Commentary Magazine


Contentions

The Bad Judgment of Paris

It would be too much to expect that Paris Hilton, the hotel heiress and recently (re)incarcerated drunk driver, would inspire a great work of art. And Daniel Edwards’s Paris Hilton Autopsy, recently on display at Capla Kesting Fine Art, is certainly not great. But even a bad work of art can have something interesting to say. A life-size bronze, the Autopsy depicts Hilton in the wake of a fatal car crash, her body exposed for forensic examination. While the subject matter is grisly, the execution is lighthearted: Hilton is shown in beatific slumber while her pet chihuahua, wearing a party hat, capers friskily around her head. Moreover, the position of Hilton’s legs, spread wide for the purposes of medical examination, suggests an entirely different kind of readiness.

This essay in pornographic bathos, however, is accompanied by a moralizing program of fascinating primness. Edwards suggests that the sculpture “could provide an invaluable service to students preparing for prom this season.” According to his straight-faced promotional material, the bronze is intended to remind

potential prom queens no one is impervious to the pitfalls of drinking. Recalling Miss USA’s recent battle to keep her crown through alcohol rehab and Princess Diana’s untimely death due to drunk driving, a skewed hotel heiress’s tiara adorns the lifeless Paris Hilton head. . . . With Paris’s legs splayed in stirrups for postmortem pelvic examination, the “Hilton Autopsy” tragically reveals drunk driving’s heartbreaking collateral damage—a “double abortion” of fetal twins discovered in her uterus.

What is fascinating about the Autopsy is the convergence of two strands of American art not normally found together. On the one hand, it shows the same fascination with celebrity culture that distinguished Andy Warhol’s silkscreen portraits of Marilyn Monroe or, more recently, Jeff Koons’s sculptures of Michael Jackson with his pet chimp.

On the other hand, is shows an impulse which is as old as American art itself, the idea of justifying art by the moral lesson it provides. In this respect, there is little difference between the religious moralizing of 19th-century landscape art and the consciousness-raising political art of recent years: each seeks to justify itself through the lesson it imparts rather than, for example, the pleasure it gives. Much as prudish Americans once tolerated the nudity of Hiram Powers’s Greek Slave (1846) because it offered a didactic lesson about Christian forbearance under affliction, Edwards asks us to accept the vulgarity of the Autopsy because it offers a warning about drunk driving.

The difference, of course, is that Powers was in earnest while Edwards is merely ironic. (Last year he designed a “deathbed portrait” of Fidel Castro for Central Park, a work celebrating Castro’s “humanitarianism.”) That the Autopsy should receive so much attention in the past two months shows that Americans are habitually respectful of art that pretends to impart a moral message, even if that message is patently, laughably insincere.


Join the discussion…

Are you a subscriber? Log in to comment »

Not a subscriber? Join the discussion today, subscribe to Commentary »





Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.