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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Exhibit B: The Velvet Elvis

In the typical Velvet Elvis painting, the face of the King is pale and disembodied. The expression is lusty, like the face of the hero on a romance novel dust-jacket. Or it is demure, sensitive, with puppy-dog eyes. Always it is the face of the lover-saint, the ideal of the American teeny-bopper dream of poetic bad-boy cool. Always it is crowned with incredible hair.

Generally, it is a young face, yet the style of hair and dress suggest an Elvis who has passed the early years of genius and rebellion. It is the face of an Elvis already halfway to Las Vegas, poised on the edge where greatness fell into schlock. And it appears already like a ghost.

Rising from a white collar, brocaded in gold, often studded with small rhinestones, and suggestive of purity and royalty, the face hovers in front of a black velvet void, a void that is both sensual and empty. When the figure is shown in full, it is often in a mythic setting, denoting power, sexual prowess. I am reminded of one particular painting in which Elvis is shown in the company of a muscular panther. The use of chiaroscuro is dramatic; the presentation is decidedly baroque. The symbols are rich and potent, verging on the religious. The intention seems to be to create the image of, if not a god, then a hero, in a strict, classical sense.

Yet the context of the Velvet Elvis is at odds with this intention. The means of representation, the use of garish colors airbrushed on cheap fabric, condemn the Velvet Elvis to the realm of “low art”, to be hawked by fairground vendors along with chintzy statuettes of doe-eyed children kissing and pictures of dogs playing poker. The ornate style suggests not so much strength as excess. The manner is crude. The Velvet Elvis is just plain tacky. But that is exactly what makes it fascinating.

The image is in conflict; Elvis struggles between the role of Christ and crying clown. Holiness approaches us behind a veil of kitsch. The Velvet Elvis seems to consciously glorify Elvis while subconsciously mocking him. All of which makes the Velvet Elvis a distinctly American icon, perhaps the paradigm of American iconography.

Let’s face it, at this point in the development of American culture, Elvis has transcended mere celebrity. He is a landmark on our cultural map. Likewise, the Velvet Elvis is too pervasive, too consistently present in American culture to be considered anything but an icon, the physical manifestation of a symbol.

And, like it or not, the image of Elvis is a central symbol in the American psyche. As such, it functions in the construction of our collective identity as Americans. The ways in which we use this symbol reveal much about ourselves.

I would like to venture that the Velvet Elvis is a definitive example of our inability to deal appropriately with the concept of the Hero, to comprehend the more profound meaning of greatness, to construct a mythos that is substantial, deep, able to provide us with solace and wisdom.

We are a young culture. Perhaps we arrived too late on the historical scene for such a mythos to be created without irony and doubt. Perhaps we do not yet have the tools to create one. Or perhaps tackiness is just a part of what it means to be an American.

The Velvet Elvis may not be great art. But it is an important cultural artifact. Its existence reveals to us our need for distinctly American icons, and our clumsiness at making them. It points out our reluctance to choose between the hero and the clown or perhaps our incapacity to see the difference between the two. That might not make it something we should hang on our walls, but I think it does make it something we shouldn’t ignore.