Recently I was in Washington, DC to give an ethics talk and I had a few hours to kill. I headed over to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Gardens located in The Mall because I love that place. While I’ve always found something worth contemplating there, I didn’t think that I would find some serious inspiration from a work by Jeff Koons.
The sculpture I’m talking about is the stainless steel outdoor work called “Kiepenkerl.” It’s a life sized sculpture of a merchant and it was exhibited for the first time at the Sculpture Project in Munster, Germany. I learned about the details of the work from a gallery talk podcast that the Hirshhorn posted online. It was given by their Director of Public Programs, Milena Kalinovska in May of 2013.
Munster is a town in Germany that has a typical large center square. For years, there was a bronze sculpture of a merchant located in that square set high atop a pedestal (see the photo of the town square below). The statue depicts a typical merchant— a person who goes to the farms, buys what he thinks he could sell, then sells those goods in the town (it’s not hard to figure out why the statue is named “Kiepenkerl” since the word means “traveling merchant”). Munster was bombed during World War II, but the statue remained intact. It became a symbol of resiliency and, according to Koons, self-sufficiency and abundance. Eventually, the war got the best of the statue and it was unfortunately destroyed. After the war, however, the statue was replaced with another.
Years later, Koons made an exact copy of the sculpture, except that his version was made out of stainless steel. For the Sculpture Project in 1987, Koons removed the bronze statue in the town square and replaced it with his stainless steel version.
In the podcast, Ms. Kalinovska attempted to explain Koons’ motivation and she started with a bit of an Art History lesson. If you meander through the Hirshhorn Sculpture Gardens, you’ll see works in the Modernist style, like those of Calder and Moore. Those artists put art on a pedestal— one needs to study the work and explore it in order to understand it. Of course, many artists build upon the work of their predecessors, so after Modernism we experienced Pop Art. In those types of work, the artists (like Lichtenstein, whose work in directly across from the Kiepenkerl) reacted to the Modernist artists. Pop Artists took everyday items and put it in their art. But subsequent artists took that to another level with the readymade movement. They used items that are available to us, like a table for instance, and made them the focal point of their work. Marcel Duchamp was one of the first artists who showed that readymade could be art (for those of you not familiar with his repertoire, Duchamp is the guy who presented a urinal as work of art, among other things).
American artists from the 80s, like Koons, created work in the style of the readymade movement but also extended it with a concept called appropriation. That’s the idea of taking something from somewhere else and putting it into a new kind of context. Those artists felt that art did not have to be above us— that it didn’t need to be placed on a pedestal, out of reach from the common man. Koons, of course, also brings his own personal feelings about life, art, and society to his work. Koons is concerned with issues of class, and he likes to create work for everyday people. Commerce is a central part of his makeup, and he likes to use simple, but deep symbols.
It seems to me that in Kiepenkerl, Koons was trying to take an iconic figure and make it accessible. The statue depicts the common man, the average worker. But instead of bronze, Koons used stainless steel, a substance he called, “the luxurious material of the proletariat.” By simply changing the material to one that is associated with the common man, he is taking the figure down from it’s pedestal. Koons took a figure who represented resilience, self-sufficiency, and abundance and brought it to the level of the common man. By making the figure accessible, he is saying that we are all capable of those lofty attributes.
And therein lies the direction for the Punk Professional.
Far too often we doubt ourselves. We wonder whether we are good enough, whether we are worthy, or whether we are capable of achieving our goals. Sometimes when we look at others who have achieved similar goals and we put them on a pedestal. We see them as somehow different- more capable, better equipped, whatever. The truth is we are no different from anyone else who has achieved success.
Take those other successful professionals off of the pedestal. Don’t denigrate them, just look them in the eye. You are on their level. You are resilient and you are self sufficient. The long term success and enduring satisfaction that you seek is not reserved for someone else. With relentless determination, you could achieve that success as well. It is accessible to us all.
http://www.verbalissimo.com/main/offers/inscriptions/europe/germany/pics/muenster_kiepenkerl2_640h.jpg — https://www.skulptur-projekte.de/skulptur-projekte-download/muenster/97/koons/k_e.htm