General 11-14-2004

Letters from a Writer: Art and Barbie: A Nice Couple

Jean Sramek finds an actual audience in an art gallery.

Jean Sramek

It’s too bad visual art isn’t more interactive. My preferred medium, comedy theatre, is interactive, which is a mixed blessing. It’s all about the audience. It doesn’t matter what your meaning was, or what your intention was, or what statement you were trying to make; if no one laughs, it’s irrelevant dreck and you should try harder next time.

I’m not making value judgments. And I don’t wish an audience on every artist. But at art openings, people stand around and chat, catching up with friends and acquaintances they haven’t seen in forever. They dress in expensive fabrics and real jewelry or vintage kitsch and weird eyeglasses, looking like art patrons, artists, or wannabes to either. They eat the snacks on tiny little flimsy plates and try to balance drinks in impossibly light plastic cups with their free hands. They look around the room to see who else is there, convincing themselves that those other people on the other side of the room—there, the ones actually looking at the art hung on the wall—are talking big and smart and using art vocabulary.

But nobody talks about the art, and by that I mean nobody is an audience. Nobody says, “That sucks!” or “I want to stroke this sculpture with my fingers,” or “I don’t get it.” Nobody says “What does it mean?” even if the meaning is not clear. Nobody, when talking about their daily lives, refers back to a piece of art to explain what they feel or think.

Okay, almost nobody. A whole bunch of Duluth-area nobodies are doing a whole lot of talking about art, and Barbie made us do it. Background: local Famous Artist does nature photography, only this time he includes his (extremely) nude Wife/Model in the photos of Lake Superior. There are exhibits; there are radio interviews; there are letters to the editor. Educated feminists wearing black European footwear are angry about the photos; so are prudish moms who have seen the Wife/Model’s pubic hair in magazines at local supper clubs and convenience stores. The alternative press does a feature about the dangers of censorship and about people not liking the Wife/Model photos because of their own uncomfortableness with the human body; they are easy theories but they miss the truth by a mile.

A local painter decides that the Wife/Model looks too damned much like a Barbie doll, marches down to the lake with a digital camera and a fleet of pose-able Barbies, and clicks away. Soon the painter has enough Barbie photos for a whole show. Galleries do not compete for the opportunity to exhibit the amateur photographs of the painter, no matter how accomplished the painter is, possibly because the painter doesn’t necessarily want to have an exhibit and also possibly because the photographs are disrespectful parody and this is a small freaking town. This is only hind-speculation on my part, and it doesn’t matter anyway, because soon a local architect decides that she digs the Barbie photos and turns her showroom into a temporary gallery and schedules an exhibit complete with opening reception.

It turns out to be the social event of the season.

The place is packed. The architect and her friends are dressed like Barbie dolls, with wigs and coordinated ensembles. One patron of parody has decorated her knee-high boots with tassles made of Barbie dolls. The walls are plastered with rows of Barbie-on-the-rocks prints, unceremoniously framed in plastic sleeves. Handfuls of bedraggled Barbies (The models! They came to the opening—how nice!) are posed on tables amongst bowls of pretzels and cheese crackers. The hostess has made copies of reviews and essays about the original Famous Artist/Wife/Model/Nude Lake Superior show, and displayed them along with the pretzels and wild-haired dolls. The Famous Artist has spawned a veritable cottage industry. There are ripples in the small pond in which he is a big fish.

It’s not all mocking and mugging (although there’s plenty of that). In the guffawing crowds, with people yakking about leftie politics and catching up on each other’s lives, is something amazing: people are reaching deep into their souls and talking about the art. Underneath the tipsy “Hey—this Barbie TOTALLY looks like the Wife/Model!!! What a riot!” there’s some real meat. People are talking about the original Wife/Model nudes, and about the Barbie nudes, and giving themselves tentative permission to embrace or reject either collection. They are using plain old words to describe what they think. They are asking themselves if it is okay to love or hate art based solely upon their personal relationships with the people who made the art. They are asking each other “What do you think?” and truly listening. One person, at the center of a circle, poses the question, “We respect these Barbie works because the artist who made them is highly respected and has established herself as an artist—but what if Joe Schmoe the plumber did a bunch of Barbie photos because he saw the Wife/Model show at the Tweed Museum? Would we take it seriously?” and this causes an explosion of spin-off conversations about the nature of parody and how we judge other people and all manner of cool, introspective stuff. A couple of little kids are there, and they play happily with the Barbies and cheese crackers; they like the exhibit well enough, although one 6-year-old girl has expressed concern that these photos are “making fun of Barbie.”

It is a real audience.

Someone playfully imagines what would happen if the Famous Artist and Wife/Model showed up at the party. Some speculate they wouldn’t dare, and others think we are being too hard on them. I wonder whether the Famous Artist has cleverly planned the whole thing, since the original Wife/Model photos have generated so much press, formal and otherwise. Either way, the nude Barbie photos are one of the best things to happen to the Duluth arts community in a decade. By extension, so are the Wife/Model photos. Even if we don’t like them—or even if we do.