God is dead. So is art ... Show us your tits!

Museums are supposed to be the last outposts of cultural experience, inspiring us to be less idiotic. Instead, they're sucking down to our lowest impulses.

By Cintra Wilson
August 11, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Well, I went to the MoMA and saw the "Fame After Photography" exhibit.

Ever since the Guggenheim had all that success with its motorcycle show last year, it seems that all of the other museums have been scrambling for ways to be less related to old fuddy-duddy shit like real art. The Guggy is the first museum to enthusiastically wear its cultural pants around its ankles: It's doing a Norman Rockwell exhibition soon, fer chrissakes. What's next, a LeRoy Neiman retrospective? The Art of Charles Schulz? All the other museums are hopping on the party train now, like jittery, pink frat boys rowdied into buying their first hooker.


It's all over -- art is perishing on the crucifix of willful American tastelessness; another gory example of the McDonald's-flavored banality of evil. Now I'm just waiting for "The Bikini in Contemporary Photography: The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Editions, 1980-1999" and the multimedia exhibit "Pamela Anderson Lee: Modern Muse." True culture and actual art are being slowly neglected to death in favor of more Hollywood gossip and Tits & Ass (read: $$$), even by our hallowed custodians of soulful, hi-tone and legit artistic expression. Museums are supposed to be the last outpost of cultural experience that inspire us to be less idiotic, and here they are, sucking down to our lowest impulses. The motorcycle show did so well, they're still selling Harley-Davidson wallets at the Guggy gift shop. It's hopeless, it's enough to make you want to drop out of the corps de ballet to be a porn star. They're already teaching pornography in universities.

I knew we were in for a bad ride when I saw the sexy electric mini-cars in the MoMA sculpture garden, and the tourists with bi-level haircuts breathing on them. Here we go, I thought, my heart dropping and squirming like bad shellfish in my intestine. Which part of the museum has the homicidal video games and the interactive weight-loss program? Where are the Tilt-A-Whirl and the Bud Lite stand?

The curators of the show did a pretty smelly hack job, to boot. The visual material was weak sauce; I could have assembled a more gripping bunch of trash out of the magazine stack in my living room. But worst of all, they failed to make any salient points about the ridiculously horrible nature of celebrity and fame today, and there were many points howling to be made.


The show began with a bunch of old daguerreotype photos of old generals and authors (See? Famous people used to be important), then rolled on to a bunch of old movie-star photographs (many of which were postcards, thank you very much) and some curling old magazine covers. But what got me was, how can they have a gorgeous picture of Stalin on the cover of an old Life magazine, and some cheesecake shots of Eva Braun where she could have been Hedy Lamarr, and fail to make the point that people get just as gloriously famous for negative attention as they do for positive -- as long as they have rampant media coverage? Where were those famous pictures that Bonnie and Clyde had taken all dolled up with guns when they were on the lam, mythologizing and immortalizing themselves through newspaper photos as beautiful outlaws? Even in the '20s, demonic little white trash animals like Bonnie and Clyde knew that there was a real hazardous celebrity thrill to be had by being famous killers. MoMA's fame show didn't effectively touch on this point.

Another thing they didn't do was make the connection between the P.T. Barnum poster studded with lurid photos of his freak-show performers, which was in one room of the show, and the heartwarming People magazine photo in another room of a horribly disfigured little-girl burn victim who had to wear a nylon mask to school or she'd scare the other children. Was the museum afraid to make the point that People magazine, even when it shows big photos of a two-headed kid sharing a grimace with itself on the swingset, could be (shudder) just as exploitative as that old dwarf-kicking motherfucker P.T.? I know I'd feel safer if P.T. Barnum snuck onto my futon in the dead of night than if the senior editor of People magazine did. At least P.T. would be totally up front about what he really wanted.

The MoMA show also failed to make the point that whereas advertising in the '50s had celebs lending the glamour of their famous auras to beer or cigarettes or Chevrolets, nowadays, the mystique of a celebrity can actually be enhanced and even made by a Nike ad or a Milk ad. I was reading in the New Yorker last week about a hot new R&B singer who is getting the big industry push, and one of the ways her label began to break her voice to the public was to have her sing ads for Baby Gap. By the same token, as I've said before, advertising is the art these days. Photos to promote celebrities can make art stars out of the photographers; e.g. David LaChappelle, Richard Prince, Richard Avedon, Annie Liebowitz. When the worm eats its own tail, there is no difference between the topsoil and the shit.


What hurt my soul the most is that the museum seemed to have the same slobbering, hypnotized reverence for celebrity that the rest of America does. In the words of mean old art critic Hilton Kramer (who, for once, I totally agreed with):

What the Fame exhibition offers to a public already infantilized by our media culture is yet another opportunity to bask in the degradation of its own worst taste. For this is an exhibition that flatters and apotheosizes the very subject -- the corrupting dynamics of contemporary celebrity -- that it pretends to illuminate.

The show does seem to have some inherent sense that getting famous has been mostly about being photogenic enough to look sexually yummy ever since photography became popular, but it fails to make the connection that a celebrity is a product, an advertised human being, lit like a spoonful of Raisin Bran to look perfectly comestible and delicious, with all bruises and stress-lines and warts airbrushed out, so that we will buy them. That is the whole point of celebrity. It is the best marketing strategy we have.


The lame curators must have been kicking themselves that JFK Jr. died shortly after the show went up. I saw one of those "Gold Collector's Edition" photo magazines on a rack, titled "JFK Jr. -- His Life in Pictures." Jesus Christ -- did he have any other life? The photos were all we ever noticed about John-John. He had virtually no talent for anything else, including, tragically, piloting. He took a damn pretty Polaroid, that was about it, but that means too much to people nowadays. I was shocked the other day to see a guy walking down the street with a tattoo, which ate up his whole upper arm -- the famous image of little John-John saluting in his dress-coat, with 1960-1999 below it, in that menacing black-green tattoo ink.

Apropos of tattoos, I saw Roseanne in the lobby of the play "ART" (which is the only show I actually like on Broadway right now), and she looked fucking beautiful. Like she'd had not only all the fat and homeliness surgically sucked out of her person, but also the trashiness of her whole upbringing. She looked like Donna Karan or Bianca Jagger or some Hamptons-going, Upper East Side fashionista: tanned, rested and so well put-together. She has actually achieved the sexily Euro-burnished appearance of Olde Moneye. I only knew it was Roseanne because of her ultra-nasal voice and her daughter, who had a tattoo on her arm: a tiny heart that said, in the middle, "Ma." Aww.

But that's my point -- everything is upside-down. All of the great paintings of the past are in the dumpster and Roseanne has bionically transformed herself into the queen of France. Libraries are dissolving across America, but the main branch of the New York Public Library has just opened up the Library Store, where you can buy the words "New York Public Library" in a hip-looking font, silkscreened on a barbecue apron.


If there isn't an "Art of Tattoos" show at the Guggenheim by 2002, I'll get a tattoo on my ass that says Malcontent.

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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