The Art of Speed: Jeff Koons at 180 MPH

The Art of Speed. Jeff Koons at 180 MPH

I had a slight interest in auto racing as a child, and have never followed it as an adult. I find art interesting at some level I suppose, but I’m certainly not knowledgeable about it and it’s not something I have a passion for. At most I was vaguely familiar with the name Jeff Koons before seeing this short film.

So I wasn’t exactly the ideal audience for this Sundance Channel short film about Koons (described in an apparently unironically flattering manner as “the most expensive artist in the world”) designing the outside of a race car for BMW.

Which is not to say that I haven’t enjoyed films about subjects about which I didn’t have a high level of interest going in. In fact, it’s not uncommon at all for me to be drawn in by such a film.

The Art of Speed, however, is not one of those films. It comes across as basically an infomercial for Koons and BMW. The message is: “Koons is great, BMW is great, and they’re just greater than great together!” which puts it on about the level of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups commercial.

Apparently BMW has this thing called the “art car,” where it commissions famous artists like Andy Warhol to paint a race car for them. It was something they were doing annually or at least fairly often like that for a while, but then went I believe the narrator said seventeen years without doing it before recruiting Koons to be their next art car artist. I don’t know why they skipped it all those years. Maybe there just wasn’t enough interest to warrant the marketing expense of doing it.

If this film is part of the effort to generate enough positive publicity to make it a regular thing again, I don’t think there’s much hope for the promotion, though that’s assuming other viewers would find it as boring as I did, which may well not be the case.

But I certainly didn’t get much out of watching Koons climb into a race car and speed around a track. (That was “for inspiration,” according to the narrator. It struck me as more the kind of thing either, a, he wanted to do for fun just to do it and it had no effect on his design for the car, or, b, he just did as part of the promotion for this event, i.e., he wouldn’t have bothered if there weren’t cameras present.) It’s just not that exciting watching a guy sit in a car without changing expression as he drives around a track (though the narrator presents his lack of response as something positive, as evidence of what a cool customer he is).

To add some suspense to the film, they make a big deal about what a challenge it is to finish the art car in time for its unveiling at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race. But the suspense seems totally artificial to me, since they’re the ones who imposed the deadline on themselves. I mean, if this is something that takes six months to do properly at a comfortable pace, then why not start six months before the race instead of three months or whenever they started?

Then after all that build-up about the 24 Hours of Le Mans, they don’t even say what happened in the race. Did the art car do well? Did it crash? Were fans and art critics watching the race in awe of how great it turned out?

One gets the impression there was some contractual thing where they legally weren’t allowed to show any of the race or even describe what happened.

So anyway, this is pretty much a dud. But one thing that did catch my attention was when they went into how someone like Koons creates art.

It’s very much a corporate sort of endeavor. Koons is the idea guy, but apparently does little of the work to create the actual physical piece of art. That’s handled by his team of hundreds of minions.

The minions are called “artists,” but that seems to only be accurate in the sense that you could say a guy on an assembly line who tightens a certain nut on each car that goes by “builds cars.” The sole function of some of them, for example, is to mix paint to be some precise color Koons’s design calls for.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by that, as I think something vaguely like it has been true of the most successful art for centuries. That is, the artist that the work is attributed to is just the head guy—the “master”—of a team of folks creating the art. He’s like the captain of a ship. It’s his art in the same sense that Columbus discovered America. In both cases it’s really a whole team of people that’s responsible.

I doubt in the past it was taken to this industrial-level extreme though. For that matter, I have to think even today not all big name artists work this way. Maybe some of them still sit in front of an easel with a paint brush and do it all themselves. But I really don’t know.

But I found something about the Koons method vaguely distasteful in its commercial efficiency.

Other than giving me something to think about as far as how art is created when you get to the level of a Jeff Koons, I never particularly cared about The Art of Speed.

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