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.