Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Now You Can Buy Beyonce's Lip Gloss at the Getty

more thoughts on celebrities, art, and the impossible ideal

From real Queens to beauty queens, in one easy step.  But then beauty is "L.A.'s Style" --- just ask the Getty.  Here's what greets you when you disembark from the tram these days.

Hmm, whatever happened to Vermeer and Botticelli?  We are so used to long legs and $20,000 dresses I don't think many people stop and say, hey, where am I, an art museum or a newsstand?

After all, the cult of personality is so strong in our society there is no place one can escape it.  True story: you can buy this week's People magazine while in line at Lowe's.  Now whether or not the stars selected to illustrate "stunning stars" are stunning or not is one problem, but another is, weren't they just as stunning last week and the week before?  Where's the relevance of all of this?

Maybe the thrill is not in the discovery, but the search.  Are we all just peeping toms, ready to look inside somebody's bedroom as soon as the curtains are accidentally left open?  People and other magazines imply that they can get us behind closed doors, telling us what the stars are "really" like, or what off the shelf products work for them.  Shop with the stars!  Sorry, but all the lip gloss in the world won't make me or my dog look like Beyonce.  That's genetics and airbrushing.  Yet how dearly we love to look and look.

A "show" (pun intended) explicitly looking at voyeurism ran recently in San Francisco and at the Tate Modern in London.  It includes photos taken at night of people having sexual relations in parks.  Is it art or just bad manners?  At least those people were real.  Most shots of movie stars are altered extensively, as we know and yet kind of forget.  In the Getty show, there's a marked-up test print of Brittany Spears, showing what airbrushing still needs to be done in post-production.  That is a rare pulling-aside of Mr. Oz's curtains.  We know intuitively that for every good picture of a celebrity there must have been a bad one (maybe two or three bad ones), but that side of the editing process too rarely receives discussion.  There's a term "contact sheet" that means a set of negatives were printed "as is" (just straight and direct 1:1 from the negative to the paper), to make preliminary choices for what to enlarge.  Here is a contact sheet.  Quick, you get three guesses, who's this?

Hint: she was last seen clinging to the edge of a swimming pool two blog posts back.  As a related comment, I recently saw the movie A Week With Marilyn, about the young boy who apparently fell in love with the real MM while she was making a movie with Lawrence Olivier in England.  It seemed convincing enough until I then re-watched Some Like it Hot last night.  Ohhh boy.  There ain't no MM but the real MM.  Pepsi Zero just isn't the same.

Which brings us back to the Getty.  It was a lovely day.  I admit that I had been up late the night before doing an art project, so last Saturday when I went down with Santi Tafarella to meet the AVC students, I was not my best.  People magazine had asked Beyonce, "if you look tired, what's your go-to beauty trick?"  She answered: "Lip gloss --- I love L'Oreal's Infallible 8 HR Le Gloss in Coral Sands."  Okay, good to know, but whatever happened to just looking tired when you look tired?  What's the crime in being human?  And maybe it is, as they say, a teachable moment --- the student says to me, Hood, you look like shit, and I say, thanks, I was up all night.  And the student says, okay, why.

And that's the chance for me to model the writer's life, and talk about the revision process of my books, or the new painting series I am excited about, which in turn will give my hypothetical student the opening to share with me what she or he is jazzed up about on that side of the fence.  Let's just talk to one another person to person, sans lip gloss and pretense.  Less lip gloss, more naps.

O now, that's heresy, that is.  After all, one of the most respected cultural institutions in Los Angeles is the white palace on the hill.  Don't try to go there during the holidays: it's where the upper middle class takes their out of town relatives for some authorized "culture."  You won't get a parking place.  And what does the Getty think about lip gloss?

They are all for it, apparently.  Here's an image from the postcard sold to support the current Herb Ritts photography show.

Kelp in Long Beach is on display here, along with some hunky props.  L.A. Style?  Is this who we all are when we run the private video tapes in our heads?  (Who we are or who we want to sleep with --- an extension of the same metaphor.)  The exhibit talks about Ritts's technical skills, which I admire greatly, and his artistic vision, which makes me less convinced. After all, just upstairs is James Ensor's Christ's Entry into Brussels or Vincent van Gogh's Irises, so to my mind, those sorts of things set the value for "vision" pretty darn high.

What we have here, rather than vision, may be something closer to an expression of the male ideal, albeit one with a sort of Euro-metrosexual-homoerotic flair.  The men of Athens would have known what to say about these three young men (something in Greek along the lines of, yabba dabba do), but is there much here that we don't see every day in ads for cologne or Calvin Klein undies or even on the cover of Men's Fitness magazine?

Another Ritts shot (and I am doing my best to avoid pens about Ritz Crackers or puttin' on the Ritz) is Fred, the world's sexiest tire man.
In fact, do I misremember, or isn't this shot on display in the waiting room at Affordable Tires in Palmdale?  Lighting, sets, props, the pose, the slicked-up model himself: I have no complaints.  But really, as we used to say in the hamburger ads, where's the beef?  Any chance here for commentary?  I guess I am thinking that we have a chance here to do an algebra equation.  Beauty + x, and in that math, to let "x" be a word like "horror" or "insight" or "spirituality" or even "social critique."  This show leaves us the same walking out as when we walked in, other than we maybe feel even worse about our own imperfect, schlubby bodies than we usually do.

Certainly the Getty can't be saying that the essence of L.A. Style is empty repetition of visual cliches?  (That would be more like MOMA in New York to say that.)  In some ways, the Getty seems to be victim of the same cult of celebrity it wants to critique by using a negatively-charged word, "cult."  (One of the shows at the Getty now is titled "The Cult of Celebrity.")  This is an odd word choice, isn't it?  Nobody wants to join a cult: cults are where underage girls are forced to marry their 80-year-old uncles in a compound in Utah; cults are the places where in the jungle everybody drinks the Kool-Aid and dies.

Yet here he is, the late Mr. Ritts himself, fifteen feet tall and looking cool in his shades and brim.  Welcome indeed to the cult of celebrity, with the Getty as head priest.  Look at this Ritts wall.  He's the size of Michelangelo's David and nearly as handsome.  If he were ugly or only took pictures of janitors, would he still merit a wall to himself at the entrance to the exhibition?  In fifty or a hundred years, will art museums still present his work with awe and reverence?  Not that he isn't very very good at what he does, but so are (were) Helmut Newton or Richard Avedon or a dozen others.

I could just miss the extra touch of genius that makes these a notch better.  After all, one astute critic, Barbara Isenberg in the blog "LA Observed," says that "perhaps more important, the exhibition demonstrates a very creative mind at work, maximizing his models, light and settings"  She likes his "oiled bodies, strangely turned limbs, unexpected celebrity poses, and even a model crowned by a dead octopus."  Sure, I guess.  I just look at Madonna in the '80s and admire her hard work and her ability to reinvent herself (repackage, one might better say), and yet don't get much from the shot itself.  

Andy Warhol is the one who said in the future, everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes.  The Getty loves Warhold, too.  Here we are back at the tram's arrival station.  The banner's font looks hand written, as if this is an autographed poster by AW himself.

Well sure.  And besides, he must be a movie star --- he's wearing sunglasses indoors.

Not that it's fair to go after Andy Warhol, whose delight in self-parody is infectiously good-natured.  He knew it was all an act, and his silver wig only made that self-awareness public.  Here's his own self-portrait in the chemical blurriness of a Polaroid, as also sold on a postcard in the Getty gift shop.

He must have loved the accident of ink that left an unexposed fan of chemicals quoting his hair on the top right of the shot.  Thank you, Jesus --- an hour in the darkroom couldn't have gotten such a lovely visual echo.

The Getty show is one which works better as advertising than as experience.  Look at this poster outside the exhibition building.

The cool, clean grid of the modern (nearly postmodern) glass windows plays nicely against the limestone cladding, visual lines that unify the entire Getty campus.  And our LA Style model with the legs to die for seems like exactly the sort of larger-than-life goddess who should live in this suburb of Mt. Olympus.  Even the black and white of the poster itself matches well the light and dark mosaic tones of the architecture.

Yet in seeing the show, AVC instructor Santi Tafarella spoke to me of feeling there was a lot of fakery going on.  Richard Gere is gorgeous in his photographs, but as a faux mechanic, in his 1980s poses he makes visual claim to a blue collar authenticity which is unearned, visually.  Why is the Getty going along with this?  Don't they have better ways to fill the halls?  Maybe it's not art they are after, but social buy-in.  One of the docents we spoke to (who liked the show) noticed that it was popular with younger people, which may have been just the point.  The Getty may not be saying the slick, celebrity-centered photography is art, but it IS pretty, and if that prettiness gets folks in the doors, then okay, that's a good goal in itself.  Or perhaps the Getty wishes to build better partnerships with some of the entertainment industry's elite, for any number of valid reasons.  The late Liz Taylor owned, what, four van Gogh paintings?  Three more than the Getty?  Wouldn't they have loved to borrow them.  They could need cordial relations with Hollywood for any number of reasons, and a show like this might buy the Getty some love with the moguls and talent agents.

There's another factor too.  One reason shows happen is that it fulfills a condition of a donation.  That makes sense; museum x wants to enhance its permanent collection (deepen it or fill a gap), so needs work by artist y.  Donor z (who may be the same as artist y) says yes, I will give you a pile of stuff as a donation, stuff you really really want, but you have to promise to give it a full on exhibition.  In trade, the museum agrees, even if it wasn't their first choice for topics.  That happens often enough and is normal practice in the art world.

Human nature being what it is, maybe there's an even simpler explanation.  Santi was joking that the other curators didn't want the Ritts show in the first place, but humored one particular staff member out of kindness or self-interest.  The same thing might happen in Language Arts, if I wanted to do an eccentric revision of a creative writing course.  My long-suffering colleagues might be skeptical, but lacking a clear, logical reason to say no, might reluctantly go along ---- "Oh that Hood, you know what a nut case he is.  Give him this little pet project this once and maybe he'll shut up."

A short walk away from Herb Ritts and company is the Getty bookstore, and there I bought a book by somebody new to me, the Depression-era photographer Jack Delano.  Now try this on for size:

These are migrant workers at the end of the Depression, heading off to pick crops in a (supposedly) better state.  Will it really be any better for them there?  Probably not.  As an image, it basically is a shorthand visual version of Steinbeck's book and movie, The Grapes of Wrath.  Here is another picture from the same book.

He may not be as pretty as Fred with the tires, our miner here, but he's authentic, he's real, he's living history.  The belt either served him in less lean times (the holes all the way out to the end have been used at one time) or else, more likely, it's on its second or third owner, as he pulls it in to keep his pants tugged up tight against his hungry stomach.  This photograph reminds us of the real Hunger Games, the times not so long ago when for most Americans, owning a belt was an important thing, and a good belt, made from full-grain leather, was made to last.  You didn't throw it away: if you didn't need it, somebody else would find a use for it.

Should I ask, how many belts does Richard Gere have?  How many pairs of shoes does Beyonce own?  I mean neither any disrespect: both are powerful artists and for all I know, kind and loving human beings.  I make no assumptions that because they're wealthy and powerful they are in any way jerks or bitches, not them or any movie star.  I just think that I have more to learn, as a person, by spending time with some of Jack Delano's portraits than with Herb Ritts's work. 

Of course I will reveal my bias here and say that for me, the best celebrity worth knowing was my own dad.  He worked like a dog all his life, the poor guy, carrying 60 pound bags of wet laundry down narrow stairwells behind restaurants like the Brown Derby even into his sixties.  The movie stars ate lunch out front and my dad, as a delivery driver, made sure they had that day's supply of clean napkins, rain or shine.

He had served in World War II and made his belts last by punching a new hole in them with a saddler's awl, a trick I still use today.  In his younger days, he looked like Gary Cooper.  And when he came home, dead beat from work, did he look tired?  Sure, of course.  But he still read me stories or played Chinese checkers.  Maybe I should have offered him some L'Oreal Infallible 8 HR Le Gloss in Coral Sands.  Or at least a nice cup of coffee --- he was a fiend for coffee --- but I was just a dumb, selfish kid, probably didn't do much except try my darn hardest to winner at checkers.

A day at the Getty is never a day wasted, but part of me wishes the current shows looked not at celebrities but at, say, delivery truck drivers, or even just the Getty staff themselves, maybe each one holding up her or his favorite pet, from goldfish to pot-bellied pigs.  I must be in the minority; these galleries were full during our Saturday visit, and the gift shop well stocked with the exhibition catalog.  Sorry, Herb Ritts, I guess I am such a grouch I don't understand the attraction of naked men holding tires.  Would I like it better if they held books?  Maybe. 

Some books, paintings, symphonies take time to grow on one.  It will be interesting to go back in a week or two, give this work a second try.  (In the meantime, maybe somebody from the Getty will have emailed me, told me what the heck the big deal is.)

The Brown Derby is gone now, my father too, and it may be that future generations will be really glad that --- as with Delano's migrant workers --- Ritts took the time to show us Madonna in her best and youngest years.  She may even be alive then, can make an appearance on her hundredth birthday.  We are the same age, Madonna and I, only she works out ten times more than I do, so is a lot more likely to see that day than I am.  She will be rich, famous, and in her 100s . . . perhaps it is true, what they used to tell us back then, that "you can never be too rich or too thin."  Maybe in a few more years AARP can get Madonna to be one of their spokespersons.

Until then I plan to stick with Jack Delano and the sorts of people who tie gunny sacks to cars with jute rope.  They may not be beautiful, but then, neither am I, so in their company, even via the long distance phone call of a book plate, I somehow feel like I have found my tribe.

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