It’s uncomfortable to be informed of an unnoticed or unseen bias. The first reaction could be resentment: There’s nothing wrong with me, there must be something wrong with you! Another reaction is dismissal: Lighten up, it’s not a big deal.
It’s true. J. Seward Johnson’s Forever Marilyn is negligible, it’s a bulky piece of sculpture that will be forgotten by time and art history.
But it should also be taken seriously, as I’m willing to do, even if the art itself is not so serious. It’s the same impulse to examine the message behind an advertisement (Johnson’s close artistic kin) or political rhetoric or a slogan. They might not present themselves as serious, but they have serious implications about our society and the way they create and distribute power.
I’ve raised the question of what kind of relations this sculpture creates. I’ve posited that these are solely negative ones, encouraging what one commentator on this blog called “frat boy” behavior, voyeurism (it doesn’t have to be real to do this, that should go without saying) and sexual consumption (unveiled now, Marilyn still does not meet our gaze, her eyes are closed).
In an ironic twist, this sculpture does indeed “rekindle an attitude” from the 1950s as Paul Zeller said he had hoped, that of gender inequality and the sexual objectification. Why would we ever want to return to the 1950s, by the way? It was an era of institutionalized racism and homophobia, that’s unarguable. I don’t want to rekindle any attitudes from that era.
In Forever Marilyn the original image of sexual liberation is subverted to reinforce the petrified relations that our society must let go of if we are to move on.