Ethics Quiz: The Marilyn Monroe Statue

MM statue

Alternate title: “At Last A Statue Everyone Can Get Behind!”

At least this statue ethics controversy has nothing to do with the Civil War.

Palm Springs, California’s City Council voted last month to place a giant sculpture of Marilyn Monroe, her white skirt blown up above her waist and her mouth poised in the semi-erotic smile everyone remembers from the classic movie moment, in the middle of the city. For three years, 2012 to 2014, the sculpture by Seward Johnson enlivened downtown Palm Springs, and now it will be coming back with financing from a local hotel consortium. The 26-foot high “Forever Marilyn,” turned up as a short-term tourist attraction in other cities in the intervening years (many visitors enjoyed posing for photographs between MM’s feet, looking up) but now Palm Springs is offering it—her?— a permanent home.

Ah, but all statues are controversial now. Marilyn will stand across from the entrance to the Palm Springs Art Museum, and its executive director Louis Grachos objects. “You come out of the museum and the first thing you’re going to see is a 26-foot-tall Marilyn Monroe with her entire backside and underwear exposed,” Grachos pointed out to the council. “We serve over 100,000 school-age children that come to our museum every single year. What message does that send to our young people, our visitors and community to present a statue that objectifies women, is sexually charged and disrespectful?” The museum’s previous three directors, Elizabeth Armstrong, Steve Nash and Janice Lyle, designer Trina Turk and others issued a joint op-ed in The Desert Sun condemning the statue as “blatantly sexist.”

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is...

Is Johnson’s statue of Norma Jean unethical public art?

Well, here’s my take: I think it’s great. The accusation that it is “kitsch” is silly: most, if not all, statues are kitsch, and when they aren’t, people complain that they aren’t heroic enough, or are weird, or involve too much artistic license. “Forever Marilyn” celebrates a cultural icon (Hollywood has given us only a handful), a human being, a woman, a time past, and a classic film moment. If a kid asks “who was she?,” parents have quite a story to tell—not a happy story, but an interesting and very American one.

Hell yes: Marilyn Forever!


Sources: New York Times, The Art Newspaper

9 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Marilyn Monroe Statue

  1. The statue is overwhelmingly ethical.

    Who gets permanently mooned by it is a valid concern. If they put it in a town square in from of a church, I think that would be arguably poor taste. An art museum almost certainly has more risque exhibits inside (if it’s worth its salt), so I don’t think they have any basis for complaint about the statue.

  2. As an ex-colleague at the radio station in Maine at which I used to work has often noted…

    “We live in the stupidest times ever.”

  3. Seriously, we’re talking about Palm Springs which is kitschey from its very origins as a playland for the Hollywood elite. It protected the misbehaving stars so their “spotless” reputations would be unsoiled. Honestly, what do they think they’re protecting? Sex built Palm Springs and is still generates a major source of revenue.
    We’re way past the robber barons cleaning up their bad deeds by establishing charitable foundations. The internet has a way of preserving unvarnished history. They’re only kidding themselves that the statue is offensive because it celebrates sex. This has to be a record–past museum directors play the Puritan card.

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