My Seminar With Mark Kostabi, Part 1

I found myself thinking about Troilus and Cressida on my way up to the Mark Kostabi seminar, the “special event” sponsored by the Seminar Center (a Learning Annex rival). A special event the Seminar Center had headlined “Art Legend MARK KOSTABI: How to Generate Income for Your Business via ‘The Art of Promotion.'”

I was thinking about Troilus and Cressida in part because I’d been thinking about little else ever since I saw the brilliant Trevor Nunn production of that “problem play” (by Drama Legend WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE) three weeks earlier in London. I was thinking about Troilus and Cressida because-in very different ways-both the play and the Mark Kostabi seminar raise questions, problematize , as the jargonistas like to say, the question of value.

They ask the question: Is there such a thing as intrinsic value in history, in art, in anything? Or does the value of everything depend on how and by whom it’s priced and promoted, by what’s projected upon it by power, money, fashion and rhetoric?

There’s a provocative exchange about the question of value in the second act of Troilus . The Greeks have made an offer to end the Trojan War: Send Helen back to her rightful husband, and we’ll call off the siege of Troy, leave the city intact, go home in peace. Let’s send her back, the Trojan hero Hector says at first: “She is not worth what she doth cost the holding.”

Not true, says Troilus, “What’s aught but as ’tis valued?” She’s worth it because we say she’s worth it. We’ve staked our lives, our reputations and honor on holding her. That which we have projected upon her has given her value.

No, Hector replies, there’s more to value than the price projected upon an object, value inheres as well in what makes something “precious of itself.”

Drama Legend WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE suggests that belief in intrinsic value was a lovely but antiquated notion even then, one even Hector, its only defender, abandons. One further destabilized in the rhetoric of Ulysses, the cynical realist of the play, who later argues that even self-worth is not “precious of itself”-not even knowable-but only defined by the applause of the multitude, the success of self-promotion: A man’s worth means nothing “’til he communicate his parts to others,” Ulysses observes. No one can judge his own merits “till he behold them formed in th’applause” of others. An applause which can, of course, be manipulated by public relations and self-promotion in an ever-reflexive recession from the possibility of ever glimpsing anything “precious of itself.”

Welcome to New York 2000. Welcome to the New York art world, increasingly a subsidiary of the publicity-industrial complex, whose chief product is less art or value than reputation and price. An ethos that-depending on how you look at it, how you look at him-Mark Kostabi either parodies and critiques or embodies and enacts. Or on different levels, does both.

I always had mixed feelings about Mr. Kostabi, because I found it hard to be sure which level he was operating on. I liked the way he drives those who take the pretensions of the art world seriously crazy . I liked him as a running gag, less performance art than performance comedy, a careerlong, perhaps lifelong deadpan sendup of the promotional culture of the art world. He seemed to make overt the mercantile careerist game most artists and dealers play beneath the surface of their professed-and philosophically unfounded-rhetoric of value, the reasons given for praising or pricing one thing above another.

Mark Kostabi and “Kostabi World”-his assembly-line art factory and supermarket where his hourly wage hirelings actually paint the pictures he signs in order to keep his mind and calendar free for the real work of the contemporary artist, promotion and publicity-“Kostabi World,” with its unblushing evocation of the carnival barker and the circus attraction, seemed like a hilarious sendup of an art world that had argued and jargoned itself out of any belief in intrinsic value, in anything else but the value bestowed by fashion and hype. And I liked the way that some art critics, many art dealers and even more art collectors bought into the sendup anyway, without-or despite-realizing the joke was on them.

But I always wondered about Mr. Kostabi’s own attitude. Beneath his Warholian deadpan mask (he was like Andy Warhol without the Dread), was he really in on the joke? Was he doing for-or to-the art world what that other Andy, Andy Kaufman, was doing to the world of professional wrestling when he “became” a loudmouthed, self-promoting pro wrestler, and never let the mask slip?

Or was the joke on him? Did Mr. Kostabi take his work (mainly “faceless high-contrast volumetric figures … many wearing pointed hats,” as he helpfully summarized it for us at the seminar) seriously , or was it a goof? Or are these outmoded distinctions in a folie à deux between the art of promotion and the promotion of art? Between publicity artists such as Jeff Koons and Mr. Kostabi and an art world too inoculated or too intoxicated by irony to care which is which?

That was the question raised by the Seminar Center’s promotional copy for its special event with “Art Legend MARK KOSTABI”: Was his appearance to discuss “How to Generate Income for Your Business Via the ‘Art of Promotion'” an extension of a careerlong goof on the art world, a satiric performance piece ? Or was it, in some demented way, “sincere”?

Esthetic attitude analysis is an imprecise science. It was hard to tell his stance from the context in which I initially learned about the Kostabi seminar: in a catalogue promoting lectures mainly by New Age self-help gurus, a catalogue I came upon in a rack outside a health food store, one I proceeded to devour while waiting for someone to join me for breakfast at the Cupping Room Cafe. It was in the heart of the SoHo art world, yes, but yet also the heart of the subtextual, gnostic, anti-ironic New Age SoHo that coincides geographically if not cognitively with the official ironic culture.

The catalogue entry promoting the seminar with “Art Legend MARK KOSTABI” was not the most prominently featured. Betty Eadie, author of the misty near-death-experience love-in Embraced by the Light , was given front-page treatment. Mr. Kostabi shared page 8 billing with “Renowned Psychic Intuitive Lauren Thibodeau, Ph.D.,” whose seminar was entitled “Applied Intuitions & Contacting the Deceased.” In fact, death and near-death seemed to be a theme of the catalogue’s offerings. One featured speaker promised the opportunity to “Participate in an Astonishing Group Regression ,” re-entering the now dead bodies of your past lives. And advertised right below “Art Legend MARK KOSTABI” was “An Evening with Disco Diva GLORIA GAYNOR” in which it is promised, “You’ll learn about the profound changes in her spiritual faith following the death of her mother, and constant battles with weight, low self-esteem and personal finances.”

The unspoken death-the death of disco-was not alluded to, but there was an aura of faded 80’s glamour to the Seminar Center catalogue description of the Kostabi seminar, an aura, a tone that conjured up the junk-bond culture in which his art first thrived:

” Spend an evening with this marketing mastermind as he reveals practical promotional ideas. Kostabi will discuss: *Networking principles *Risk-taking *Getting clients and making deals *The value of persistence *Keeping a positive mental attitude. An evening with famed artist Mark Kostabi can skyrocket your income potential dramatically! “

Sincere or ironic? Is he doing it because he sincerely wants the 45 bucks a head (for nonmembers of the Seminar Center) he’s charging for his appearance? Or is it ironic, a pure performance piece, site-specific conceptual art about art? Could it be that it was a daring way to raise the stakes of his previous “interrogation” of the boundaries between art and promotion, as the jargonistas might say, a way of reviving the debate about an artist with a flagging reputation?

Art-world initiates say that while Mr. Kostabi once was taken seriously by some critics and collectors in New York, and while he still has a strong market in places like Japan and Italy, he is no longer considered as provocative and challenging, certainly not as fashionable, not as cutting-edge as he once was, as his fellow practitioner of publicity art, Jeff Koons, still apparently is. And some speculate he’s frustrated by it.

Could this Seminar Center appearance be a way of doing something so cutting-edge it would catapult him back into the pages of Artforum ? So cutting-edge it seems like it’s a small-time sellout, a quickie, low-rent payday, but that’s the key, that’s the test : If you look at it the right way, it’s a challenge, a challenge to see the deeper level of self-implicating irony really going on. Could the Kostabi seminar be the first truly post-postmodern event of the millennial year? A harbinger of the Coming Age of Unconscious Irony, or Unconscious Consciousness? Was Mr. Kostabi once again “interrogating” those interpenetrable boundaries between art and self-promotion? Or would the people who paid $45 bucks “sincerely” hoping to “skyrocket their income potential” have to begin to interrogate themselves. Along the lines of: What was I thinking ?

So that was my thinking as the hour approached, as I made my way over to the site of the Kostabi seminar, a drab building on West 30th Street, and made my way up to a small bare room filled with those cold steel folding chairs that always fill sad rooms like this. There were a dozen or so of us scattered along the rows, awaiting the appearance of the Art Legend and Marketing Mastermind.

Herewith some notes and reflections on what transpired in the Kostabi seminar:

The first signal of the approach of the Art Legend: At 6:30, when the two-and-a-half-hour lecture is scheduled to begin, we hear his voice on the telephone at the receptionist’s desk outside the room. Making a reservation at a once-very-hot TriBeCa restaurant, Spartina, which still must be pretty hot if “Art Legend” Mark Kostabi plans to dine there. He calls up cold, asks for a table for two at 9:30 and gets it just like that! Of course, he did have to spell out his name for the reservation taker, “That’s Kostabi. K-O-S-T-A-B-I,” modestly refusing to add “Art Legend” to put the person in his or her place. But shouldn’t he or she have known ? Perhaps it was someone very new in town who needed to be put in the picture.

There followed another call, to his dinner companion: Meet me at Spartina, 9:30. Sounds like Success brings Romance, too! (Or were both calls staged? An object lesson in the fabulous life that awaits the seeker after the seminar Skyrockets His Income Potential? The eternal question.)

In any case, having given us a hint of the glamorous life an Art Legend lives, Mr. Kostabi enters wearing black, looking serene and prosperous. If no longer a golden boy, there was at least a kind of golden frosting on his head which interrogated the boundaries between art and nature, color and color treatment.

He doesn’t make the small-timer’s mistake of false modesty; he introduces himself by saying, “I’m called a marketing genius, some people call me an artistic genius, and some people call me their favorite artist of all time.” (Mercifully, he shields the identities of the latter group.)

Having established his authority and eminence, he begins with a half-hour of anecdotes about how he became “a hot young artist” in the 80’s after only having to struggle for maybe a year but not too hard. The half-hour centers on the drama-which appears absorbing to him-of how he engineered the “placing” (Now this is “one of those art-world terms you’ll begin to hear,” he helpfully informs the audience) of a couple of his prints in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Two promotional credentials he includes on all his marketing material and which have served him well with Japanese galleries and in his long, ultimately successful campaign to get a feature about himself in People magazine. It was all about how he got this gallery owner to get that collector to donate those prints to this or that institution in their name.

There were some aspiring artists on the steel folding chairs, and they may well have found his rather obvious advice-circulate, make connections, suck up to the more successful, drop names, etc.-extremely helpful. But I’m wondering whether those who read the Seminar Center catalogue and pulled out their $27 to $45 in the hopes of finding ways to “skyrocket their income potential” would derive much practical benefit from advice on how to manipulate yourself into the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection-if their business was not conceptual art.

You wonder, too, whether a widget maker-or anyone who made something that had to serve some purpose-would benefit from the additional, rather obvious advice to hang out in the hot artist neighborhoods. (West Chelsea Widgets?) And how, when Mr. Kostabi was living in Hell’s Kitchen, he nonetheless sought to get himself known “as an East Village artist.” Still, it seemed he wanted to let us know that his various self-promoting maneuvers had skyrocketed his income potential. That his factory cranks out scores of Kostabis every month, that they sell for $5 to $50,000 each, that they’re in great demand in Italy, where he lives half the year, and in Japan, where “my work sells itself. I don’t have to show up.” He makes a point of noting that he’s just turned down a $1 million-plus offer from an Italian entrepreneur for the exclusive rights to sell Kostabis on Italian TV, Home Shopping Network style. He turned it down not on principle (“it would have been very Kostabi”) but because he was uncomfortable with the karmic aura of the person making the offer. In other words, he has Major Fuck You money as well as substantial cash flow. He’s too rich to be bought.

But before he discloses any more “secrets of the marketing mastermind,” he wants to let us know that it’s not about money, it’s about happiness. And he is happy. Very, very happy.

“While I was on my way over here,” he announced, “I was thinking, I can’t believe how happy I am. The way things are going so well. Even when things aren’t going so well, I have this way of dealing with them …” He is lost for a moment in the rapture of this “way of dealing with them” and how happy that makes him.

He digresses to what he calls the “big mistake young artists make.” Which is, in effect, not being happy. “Choosing to be angry and antisocial.” Thinking that after they’ve made their first success that they don’t need to play the game. You must always play the game, he insists. “Every business you’re in, you’re in the business of sales,” he says someone told him, and he supplies the corollary: “You’ve always got to be selling yourself.”

“There are winners and whiners,” he says. (“I won’t even say the L-word,” he claims. Not happy-making to even think about L-ing.) He seems to feel that the winners-wannabe (I won’t use the L-word) who paid $45 to hear him (and can’t expense it) can’t get enough of Mark Kostabi on the subject of his happiness about his happiness, “I was thinking how unbelievably happy I was. Almost 24 hours a day. When was I not happy recently? I can’t remember when I was unhappy. It’s been a constant state of happiness.”

Answering an unasked question, he says it has nothing to do with drink, drugs or medication: “The strongest thing I take,” he says, “is Earl Grey tea and dark chocolate.” Which, he concedes, “have some caffeine, and, being really honest, I could say that might have something to do with my happiness, but most of it has to do with the way I’ve got my brain working right now, making me successful at everything I do.”

But what is he actually doing here? It works for me as a kind of stand-up performance art. As a kind of Stuart Smalley sendup of an art-world guru, it’s hilarious. It makes me happy. But I can’t escape the unhappy suspicion that he may be deadly serious in an utterly humorless way about this. That he’s not being ironic. Or only being inadvertently ironic. Outsider conceptual art-is that a contradiction in terms? Is he a fool, or is he playing a fool?

If we only knew, we might be able to decipher his hilarious “happiness analysis” (my phrase, not his) of the history of art. How “Rembrandt is known for his searching and often unhappy self-portraits, but that he painted many pictures of happy people,” and earned a lucrative skyrocketing income doing it, and might have been better off, or at least happier, shying away from searing introspection. That Van Gogh didn’t need to be such a gloomy gus. That the Mona Lisa would have done far better for Leonardo if he’d given her a great big happy grin instead of an ambiguous smile. (O.K., that’s my line, not his.)

So is he the comic embodiment or the knowing parody of the postmodern artist? It’s a question he raises but does not answer. It’s a question I must admit I found pretty entertaining to contemplate as it played out in the seminar context. It’s a question I’ll return to in next week’s column, along with more wisdom and further specific techniques I learned in my Kostabi seminar, techniques that could help you Skyrocket Your Income Potential.

But to close this installment, I’d like to return to his happiness obsession. He returns to it himself from another direction when he tells us that in addition to being happy himself, it’s important to him to make other people happy. Not necessarily because the happiness of others generates happiness in him in a pure way: “It could be just because if other people are more happy, the streets will be safer for me ,” he concedes.

But he makes a point of repeating something a collector of his work told him, a businessman: “that anyone who employs 15 people” as Mr. Kostabi does (painting the paintings he signs, doing his books, keeping track of his schedule) “must be making people happy.”

I was discussing Mr. Kostabi’s happiness thing with one of the few serious artists I know and admire-and my doubts about whether Mr. Kostabi was making a joke or whether he was the joke. “But isn’t there some truth,” I asked her, “to the idea that he’s making people happy? The people who buy his art seem happy with it. He’s making people happy in that sense.”

“I don’t know,” she said. “He’s making me sad.”