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Many Meanings Unfolded in ‘That Flower’

Intellectuals, assorted members of the literati, and all those who generally bemoan the lowly state of American culture had another reason to complain these last few weeks, and all because of a big, stinky flower. Record crowds descended upon the esteemed Huntington Library and Gardens, not for its impressive art works, not for its lush and captivating Botanical Park, and not for its one-of-a-kind library collection.

No. More than 20,000 paying customers came to see the Amorphophallus titanium, an unusual plant species, native in Sumatra that stands almost six feet tall and smells like rotting flesh. “Give the people what they want,” said P.T. Barnum. And, apparently, what people want really stinks.

But take heart, all ye members of the cultural elite. All is not lost. In some ways, the overwhelming response to the Amorphophallus titanium stands in tribute to a decade's worth of curatorial attempts to demystify high culture.

Child-friendly exhibits and discovery stations at the Getty Museum, jazz nights at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, dance recitals and arts and crafts at the Armand Hammer, interactive programs at the Museum of Tolerance, increasing numbers of well-funded and publicized exhibits by women and people of color, once-a-month-free policies at a wide range of cultural institutions all speak to the lengths curators and museum directors have gone to make their institutions relevant to Southern Californians of all age groups, ethnic backgrounds and income brackets.

In attempting to break down traditional expectations about elite and mass audiences, such exhibits and programs make art and culture the province of everyone, not just members of some vague and amorphous cultural elite. As the staff at the Huntington might fairly and unashamedly say: Come for the Big Stinky Flower, but stay for the botanical and artistic treasures that abound.

But let's face it, people also visited the Amorphophallus titanium exhibit to satisfy the seemingly inborn human attraction to the freakish, prurient and strange. Why else would people stand in line to see something they could apparently smell from half a mile away?

But again, before the high-minded hold their noses at such behavior, it is worth noting that the gawkers of the big, stinky flower were merely participating in what trendy postmodernists and deconstructionists admiringly call “the carnivalesque tradition.”

The carnivalesque tradition is a much-studied phenomenon that historians date back to at least medieval markets and celebrations.

In the carnival, everything is playfully turned topsy-turvy: slaves become masters, male becomes female, and the dainty, sweet-smelling flower becomes the rank, monstrous stink bomb. Scholars say ridiculing traditional expectations of power was one way disenfranchised members of the community could voice dissatisfaction with the status quo. But since everything was part of the carnival, such jibes were not necessarily taken seriously. But then again maybe they were serious, or maybe they weren't. That's the beauty of the carnival.

And that's the beauty of the Amorphophallus titanium. Maybe people came to see a once in a lifetime occurrence. Maybe they came to see a rare botanical species that only bloomed 11 times in the United States during the twentieth century. Maybe they came because it was the Huntington, a treasured and important cultural institution. Or maybe they just came to see a gross-smelling, enormous, phallic-shaped flower.

You just never know.

by Margaret Finnegan for The Pasadena Star-News
August 14, 1999