by Jason Smythe
When asked by Karen, the esteemed editor of this blog, to watch an episode of The Real Housewives of Vancouver that briefly deals with modern art, I was skeptical. Two thoughts immediately popped into my head: 1) How can such a low-brow show deliver any kind of intelligent commentary on modern art? and 2) What can a group of vapid gold-diggers who are more plastic than human possibly know about modern art? The answer to the latter: absolutely nothing. But in regards to the former, this low-brow extravaganza succeeds in revealing two truths about modern art: that it is made strange within popular culture, and that it is often collected as a tool of status.
In season 2, episode 1 one of the ‘real’ housewives goes to the Blanket Art Gallery because she wants to own something ‘fresh’. (Aka she has a ton of money and lots of free time.) The art being displayed at the gallery is actually quite good, and can best be described as a mix of traditional first nations art and pop art; so we know immediately that she is in over her head. As a villain-esque Eastern European woman named Loulia begins to describe the meaning behind each painting the housewife opens her mouth and utters a phrase through her thrice reconstructed jaw: “I can’t buy that painting (of the naked woman) because I have three boys at home.” In a later soliloquy, she says of the painting: “her va-jay jay was spread open all over the place. I can’t have that.” Of course, we need to examine the sub-text to understand what she is really saying: that the forms on display are not ‘traditional’ and do not conform to what we would normally see in popular culture, so they are ‘strange’. In reality she did not want something ‘fresh’ in terms of being avant-garde, but ‘fresh’ in the sense that it was a new purchase and would bestow status upon her.
Art conferring greater status to its owner is an idea that dates back to the beginning of recorded history. I will not look back that far, but a cursory examination will show myriad important figures patronizing artists for the sole purpose of increasing their own status. Case in point: the Medici family of renaissance Florence. I am not going to argue that the House of Medici were as vapid as the ‘real housewives’ but there is no denying that their patronage of art and architecture was done to make their business rivals in Venice jealous. Much of renaissance Italy’s history can be described as follows: the ‘real housewives’ of Florence and the ‘real housewives’ of Venice spent absurd amounts of money on art and architecture in each of their respective cities in order to best each other in a figurative ‘dick-measuring ‘ contest. This contest went on for centuries, and because of this Florence and Venice have lots of pretty buildings and far too much art.
If there is one thing you need to know about this show it is that the real housewives compete with one another at a Medici-Venice level, so there is no doubt that the housewife who visited the Blanket Gallery views the purchase of art as a tool of status. But the question remains: why modern art? Why not something more accessible – something she would actually understand? The answer lies in her desire for ‘freshness’, and the very fact that she does not understand modern art. By buying a ‘fresh’ piece of modern art she would give the illusion of being sophisticated, and there is a dearth of sophistication amongst this group of plastic humanoids. By owning a piece of modern art people would assume she actually understands it, and thus have greater respect for her supposed intellect. Respect equals status, so she would momentarily be the victor in the never-ending contest amongst these women.
However, what is just as fascinating is that the housewife ultimately decided to not buy anything, and did so because she did not understand the product. This raises an interesting question: did she do this because she did not want to be exposed as a phony who knows nothing about modern art? Did she have a brief second of beautiful self-awareness and realize she was somewhere she did not belong? Perhaps this particular housewife is smarter than I thought. I just had trouble seeing through the plastic.