What is it about Los Angeles that inspires madness? Is it the consistently, unchanging beautiful weather? The constant void of those clear blue skies that would make André Gide sigh? Those palm trees perpetually swaying in the ocean breeze? The respiratory system-suffocating smog? Is it the Manson in the air?
Or is it the ever-present legacy of Hollywood? Those shimmering, sparkling stars–the ones that continue to burn bright in perpetuity and the ones that flamed out spectacularly leaving a trace of failure, disappointment and quite often darkness in their wake? Of hallucinated lights, camera and action? The breathless desperation of all those flocking to its sandy beaches and traffic-jammed freeways to “make it” like Naomi Watts’s Betty in Mulholland Drive, descending that tall escalator in LAX to dreamland? The sense of cinematic unrealism that seeps from soundstage to city–a thinly veiled façade that is perfectly choreographed, impeccably staged and masterfully convincing that just encourages obsession? The search for those icons that have haunted every street corner from Sunset Boulevard to Hollywood and Vine to Venice Bitch, I mean, Beach? Is the real draw to Los Angeles, in fact, fanaticism?
I certainly think so, after visiting a series of museums in Los Angeles last month. No, not the fine arts museums whose dull sense of respectability couldn’t compete with the deliciously deranged, thoroughly L.A. glory of museums such as The Hollywood Museum or the dark-sided Museum of Death, which held perhaps my favorite piece of …ahem…art in all of Los Angeles: a spider fashioned out of string and underwear elastic, and dyed with Kool-Aid. Who made this adorable arachnid, you ask? Only Charlie Manson! Where can I purchase one? Perfect coffee table conversation piece! But, perhaps that museum should be a subject of another essay…
Flanked by the appropriately retro Mel’s Drive-In Diner, which also featured a diary-based ode to our blessed mother Lana Del Rey in the form of “The Greatest Milkshake,” a toothpaste-sounding Frosty Oreo Mint, The Hollywood Museum is a fever dream of kitsch, a cavalcade of camp, a flood tide of fanaticism, filling four floors of the garishly opulent Max Factor Building. Even just entering the building felt akin to waltzing through the Pearly Gates, decked out with as much pink marble as you can imagine: elegant, opulent and just the right amount of gaudy. But instead of Saint Peter manning the door, The Hollywood Museum greets visitors with an admissions worker who could not have been more perfect if sent from central casting. This aging glamazon was a vision of nipped, tucked and injected denial of the inevitability of time, doused in bottle blond hair dye. I was in love–I want to BE her!
Boasting “the most extensive collection of Hollywood memorabilia in the world,” The Hollywood Museum is a stunning and sometimes, startling tribute to fanaticism. It’s an altar, a shrine, a monument to Hollywood Babylon that only Kenneth Anger could truly appreciate. I mean, one of the first displays viewers are confronted with is a glass case guarding Dorothy’s glistening Red Ruby Slippers, presented almost as a ceremonial reliquary. I was ready to kneel down and pray to the heavenly goddess over the rainbow. There’s no place like Hollywood, Judy! There’s no place like Hollywood! It was heaven–the Great Beyond–of idol worship!
Now, if you want to dismiss The Hollywood Museum as just another Hollywood tourist trap akin to Madam Tussauds, think again, loser! This museum, with its hallways lined with tirelessly and diligently collected autographs has serious critical meaning. Or so a group of academics and artists seem to be saying in a recently released essay collection Fandom As Methodology: A Sourcebook for Artists and Writers, edited by Catherine Grant and Kate Random Love and published by Goldsmiths Press. Grant and Love intend for the collection to show how fandom studies–a field that, I’ll be honest, I never heard of before this book–can be used as a way to access, analyze and understand art and cultural production since many artists, academic and writers are unhinged fanatics too. As they write in their introduction: “We see fandom as a strategy that is not essentially political or oppositional, but a way to open up a conversation about what it means to be an artist or scholar within a university and art-world context that increasingly wants rationalized, monetized outputs.”
Much like my own curated exhibition Idol Worship, which coincidentally was on view when this book was published unbeknownst to me, the editors assert that role model adoration, though often brushed off as an immature or regressive adolescent phase, can be a political strategy and a way to build or at least, fantasize about communities of freaks (ok, my word not theirs. And as someone who panic-bought a bunch of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds tickets this week, I’ll take it on). “We see fandom as methodology as allowing for excessive attachments to cultural objects that would otherwise be derided or minimized,” they explain, “which in turn can be important as ways to present a sense of self or community that may not be endorsed in mainstream culture, whether that is inside or outside the art gallery. This equation is flipped by a number of artists and writers in this collection, who also utilize fandom as a way of passionately (lovingly, angrily, slavishly) reworking canonized icon, histories and objects to reveal what might be missing in more conventional approaches.”
The last sentence in that passage, however, belies some of the weakness in the collection, which, to be fair, may be more related to the nearly universal and often unrecognized stubborn attachment that academia and art writing has to hierarchical values of “high” art and cultural objects. This isn’t to say the essays or the artist pages located in the middle of the text aren’t worth reading. Like many essay collections, each reader’s enjoyment will depend on their personal tastes. For example, I gravitated more toward Dominic Johnson’s essay “Dead Star Mileage: Jack Smith’s Fandom for Maria Montez” than say, Taylor J. Acosta’s “A Fan’s Notes: Thomas Hirschhorn’s Material History.” But I’m more aligned with Jack Smith’s untethered Orientalist LaLaLand in his Downtown apartment than Thomas Hirschhorn’s conceptual ode to Mondrian.
In general, though, the book falters in its reliance on academic language and continued snobbish gatekeeping in what can and should be analyzed in a critical context. I’m less interested in how fandom can somehow inform previously approved forms of art or how university and art market-lauded artists engage with fanaticism than to see what could be gained by taking fan art, fan fiction and other forms of fan culture more seriously. Instead of Owen G. Parry’s analysis of his own forays into One Direction shipping or SooJin Lee’s essay about the Nikki S. Lee Fan Club, a semi-performative art piece/actual fan club for artist Nikki S. Lee (which also included the artist), where are the YouTube video tributes, Tumblr fan art pages, some Archive of our Own fan fiction, or hastily yet maniacally organized fan clubs?
Now, I’m not the only one to see the logical hole in ignoring less respected, less critically praised, less crit-tested art and writing. In her largely laudatory afterword, Ika Willis does sound a word of warning: “Among the differences that might be elided by an approach that sees no boundary between fandom and artistic practice, there may be some that we do not want to render invisible. Cultural capital, for example, is not distributed evenly between ‘ordinary’ fans and the contemporary or avant-garde artists who deploy fannish practices: Owen Parry and Slater Bradley are exhibiting work in galleries and other spaces in the contemporary art world, getting reviews and critical attention, while no such recognition from the mundane world flows to the teenage girls who make up the mass of One Direction fandom, and who ‘haunt’ (but do not appear in) Bradley’s work, as Kate Random Love’s chapter in this volume compellingly explains.”
And this matters, as Willis continues: “If we don’t pay attention to this difference, my fear is that we might slip into a pattern familiar from the history of art, especially the history of (white, male) Western artistic interaction with art from more marginalized groups or cultures: that is, we might see practices and aesthetics associated with teenage girls gaining broader cultural value and recognition only when they are borrowed by adult, male artists and recontextualized in the gallery space.” We don’t just need to read the excessively fanatical into fine art; we need to bring this analysis to the illegitimate art of fans, the outsiders, the collectors, the stalkers and the kleptomaniacs. Let’s drag them down to our level.
Which brings me back to The Hollywood Museum. With all matter of props, set pieces, autographs, scripts, letters, and mannequins sporting cardboard heads of Bea Arthur, Phyllis Diller, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis adorned in their costumes, the Museum would be a good place to start if the writers in Fandom As Methodology wanted to expand their scope. Memorabilia collecting could certainly be seen as an unwell form of conceptual practice, couldn’t it? From a basement dungeon of doom with tributes to legendarily lunatic divas like Vampira and Elvira that almost sent me to my grave in Hollywood trash ecstasy to a display of all the Cat Woman actresses and their costumes, including the one and only purring feline royalty–Queen Eartha Kitt herself–sitting appropriately on her throne to an entire floor dedicated bizarrely but exquisitely to The Pointer Sisters, which made me want to jump for their love, The Hollywood Museum is a devotional overture to the silver screen and all its divine deities, immortal or fallen. I almost crawled to each display case on my knees! I’m not worthy!
The Museum could be considered, in some respects, an art piece in itself, an homage to Hollywood’s crowning and enduring achievement: fakery. All its memorabilia, a testament to the labor, skill and resulting detritus that together create the fantasies on–and off-screen. Playing on its location in the Max Factor Building, the first floor features makeup rooms for varying shades of lady: blondes like Marilyn Monroe, redheads like Lucille Ball, brunettes like Liz Taylor, and “brownettes” like Judy Garland. These rooms were covered in old Hollywood divas makeup: dusty pinks, greens and flesh tones, surrounded by mannequins in their clothing such as an outfit worn by Joan Crawford. It was a diorama of the construction of glamour perhaps most closely related to the failed camp pleasure Jack Smith took in the bad acting and trashy settings of Maria Montez’s films, a delicious failure in mystique. As Jack Smith wrote on Montez: “Why do we object to not being convinced–why can’t we enjoy phoniness?…because it holds a mirror to our own, possibly.” He’s not wrong, but who could deny the pleasure of staring in the smudged mirror over the Max Factor displays and imagining what kind of vintage Hollywood phoniness YOU could achieve with just the right smattering of colors?
Display cases in these rooms also presented some more uncanny and downright disturbing objects. For example, Marilyn Monroe’s blonde room contained not only her best friends–her diamond jewels–but her curled locks and a bottle of Decadron found at her bedside, posed artfully next to her coroner’s report. Morbid! But that’s showbiz! Shouldn’t fanaticism and fandom be terrifying at times and also remind you of the inevitable? And The Hollywood Museum certainly achieved this. At one point, a freight elevator door opened, and I almost jumped out of my skin. I was already immersed.
Overall and overstuffed, The Hollywood Museum is a shining beacon to Hollywood excess and deserves to be understood in line with Grant and Love’s Fandom As Methodology. “We argue that fandom has a fit with many artistic works and methods that embrace the excessive, the deviant, the willful and the overblown. Importantly this approach can become a political or queered practice, one where not fitting in is taking as a starting point to imagine something or someone, somewhere else,” they observe. And you’re certainly taken somewhere else inside The Hollywood Museum–to a Fantasyland built, bought and sold by Hollywood. It made me want to exclaim as Kenneth Anger does in Hollywood Babylon, a bible of gossip, scandals, suicides, murders, suspicious deaths, rapes, surprise pregnancies, all in the name of celebrity: “H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D was a magic three syllables invoking the Wonder World of Make Believe. To the faithful it was more than a dream factory where one young hopeful out of a million got a break. It was Dreamland, Somewhere Else; it was the Home of the Heavenly Bodies, the Glamor Galaxy of Hollywood!”
Amen. Praise be to the cinematic gods and goddesses, and the mountains of ephemera and memorabilia they leave in their wake!