August 11, 2014 § Leave a comment
Last week, between seeing the Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney and visiting Koons’ monumental “Split-Rocker” topiary sculpture at Rockefeller Center, I attended a performance of “Sex With Strangers” at the Second Stage Theater. Written by Laura Eason and starring Anna Gunn and Billy Magnussen, the play explores art, media and success, both the old-fashioned and new, Internet-oriented kind. The title is taken from a fantastically successful blog (and subsequent best-selling books) whose author, a hyperactive young writer and roue named Ethan Strange (nee Kane), arrives at a rural writer’s retreat during a snowstorm. There he barges in on the only other resident, a talented but obscure writer named Olivia Lago, who is putting the finishing touches on her second novel.
Olivia’s first novel was badly marketed as chick lit and sold poorly, but it attracted its share of fans, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning author named Ahmet, a friend of both Olivia’s and Ethan’s. Olivia soon learns that Ethan’s reason for coming to the retreat is not his own looming deadline for a screenplay but meeting her, the author of the novel he loves. In short order, Ethan convinces Olivia to reissue it under a pseudonym and as an e-book, about which he creates an instant buzz via Twitter. He then sets about selling her new novel by providing an introduction to his literary agent. Ethan also quickly embarks on an affair with Olivia, who despite qualms about him and his past (both sexual and literary) is bowled over by his powers (both sexual and literary).
Who could blame her? Ethan is an immature jerk but a Jedi Master of the Internet. He knows how to get his work in the hands of readers, since his half-million Twitter followers hang on his every word. Applying his special brand of salesmanship to Olivia’s literary novel, Ethan launches a spectacular new career that is not only beyond her abilities but her imagination. Before Ethan, Olivia is like Emily Dickinson, destined (in the best-case scenario) for posthumous fame; after Ethan, she’s like Jonathan Franzen, widely read and financially successful but still literary.
Having gone to “Sex With Strangers” mainly to see Anna Gunn, I had deliberately avoided learning the plot beforehand and was more than a little disturbed by the parallels to my own life. I’m finishing a novel that I have little idea of how to sell, though so far no Ethan Strange has to come to my rescue. As the play makes clear, the old publishing model is dead: ebooks and marketing via social media are the new reality. Then there’s the Janus-faced Internet, which makes it possible for me to find historical materials for my documentaries, publicize them and (lately) sell and rent them to viewers. Yet it also cheapens my ebooks and documentaries, just as it has devalued music. Now that art is “content,” the perception is that it should be free. The sole difference between the real online world versus that of “Sex With Strangers” is that in reality, no one wants to pay for anything.
During intermission, I struck up a conversation about these topics with my seat mate, who told me he was a painter. When I asked what kind, he said, “Fine art. I work for Jeff Koons.” What a coincidence! I confessed that the Whitney retrospective had left me liking Koons’ art less rather than more, and asked what he thought of it. “I’m not a fan,” he said flatly. Though he praised Koons as an employer and a man and said that he enjoyed the camaraderie of working in the studio, he agreed that having assistants do all the sculpting and painting was unprecedented. When I compared Koons to Willie Wonka–“He has a chocolate factory but he’s not making the chocolate”–he offered, “Some people say he’s a charlatan.” He then showed me photos of his own paintings, which were technically and artistically superior to anything in the Koons oeuvre, and so different that I could hardly imagine the same artist creating both.
Seeing “Split-Rocker” in Rockefeller Plaza the next day, I felt some of my old delight in Jeff Koons’ work. But the parallels between him and Ethan Strange, and between me, my seat mate and Olivia, gnawed at me. Perhaps the real test of art comes after the artist’s death, when the Emily Dickinsons of the world rise up to reign supreme. But in the earthly realm, artists have to eat.