Mark Kostabi Killed the American Avant Garde: A Controversial ’80s Artistic Figure

Does anybody remember Mark Kostabi? If you were interested in the art scene or even just pop culture during the 1980s, chances are you heard of this artist. In fact, he was probably the second most controversial artist of the 1980s, right up there behind the infamous Robert Mapplethorpe and his stunningly beautiful photos of flowers and penises.

Of course, it was the pictures of the penises that most people ever saw, which is a shame because the pictures of the flowers are infinitely more erotic. Mark Kostabi’s status as the second most infamous artist of the 1980s differs substantially from Robert Mapplethorpe’s. Mapplethorpe was denounced on the floor of Congress because of the content of his art. I would posit that Kostabi committed the far greater act of indecency.

Okay, let me state right out that I actually have come over time to admire Kostabi as an artist. An artist of postmodern meta-artist self-promotion. Mark Kostabi’s greatest work of art is his career. Even if the name flies meaninglessly over your head, Kostabi is still an important part of the New York art scene. Of course, his influence is more in line with that of, say, Ann Magnuson and performance art than with, say, Jeff Koons. With one exception, of course. Ann Magnuson is a terrific actress; Kostabi is not so great an artist.

Actually, I must amend that. I really have no way of knowing whether Mark Kostabi is a great artist or not. I wonder if anyone does. Here comes the reason that Mark Kostabi is even worthy of my writing an article about him. The reason that Kostabi was so incredibly controversial-and it’s really difficult now to appreciate just how incredibly controversial he was during his fifteen minutes of Warholian (who should definitely be considered Kostabi’s godfather) fame-is that not only did he have assistants paint most of his paintings, but he traded on this fact.

Rather than being ashamed of not actually painting the artworks that he was selling for outrageous sums of money, the fact that other people painted them was Kostabi’s actual claim to artistry. More than that, it was the very reason that those paintings did sell for such large sums. To own a Kostabi during those heady days was to know full well that you had bought a painting that Kostabi might have had absolutely no contact with except for writing his signature on it. (And the jury is still out on whether he even did that.)

As I said, I admire Kostabi a little bit now. At the time I was far too much a purist to get it, but now I can see what he was doing. He was basically saying when someone shells out 40 or 100 million dollars for a Van Gogh or a Picasso, they aren’t really buying the work itself, but rather the signature. If the signature is the only thing that is important, then content really doesn’t matter much, nor does it matter much who really painted it. Mark Kostabi effectually boiled all art down to its modern day value: commerce.

Mark Kostabi basically took what Walter Benjamin was talking about in his groundbreaking essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and applied those theories to reality. Benjamin’s essay explores how artwork loses its ritual value through the loss of its aura, or authenticity, and by doing so attaches meaning to its exhibition value, which can be co-opted for its use in political manipulation with the rise of easily reproducible works of art. In other words, when a work of art can be reproduced over and over and over again it’s only real value lay in how much it can be sold for and how often. Mark Kostabi took this idea to the limit.

But what about the part where the artwork is co-opted for political manipulation? Kostabi’s most lasting accomplishment may very well be that he was able both to expand the meaning of the avant garde art while also destroying its value. Modern art, and the avant garde especially, was designed to be a reaction to the commercialization of previous art forms. Although every artist wants to make a living, most avant garde artists begin from a state of mind of trying to move the medium forward.

Kostabi was able to move the avant garde away from content-his assistants’ paintings are really nothing more than third-rate ripoffs of Georgio de Chirico-and toward the method of presentation. At the same time, however, he contributed significantly into turning the avant-garde into just another apparatus for instilling the ideology of capitalism. The avant-garde art movement in America still exists to be sure, but ever since Kostabi proved once and for all that even those who recognize the avant-garde in its infancy care more about cash than cache, it has been effectively undermined as a political tool.

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