What would you do with $91 million dollars?
It’s a fun hypothetical question to discuss with friends over a freshly boiled pot of 2 Minute Noodles, but it’s not one any of us will seriously have to ponder in our lifetime. Still, make-believe or not, I can tell you with absolute certainty what I wouldn’t spend it on, and that’s a three-foot-tall silver bunny rabbit made by American artist Jeff Koons.
When I say ‘made by’, I don’t mean in the physical sense, either. Koons has long described himself as the ‘ideas man’ behind his work, employing teams of up to 100 assistants to paint, mould and 3D render his pieces. Whether this hands-off approach diminishes his artistic integrity is a conversation that I am most certainly ill-equipped to lead. It’s an interesting fact, though. In 2012, a former painting assistant of Koons’ wrote about their experience for The New York Times. He worked at Koons’ SoHo studio in 1995 and was paid $14 an hour to paint a photograph of a cracked egg onto a blank 80-square-foot canvas. After almost five months of painting, the canvas slipped free from the wall and the painting was ruined. A few weeks into restarting from scratch, he quit. Meanwhile, six years ago Koons opened a stone-cutting facility in Pennsylvania solely for the exclusive fabrication of his work. Named Antiquity Stone, it is staffed by around 30 employees and at least two robots.
Back to the issue at hand: the $91 million USD steel rabbit sold at the contemporary auction at Christie’s in New York yesterday. Purchased by art dealer Robert Mnuchin, it broke the record for the highest price paid for a piece made by a living artist. Mnuchin is a former banker and current gallery owner, who also happens to be the father of Steven Mnuchin, the US Secretary of the Treasury in the Trump administration. Whilst collecting popular art has always been a sport for the rich, this new record makes it hard for even the wealthiest 1% to get off the bench. Essentially, it makes it near impossible for small galleries who support unknown and emerging artists to stay open. The stats are pretty crazy: 40% of last year’s art market was made up of works that cost $1 million and up but only accounted for 3% of transactions, while sales from the top 20 living artists accounted for 64% of the market.
Of course, Koons has no control over how much someone wants to spend on his art. Is he to blame for being made rich and famous for making sculptures of balloon animals? No. But he doesn’t seem to mind turning himself into a brand, either, and his $60,000 steel rabbit necklace merch for sale on Gagosian’s online shop confirms that. I’ve never met the man, but a slew of interviews and articles published over the past few years don’t leave me feeling like I’m missing out on much, either. His posing naked while working out in his home gym for the cover of Vanity Fair four years ago coupled with Vice declaring him the ‘Kayne West of the contemporary art world’ didn’t do wonders for his likeability rating, either. In the latter article, Koons’ is quoted as saying, ‘I hope you see that a great artist gets better,’ in reference to his own retrospective, before comparing his DNA to Picasso’s. Does all of this make him a shit artist, though? No. But it definitely doesn’t make me want to cough up $91 million for a piece of his work.