Froma Harrop: Preserving dignity in the city’s culture
Palm Springs, California has a world-class art museum. And the museum building itself is a world-class example of mid-century modern architecture.
So, it was understandable that a group of Palm Springs residents opposed the installation of a kitsch 26-foot statue of Marilyn Monroe in the museum’s line of sight. The “work of art” reproduces the famous scene from “The Seven Year Itch” in which Marilyn walks on a sidewalk grid and the rising air lifts her skirt very high. She was seen bending over as she tried unsuccessfully to hold her skirt up.
If everything goes according to plan, which was somehow approved by the city council, Marilyn’s back would face the front door of the urban museum. As fashion designer Trina Turk said, “The view on your way out is that of Marilyn visiting the museum.”
Turk is co-founder of the committee to relocate Marilyn. His group says it would be cool to place the statue elsewhere in town, even in a nearby park.
Do not mistake yourself. “The Seven Year Itch” is an excellent film. In addition to generously highlighting Marilyn’s voluptuous body, it highlights her considerable talents as an actress.
But childish interpretations of pop culture figures don’t really improve a high-end path to a grown-up cultural institution. Additionally, the scene depicted in the statue was filmed on a New York sidewalk whose vibe couldn’t be more different from the desert oasis of Palm Springs.
Commercially called “Forever Marilyn”, the statue is the work of John Seward Johnson II, heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune.
In 2003, then-Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik called an exhibition of Johnson’s works at the Corcoran Gallery “the most mind-numbing, dizzying, and staggering belly experience you’ll ever encounter.” . In short, he said, “This show is really, really bad.”
Gopnik suspected the powers of the Corcoran to have nourished impure motives in presenting this artist. “They may have noticed,” he wrote, “that no other American museum has ever seen fit to put on a show for Johnson – despite the prospect of pleasing an art-loving millionaire and to a potential benefactor. “
“Forever Marilyn” exists. It was displayed in Chicago, Stamford, Connecticut and elsewhere – and not to universal applause. How is it that Palm Springs is found there?
It is true that Marilyn spent some time in Palm Springs, like other Hollywood stars. But she lived in 43 houses, and this one was rented.
As you might expect, a feminist critic of Marilyn, Elizabeth Armstrong, declared the statue to be misogynistic – that is, hatred of women. She also accused her creator of promoting the upskirt (taking a photo of a person’s genital area without their knowledge). It would be a misdemeanor in California.
And that insulted Marilyn the thespian, who, according to Armstrong, “wanted to be taken seriously as an artist and not just as a sexual icon”.
Well, let’s not go there. Whatever Marilyn’s ambitions, she most certainly intended and succeeded in playing simple-minded sex kittens. She was an actress, you know.
The real problem remains what to put that cheesy statue where her supporters want her to say about Palm Springs. Museum president Jane Emison complained that “the statue will undermine our credibility and our goal of showcasing Palm Springs as a world-class destination for mid-century architecture and design for international cultural tourists ”.
The big question, suggested by Emison, is what kind of tourists Palm Springs wants to attract. A city renowned for its spectacular desert setting and its sophistication can it not sell on these virtues?
Hopefully Palm Springs can withstand the growing push to infantilize the culture. Civic dignity exists. And Disneyland, after all, is only an hour and a half away.
Froma Harrop is a union columnist. Follow her on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached by e-mail at: [email protected].