Two very different diamond rings are the focus of artworks currently being discussed in the art world and beyond - Blue Diamond, a sculpture by postmodernist Jeff Koons, and Marine Wedding, a photograph by Nina Berman. The artworks are poles apart, but each illustrates in its own way the crisis American society has fallen into. The works also exemplify the contrasting directions American art is taking in the face of that crisis.
Blue Diamond is a giant, highly polished stainless steel sculpture that’s nearly eight feet tall and more than seven feet wide. The replica jewel will be sold Nov. 13 at Christie’s auction of postwar and contemporary art, and it’s expected to sell for as high as $12 million. Christie’s described the work as “an almost comic-strip archetype, a stereotype, a cliché that has burst into monumental existence in our world, speaking of wealth and luxury and awe in an open, sincere and deliberately uncritical manner.” In other words, Blue Diamond is a crass celebration of ostentatious wealth that carries the moral authority and profundity of a Hallmark greeting card.
In contrast to the vapid kitsch offered by Koons, photographer Nina Berman puts forward a humanist vision that is at once heartrending and busting with empathy. In her photo, Marine Wedding, a diamond wedding ring is obscured by a beautiful bridal bouquet - and an unsettling vision of America’s war in Iraq. In 2004, Marine Corps reservist Ty Ziegal was trapped in a burning truck after it came under attack by Iraqi guerillas, that he survived was a miracle, but 19 rounds of reconstructive surgery could not restore the face stolen by war. The wedding day portrait of Renee Kline, 21, and Ty Ziegal, 24, has launched an eternal discussion on the meaning of love, devotion, sacrifice and war - whereas the only conversation surrounding the Koons sculpture has to do with how much it will sell for. You can view Berman’s photo on the New York Times website.
It is remarkable that Nina Berman’s photograph and Jeff Koons’ sculpture exist in the same time frame, and that they are both meant to reflect the current state of American society. Berman’s Marine Wedding does so with weighty philosophical insight, while Koons’ Blue Diamond can’t even muster enough relevance to be called inconsequential.
Berman’s photo comes from a larger body of work she calls, Purple Hearts: Back from Iraq, which are compassionate studies of wounded Iraq war vets. Marine Wedding stands alone as a jarring image, with the great majority of images from Berman’s series being quite tame and contemplative by comparison. But Purple Hearts by no means represents the totality of Berman’s vision, and an overview of her growing body of work reveals an artist sincerely pursuing an honest examination of “the American Way of Life.” By comparison, even a cursory review of Koons’ oeuvre exposes an artist with all the sophistication of a corn dog.
UPDATE: Ty Ziegal died on Dec. 26, 2012 at the age of 30.