’s one of the top ten richest artists in the world with an estimated fortune of $500 million.
Looking at the legal copyright scrapes into which Mr Koons is all too often dragged, it could be argued he’s finding it tough to ‘unsee’ other people’s work. Alternatively, others don’t see parody in his talent for the size of the target on his back. He’s rich and successful, they are less so. Go figure.
The most recent case filed against Mr Koons is barely a week old. Michael Hayden, a sculptor, claims he made a sculpture of a serpent wrapped around a rock for Italian porn-star, politician and ex-wife of Koons, stage-named Cicciolina. The claim continues, alleging Koons when married to Cicciolina, used the sculpture in his own artwork sequence of images called “Made in Heaven”. These images depicted Koons with his then wife, in a series of sexual positions. In the 1980’s Hayden was in the habit of designing props for Cicciolina’s adult movies.
It wasn’t what Koons did with the serpent prop, after all it was designed to be in a sex scene, but rather that Koons never asked Hayden’s permission to use it, credited him with its creation or offered to licence it. Such attention to intellectual property rights detail was sadly lacking. And why in court now? Well, said Hayden, I didn’t realise it had been appropriated until 2019 when I first saw images of Made in Heaven in an Italian news article. The Koons team are yet to comment on the action.
Another long-running action against Koons popped up again earlier this year in France. It involved a female model lying in the snow next to a pig wearing a barrel. There were penguins in the background. A distinct and unique image you might well think. Koons created a sculpture of this in 1988 called Fait d’hiver, for his “Banality” series. Along came French photographer Frank Davidovici, in 2015, having seen a copy of Koons’s work in a catalogue the previous year. He claimed it was his image and composition for an advertisement campaign he did for Naf Naf clothing. Albeit Davidovici’s image was sans Penguins.
The French court agreed copyright had been breached by Koons and originally awarded the photographer $153,000. A sum in creased to $215,000 this February with larger fines for any reproduction of the work.
Downstream, Frank Davidovici encountered plagiarism allegations of his own from others connected with the original shoot.
Elisabeth Bonamy, the art director on the shoot said the idea for the composition was all hers and she had received no credit for it:
“Frank has always taken advantage to make his name famous while completely forgetting me. It’s not very elegant.”
She said Davidovici’s credit-taking had also upset the photographer of the advertisement, William Klein.
Blimey, visual art creation is a tough gig. You need eyes in the back of your head.
And for Koons, he sold a porcelain version of Fait d’hiver in 2007 at Christie’s for $4.3m.
The list of artists suing Koons is growing. They claim, like photographer Mitchel Gray who composed and took a picture for Gordons Gin in the 1980’s, that Koons copied his work:
“…nearly unchanged and in its entirety…”
Yet the Koons phenomenon continues with apparent disregard to such legal challenges viewing them as an occupational hazard. Quite possibly he’s to be admired. His fans like Jonathan Jones of the Guardian say his images peddle satire and parody, commenting savagely on the
“…Kitsch emptiness of modern culture”.
That some courts don’t agree and find for copyright infringement may not bother him. His art is his. You either get his importance as a pop art titan, or you don’t. But Koons remains a mystery. That might explain why so many journalistic column inches are expended writing about him. In all that is said and observed about him, it’s wise not to forget Koons studied art before he traded commodities on Wall Street. He is an artist at his core.
And yet, there’s a nagging whiff of snake oil that just won’t go away.
Perhaps Koons’s best known creation is his balloon-dog. A San Francisco boutique called Park Life sold balloon-dog shaped plastic bookends as interesting knick-knacks. Koons sued for copyright infringement. In the words of Park Life’s defence lawyer:
“As virtually any clown can attest, no one owns the idea of making a balloon dog, and the shape created by twisting a balloon into a dog-like form is part of the public domain.”
The judge agreed. Koons failed.
Somehow, Koons the perpetual defender of claims taking the legal blows on the chin as he recycles, and re-purposes popular culture images has greater integrity than Koons the heavy-handed aggressor chasing down his own alleged IP rights. He may have every right to do so. But is it a good look?
An IP fight is like any other – pick it carefully.
OPUS Underwriting Limited
+44 (0) 203 920 9985
Researched by Ben Fairclough