Topic: Professions & Institutions

The Saga of Ted Williams’ Head

Imagine that, without your permission or his, photos of your father’s last moments of life were included as part of an art exhibit by a total stranger, who obtained private photos of his final breath, surrounded by loved ones. That’s pretty horrible, but it’s a minor inconvenience compared to what artist Daniel Edwards is putting the family of the late baseball legend Ted Williams through. He claims to have obtained the Red Sox great’s death mask, and has converted it into a grisly sculpture that consists of a realistic (but blue-grey) replica of Williams’ head, gaunt, with eyes closed, with its chin resting on an autographed baseball. [The Scoreboard declines to aid and abet Edwards by printing a photo. If the reader wants to see one, they are plentiful on the web.]

Williams, as his many fans are aware, was cryogenically frozen after his death, with his head and body stored separately.

To begin with, the Ethics Scoreboard hereby stipulates that Edwards has a right to use Williams’ image in his art. Teddy Ballgame was undoubtedly a celebrity, and the law is clear that as long as a celebrity’s image is converted into an original work of art, there has been no misappropriation of property. Once Ted’s Head has been transformed into something that can be legitimately called “art,” however tasteless, exploitive, offensive, disrespectful, and hurtful it might be (perhaps you can now see where this commentary is going), no force in this country can stop it from being exhibited, or prevent the artist from profiting from it. That’s America. That’s the Bill of Rights.

O.K. Edwards is within his rights. But many aspects of his artwork and the statements made by him and the gallery featuring it are ethically troubling, to say the least.

Edwards says that this really is Williams’ death mask, meaning that someone took a mold of Williams’ face after he expired and then got it to Edwards. Now, unbelievable as it might seem, it is at least possible that Edwards obtained an authentic death mask legitimately. John Henry Williams, Ted Williams’ troubled and ethically-challenged son (who died of cancer last year), reportedly tried every scheme imaginable to squeeze income out of his elderly father’s fame in Ted’s difficult last years, making him, for example, sign hundreds of souvenir baseballs until the stroke-crippled old man was exhausted and in pain. Might this desperate hustler have made some kind of deal with Edwards? It wouldn’t have been out of character, but there’s no proof that he did.

Alcor, the Scottsdale, Arizona cryogenic facility that keeps Williams cool, maintains that no molds of Williams’ severed head were taken there. If John Henry Williams (or Williams’ other children: a Hall of Fame family they aren’t) didn’t have the mask made and sent to Edwards, then it was made illicitly, and the artist should not have used or profited from it. But even the mask was sent to Edwards by a family member, what about Ted Williams? Is our society’s ethical standard that celebrities can be robbed of all dignity and privacy after death? Williams thrilled and excited millions with his exploits on the field, re-wrote the record books, was a bona fide war hero, helped scores of young players, raised millions for cancer research, inspired “The Natural”… and the appropriate way to reward him is to portray him in public as the ice-blue severed head of a sick, 82 year-old man?

To listen to the New York’s First Street Gallery’s spokesperson, yes! “When Daniel Edwards presented the ‘death mask’ as an object to display with other Ted Williams items, it was known there would be the potential for controversy,” the flack said. “The decision to exhibit the ‘death mask’ was carefully made with the intent that the ‘death mask’ should be presented as a part of a display to memorialize Ted Williams. We are all fans of Ted Williams, and we miss him.”

We can tell you’re all choked up about it, buddy. Edwards, not surprisingly, is just as disingenuous. “My feeling is that it has taken some time for many of us to understand and respect Ted Williams’ decision to be preserved in cryostasis,” the artist says. “This exhibit pays homage to his decision.”

Oh, its homage! Thanks for clearing that up, Danny, because it looks like a cynical exploitation of a defenseless dead man to inflate your visibility and make money for an art gallery.

One rather obvious extension of the Golden Rule is “Don’t do unto others things that absolutely nobody, including you, would want to have done to them or their family members even in their worst nightmares.” This is not an artwork that uses some long dead cultural icon; Ted Williams died only a few years ago. Many people are alive who knew him and loved him. Edwards’ “artwork” displays a stunning lack of respect, fairness and caring, and under any set of facts, he and the gallery have behaved abominably:

  • Even if the death mask was offered to him by a family member, he shouldn’t have used it.
  • If it was taken without permission of a family member, he not only shouldn’t have used it, he should have reported whoever made it.
  • If it isn’t a genuine death mask of Ted Williams, then Edwards is defrauding the public by claiming it is.
  • Whether it is a genuine death mask illicitly obtained, or a genuine mask obtained legitimately but used in a harmful and disrespectful way, or a counterfeit mask used for sensational purposes, the First Street Gallery shouldn’t exhibit it.

We owe something to our heroes. And we owe something to those who revere them. Even if Edwards never went to a baseball game in his life, he has an ethical obligation as a member of this society to the many Americans, my own father among them, to whom Ted Williams was a source of inspiration and awe. Yes: the artist has a right to defile all of that for his “art.” It’s still a despicable thing to do.

My personal guess is that the work doesn’t incorporate a real death mask of Ted Williams, and that both Edwards and the gallery will eventually reveal that the whole thing was a sham that they will try to justify as satire or as an attempt to tweak the sensitivities of sports fans. Of course, that will be a lie as well. Edwards and the gallery intentionally used a shocking and disturbing image to gain national attention, create controversy, and make a buck. They not only didn’t care who they upset in the process, they wanted to upset them.

Edwards and the gallery will surely succeed in their objective, which is less based on art than commerce, and sell the grotesque blue severed head of Ted Williams for a pretty penny, probably to a Yankee fan.

All within their rights, naturally. And definitely, and sickeningly, wrong.

Update: [9/21/05] According to The Washington Post, Edwards now says that he used photos of Williams to create an artistic impression of the Splendid Splinter’s death mask, and that he intends his grisly sculpture as both a tribute and a statement that Williams’ remains deserve more respectful treatment than they have received from his family and Alcor. The Scoreboard’s malarkey alarm is loudly ringing away, but even taking him at his word it is difficult to decipher the twisted logic of protesting disrespectful treatment of someone the artist claims he admires by placing a realistic (but blue) replica of his alleged hero’s severed head on exhibit in an art gallery. Thus despite Edwards’ touching declarations of affection for Ted Williams, The Scoreboard must conclude that a far simpler explanation for Edwards exploitation of Teddy Ballgame is the correct one.

He’s trying to make a buck.


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