At the Museums

journalism

THE NEW YORKER MAGAZINE – July 12, 1999

Fast, Cheap and Out of Control

Pop trash and celebrity madness are nothing new.

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. ©