October 23, 2008

Dolphins Are not Art, Dolphins are Creepy

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With the impending itch of a sun rash upon me, I retreated from lying on the sandy beach in the heavy rays of the Florida sun to the upscale town circle of Sarasota, where I was staying for Fall Break with my three roommates.
There, in this humdrum little town circle — a development lined with beige stucco walls and Mediterranean roof tiles — the weather suddenly flipped from sunshine to rain. Hurriedly, I sought refuge behind a neon sign, and found myself in a place with marble floors and cluttered with high-gloss pictures, paintings and sculptures, mostly of frolicking dolphins and Herculean whales and the like.
One work that particularly caught my eye was of two turtles in the center of a painting — turtles nestled to appear as though they were holding hands, or fins as it were — torpedoing straight out towards me in “Deep Blue Planet.” A family of humpback whales practiced ballet in the background of the same painting and other members of the make-believe pelagic ilk flickered like Christmas lights in the foreground. The ocean floor was a hypnotic turquoise and I was shocked. I panicked.
What is this? Where am I? Was this thing in front of me a Screen Saver snap shot? Is that statuette a souvenir from Disney Land? Why is everything so shiny? Why is there so much glitter? What is going on?
Things finally came together as my roommate told me that I was in Wyland Gallery, the home of renowned marine life artist Wyland.
A-ha! An art gallery. An art gallery? The things on and within these walls are art?
Dozens of pictures crowded the walls, each bragging some fantastical form of dancing or kissing or otherwise leisurely looking marine life. But were all these pictures art? The colors were mostly neon and everything boasted high-gloss and reflective surfaces. The animals’ faces all hinted at smiles, and I’m pretty sure some of the frames were black leather. These objects were beyond kitsch — not funny or ironic or sentimental. In total, they represent to me the saddest and most insipid objects of our culture. Despite the active animals that covered the walls, the room, to me, was dead.
In this gallery, I stared fixedly upon the ink black sea in a Wyland original. My own eyes reflected silently back. In this moment I realized the most shocking part of it all: This is what America likes. This is what we call art.
The collection of objects in Wyland Gallery is nothing more than a collection of images. And these images all look the same. The marine life paintings do not say anything by themselves; instead, they represent an instance of a mass produced and well marketed commodity that can be bought and then displayed. In this way, these objects serve as symbols for art.
And in our country, we are surrounded by symbols. Likewise, everything is an image. A Whopper burger is an image: it represents the idea, and satisfies the craving, for a product that you can “have your way.” Housing developments are images: cookie-cutter houses represent the idea of a happy, harmonious and homogenous America.
In America, we love the copy. We love images and we love ideas of things. We love the idea of these things represented by copies of images of things. In Wyland Gallery, I saw paintings that represented the idea of art. This idea of art was represented by a mass-produced image of an entirely imagined under water scene.
With images permeating so much of our culture, should we pause and consider just how greatly images really impact our culture? What are the implications of all these images?
Last Saturday, the themes I saw in Wyland Gallery were broadcasted nationally on NBC. When she appeared on SNL, vice-presidential nominee Gov. Sarah Palin confirmed once and for all her status as an image. For all intents and purposes, Palin no longer exists as a real person. There on the show, Sarah Palin confronted Tina Fey. Sarah Palin as “the real-Sarah Palin” came face-to-face with Tina Fey-as-Sarah Palin. This performance confirmed for me that everything — from fast food, to homes, to art in Wyland Gallery, to the presidential candidates — has been reduced to image. And in this culture, it’s all about the ratings.

Sammy Perlmutter is a Sun former Arts and Entertainment Editor and a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be contacted at sperlmutter@cornellsun.com. His anti-dolphin sentiments, and other opinions, appear alternate Thursdays in Daze.