Every once in a while an art exhibit comes along that touches a nerve, but what you really want it to do is jab a white-hot spike into the root and inflict as much howling agony as possible.
Baby Marx , at the Walker Art Center, is one such exhibit. The product of Mexican video artist Pedro Reyes, Baby Marx isn’t really an art exhibit at all—it’s an installation that allows us to see the creative process behind one of Reyes’s video projects, a proposed TV series/feature film featuring puppets of such famed historical figures as Karl Marx, maligned political philosopher of the proletariat, Adam Smith, the celebrated father of unfettered capitalism, and a supporting cast of prominent politicos that includes Freidrich Engels, Milton Friedman, Che Guevera, Lenin, Stalin, Chairman Mao, and Bernie Madoff.
Despite the relative mirthlessness of the cast, the show/film, if it is ever produced, will be a comedy. Reyes and his artistic team will be shooting segments of the script at the Walker throughout it’s three-and-a-half month stay here, and adding to the exhibit as scenes are shot and edited. The exhibit itself features all the puppets used in the project, video monitors showing a few scenes that have already been shot, a large replica of a traditional library, and several miniature room sets. A rough outline of the script is scribbled on the wall, and museum-goers are free to roam around and observe all these bits and pieces as they are being assembled into a coherent whole.
The show/film that emerges from all of this activity has yet to be picked up. It’s been shopped to Japanese TV producers and HBO, but no one has bitten. One HBO executive’s criticism, according to the pamphlet accompanying the exhibit: not enough jokes.
At this point, Baby Marx is just an idea in the early stages of development. What’s so interesting and frustrating about it is that it’s an idea that feels like its time has come, yet can’t come soon enough. As the world’s economies grope for sanity and our country’s political discourse becomes ever more idiotic, the idea of using puppets to stage a serio-comical smackdown between socialism and capitalism makes perfect sense. The writings of both Karl “power to the proletariat” Marx and Adam “invisible hand of the marketplace” Smith have been reduced to meaningless blather. Few people actually read Marx, Smith, or any other political philosophers for that matter, so the broader context of their ideas is a mystery to most. What we’re left with is a country full of lawyers, businesspeople, and politicians who spout reductive slogans as if they're received wisdom from the gods—or, in the case of certain Republicans, God himself—but who are incapable of formulating any coherent thoughts beyond the bumper-sticker bullshit they profess to believe.
Humor is the only blade sharp enough to cut through this sort of stupidity, which is why the most trusted people in America at the moment are Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, the writers of The Onion , and the makers of South Park . Baby Marx bears a distinct resemblance to the latter (Reyes has even hired a couple of Adult Swim writers to help him with the script), in that it is a crudely made show that addresses important issues through irreverence, absurdity, and characters with little round heads.
In the scenes of the show on display at the Walker, Karl Marx and Adam Smith are portrayed like a bickering married couple. In one segment, they are walking through the Walker galleries when they happen upon a piece by Andy Warhol. Marx grumbles that Warhol isn’t a true artist—“he exploits the idea of creativity”—and he’s disgusted by the idea that a Warhol painting could fetch $33 million on the open market. Smith counters that the market’s valuation of Warhol’s work is proof of his artistic genius, and that the painting is “worth” whatever the market says it is. “Could have been $34 million,” sniffs Smith. Marx then changes the subject by asking if Smith has ever heard of Facebook.
The bit is funny because it touches on a couple of truths about our current economic malaise that are becoming increasingly transparent. First, it is patently ridiculous for any painting to be valued in the tens or hundreds of millions, though many are—and it's even more ridiculous that there are people in the world who will gladly spend much money to own one. The scene is also funny because it reveals how, for free-market evangelists, no amount of economic hyperbole is too extreme. No matter how many millions CEOs, hedge-fund managers, and Wall Street brokers earn, they’re worth it, the circular logic goes—because the market says so. Anyone who thinks otherwise is just jealous, or a loser, or both.
The big problem today, of course, is that most of the people on the planet are losers in this game, and they’re not jealous—they're angry. The rioting masses in London and Greece, Arab Spring protesters, Libyan rebels, and Israeli mobs all have one thing in common: they are being spearheaded by young people who want a better future for themselves and are tired of being squeezed to the breaking point by the rich and powerful. Angry kids haven’t hit the streets in the United States (yet), but the gap between the rich and poor in America is wider than it’s ever been, so the powder keg is being primed. The top 1 percent of the population now controls 43 percent of the wealth in this country and more than 80 percent of the stocks (and most of that money is actually controlled by the top 0.1 percent). The richest men in the world, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, are begging to be taxed more because they know the truth about the very rich: they will not share their fortunes with the bottom 99 percent of society voluntarily. They also know that it would be bad for business if the super-rich ran the table. It’s not just that the bottom 99 percent of the population is fighting over an ever-shrinking piece of the American pie; it’s that if things keep going the way they are—if corporations and the super-rich keep hoarding the money supply for themselves—there will be no more pie. And we all know what happens when American kids don't get their dessert.
Pedro Reyes is from Mexico, a country with stunning disparities between the rich and the poor, but he doesn’t seem to be choosing sides; he's finding comedy in the muddled middle. In Baby Marx , Marx himself is portrayed as a grumpy kill-joy, and Adam Smith is a sanctimonious know-it-all. All the characters have a comic dimension, in fact, which makes puppets the perfect artistic medium for his satire. The symbolism couldn’t be more apt. After all, when Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Tim Pawlenty, Barack Obama, and all the other players in our political drama start spewing their tired clichés and mouthing words that have grown meaningless through constant repetition, they look like nothing so much as inanimate wooden creatures who can’t think for themselves—spineless stick figures who will say anything the people manipulating the money strings want them to say.
The biggest problem with Baby Marx is that it isn’t finished. Right now it's just an idea with a lot of potential, and its very genius may be its undoing. Movie and TV executives want entertainment, after all, not artistically clever satire, and they want to make money, not fund socially subversive political commentary. The worst thing that could happen to Baby Marx is that it remains a museum exhibit. Reyes and his crew have important things to say and a brilliant vehicle for saying it, but nothing they do will matter if the only place people can see their work is on the third floor of the Walker Art Center. Not just because the audience is limited, but because there is no safer place for trenchant cultural commentary than a contemporary art museum.
So get to work, Pedro, because in tough times people need to laugh—and when the lower 99% lose their sense of humor, the real trouble begins.
Baby Marx continues at the Walker Art Center through Nov. 27, walkerart.org