This year’s most controversial artwork?

Years before it first dominated the Paris skyline in 1889, the Eiffel Tower was described as “a hole-riddled suppository” and “a truly tragic street lamp” by prominent French intellectuals. Radically industrial for its time, entrepreneur Gustave Eiffel’s modern monument was written off as a monstrous gimmick for the impending World’s Fair. When Chinese-US architect IM Pei set about creating his landmark Louvre Pyramid (1989), an enormous glass-and-steel sculpture that serves as the main entrance to the world’s most visited museum, he couldn’t have foreseen that his bold design would initially be labelled ‘atrocious’, that its structure would spark an enduring Satanic conspiracy theory or that the Louvre’s then-director would resign in protest. And just earlier this year, French-Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos’s revolving red heart sculpture Coeur de Paris, a permanent installation in the 18th arrondissement, outraged politicians and public alike due to its hefty price tag.

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The list of public artworks that have ruffled Parisians’ feathers for one reason or another goes on. But with his divisive Bouquet of Tulips, unveiled in the gardens of the Petit Palais this weekend, scandal magnate Jeff Koons is now in a position to snatch the trophy from them all. Of course, the US artist is no stranger to controversy. The former Wall Street commodities broker turned neo-Pop sculptor carries a reputation as the preferred artist of the 0.01%: a former Goldman Sachs executive purchased his Rabbit statue for a record-setting $91.1 million (£74.1m) in May. Koons’ 2008 Château de Versailles exhibition of balloon animals ignited the ire of protesters, who accused him of cheapening this sacred French site. And he has repeatedly (recently, even) been found guilty of plagiarism.

Still, it could be argued that this polychromed bronze and stainless-steel sculpture is his most controversial artwork yet. Christened the “tulips of discord” by some of the French press, the artist has described the 12m and 33-tonne bouquet of an outstretched hand holding his signature balloon tulips as “a symbol of remembrance, optimism and healing” with the missing 12th tulip representing the victims of the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. Inspired by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s neoclassical Statue of Liberty (1886) – a gift from the citizens of France to the US – and Pablo Picasso’s Bouquet de L’Amitié (1958) lithograph, Koons ‘donated’ the €3.5m (£3.1m) artwork (well, the idea for it, as the project was financed through private philanthropy and generous tax reliefs) to the city of Paris to “express the painful context of the attacks into a symbolic work”.

But not everyone has felt the love.

What shocked me was the association being made between this type of ‘gift’ and the terrorist attacks, when it had nothing to do with them – Marie-Claude Beaud

Since the project was unveiled in 2016, there has been considerable criticism: unforgiving online petitions condemning what they describe as a tasteless product placement; newspaper op-eds questioning the artist’s ulterior motives; tense negotiations over the sculpture’s eventual location. Marie-Claude Beaud, director of the Nouveau Musée National de Monaco, was among 23 French arts professionals (including filmmaker Olivier Assayas and former French culture minister Frédéric Mitterrand) who signed a 2018 letter in Libération calling out what they saw as an “opportunistic and cynical” project, given the artist’s intent to install the sculpture between two prized contemporary arts institutions entirely unrelated to the tragedies. “What shocked me was the association being made between this type of ‘gift’ and the terrorist attacks, when it had nothing to do with them,” Beaud tells BBC Culture. “And gifts should be free. Especially when your name is Jeff Koons and you’re a billionaire.”

According to sociologist Kim M Babon, a specialist of cultural conflict in public art, people tend to be upset whenever the execution of a piece doesn’t match their expectations. “Art is an interesting lightning rod because it’s arguably not an absolute need,” she tells BBC Culture. “What makes it controversial is that it becomes something we can question: ‘Why does money need to be spent on it? Why this piece of art, there? And who gets to decide?’”

Marie-Claude Beaud points to Les Deux Plateaux (1985-86) by French artist Daniel Buren as an example of a scandal-sparking contemporary installation she unequivocally championed at the time. Commissioned to replace an unsightly parking lot in the Palais Royal’s inner courtyard, the initial response to its 260 black-and-white-striped columns of varying heights was one of general disdain, with many deeming it unsuitable for and incongruous with such a historic landmark, among other things. But 30 years later, Les Deux Plateaux is widely revered. “I think Daniel is delighted to see so many people making it their own: taking selfies on the shorter stumps and sitting down to picnic there,” says Beaud. Proof that public art is first and foremost about creating a dialogue with the audience.

If art doesn’t elicit a response or reaction, it means it’s not art – Christophe Girard

From a plethora of pieces dismissing Koons as the “Wonder Bread of contemporary American art” to letters in newspapers calling for Parisians to accept his gift, much conflicting ink has been spilled about the matter, which the Paris deputy mayor for culture finds reassuring. “I think it’s very healthy in a democracy for art to spark debate and controversy,” Christophe Girard tells BBC Culture. “I don’t think we’ve seen petitions like this since the Eiffel Tower. If art doesn’t elicit a response or reaction, it means it’s not art. Those protecting Paris’s incredibly rich heritage didn’t want the artwork located on the esplanade of the Palais de Tokyo, and they were right. So we had to find an appropriate compromise.” Its chosen setting near the US embassy, behind the Petit Palais, which also houses works by Koons favourite Gustave Courbet, resolved what Girard qualified as a “matter of cultural diplomacy”.

The spectacle of commemoration

US art historian Erika Doss has extensively researched and written about public art memorials. She regards Bouquet of Tulips as symptomatic of a culture wherein the spectacle of commemoration becomes the event itself, more than the tragedy being commemorated. “We have a horrible trauma, and increasingly, we want to go to these sites in order to touch and feel the tragic events that happened there,” she tells BBC Culture. “We still go to cemeteries and national memorials like the Washington Monument, but we increasingly go to places where shootings or bombings have occurred. This isn’t particularly new; we just see more of it in the media. And I think more commemorative and memorial projects have been created around them. Bouquet of Tulips is a perfect example.”

Françoise Monnin is an art historian and editor-in-chief at Artension magazine. She launched the very first petition against Bouquet of Tulips three years ago, suggesting that the city commission another artist to conjure up a monument to Paris’s dead and wounded. “There are so many around the world, and they often carry a devastating sense of sadness. The Val de grâce (1977) by Jean-Robert Ipoustéguy, for instance, on display in the military hospital of the same name in Paris (after having ignited its own controversy for years) is an extraordinary bronze sculpture, which evokes death but also life and brotherhood.”

Back in the 1980s you had to produce a figure on a horse, a tall obelisk or something shooting up into the sky – Kim M Babon

But Girard is quick to mention that Bouquet of Tulips wasn’t a public commission initiated by victims’ associations, and that not a single penny of public money has been spent. “This is rather a present from the US with this artwork against violence, attacks, terrorism and hatred – in general,” he clarifies. “Koons will also donate all income generated from Bouquet’s by-products to the 2015-2016 terrorist attack victims’ associations and towards the sculpture’s maintenance.”

While Bouquet of Tulips is not described as a memorial per se, sociologist Kim M Babon believes the debate around it is reminiscent of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington (1982), designed by Yale undergraduate Maya Lin, who’d won a public design competition. While it initially sparked widespread anger at what some regarded as a less traditional, too subtle and even disrespectful memorial monument – low-lying, polished black granite walls etched with the names of all honoured servicemen – it’s now appreciated, 30 years later. “Back in the 1980s, and this is again about expectations – what was considered the proper way to memorialise people – you had to produce a figure on a horse, a tall obelisk or something shooting up into the sky,” explains Babon. “Lin’s approach to a memorial was unusual and atypical”.

The dramatic shift in public response occurred “once the lived experience of the monument came to invalidate people’s previous expectations of what a memorial should be”, according to Babon. By the same token, it’ll be up to Parisians and tourists alike to make up their own minds about Bouquet of Tulips once the furore has fully died down and they just happen to walk past it.

The Eiffel Tower, the Louvre Pyramid, Les Deux Plateaux and so many others have gone from problematic points of friction to celebrated landmarks. Building on that, Girard hopes Bouquet can become a “symbol of friendship between two democracies, and a place of dreams, love, engagement and promise instead of rupture”. Of course, as art historian Françoise Monnin rightfully argues, the points of view that ultimately matter will be those “independent of political courtesies of France to the US, and liberated from the pressures exerted by Koons’ collectors and dealers”. After all, public art only lives for as long as the public finds it meaningful.

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