Marilyn Turns Up the Heat in Palm Springs

Last November, I reported on the controversy regarding the return of Seward Johnson’s 26 ft. sculpture, ‘Forever Marilyn,’ to Palm Springs (see here.) With the grand reopening now set for April, tensions have escalated further, as art critic Christopher Knight writes in the Los Angeles Times.

“The Palms Springs Art Museum, a low-slung building designed by E. Stewart Williams in 1974, is emblematic of the Midcentury Modern architecture now synonymous internationally with the desert enclave. Rather than a civic celebration of one of the town’s greatest cultural contributions, as the 2016 plan envisioned, the council opted instead for a civic celebration of the misdemeanor crime of up-skirting.

The statue is slated for installation late next month. Incredibly, #MeToo Marilyn, her body posed tilting slightly forward, will even be positioned to moon the museum. How this travesty came to pass is hard to say.

The aesthetic question of ‘personal taste’ is a common dodge in public art discussions, but here it is entirely irrelevant. The work’s sculptor, J. Seward Johnson, who died last year at 89, was very rich; an heir to the Johnson & Johnson medical fortune, he self-funded production and public display of his absurd work. Everyone enjoys a hobby, but his sculpture is unrepresented in any significant museum collections. Expert consensus regards him as an artist of zero achievement.

The city bent over backward to accommodate the awful scheme, even as it ignored established redevelopment goals and winced at the offending sculpture. Why? My simple answer: The tourism lobby wanted it.

Clothing designer Trina Turk and architecture preservationist Chris Menrad are among locals who have banded together to form the Committee to Relocate Marilyn. A GoFundMe page was launched to hire a lawyer to sue the city and stop the project. (Having met its $50,000 goal in less than two weeks, it’s upped the ante to $75,000.) No suit has yet been filed, but it is expected to focus on claims of faulty city processes around the street closure where the statue will stand.”

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m not a big fan of ‘Forever Marilyn’ – and if it really is unwanted on Museum Way, then I think the city council should have been more sensitive to local concerns and found a different site. However, it is undeniably eye-catching and seems to fit the desert landscape and flamboyant culture of Palm Springs. What’s more, much of the criticism seems rather puritanical, robbing Marilyn of agency in performing the ‘subway scene’ from The Seven Year Itch which inspired the sculpture. On her Culled Culture blog, Genna Rivieccio shares an opposing view.

“Lumping in an Old Hollywood star (who was actually quite familiar with the score of how the industry worked and knew how to capitalize on it to get what she wanted in the end) to suit the narrative of this movement does not ring true. And it also further paints Marilyn as a victim when she was, indeed, a very strong woman who didn’t crumble as easily under pressure as she’s been portrayed to. To perpetuate this stereotype about her is only a disservice. To give her the #MeToo treatment is also endlessly reductive. And sure, hate the sculpture all you want, but it can’t be denied that it does actually depict a carefree, liberated woman.

Part of what made this scene so iconic was that Marilyn is delighting in her own feminine sexuality. It was during a hot summer night in NY that she decided to let the subway wind blow up her dress (at a time when subway wind was presumably purer). The operative words being she decided. Sure, we can say it was written from the perspective of some puerile male fantasy (George Axelrod and Billy Wilder’s), but Marilyn made it her own. Conveyed the scene as a woman in control of her desires and what she wanted to do with them.

It is a shame people still forget that and how, especially in this new Victorian moment, every aspect of sex is tinged with the taint of being ‘dirty’ or nonconsensual. If Marilyn was sex positive, the media is now most assuredly sex negative, coloring everything old and new with the slant of how women are being objectified … While this is, for the most part, undeniable, what isn’t remains the fact that Marilyn was a self-made sex symbol. She embraced the part for many reasons, but mainly because it meant she could be a star–which equated to her with the unconditional love she never got…

Another additional concern about the behemoth gracing Palm Springs again is that not only does it send a ‘wrong message’ about objectifying women, but also that ‘the children’ shouldn’t be exposed to such things … However, Marilyn is arguably the pioneer of being political when it comes to sexuality … She fulfilled some need within a misogynistic society, yet she also owned and delighted in her image in a way that no woman—let alone a female celebrity—ever had before.

Surprisingly, it seems to be male culture writers who are the most offended by the presence of Marilyn’s derrière mooning an entire crowd of people as they flood out of a museum … This seems to highlight the continued lack of ‘comfortableness’ men actually have with female sexuality. Not quite knowing what to do with it more than ever in such a politically charged environment. So if a man can’t salivate openly over a woman’s body, he would perhaps prefer to condemn it being paraded in any way beyond the chaste. Would prefer to be marked as with the crowd of pitchforks and torches decrying male concupiscence rather than against it.

[MM] was also well-versed in the tradeoff of fame … That it meant your image was no longer really ‘yours’ once you hit the big time. She was willing to make that trade for the presumed benefit of securing what she was always looking for: love. Even though it’s debatable if she ever truly found it. Maybe, however, love in the twenty-first century is people wanting to take their selfie with you and post it to social media. Regardless of whether your sexual nature remains a continued topic of debate, controversy and scandalization.”