In a telling moment Koons tells Sylvester that his work is ‘conceptual’ in that it uses aesthetics as a ‘psychological tool’. And at the end of the conversation he makes an extraordinary remark:
What I’ve always loved about the Pop vocabulary is its generosity to the viewer. And I say ‘generosity to the viewer’ because people, everyday, are confronted by images, and confronted by products that are packaged. And it puts the individual under great stress to feel packaged themselves … And so I always desire … to be able to give a viewer a sense of themselves being packaged, to whatever level they’re looking for. Just to instil a sense of self-confidence, self-worth. That’s my interest in Pop.
This credo fits in well with the therapy culture long dominant in American society (the only good ego is a strong ego, one that can beat back any unhappy neurosis), but it also suits a neoliberal ideology that seeks to promote our ‘self-confidence’ and ‘self-worth’ as human capital – that is, as skill-sets we are compelled to develop as we shift from one precarious job to another.
When self-worth is instrumentalized, it no longer belongs to you. It no longer refers to what you are worth to yourself, if such a thing is even worth imagining. “Self-worth” captures the idea of measuring oneself in an alien metric of value, of taking something that should be infinite (one’s “valuing” of one’s own existence) and making it commensurate with commodities, with abstract labor time, with economic growth rates.
Self-worth becomes sort of worthless when proved or demonstrated. So it makes sense to be suspicious of anyone who wants to boost your self-worth, or who wants to give you ways to assess it — anyone who wants you to believe it is not immeasurable, that it is alienable. Such people (or corporations, etc.) want to make your self-worth into a sort of capital, a productive asset, a form of property. But that means they want you to stake your self-esteem and risk it; entrepreneurial subjectivity means risk-taking, after all. Neoliberalist subjectivity requires the kind of ongoing, variable, volatile insecurity that we can measure and label as a “self-worth.”