Warning: This is about conceptual art.

This is a piece I wrote for my Creative Processes class. The purpose of this short essay is to engage a piece of art and write about it in such a way that others can experience the piece in a new way, my way; that is to say, through my unique perspective (it’s also to show I understand the reading).

Soap and Pubic Hair: From the Shower to the Gallery

Tom Friedman is a master of the “transfiguration of the commonplace,” to use Arthur Danto’s phrase. Consider Friedman’s usual suspects within his list of materials: masking tape, pencils, styrofoam, spaghetti, human hair, toilet paper, toothpicks, and my personal favorite—and perhaps most intimate to the ontological playfulness of Friedman’s work—bubble gum. One of Friedman’s most striking transfigurations is his untitled, but certainly not unknown, piece in which the artist took what you and I see everyday in our showers — soap with pubic hair stuck to it — and turned it into something not nearly so everyday: art.

At first glance, Friedman’s bar of soap could almost be a commonplace product for everyday hygiene, if not exactly the generic bar of soap one purchases in a package of four, a specialty soap, a slightly higher-end soap, with a swirled design of all-natural cinnamon and clove essential oils. Upon closer inspection however, that illusion fades; it is not quite pretty enough to be a six-dollar bar of homemade soap. It is far from being made from what polite society considers pretty; when one finally reads the list of materials under “untitled” — soap and pubic hair — Friedman’s bar of soap astonishes, and perhaps slightly disgusts, the viewer.

Tom Friedman, “Untitled”, 1990. A partially used bar of soap inlaid with a spiral of pubic hair. Photo from Satchi Gallery.

What would possess the artist to do that? our viewer finds himself asking no one in particular, staring, agape at this mesmerizing, intricate display of coarse, wiry, nearly perfectly straight lines of pubic hair in practically perfect concentric circles on a plain, white bar of soap. Then the light turns on. The bar of soap in my shower with a hair or two haphazardly stuck to it because they incidentally did not get rinsed off has been painstakingly and intentionally (if also miraculously) transformed in to an object of wholeness, balance, and proportion.

With this initial realization of Tom Friedman’s bar of soap as art, our observer now wonders, So what is the artist saying? since art inevitably says something (Danto 147-148). Here, as with most modern art, the answer to this question is found within the context of the artist himself. However, the astute art observer is an art interpreter, and our art observer-interpreter enjoys the process and the challenge of co-creating through his role as an interpreter, so before reading the short, explanatory paragraph found below the initial

American (1969-present)
Soap and pubic hair

he considers, What is the artist saying by making something ordinary extraordinary, and turning a haphazard and incidental occurrence into something measured and intentional? With this question, he may posit the possibility that Friedman is simply saying the mundane can be given a telos in which it attains a higher standing, or that there is a connection between what we commonly view as base to that which we view as high, that which we consider to be, well, worth considering.

Finally, looking to the explanatory plaque on the stand next to the stand upon which the artist’s bar of soap is displayed, our gallery-goer’s internal lightbulb burns yet a bit brighter as he reads Friedman’s own words regarding the piece: “Initially I was drawn towards materials that had to do with personal hygiene, cleaning materials… I drew a connection between mundane rituals for keeping ourselves clean and rituals for spiritual purification” (designboom.com). I see that, thinks our co-creator, as images of Japanese Zen sand gardens come alongside that of the soap and pubic hair before him, the limits of his knowledge and his ability to interpret simultaneously expanding (Danto 127); and the soap and pubic hair is twice transfigured: once when Tom Friedman created “untitled”, and once again as our art observer interprets.

RD McKenzie
University of Texas at Dallas

Works Cited

1. Danto, Arthur Coleman. The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: a Philosophy of Art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1981. Print.

2. “Tom Friedman.” Designboom. Web. 18 Jan. 2011. <http://www.designboom.com/portrait/friedman.html>.

This entry was posted in Speaking & Writing Projects: Lectures, Letters, Papers & Blogs and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Warning: This is about conceptual art.

  1. Byron says:

    Looks like you are an expert in this field, excellent articles and keep up the great work, my buddy recommended me your blog.

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