Froma Harrop: Preserving dignity in city culture

Summary: Here's hoping Palm Springs can resist the growing push to infantilize the culture. There's such a thing as civic dignity. And Disneyland, after all, is only an hour and a half drive away.

Froma Harrop Commentary
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Palm Springs, California, has a world-class art museum. And the museum building is itself a world-class example of midcentury modern architecture.
Thus, it was understandable that a group of Palm Springs residents would object to placing a kitschy 26-foot statue of Marilyn Monroe right in the museum sightlines. The "artwork" reproduces the famous scene in "The Seven Year Itch" in which Marilyn walks over a sidewalk grate and the rising air lifts her skirt way high. She's seen bending over as she unsuccessfully tries to hold down her skirt.
If all goes according to the plan, which was somehow approved by the city council, Marilyn's rear end would face the urbane museum's front door. As fashion designer Trina Turk put it, "The view as you exit is of Marilyn mooning the museum."
Turk is co-founder of the Committee to Relocate Marilyn. Her group says it would be cool with putting the statue somewhere else in the city, even a nearby park.
Don't get me wrong. "The Seven Year Itch" is a great movie. In addition to putting Marilyn's voluptuous body on generous display, it showcases her considerable talents as a comedienne.
But childish renditions of pop culture figures really don't enhance an upscale thoroughfare leading to a grown-up cultural institution. Also, the scene depicted in the statue was filmed on a New York City sidewalk whose vibe couldn't be more different from the desert oasis of Palm Springs.
Commercially named "Forever Marilyn," the statue is the work of John Seward Johnson II, an heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune.
In 2003, then-Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik called a Corcoran Gallery exhibit of Johnson's works "the most mind-numbing, head-spinning, belly-flipping experience you're likely to come across." In sum, he said, "This show is really, really bad."
Gopnik suspected that the powers at the Corcoran may have harbored impure motives in featuring this artist. "They might have noticed," he wrote, "that not a single other American museum has ever seen fit to give Johnson a show — despite the prospect of pleasing an art-loving millionaire and potential benefactor."
"Forever Marilyn" has been around. It's been displayed in Chicago, Stamford, Connecticut, and elsewhere — and not to universal applause. How is it that Palm Springs gets stuck with it?
It's true that Marilyn spent some time in Palm Springs, as had other Hollywood stars. But she lived in 43 homes, and this one was rented.
Predictably, one feminist Marilyn critic, Elizabeth Armstrong, has declared the statue misogynistic — that is, hating of women. She also accused its creator of promoting upskirting (taking a photo of a person's genital area without their knowledge). That would be a misdemeanor in California.
And it insulted Marilyn the thespian, whom Armstrong said "wanted to be taken seriously as an artist and not just a sexual icon."
Well, let's not go there. Whatever Marilyn's ambitions, she most definitely intended to and succeeded in playing simple-minded sexual kittens. She was an actor, you know.
The real issue remains what putting this cheesy statue where its backers want it would say about Palm Springs. The museum chairwoman, Jane Emison, complained that "the statue will damage our credibility and our goal to highlight Palm Springs as a world-class destination for midcentury architecture and design for international cultural tourists."
The big question, implied by Emison, is what kind of tourist Palm Springs wants to attract. Can't a city renowned for its dramatic desert setting and sophistication sell itself on those virtues?
Here's hoping Palm Springs can resist the growing push to infantilize the culture. There's such a thing as civic dignity. And Disneyland, after all, is only an hour and a half drive away.

Froma Harrop can be reached at or on Twitter @FromaHarrop .

Froma Harrop covers the waterfront of politics, economics and culture with an unconventional approach. She takes public policy quite seriously. Herself, less so.

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