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Making a statement about celebrity obsession?

Sculpture's not just about Britney childbirth, it's about our need to gawk
/ Source: contributor

Forget driving with the baby in her lap, or the hasty Vegas annulment. Pop supernova Britney Spears is guaranteed to cause yet more controversy with her next public appearance.

Actually, she won’t be there in the flesh. She’ll be hunkered down at home, presumably changing diapers, rehearsing her denials about a second pregnancy and Googling her own name so she can regain her Web-search crown from Jenna Jameson.

But the young diva’s flesh — every inch of of it — will be on conspicuous display beginning April 7 at Brooklyn’s Capla Kesting Fine Art Gallery, when the artist Daniel Edwards unveils his sculpture of Spears on all fours on a bearskin rug, about to give birth.

Edwards is demonstrating a knack for this kind of readymade hubbub: He’s the same sculptor who showed a bust of the severed, cryogenically preserved head of baseball great Ted Williams last year.

To those who are easily outraged, such work is, well, an outrage. But that kind of reaction plays right into the hands of the creator. This is precisely the point of making this kind of art — to generate talk, most of it heated and irrational, about our manic obsession with fame.

It’s a logical extension of our longstanding fascination with wax-museum likenesses and scale-size figurines, which we can fetishize without staring (or shrieking) at the real thing … er, person.

In tourist destinations, the Victorian-era wax museum still draws a crowd. Madame Tussauds at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas recently announced the addition of a Tupac Shakur model, in the city where the late rapper was gunned down. Following its debut, “Tupac Eternal” is scheduled to go on a world tour, dropping in on Tussauds galleries in New York, Hong Kong and London before settling into the Tupac Amaru Shakur Center for the Arts in Atlanta.

In the finer arts, celebrity has become a subject as common as flowers and seashores. Elvis, of course, has been endlessly reimagined and parodied. Sandow Birk’s 1994 painting, “The Death of Kurt Cobain, Seattle,” contemplated the rock star’s suicide in a gruesome depiction of his body just after pulling the trigger. One of the most famous celebrity-charged artworks is Jeff Koons’ 1988 sculpture “Michael Jackson and Bubbles,” a bizarre ceramic replica of the King of Pop and his pet chimpanzee.

All these pieces share a particular trait: As gratuitous and obvious as they may seem, toying with the cultural currency of some of our most recognizable public figures, on some level they are not really about the person depicted at all. Is Birk’s painting, for instance, really just a gorey recreation of a shotgun blast to the face, or is it intended as a deeply felt contemplation of the pressures and contradictions that drove Cobain to kill himself?

Likewise, is Edwards’ provocative Britney likeness simply a voyeuristic peek into the most personal moment of her young life? Or is it a commentary — a criticism, really — of our own culture’s insatiable demand for intrusive evidence about the lives of the rich and famous?

The latter reading is infinitely more complex, and frankly too much trouble for most casual observers to ponder; thus the predictable outrage. The gut reaction is to say “That’s not right” — and yes, rendering the birth of a child in graphic, apparently cynical detail does seem like some kind of violation.

But the work, entitled “Monument to Pro-Life: The Birth of Sean Preston,” raises a bewildering array of questions, from body image and natural childbirth to the privacy rights of people who make millions as public figures. No matter that Spears reportedly had a C-section; here she is preparing to deliver the baby on her knees, with a beatific, pain-free look on her face. Could it be that the artist actually means not to belittle her but to exalt her new motherhood? Is she here not a pop superstar but an Everywoman?

And what’s with the bearskin?

Andy Warhol knew that there was something quintessentially American about gawking. Apparently Edwards does too.

“When I hear a man applauded by the mob I always feel a pang of pity for him,” said H.L. Mencken. He wasn’t famous for nothing.