The emperor's new guitars

Photographer David La Chapelle offers a prophecy of scurvy spiritual illness that's as shiny as a fishbowl full of dildos, while the bidding on Clapton relics resembles an auction for remnants of the True Cross.

Published June 30, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Judging from how the newest successes in art and performance seem exclusively dedicated to divulging that which unctuously gratifies a viewer's most prurient interests, the murdering of JonBenet Ramsey may well have been the greatest and most successful art "Happening" in the last decade. What an American audience seems to want in terms of beauty, craft and style, at the moment, is a voyeuristic exposure of secret illnesses, a vicarious piece of the media hurricane and a stream of related products to buy: magazines, books, records, tickets. The David La Chapelle show at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York's SoHo typifies this fabulously cruel celebrity rubbernecking on one level; on another level, it is a prophecy of even scurvier spiritual illness yet to come from our media-centric society, in the not-so-distant future.

La Chapelle photographs freaks: not burn victims, not black midgets, (too Joel-Peter Witkin). La Chapelle's monstrosities are that breed of gaunt, blemishless human built and enslaved by heavy makeup, lighting and the glorifying voodoo of photographic attention, e.g., models, transsexuals and Leonardo DiCaprio.

La Chapelle is both aided and hampered by his status as a creature of Hollywood. He believes the hype -- his own, and everyone else's. As a result, many of the photos are very clever and many don't work at all, like the photo of Pamela Anderson Lee emerging, baby-chick-like, from a large eggshell: an apparent attempt to suggest her fresh, newborn beauty, her radiant delicacy, her special innocence. Instead, and unintentionally, the photo only serves to accentuate the slatternly and sullied qualities of Ms. Anderson Lee, the nude, tattooed, box-bronzed, rubber-breasted emblem of pornographic American bleach-blondness. La Chapelle seems to be operating under the assumption that if he says Pam looks innocent and Pam's people say she looks innocent, then therefore she's a little baby chick, which is how it happens in Hollywood but not how it worked out in the end.

Several of the shots are of transsexual Amanda Lepore, one of La Chapelle's favorite models, who came to the opening naked, wearing nothing but painted bikini-tan lines. One particularly shocking photo from the "Surgery Story" series in the show was a photo of Ms. Lepore doggie-style on a gurney inside a closet, receiving a hypodermic shot in the ass from a big, black nurse. This art is strictly imitating life: Lepore is among the large and growing number of transsexuals and New York makeup artists who have been receiving illegal cosmetic silicone injections from an unlicensed "nurse" at her home in Harlem. The "nurse" allegedly buys the compound from Kragen Auto Parts and injects it directly into their lips, breasts, buttocks, etc., and has been providing instant gratification for those who want a rounder whatever for the pool party this weekend at a fraction of normal procedure costs. "She is an artist," the believers gush. Those "in the know" have been flying in from San Francisco to have her shoot their parts full of polymers; the "nurse" is a legend, and her new backyard surgeries are all the rage. Those who opt for the treatment don't care if this risky body modification turns into lumpy rubble in 10 years and can never be removed. Everybody wants lips like Amanda's, which are enormous to the point of deformity and look like an inflatable sofa, Right Now.

What does one say, in the end, about the work of David La Chappelle? His stuff is fun to look at, it's all colorful and taut and pneumatic and shiny as a fishbowl full of novelty dildos, but there is something wholly rotten and sinister about the visual world he is cultivating. You can just picture a restless La Chapelle in his stark home in Los Angeles, clots of sarcastic, clammy people drunk on his Italian leather couch, really hungry for some kind of weird action -- the kind of people who would root through Madonna's garbage in their peg-legged Gucci suits, looking for old Band-Aids and bottles of nasal spray. The work is utterly devoid of connective energy or human feeling, it just fucks you slickly in the eye hole; it left me feeling empty and used.

Then later in the week, I watched as clammy people rooted through Christie's for Eric Clapton's old guitars.

The Clapton auction was something of a sociological masterpiece. Here you have Clapton, a rock dinosaur who has used up all of his sexy points in the universe but can still cough out a top movie soundtrack every now and again, and he's got a little rehab center in Antigua, a tiny island in the Caribbean. So, to show his commitment to his drug-addict brethren, he auctions off 100 guitars, two vintage amplifiers and three Gianni Versace guitar straps, which looked like they could have been latter-day fat Elvis' Las Vegas bugle-bead judo belts, with just a skosh of Native American. The proceeds, he assured us, would go to providing "free treatment."

My associate quickly phoned the Crossroads Centre at Antigua to ask what kind of drug addicts we needed to be to apply for "free treatment," care of Subcommandante Clapton. Does free treatment include air fare, we wondered? The staff was remarkably unhelpful, and told us to consult the center's Web site. What kind of hopeless drug addicts are we if we have Web access, we wondered? Does the Crossroads Centre cater exclusively to Antiguan drug addicts? Are they all on the Web, perhaps? All of our questions went mysteriously unanswered.

Anyway, the event was a phenomenon, because what was being auctioned off were relics of the True Cross: the guitars that Eric played when Eric was his best, the guitar god, the Clapton who wrote and performed the seminal "Layla." It was better that today's Clapton wasn't actually present for the auction, being all old and VH1 and adult contemporary and full of sober crotchetiness in a black dinner jacket; it made all of the necrophiliac fan worship that much more so: There was a time in the '70s when Clapton was a horse fiend, and burnt by the eye of God and perceived as brilliant, and ironically, it was this dead, smack-inspired Clapton the auction people were pouring money over, much in the way the prices will triple for a dead painter.

Christie's anticipated most of the guitars selling for around $5,000 to $8,000 -- not a single guitar sold for under $14,000, and that was right at the beginning of the auction, when there were disgusted coughs and guffaws in the aisles; it was Beanie Babies, we all thought; it was Tickle Me Elmo, a sudden group fad swimming into hysteria. Then everyone caught the fever, and nobody was coughing anymore, even when the mid-range guitars hit $45,000 to $60,000.

The room at Christie's was packed to bursting with middle-aged rich people full of adolescent pre-concert adrenaline. Most of the buyers seemed to be fat old rock 'n' rollers, gray-haired balding boys with ponytails wearing Hawaiian shirts and prescription sunglasses -- Christ, maybe 200 of those. There were a lot of mealy business boys, and some perplexing older women in Prada dresses with ancient green tattoos visible above the neckline. And of course, the row of beautiful boys and girls in crisp little jackets, manning the telephones for the anonymous big money.

When "Brownie," the "Layla" guitar, the last lot on the auction block, turned around in the little carousel, and "Layla" started blasting over the loudspeakers, the room flipped into the latent chaos it had been politely suppressing all day. People stood up and howled. Everyone took flash-pictures. People began salaaming the stage, bowing to the old guitar, with the varnish worn off the frets from Clapton wizardry. Others like me began demurely headbanging. They started the bids at $200,000. Chills ran up my legs. When the bids ended at $450,000, we all were nauseated and euphoric; the post-obscene-splurge thrill of guilt and dirtiness coursed through us all like a contact high on the dance floor. Oooh, I realized. This is how these people party.

The whole thing was too interesting; a mass psychosis, an escalating of value for things that had been touched by fame, an escalation that informed and invented itself every time the bid jumped another $10,000; the roomful of people realized that they were turning up the value on pop cultural objects forever; they were deciding what icons were worth, what their exalted memories of these icons were worth, and praying to them in the only profound way Americans know how to pray anymore, which is with money.

After the auction and piranha-tub of a press conference, where they informed us that Michael J. Fox was one of the lucky money boys who now owned a piece of the Clap, the pinkly elated check writers could be found sitting in the carpeted corridors, strumming their own rusty, thumb-screwed renditions of the Clapton repertoire, shrug-faced and apologetic for the cameras, already rubbing the magical fingerprints off the frets with their sweaty, rich little mitts.

There's a piece of the True Cross in a triptych in the J.P. Morgan Library, which the old sot chucked into his shopping basket at one point along with a Gutenberg Bible or three. The moral of the story is that everything famous is Holy, and the old rules don't apply anymore; money can buy you anything, anything you want, love, talent, beauty, credibility, spirituality, whatever. The world is on the auction block, baby, all you need is the clams.

By Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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