Monday, August 22, 2005

The delusion of intimacy.

We desperately want to know that we are not alone. And, yet, ultimately, we are.

Written by the co-founder of the legendary Spy.



Fast, Cheap and Out of Control

Pop trash and celebrity madness are nothing new.

by Kurt Andersen

THE BIG DIFFERENCE between museums of modern art and museums of ancient art is that most of the objects exhibited in the latter were not created as art at all but, rather, as baubles, tools, fetish objects— the eons-old equivalents of Beanie Babies and PalmPilots and Leonardo DiCaprio posters. Only in distant retrospect, millennia later, do the ancient Egyptian game boards and alabaster headrests at the Met, for instance, inspire the sort of reverential, this-is-art hush we grant reflexively to a painting by Rothko or Kiefer.

Now, at the end of the century during which Duchamp and his Pop descendants turned mass-market flotsam into art, the Museum of Modern Art is putting mass-market flotsam on display, American ephemera, unmediated by modern artists’ ironic abracadabra. “Fame After Photography,” which opens this week, consists of publicity photographs, paparazzi pictures, magazine covers, tabloid front pages, movie trailers, TV clips, Web images, and celebritythemed gewgaws. The exhibit will appall many people—MOMA putting the Spice Girls on the cover of its monthly bulletin? MOMA exhibiting press photos of Donald Trump chosen by Trump himself? But this is not merely a trendy gesture of the kind that makes conservatives despise the Guggenheim (the motorcycle show) and the Whitney (Yoko Ono). Rather, “Fame After Photography” can be seen as a kind of minor concordance to twentieth-century art, a core sample of the raw materials out of which Duchamp, Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, Oldenburg, Warhol, and hundreds of other artists have created their work. In 1990, MOMA mounted its “High and Low” show, which displayed the vernacular inspirations for modern art alongside the canonical works. It seems apt that the decade is ending with a MOMA show entirely about Low.

Despite the precedent of “High and Low,” it is a little daring for this essentially conservative institution to put on a show for which it is so starkly unsuited. MOMA has wristwatches and coffeepots and cars in its permanent collection, of course, but those are just sexy expressions of its deep commitment to good taste, as opposed to the aggressively bad taste oozing through “Fame After Photography.” Never before has MOMA officially sanctioned this much fun.

The exhibition space has been designed by Carole Kismaric and Marvin Heiferman, the guest curators, to blast the visitor from an uncrowded anteroom where he can sample the quiet, respectful fame of bygone ages (Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington, a bust of Mme. du Barry) slam-bang into a rude, manic, gleefully cheesy Times Square-like museumscape that charts the proliferation and evolution of popular culture: walls plastered with cheap pictures of the celebrated from George Sand to Farrah Fawcett; a vitrine containing a Joe DiMaggio Wheaties box; a video clip of Lucille Ball (as Lucy Ricardo) gawking at William Holden (as William Holden); Whitey Ford with Salvador Dali in a Braniff Airlines TV commercial. It is, as it should be, too much.

The show’s actual Andy artifacts aside (Polaroids from which he created his silk-screened celebrity portraits during the seventies, and screen tests from the sixties, including one of the young Susan Sontag), Warhol is the de-facto godfather of this exhibit, its curator from beyond the grave. It was he who mocked and revelled in the idea of fame with homemade bad-movie “superstars”; he who wrote the most prescient epigram of the second half of the century (“In the future, everyone will be worldfamous for fifteen minutes”); he who created the first high-end magazine, Interview, devoted entirely to celebrities. Unlike Warhol, however, Kismaric and Heiferman care about argument and history. Their big idea is that until the midnineteenth century renown was strictly a function of achievement or noble birth. Photography changed everything, by permitting the publication of “real” (as opposed to painted) portraits of the celebrated. For the first time, celebrity—its acquisition by the few, its contemplation by the masses—became a distinct commodity, an end in itself.

Wandering through this well-organized morass, you come to the reassuring yet depressing conclusion that the debasement of Western civilization did not, in fact, begin with the launch of People magazine, in 1974, or with television, a generation earlier. Instead, you learn that Americans have been celebrity-mad since the moment the daguerreotype was invented. (It probably isn’t a coincidence that “celebrity,” according to the O.E.D., became a generic noun during the eighteen- forties, photography’s first decade.) The MOMA show includes hundreds of mass-produced photographs of the famous from the nineteenth century—tiny trading-card-like pictures and big newsprint pictures, stereopticon pictures and magazine pictures of the Buffalo Bills and the Sarah Bernhardts as well as the Charles Baudelaires and the Friedrich Nietzsches. We may find Bob Dole’s shilling for Viagra unseemly, but in 1928 a photograph of Eleanor Roosevelt was used, with her permission, to sell Simmons mattresses. And one is reminded that Anne Frank, a cover girl for Life in 1958 (pictured beside an enlarged fragment of her diary prominently containing the word “Hollywood”), wouldn’t have become the iconic Holocaust martyr if there had been no smiling photograph. Anne Frank and Twiggy, together here, presumably, for the first time. Fashion models are the ultimate photographic creatures, human beings valued exclusively for how they look in photographs. Starting at mid-century, with the designation of “celebrity” models, the dissociation of fame from achievement that had begun in the last century became insanely complete. The culture was finally swallowing its own tail.

PHOTOGRAPHY’S great power derives from the presumption that picturemaking machines, unlike picturemaking artists, cannot lie. This is, of course, a lie. The great stage-managed campaign picture of Nancy Reagan waving at the giant live image of Ronnie in 1984 seems, in this exhibit, as sweetly fascistic as ever.Although Reagan’s handlers refined and exploited such photographic pseudo events as never before (and with much higher stakes than, say, Joan Crawford at home pretending to carve a roast turkey), the show demonstrates that photo ops have existed all century long.

Looking at photographs of famous strangers makes us feel close to those famous strangers in a way that was impossible before photographs existed. So photography has fuelled a long-running democratic hallucination, the delusion of intimacy with the celebrated. This blur now operates in the opposite direction as well, making the authentic look ersatz. The color courtroom picture of Robert Downey, Jr., handcuffed and haggard in an L.A. County Jail jumpsuit, could be a still from a movie. And then there is the white-Bronco chase from 1994, the real-time cinéma-vérité performance of the age.

Given that a majority of the pictures in the MOMA show were staged, the spontaneous images are the timeless and most compelling ones: the shots of John Profumo mid-scandal, J. P. Morgan yelling at reporters, and Lenny Bruce taking a swing at a photographer are like Walker Evans portraits in comparison with the picture of two black children suspended from the biceps of a grinning Hulk Hogan. Like anti-paparazzi photos, pictures of matadors being gored are the money shots in the world of bullfighting, too.

If photography convinces people, at some deep and unspoken level, that they are—almost—personal friends of the famous, photography’s manic offspring, magazines and TV, have pressed Americans’ noses even tighter against the glass. “Person to Person,” the show hosted by Edward R. Murrow in the fifties, marked broadcast journalism’s first big slide down the slippery slope of celebrity fixation. (In the clip that MOMA runs, the singer Julie London tells Murrow that her record company spent more time shooting her album-cover photo than it spent recording the songs.) The most successful new American magazine, In Style, may be the apotheosis of the country’s hundred-and-sixty-yearlong pretend-to-touch-the-celebrity tease. A spinoff of People, the magazine is essentially a how-to manual for regular Americans who want to get the same haircut and wear the same boots, hang the same curtains and eat the same salads as their favorite celebrities—to become celebrities, except for the rich-andfamous part.

Inevitably, and a little disconcertingly, “Fame After Photography” indulges the madness as well as chronicles it. The show’s final image is a blown-up still from “La Dolce Vita”: a pack of life-size paparazzi aiming their huge 1960 cameras at “you.” One wonders, Are the museum visitors poring over the dozens of pictures of Jackie Onassis and Charles Lindbergh having a fundamentally different experience from readers of the National Enquirer? It’s closer to fact than metaphor to consider the stylized celebrity media, the In Styles and Us magazines, as forms of sexless pornography.

Does democracy plus prosperity plus cameras equal . . . this? “Fame After Photography” can be seen as a story of America’s self-expulsion from a pre-photographic Eden. The camera, just a marvellous piece of new technology, was the vehicle for our passage toward the pathological pride and idolatry of our media culture. Today, we’re crazy for another new technological marvel, the Internet. Maybe at a museum show a century from now our great-great-grandchildren will chuckle and cringe at the transformation of culture—who could’ve predicted?— that the Internet has wrought. ©


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