If Pop art is the translation and abstraction of Pop culture into art, Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP strives to do the opposite: translate high art into pop culture and music, and this she does in a typical electro- pop fashion, with a lot of pomp and a lack of substance.
The album artwork is designed fittingly by Jeff Koons, who can be considered Gaga’s popstar parallel in the art world. His works have sold for substantial sums of money, including at least one world record auction price for a work by a living artist. Like Gaga, critics are sharply divided in their views of Koons. Some view his work as pioneering and of major importance in art history. Others dismiss his work as kitsch, crass, and based on cynical self-merchandising. Renowned critic Robert Hughes wrote that Koons is “an extreme and self-satisfied manifestation of the sanctimony that attaches to big bucks and the result is that you can’t imagine America’s singularly depraved culture without him.”
However self- merchandising or basic his works are deemed to be, what’s most striking in this almost hollow attempt at creating an ‘ARTPOP’ aesthetic is its utter self-awareness. Among other things, Gaga talks about the phenomenon of a popstar in ‘applause’ and how she literally thrives on applause from the crowd and she goes on to say “I’m a rich bitch, I am the upper class” in the single Donatella, making a statement on both, the modern fashion industry and icons like her who influence it. Koons himself has stated that there are no hidden meanings in his works, nor any critiques. In ARTPOP, Lady Gaga sings, almost in self-mockery: “I know that mom and dad think I’m a mess, but that’s alright coz I’m rich as piss…”
Lady Gaga and Jeff Koons know and hone all that they’re accused of and still continue to work towards creating a new kind of art, a reflective movement where content is secondary, and context is everything.
The ARTPOP cover features Lady Gaga as a Koons' statue, naked and clutching her breasts, legs splayed around a mystical blue gazing ball. Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” is collaged into the background, blatantly equating that ancient sex goddess with this modern one (and that ancient master artist with Koons). Also collaged in the background are Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne. This potpourri of images from classical art create the resting ground for Lady Gaga, with the viewers' focus directed towards the blue gazing orb lodged in between her legs.
The gazing ball invites a multiplicity of experiences for the viewer. Koons' blue ball itself (that recurs in a series of white cast sculptures) has been thought of as a symbol and an instrument for transcendence as well as reflectiveness. It’s a mysterious orb that allows the viewer to gaze into it reflectively and interpret the work of art it is affixed to. In thinking of the ball as a work of art that connects and contrasts ideas while also inviting an individual reflectiveness, it is also important to note where in this particular artwork it is located.
The gazing ball placed in between Gaga’s sprawled legs ignites the viewer to reflect on sex and sexuality and the different forms these can take and their relation to both high and low art, which is one of the central themes of the music on this album as well. With her bold posture and almost direct confrontation of sexuality in her lyrics, Gaga questions gender roles and traditional sexual status quo.
In its entirety, the album cover juxtaposes the ideas of traditional and modern as well as high and low art in the cover through a collaging of famous paintings, classical sculpture and the iconic gazing ball. Following the theme of intermixing of art and pop, Lady Gaga’s portrayal as Venus abstracts the mythological concept into the idea of a modern sex popstar.
Koons has done to Botticelli’s Venus what Edouard Manet the father of modern art did to Titian’s Venus in his painting Olympia (1863). That is to bring her bang up to date. Manet did it by turning Venus into a hooker; Koons has done it by transforming her into a pop star. In both cases they have done away with the wistful gaze into the middle distance favoured by the renaissance artists, and instead have their modern versions challenging the viewer by staring directly into his eyes.
Besides these nods to classical art, Koons has also incorporated modern pop culture references into post-modern mash up. Lady Gaga’s spread legs seem to be inspired from Tracy Emin’s iconic self-portrait I’ve Got It All (2000), where she’s seen shovelling a lot of bank notes and coins into her groin in a similar posture. Lady Gaga’s gazing ball reflects on sex and sexuality in the same way Emin’s portrait reflects on capitalism and personal identity after fame and fortune.
The artwork, like a lot of Jeff Koons' works attempts to play with conventional perceptions of art and pop culture and in the process and breaks the dichotomy between them. While the lyrical content and imagery of the album remains rooted in mainstream pop, it also celebrates its own frivolity unabashedly. The album is saturated with ideas and inspiration from works of art, both visually and contextually and creates an interesting reflection on the state of the art world and pop music today. This forms the background for all the ideas explored by Gaga: sex, capitalism, fashion, romance, drugs and substance abuse.
At the first glance, both the artwork and the music on this album appear almost repulsively frivolous; like a dystopian nightmare of the growing meaninglessness in pop music. But as the blue gazing ball invites further reflection, one can begin to see this hollow work as a mirror of Lady Gaga’s world today. ARTPOP tries, succeeds and simultaneously fails at translating art into the realm of popular music. With one foot in the realm of an artist and another in that of a popstar, she falls short on both sides, but continues to provoke exploration of the middle, the blue orb in between her legs.