Negotiations 7: Channeling Britney

(Note: Jane Renaud wrote a great piece on this subject last week. I hope the following can add to the conversation she initiated.)

When I first heard of Daniel Edwards’ Britney sculpture (Monument to Pro-Life), I was fascinated. What a rich stew: a pop star whose stock-in-trade has been to play the innocent/slut (with rather more emphasis on the latter) gets sculpted by a male artist as a pro-life icon and displayed in a Williamsburg gallery! Gimmicky, to be sure; nonetheless, the overlapping currents of Sensationalism, Irony and Politics were irresistible, so I took myself out to the Capla Kesting Fine Art Gallery on Thursday to have a look.

I am not a fan of pop culture. My attitude toward it might best be characterized a Swiss. In conversation, I tend to sniff at it. “Well,” I have been known to say, “it may be popular, but it’s not culture.” I do admit to a lingering fondness for Britney, but that has lees to do with her abilities as chanteuse than it does with the fact that, as a sixteen-year-old boy, I moved from the WASPy northeast to Nashville, Tennessee and found myself studying in a seraglio of golden-haired, pig-tailed, Catholic schoolgirls, each one of them a replica of early Britney and each one of them, like her, as common and as unattainable as a species of bird. What can I say? I was sixteen. Despise the sin, not the sinner.

I was curious to know the extent to which this sculpture would be a monument to pop culture—did the artist, Daniel Edwards, fancy himself the next Jeff Koons?—and surprised to discover that, having satisfied my puerile urges (a surreptitious glance at the breasts, a disguised study of the money shot), my experience of the piece was in no way mediated by my awareness that its model was a pop star. “Britney Spears” is not present in the piece, and its precursor is not Koons’ Michael Jackson and Bubbles or Warhol’s silk-screens of Marilyn Monroe. One has to go much further back than that. Its precursor is actually Michelangelo’s Pietá.

In both cases, the spectacular back story (Mary with dead Christ on her lap, Britney with Sean’s head in her cooch) is overwhelmed by the temporal event that grounds it; so that the Pietá is nothing more (nor less) than Mother and Dead Son, and Monument to Pro-Life becomes simply Woman Giving Birth. Where Koons and Warhol empty the role of the artist as creative genius and replace it with artist as mirror to consumer society, Edwards (and Michelangelo well before him) empty the divine (the divinity of Christ, the divinity of the star) and replace it with the human. Edwards, then, is doing something very tricky here, and if one can stomach the nausea-inducing gimmickry of the work, there’s a lot worth considering.

First of all is the composition of the work. The subject is on all fours, in a position that, as Jane Renaud wryly observed in these pages last week, might be more appropriate for getting pregnant than for giving birth. She is on a bear-skin rug; her eyes are heavily lidded, her lips slightly parted, as though she might be about to moan or to sing. And yet the sculpture is in no way pornographic or even titillating. There is nothing on her face to suggest either pain or ecstasy. The person seems to be elsewhere, even if her body is present, and the agony we associate with childbirth is elsewhere. In fact, with her fingers laid gently into the ears of the bear, not clutching or tearing at them, she seems to be channeling all her emotions into its head. Its eyes are wide open, its mouth agape and roaring. The subject is emptying herself, channeling at both ends, serenely so, a Buddha giving birth, without tension at the front end and without blood or tearing at the rear. The child’s head emerges as cleanly, and as improbably, as a perfect sphere from a perfect diamond. This is a revolution in birthing. Is that the reward for being pro-life? Which brings us to the conceptual component of Monument to Pro-Life.

To one side of the sculpture stands a display of pro-life literature. You cannot touch it; you cannot pick it up; you cannot read it even if you wanted to because it is in a case, under glass. This is not, I think, because there is not enough pro-life literature to go around, and it hints at the possibility that the artist is being deliberately disingenuous, that he is commenting both on the pro-life movement and on its monumental aspirations. The sculpture is out there in the air, naked and exposed, while the precious literature is encased and protected. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? It’s almost as if the artist is saying, “This is the pro-life movement’s relationship to women: It is self-interested and self-preserving; and in its glassed-in, easy righteousness it turns them into nothing more than vessels, emptying machines. It prefers monuments to mothers, literature to life.”

Now lest you think that I am calling Daniel Edwards the next Michelangelo, let me assure you that I most definitely am not. As conceptually compelling as I found Monument to Pro-Life to be, I also found it aesthetically repugnant. Opinions are like assholes—everybody has one—but this sculpture is hideous to look at. It’s made of fiberglass, for god’s sake, which gives it a reddish, resiny cast, as though the subject had been poached, and a texture which made me feel, just by looking at it, that I had splinters under my fingernails. I know we all live in a post-Danto age of art criticism, that ideas are everything now, and that the only criterion for judging a work of art is its success in embodying its own ideas; but as I left the gallery I couldn’t help thinking of Plato and Diogenes. When Plato defined man as a “featherless biped,” the Cynic philosopher is said to have flung a plucked chicken into the classroom, crying “Here is Plato’s man.” Well, here is Danto’s art. With a price tag of $70,000, which it will surely fetch, he can have it.