I was tempted to tell you this is a photo of J sweeping me into his arms for our “you may now kiss the bride” moment, but I figured that wouldn’t fool anyone. Besides, if J had bent me over backwards for such a smooch, we probably both would have injured ourselves.
When J and I found ourselves with time to kill on our way to tour the USS Midway Museum in San Diego a few weeks ago, we had no idea there was a monumental, three-dimensional version of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s iconic photograph, V-J Day in Times Square, towering next to the ship. Entitled Unconditional Surrender, Seward Johnson’s 25-foot aluminum sculpture is exactly the kind of thing you can’t miss if you’re walking the waterfront on foot, but you probably would miss it if you drove to the waterfront and parked on the other side of the massive Midway. This is one of the things I love about exploring an unfamiliar city on foot. Instead of driving to the places your guidebook recommends, you find the serendipitous sites–the hidden jewels–that happen to be along your route from Point A to Point B.
There is, it turns out, a bit of controversy surrounding Johnson’s sculpture…and it has nothing to do with its depiction of a steamy smooch between strangers or the massive stretch of stockinged female leg the statue alluringly shows. (Yes, both J and I looked up the nurse’s dress to admire her shapely gams: the statue almost begs you to.) First, there’s the issue of intellectual property: Eisenstaedt’s famous photograph is still protected by copyright, so Johnson would be prohibited from producing another work derived from it. In his own defense, Johnson insists his statue is based upon a lesser-known photo by Victor Jorgensen that is in the public domain…but which shows far less leg than Eisenstaedt’s image.
Second, there’s controversy over the question of whether Unconditional Surrender is a “good” sculpture. In one review, an art critic for the San Diego Union-Tribune condemns it as kitsch, claiming “The figures look like something from a cheap souvenir factory, blown up beyond any reason.” In Sarasota, Florida, where another version of Johnson’s statue appears along the city’s waterfront, the chair of the local Public Art Committee says the sculpture “is like a giant cartoon image drafted by a computer emulating a famous photograph….not the creation of an artist.”
Is the sculpture kitschy and cartoonish? Definitely. Is it historically iconic in the way that Alfred Eisenstaedt’s original photo was? Definitely not. But does either criticism mean the work doesn’t belong on the San Diego waterfront? According to the Unified Port of San Diego website, Unconditional Surrender “captures the spontaneous eruption of joy and euphoria that swept a war-weary nation when the public announcement was finally made that World War II was over.” The moment of serendipitous spontaneity that Alfred Eisenstaedt captured with his camera–the kind of crazy joy that inspires sailors to sweep pretty nurses into their arms–is itself kitschy, cartoonish, and entirely common. Celebrating war’s end with a sloppy smooch isn’t high-brow and cultured; it’s the kind of collective craziness Barbara Ehrenreich chronicles in Dancing in the Streets: a kind of Mardi Gras frivolity that isn’t serious, cultivated, or even the least bit snooty.
Given the fact that Unconditional Surrender is on loan to the Port of San Diego only until August 31, this is merely a passing moment of kitsch: the kind of serendipity you can find only while it lasts.