Hard Core Art or Soft Core Pornography? An Inquiry into the Social Production of Art

“Awaken Your Senses” are the words written on the majority of promotional posters advertising for the Gauguin Tahiti show in the subway.   This is the anthem seductively calling the tired subway commuter, luring him with the promise of an escape to paradise.  Just a few dollars and a T-stop away is the chance to boost your sagging libido and acquire some cultural capital at the same time.  The architects of the Gauguin show sell a paradisiacal fantasy to the public, through an insight into the frustrated and unspoken desires of the upper middle class, and with a thoroughness that makes it, according to Boston Globe reviewer Christine Temin, “A glorious exhibition — one of the three or four finest of all the solo shows the MFA [Museum of Fine Arts] has mounted in the last quarter-century.”  By having this show in the prestigious MFA, rather than a rib shack on the shores of an island resort, museum-goers are able to maintain their sense of themselves as culture-goers rather then prurient voyeurs.  This show just recently came over from Paris to the MFA, the only place in the United States where this exhibit will be shown.  Gauguin’s painting “Where did we come from, what are we, where are we going?” is owned by the MFA which allowed the museum to leverage their clout to prevent any competition for this exhibit.  The exclusivity of this show automatically increases the profits for the MFA.

Between 15 and 20 percent of people in the Gauguin exhibit gift shop at any one time did not attend the Gauguin show. More than 80 percent of the people who attended the show spent some amount of time in the gift shop before leaving.  Time spent in the gift shop ranged between 5 minutes to up to an hour.  In a society that no long has patrons of the arts, museums like the MFA have had to find a way to generate income from secondary sources.  This particular exhibit succeeds brilliantly in this regard by relying on two of the most universal selling points: sex and paradise.  Interviews with 30 people over the course of two days and approximately 10 hours spent in the Gauguin exhibit gift shop, yielded rich ethnographic data.

I attended the Gauguin exhibit twice in a one-week period during the first week of the show (February 29th through June 20th 2004), once on a Wednesday evening, and once on a Friday afternoon, for about 5 hours each time.  I went through the exhibit itself on Wednesday and the rest of my time was spent in the exhibit’s gift shop.  During my time in the shop I positioned myself at the door that leads directly from the show to the shop and interviewed people as they left the show and lingered in the shop.  In addition, I observed the setup of the gift shop and the marketing techniques used by the architects of the Gauguin show to generate the maximum amount of revenue possible.  Outside of my time spent at the MFA itself, I observed the advertising for the show in newspapers, on the T, and in other public arenas.

While in the gift shop I interviewed sixteen women, all of one of whom were white, and fourteen males, two of which were non-white.  The ages of people interviewed ranged from twelve to about 80, with a mean age of approximately 50.  Most people interviewed had the person they were at the museum with help to answer the questions, but these were still counted as only one interview.  Of the people interviewed, 50% were members of the MFA, and over 95% had come to the museum that day specifically for the Gauguin exhibit.  The most prevalent answer to my question of what the person did or did not enjoy about the exhibit was that he or she enjoyed the artist’s usage of color.  All but two of the people interviewed responded that they very much enjoyed the exhibit.

The question to which I got the most surprising answers was, “What did you think of the artist’s subject matter?”  One middle aged white woman said, “He portrayed the Tahitians gracefully, he really seemed to love the people there.”  This view of Gauguin as respectful of the indigenous Tahitians was a common sentiment among people who responded to this question.  Another white female, approximately 30 years old, said Gauguin, “Painted the people beautifully and with dignity, and his passionate and spiritual connection to them was very strong.”  Similarly, an 80 year old white woman with her teenaged granddaughter said, “He loved the Tahitians and was disgusted with the world.  He found paradise.”  Other answers to this question included comments such as, “[Gauguin] appreciated the culture of the primitive so much,” and “Other people thought [the Tahitians] were savages, but he didn’t, he respected them much more.”

I believe that the driving force behind this unexamined answer is twofold.  Firstly, Gauguin’s paintings themselves are simple, colorful, and accessible.  The paintings’ seeming simplicity reduces the distance between the viewer and the artist by not relying on highly refined technical skills.  This style of painting seems to suggest that paradise and sexual bliss are simple, colorful, and accessible as well.  The colorfulness of the artist’s paintings is happy and the portrayal of Tahitians is idealized.  Whereas in popular imagination, indigenous people tend to be savage, scary, and primitive, and are looked at as the precursors to our current evolved state, Gauguin’s work offers an alternative viewpoint of a peaceful, sensual, harmonious culture.  No wonder he ran away from his bourgeoisie existence; the exhibit confirms the viewer’s own desire for a simple, happy life.

Sky blue walls, bright wood panels, and tropical flowers adorn the walls as soft strains of “Halleluiah” from the melodic voices of native Tahitians waft in from unseen speakers; this is the atmosphere inside the gift shop.  I walk past the window and look outside.  Snow covers the frozen ground; cars inch along in rush hour traffic belching out exhaust turning the white snow to filth.  It is interesting that this particular show is being shown this time of year, when winter seems to never end yet the promise of spring is just out of reach.  It is at this point in the year the American consumer is the most susceptible to throwing dollars at the mirage of sun and rejuvenation.  As upscale department stores have always known, this is the time to market summer clothing even though shoppers trudge through the store with snow boots and parkas.

Inside the gift shop are a plethora of items, something for everyone.  There is, of course, the classic coffee table Gauguin book.  According to the two women working behind the cash register, this has been a high selling item, along with the ceramic tiki mugs and the famous silk scarves.  Additionally, there were two walls dedicated entirely to books.  The majority of these books encompass the overarching fantasy being promoted by the gift shop, with titles such as “The Way to Paradise,” “Exotic Nudes,” “The Quest for Paradise,” “Phenomenal Women,” and “An Erotic Life.”  Buried underneath the coffee table books, away from the shelves with the other, more alluring book titles, is Margaret Mead’s classic work “Coming of Age in Samoa.”

Over the sound of the Hallelujah music and people flipping pages of books I heard a middle aged man call to his wife, “We should definitely get some of these tiki mugs!” Whether you are a connoisseur of books or not, there are more than enough items in the gift shop to keep you occupied looking through for hours.  There are the usual note cards, stationary, mugs, coasters, magnets, decks of play cards, pins, posters, videos, and small framed reproductions of the artist’s work.  But, the Gauguin exhibit gift shop does not stop with these mundane items.  Rather, there is an entire series of items that surpass even what could be found in the gift store of the Honolulu Hilton. Adorning the tables and cabinets around the shop are displays of “tribal” jewelry, straw hats, “tropical” dishware, sarongs, silk scarves, tiki mugs, “Gauguin” bath oils, hula skirts, flowery leis, “tribal” music CDs, and silk-made tropical flowers.  The museum architects have carefully constructed a panoply of high-end “tourist art” rip offs.  Not only is the work for sale not authentic from the culture being represented, but it may have been made in working conditions quite opposite from the paradise it promotes.  However, none of the consumers in the gift shop expressed concerned about the sale of these fetishes of their fantasy.

Not only were the items for sale suggestive of an exotic paradise, but I wonder if it was by accident that the salespeople, all woman, several biracial, somewhat exotically attractive, were the ones behind the counter.  It certainly was no accident that these women had the fake flower hair pins tucked seductively behind their ears.  The ambience in the gift shop was suggestive of an after party to a ceremony.  In contrast to the exhibit, people were talking, laughing, touching items and engaging with friends, all of which convey a sense of relaxation.  The gift shop was closer to the dream being sold than the art itself.  Without this outlet for the release of tension of the sensual arousal of seeing the images in Gauguin’s work, I wonder where people would have gone to release such energy after seeing the exhibit.

The efforts to sell the dream of paradise and sexual bliss extend far beyond the gift shop.  Go to www.mfa.org for information on the museum, and you will find a pop- up ad encouraging you to register to “Win a Tahitian cruise.” Walk into the main entrance of the MFA and you will find the same ad blown up to billboard size greeting you immediately as you head to the ticket counter.  This show is one of blockbuster sweepstakes in every way.  At the ticket counter there are free, attractive looking bookmarks displaying one of Gauguin’s paintings containing one and a half nude women, one of which is riding a horse in a provocative manner.  On the reverse side of this painting is an advertisement from the MFA of the benefits of membership.  What better way to banish any residual discomfort from seeing Gauguin’s work, than by reinforcing the fact that viewing this work is, in fact, your ticket to the rarefied work of high culture.  Leave the museum itself and walk around the streets and T stations of Boston and you will find posters displaying Gauguin’s bare breasted Tahitian women with phrases like “Lure of the Exotic” printed across their bodies.

In order to effectively sell the Gauguin show the MFA had to tap into the cognitive dissonance that is deeply embedded both in the artist as well as the culture.  Gauguin fled his family responsibility and bourgeoisie profession for the ultimate fantasy of “Being at last free, with no money troubles, and able to love, to sing, and to die,” as the text at the opening of the MFA exhibit reads.  Meanwhile, his wife and children were left to fend for themselves in Europe, and all the socially constructed meanings of his actions did not put food on their table.  Similarly, the viewer of the Gauguin show is able to slip away for $10 dollars and few hours to explore an idealized reality through the world constructed by the show, the products offered for sale, and the hype generated to draw the viewer itself.  This show is a perfect intersection of an artist’s fantasy intersecting with the public’s secret longings, encompassing beauty, innocence, and the paradise of sexual fulfillment.