Helene Vincent
Dec. 13, 2011
Cultural Hybridity
Professor Irvine

The Transcendence of Cultural Boundaries of Sexuality: The Art of Jeff Koons and Nan Goldin

Jeff Koons and Nan Goldin are two artists that one would not normally bundle up together. Their styles and subjects differ greatly, however, when looking at ideas about human sexuality in their work, I believe both artists share a common desire to show us that sex is a cultural construction, but that it can be transcended and become a truly personal experience. Using Sigmund Freud and Michel Foucault to provide a background on human sexuality, I will try to understand why the works of these two artists continue to make people so uncomfortable. Furthermore, I will look at the idea of the postmodern sexual experience as nothing but a hyper-reality with no meaning through the work of Jean Baudrillard.


In 1991 an exhibition entitled “Made in Heaven” opened at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York City. Within the gallery space was a series of paintings and sculptures of the artist, Jeff Koons, and his wife, porn star turned politician, Ilona Staller, also known as Cicciolina. The paintings were, in a sense, a kind of self-portrait of Koons, depicting his relationship with his wife. It is the nature of those self-portraits that brought Koons under fire. He chose to focus on one specific aspect of his marital relationship—sex.

“Made in Heaven” features Koons and Staller in an array of Kama Sutra positions performing their own personal sexual acts in front of the viewer’s eyes. The paintings and sculptures leave little to the imagination; in fact Koons seems to have very intentionally created such candid images. Koons’ show elicited an endless debate; is this art, or is this pornography? Some people view the paintings as elevating the natural, timeless act of sex into a spiritual position where we understand the act as an ultimate act of love, but others, and their position was made very vocal, view the paintings as outright smut. In a postmodern world where discussion of human sexuality seems to be just about everywhere, how is it that Koons’ work still created such a stir? What about his images outraged people to the point of absolute disgust?

Many critics bashed Koons’ exhibit at the Sonnabend. In his review of “Made in Heaven” in Art News, Richard B. Woodward wrote, “Koons employs photography to create a spectacle of his sexuality […] Koons has shrewdly exploited his own celebrity and that of his wife”(122). Woodward concludes his review by stating, “[Koons’] work has moved beyond provocation and become a profoundly degrading experience”(122). Woodward was certainly not alone in his assessment of Koons’ paintings as nothing more than meaningless show on the part of the artist. Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times called Koons “an opportunistic publicity monger.” Many viewers of the show, critics and New Yorkers alike, found something profoundly repellant and startling in Koons’ paintings. Some believed it was bad art that sought to do nothing but shock in a perverse manner. Others did not even believe it was possible to give Koons the honor of calling his works art, because in their eyes Koons images could not qualify as anything other than pornography.

The strong reaction of viewers to Koons’ work can be better understood through the writings of Michel Foucault and Sigmund Freud. In his work The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault refers to us as the “Other Victorians.” According to Foucault, in the 19th century sexuality became confined as it moved into the home, in other words, sexuality became something private. This concept of sexuality as something that stays within private space, Foucault believes, still influences us today; he states, “The image of the imperial prude is emblazoned on our restrained, mute, and hypocritical sexuality”. This privatization of sex is one of the main reasons many people took issue to Koons’ paintings. Foucault claims that the repression of sexuality that began in the 19th c. is one of the factors that brought sex into discourse. Foucault states, “Instead of something to do, sex became something to say,” and that talking about sex became a “deliberate transgression.” If talking about sex is a deliberate transgression, painting about sex must be a step beyond that. Though we are now hundreds of years past the century Foucault is discussing, it is still a very pertinent idea. We talk about sex all the time, it is absolutely everywhere: books, movies, tv, news channels, magazines, schools, just to name a few. And even so, it is perfectly OK to talk about sex, but as can be seen in the reaction of most people who viewed Koons’ work, it is absolutely not OK to turn what everybody is talking about into images. We “Other Victorians” still do not want to watch the act unfold in front of us. Sexuality, to us, is still confined and private. Koons took sexuality and released it from the privacy of the home into the public space of the gallery.

Sigmund Freud also discussed human repression of sexuality in a way that is particularly pertinent to Koons’ work. Freud discusses the idea of repression extensively in his work Civilization and its Discontents. According to Freud, Civilization (Kultur) is responsible for our misery because it places restrictions on us that work to curb our inherent aggression. Freud stated that men are not gentle creatures but Kultur forces them to behave as such for the good of the community as a whole. According to freud, “Primitive man was better off in knowing no restrictions of instict.” Freud further argues that this repression of aggression produces neurosis within men, he states, “It was discovered that a person becomes neurotic because he cannot tolerate the amount of frustration which society imposes on him in the service of its cultural ideals, and it was inferred from this that the abolition or reduction of those demands would result in a return to possibilities of happiness.” Our adherence to Kultur traps us in a state of unhappiness because it does not allow us to live without restrictions, a state that Freud believes is what we truly seek.

Freud’s idea of the repression of human aggression can easily be interpreted as having a direct link to human sexuality. The sex drive is related to the aggressive nature of men that Freud describes. Checking male aggression includes curbing the male libido. Men, according to Freud, strive for happiness. That happiness has two sides, a positive and negative aim. The positive aim is experiencing feelings of pleasure and the negative aim is an absence of pain and unpleasure. In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud states, “An unrestricted satisfaction of every need presents itself as the most enticing method of conducting one’s life, but it means putting enjoyment before caution, and soon brings its own punishment.” It is not a stretch to read Freud’s work in terms of sexual pleasure. Unrestricted sexual satisfaction is seen as something unachievable in our society precisely because of the limits on human aggression imposed on us by Kultur. A reason the “Made in Heaven” series was so ill received is precisely because Koons deliberately transgresses the limits imposed on man by Kultur.

The inability to satisfy every need immediately and without restriction seems to come back frequently to Freud’s idea that civilization forces us to tame our sexual habits (the “aggression” he refers to). Koons, in this body of work, seems to have succeeded, if only for a brief window of time, in transgressing the barrier of civilization. Though all of Koons’ paintings in the show reflect the same kind of artistic quest, I will use one example to examine this idea of transgression. In one of the paintings, Koons is barely within the frame of the image, his side is partially visible but Staller dominates the painting*. In this particular image, Koons makes love to Ilona from behind, and she bears the facial expression of someone completely immersed in the act in which she is involved. Koons’ face is not visible, so in this particular work emphasis is placed on the woman’s pleasure as opposed to the man’s, however, Freud’s ideas are still applicable. Women are expected to repress themselves sexually just as men are within their society, probably more so than men. There is nothing vulgar about the expression on Staller’s face, it is not that of someone filled with sexual aggression but rather than of someone experiencing intense feelings of love. Her tongue is pressed up against the roof of her mouth in an assertion of dedication to the moment. There is no doubt that Staller is not focused on anything other than this precise act. She is in a state of unrestrained satisfaction; she and her husband have striven for and attained happiness. Daniela Salvioni said of “Made in Heaven” that, “It dares to broach the issue of pleasure in a context in which its appearance is rare, despite the fact that to please is an integral function of art. Moreover, it does so in an era besieged by hysterical Puritanism, thus ushering in, in my opinion, a welcome defiance of repressive attacks”(25).
*A full sized image link to this painting could not be found, however, it was located in an article which is linked here (photos 12 and 13):

When looking at Koons’ “Made in Heaven” paintings, it is also possible to read them through the lens of Jean Baudrillard’s work Simulacra and Simulation. Baudrillard argues that human experience is merely a simulation of reality resulting from our society embracing symbols and signs as a substitute for all reality and meaning. ‘Simulacra’ are the significations and symbolism of culture and media that construct our experience of a simulation of reality. Society becomes completely saturated by these simulacra and thus all meaning is rendered meaningless. Baudrillard states that the present age is the third order of simulacra and that we are dealing with a precession of simulacra. Baudrillard writes, “Whereas representation tries to absorb simulation by interpreting it as false representation, simulation envelops the whole edifice of representation as itself a simulacrum.” Nowadays, the representation precedes and determines the original. The real and the fake do not exist anymore; we are left with only the simulations of reality, which bear no relation to any reality whatsoever. Reality is its own pure simulacrum. This phenomenon is termed by Baudrillard as “hyper-reality.”

In the postmodern world, the term Hyper-reality, illustrates our inability to distinguish reality from fantasy. The line between the real and the virtual becomes blurred. Baudrillard uses Disneyland as an example of simulacrum to illustrate the idea of hyper-reality, which is interesting because as John Caldwell states about Made in Heaven in his article ‘Jeff Koons: The Way We Live Now’, “To some degree, what Koons has produced is the Walt Disney version of an erotic fantasy, complete with adorable animals and even little birdies”(13). Koons created paintings stylized in such a way as to portray a distinct air of fantasy, in two senses of the word. Sexual fantasy; in the sense that he has depicted his wife in various costumes, creating a sense of drama and contributing to the theatrical nature of the images. Imagery fantasy; the figures are located within imaginary backgrounds and surrounded by images of what can be referred to as “cuteness.” By framing his sexual acts with his wife in this fantastical world, Koons could be alluding to the fact that all of our sexual experiences are now mediated by ideas of what a fantasy should be.

In terms of addressing the issue of Koons’ paintings as pornography, it is difficult for me to understand the view of those who claim it to be so, because there are two major reasons his works cannot be viewed as such. These paintings are not pornographic, though they are explicit depictions of human sexuality. As Susan Sontag pointed, pornography lacks fully developed characters. In order for us to project our desires onto the characters in a pornographic work, they must be generic figures. Full development allows the characters to become too specific, the subjects become real people and it interferes with our fantasies (53-54). In the case of Koons’ paintings, we know exactly who the figures are. There is nothing generic about the characters because as mentioned previously, “Made in Heaven” is a kind of self-portrait. The characters are too specific and this interferes with our personal erotic agenda. Koons’ work ends up frustrating us because it looks like pornography, but does not function as such. We end up being put off by the images because they are not meant to mediate our own erotic desires. They are images of the erotic desire of two very specific people and we are not invited to participate.

The other reason “Made in Heaven” cannot be interpreted as pornography is the context into which the paintings were inserted. Koons is an artist, and he therefore created his “Made in Heaven” paintings to be received in an art historical context. The paintings were first exhibited in galleries and continue to be exhibited in galleries. In a statement about “Made in Heaven”, Koons himself said, “I am not involved with pornography. It really has no interest for me. I am interested in love, I am interested in reunion, I am interested in the spiritual, to be able to show people that they can have an impact and achieve their desires.” Once again, the paintings are about the freedom to seek sexual pleasure for its own sake, an idea that still makes us “Other Victorians” uncomfortable to see manifested in an image. I think Adam Gopnik makes an interesting point in his article Lust For Life, Gopnik states, “In the mid-eighties, when everybody was talking about [Koons] as a member of the Neo-Geo generation—as another cool Baudrillardian manipulator of commodities—I suggested that what he might possibly be was a nut”(76). Koons is an odd bird, and according to Gopnik, the reason a lot of the people who criticized “Made in Heaven” did not understand that Koons really believed in the innocence of what he had created. Though in many ways, Koons exposes sex as a fusion of what we know from experience and what we know from the media-saturated world we live in, he also exhibits sex as the natural phenomenon it is that we are constantly trying to repress.



Nan Goldin is arguably one of the most important photographers of the past century. Her photographs are startlingly touching and emphasize a kind of individual freedom that is an important characteristic of the world we live in today as well as that 40 years ago, when she first began photographing her close knit circle of friends. Goldin herself has insisted that her photographs arose from a need to make a record of what she had actually seen and done. Her photographs are a diary, of her life and the lives of those she surrounded herself with, put on display for the world to see. In this sense, she can be likened to Koons (in relation to the Made in Heaven series) because her work is too a kind of deeply personal self-portrait. Because Goldin has a large body of work consisting of many subjects, this analysis will focus on a number of specific photographs that portray the subjects engaged in sexual acts.
Nan Goldin, Name of work not found

As was already explained earlier in this paper, Sigmund Freud suggested in his work Civilization and its Discontents that civilization (Kultur) is responsible for our inability to be truly happy because it imposes social standards on us in the service of a general cultural ideal. Human beings are each individual and have particular desires, so eventually we are no longer able to tolerate these impositions on our behavior. Goldin and her circle of friends were clearly a group of people that decided they would no longer play into this general idea of civilization, particularly in terms of their sexual identities. In The Other Side, Goldin stated, “After years of experiencing and photographing the struggle of the two genders with their codes and definitions and their difficulties in relating to each other, it was liberating to meet people who had crossed these gender boundaries. Most people get scared when they can’t categorize others—by race, by age, and most of all, by gender […] And still others make no attempt at all to fit in anywhere, but live in a gender-free zone, flaunting their third sex status”(7) The social norms of sexual identity imposed on us by Kultur are mainly centered around gender and gender orientation. If you look like a male and possess the genetic make-up of a male, you must accept that you are a male. The same logic would follow for a female. If you are a male you are expected to be attracted to and form relationships with females; if you are a female you are expected to be attracted to and form relationships with males. According to Freud there is a sliding scale of whether something is considered socially acceptable or not, whether it is “perverse” or not. Within our Kultur, a gender-free/third sex zone that Goldin praises certainly falls to the perverse side of Freud’s scale.
Nan Goldin, Gilles Dusein and Gotscho, 1992
Nan Goldin, Clemens Squeezing Jens' Nipples, 2001
Nan Goldin, Kat and Sarah Kissing, 2006

Nan Goldin, Joey and Andres in bed, Hotel Anschisfer Hof, 1992

Goldin’s photographs, like Koons’ "Made in Heaven" paintings, demonstrate the unrestricted satisfaction that Freud mentions in the discussion of the pleasure principle. Koons champions an unrestricted satisfaction with someone you love as a means of cementing feelings of love and desire. Goldin, through her photographs, is I believe championing a feeling of unrestricted satisfaction through exploration. For Goldin, part of why we are unhappy is because we want to remain in our confined gender specific zones, but true happiness can perhaps be found in breaking those norms. Goldin photographs men with women, men with men, men with men as women, men with women as men, women with women, and the list of cross gendered encounters goes on. Arthur Danto describes Goldin’s circle of friends as, “transsexuals primping or on parade, hairy men at the instant of ejaculation, violent lovers posed to batter their partners, couples of every gender on top of one another, everyone living disordered lives in disordered spaces”(77). Danto’s words perfectly illustrate the influence Kultur has on us. Danto dislikes that Goldin’s subjects do not fit into that greater concept of a Kultur united under rules of acceptability. Her friends do not conform to those social norms, which we believe are necessary to keep society functioning. Their behavior cannot and will not be curved because they seek intense enjoyment that, according to Freud, is only possible through their unrestricted satisfying of immediate urges.
Another way in which Goldin’s work defies our views of human sexuality is similar to Koons—she takes the inside and puts it outside, takes what is private and makes it public. As Michel Foucault pointed out in his work The History of Sexuality, we are still Victorian in our views of sexuality in the sense that for us it is not meant to be a public spectacle. Sexuality has long been confined within the privacy of the home and removing it from that specific location makes people extremely uncomfortable. Although sex is something completely natural that remains innate to all humans, it is seen as something that must remain hidden in a state of secrecy. It can be spoken about (but even that is considered transgressive) but it must certainly never be seen. Like in Koons’ work, the intimacy of Goldin’s photographs makes people uncomfortable.

Nan Goldin, Joana and Aureole Making Out in My Apartment, 1999

Nan Goldin, Joana and Aureole Making Love, 2000

Nan Goldin, Simon and Jessica Kissing in the Shower, 2001

Nan Goldin, Simon and Jessica Making Love, Jessica Coming, 2001

Nan Goldin, Simon and Jessica Kissing in the Pool, 2001

Critics have described Goldin’s photographs as revealing deeply private individual experiences to a larger public. This can most clearly be seen in the fact that the bedroom is Goldin’s setting of choice, signaling an entrance into a private space of personal interactions. David Wojnarowicz made a comment that echoes both Freud and Baudrillard, he stated:
“To make the private into something public is an action that has terrific repercussions in a pre-invented world…Each public disclosure of a private reality becomes something of a magnet that can attract others with a similar frame of reference; thus each public disclosure of a fragment of private reality serves as a dismantling too against the illusion of ONE TRIBE NATION”(10)
The “pre-invented world” is of course that created by the impositions of Kultur upon us, and the “one tribe nation” is the concept of a united civilization itself. Artists like Goldin who disclose individual private moments of specific people, especially when those people are digressing from the accepted norms of society, may sway other people who are a part of civilization to also begin to digress from the cultural conglomerate they belong to. The fear is that Goldin, through her work, encourages other people to abandon their existing ideas on sexuality and instead embrace more radical, or to Feud’s term more “perverse” ideas on sexuality.
Nan Goldin once said, “I had enormous respect for the courage my friends had in recruiting themselves according to their fantasies”(The Other Side 5). As I read that line, I was reminded of Baudrillard and his idea of a true reality no longer existing because the distinction between reality and representation vanishes. The line between reality and fantasy is blurred by the phenomenon of hyper-reality. I think one could argue that Goldin’s photographs, though meant to be recordings of specific memories that actually happened thus a record of reality, are examples of the hyper-real, a blurring vision of reality and fantasy that becomes in itself a simulacrum.
Goldin used her tight-knit circle of friends as her subjects which on the one hand certainly allowed her to capture intimate moments that occurred in their lives, however, it also means that some of those moments may not have been as candid as the viewer believes. When we are aware that people are watching us, our behavior changes. The same thing happens in front of a camera lens—we are under the impression that somewhere, sometime, others will see the photograph being taken, and taking that into consideration we modify the way we act in front of it. It is possible (very possible) that Goldin’s friends upped their antics when they knew they were being photographed, making themselves look more glamorous, out of control, promiscuous, and whatever else have you. Through this modification of behavior, Goldin’s subjects construct the perceived reality of the viewer. The intimate relationships between the lovers in the images are thus rendered meaningless. This is certainly the more pessimistic way of looking at Goldin’s images. Instead of looking at them as a celebration of human sexuality beyond what is considered socially acceptable, this is a way of looking at them as bearing no relationship to any reality whatsoever and the images lose all meaning.
I would like to just briefly touch upon the connection between photography and death that I believe is very much a part of Goldin’s work. Though this seems completely non pertinent to human sexuality, it actually is, because a number of Goldin’s very close friends, whom she photographed in sexual settings as well as simple day to day activity, died of AIDS. In Photography and Fetish, Christian Metz talks about the relationship of photography with death, stating, “The snapshot, like death, is an instantaneous abduction of the object out of the world into another world, into another kind of time”(84). Goldin’s photographs of her friends who later died freeze them within a particular time and place. Knowing that the cause of their death was AIDS, it can make the viewer wonder, was this the moment their death began? Did this act of seemingly pure joy really lead them to the grave? I think here once again it is appropriate to recall Freud, who stated, “An unrestricted satisfaction of every need presents itself as the most enticing method of conducting one’s life, but it means putting enjoyment before caution, and soon brings its own punishment.” Living without restrictions caused the ultimate demise for some of Goldin’s friends. Their search for happiness through unrestricted pleasure prompted them to lead caution-less lives. Their desire to break from sexual norms of society resulted in their death, which in a very morbid way is a victory for Kultur and the “Other Victorians” who adhere to it.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. “Simulacra and Simulations.” Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings. Ed. Mark Poster. Stanford: Standord
University Press, 1988. 166-184. E-text.

Caldwell, John. “Jeff Koons: The Way We Live Now.” Jeff Koons. San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1992.
9-14. Print.

Danto, Arthur. “Nan Goldin’s Recent Photographs.” Parkett 57 (1999): 76-84. E-text.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. E-text.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Excerpts from the translation by James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1961.

Goldin, Nan. The Other Side. Eds. David Armstrong and Walter Kelly. New York: Scalo Publishers, 1993. Print.

Kimmelman, Michael. “Art in Review: Jeff Koons Sonnabend Galery.” The New York Times. Nov. 29, 1991. Online.

Metz, Christian. “Photography and Fetish.” October 34 (1985): 81-90. Print.

Salvioni, Daniela. “Jeff Koons’s Poetics of Class.” Jeff Koons. San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1992. 19-25.
Wojnarowicz, David. “Post Cards from America: X-Rays from Hell.” Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing. Ed. Nan Goldin. New
York: Artists Space, 1989. Online.

Woodward, Richard B. “Jeff Koons at Sonnabend.” Art News Feb. 1992: 122. Online.

Works Consulted

Fantastic Tales: The Photography of Nan Goldin. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005. Print.