In Woody Allen’s 2000 comedy “Small Time Crooks,” a British art dealer played by Hugh Grant tries to figure out the nouveau riche Frenchy (Tracey Ullman) by asking this loud, louche woman – who struck it rich in a shop that was supposed to be a cover for a bank robbery – what kind of artists she likes. “Rembrandt, Picasso, Michelangelo,” she responds. “You know, the boys.”
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One wonders if this scene wasn’t echoing in the mind of American pop artist Jeff Koons when he imagined potential customers for the new line of bags he created for French fashion house Louis Vuitton. The “Masters” collection features very familiar paintings by Vincent Van Gogh and Leonardo da Vinci, as well as works by Rubens, Titian and Jean-Honoré Fragonard.
The guards outside the Louvre in Paris, who managed to take down a terrorist armed with a machete in February, will be helpless against Koons’ fashion terrorism.
The reproductions of masterpieces like Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” and Rubens’ “The Tiger Hunt” on the bags are embellished by large, shiny metallic letters bearing the names of the artists – who overnight have become new, desirable brands in their own right.
The face of the Mona Lisa, repeated ad nauseam on bags of various sizes, has a hard time sneaking in her famous smile under the fashion house’s logo (and that of Koons himself) – one on her forehead, another on her chin, her eyes floating above the giant “DA VINCI” adorning her cheeks, like a headline on a magazine turning her into just another model.
The final product is so over-the-top, it exposes in all its detail the mechanism that underlies our obsessive consumption of luxury goods. The use of works of art that have already become cliched images, like Van Gogh’s “Wheat Field With Cypresses,” seems mostly like a joke at the expense of consumers willing to shell out thousands of dollars for a hollow status symbol. (A Van Gogh “Keepall 50” bag is yours for only $4,000.)
The manipulation that Koons has created, together with a fashion house that is synonymous with extreme capitalism and conspicuous consumption – and which has long been associated with the worldwide trade in knockoffs – chimes with the spirit of the times: of the elites who protest about fake news, while they themselves labor over the creation of alternative facts; of entire industries built on copying and replication instead of creating something new; the blurring of hierarchies and a reality that is disappearing in the face of the virtual, the airbrushed and the ersatz.
Koons went a step beyond postcards, cloth bags and umbrellas festooned with art prints – the usual preserve of museum gift shops worldwide. Using the ultimate consumer product, a Louis Vuitton bag, he has created “ultra-merchandise,” sold in a souvenir store bereft of memories. The museum and the visit to it have become superfluous.
But Koons also offers a double form of redemption: for the fashion house, which instead of continuously fighting off the tireless swarm of Eastern counterfeiters who flood the market with cheap, monogram-covered copies, can now declare itself the greatest counterfeiter of them all; and also, by appropriating the “Mona Lisa” and using her as raw material for his product, Koons permits the painting to be reborn. It is no longer a simulation or an idea, but, at last, a tangible product, existing in a reality in which nothing is more important than the luxury bag hanging from one’s arm.