From The New York Times
November 17, 2006
In the Pink No More
By JENNY PRICE
ON Nov. 1, just two months shy of its 50th birthday, the plastic pink flamingo went extinct. Or more accurately, it stopped reproducing, when its manufacturer, Union Products, shut down the factory in Leominster, Mass.
That’s sad news, but hardly surprising. The flamingo’s glory days were behind it. Union Products cited the rising cost of plastic resins and of electricity, along with financing woes. Yet while the bird reigned as an icon in the late 20th century, it was bound to succumb to the very different tastes — or the absence thereof — in the 21st.
In 1957, the flamingo that would become lawn-art king was invented by a young Union Products designer with the fitting name of Don Featherstone. Sears sold the bird for $2.76 a pair: “Place in garden, lawn, to beautify landscape,” the 1957 catalog read. Working-class homeowners readily planted it on their modest lawns — a nod to the marble or bronze sculpture on vaster properties — and art critics promptly pegged it as a prime example of the despicable spread of kitsch. In the 1960s, the suburban lawn flamingo — cheap, mass-produced, artificial and unusually neon pink — was widely reviled as the dregs of bad taste.
Which is exactly what John Waters loved about it. He made his breakout film, “Pink Flamingos,” in 1972, and to his delight the critics were outraged: “It’s like getting a standing ovation,” he said, “if someone vomits watching one of my films.”
In the 1970s, my rebel generation of middle-class baby boomers adopted the plastic bird to challenge the boundaries of high art and good taste. The gay male subculture made it a mascot, and in 1979 the student government at University of Wisconsin planted a thousand flamingos on the lawn outside the dean’s office. The bird had become a signpost for the transgression of social and cultural convention. And Union Products was reaping the rewards.
By the 1980s, flamingo-themed installations were appearing in avant-garde galleries. But the baby boomers were also carrying the flamingo in backpacks across Europe, and kayaking with it through the wilderness. The bird became the ultimate marker for crossing boundaries of every conceivable kind. By the 1990s, it had become a popular housewarming gift. In 1994, the “pink flamingo relay” at the Gay Games in New York featured a swim race and costume pageant. By 1996, you could mark a birthday by hiring the company Flamingo Surprise to plant 30 or 40 flamingos on the celebrant’s lawn the night before. And as Don Featherstone — by this point the president of Union Products — remarked proudly, “I’ve never seen a wedding cake with a duck on it.”
Which is why I’d peg the beginning of the end to the moment in the late 1990s when the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles began selling the Union Products flamingo in its gift shop. Or perhaps to the Sundance Film Festival’s 1997 celebration of the 25th anniversary of “Pink Flamingos.” Or — maybe — to the day in 1987 when Mr. Featherstone inscribed his signature in the original plastic mold, to distinguish the authentic fake flamingo from the knockoffs.
After 30 years of assaults on the cultural barricades, kitsch had become high art, and bad taste had become thoroughly acceptable.
An object that marks the crossing of borders works effectively only when the object transgresses boundaries a majority of people believe should exist. And in 2006, art is pretty much whatever you call art. The boundary of bad taste can be hard to find: decades ago, Variety called “Pink Flamingos” “one of the most vile, stupid and repulsive films ever made,” but film critics now hail the Farrelly brothers as auteurs and find “Jackass” merely annoying. And anyway, who actually knows what’s fake anymore?
The boomers’ children and grandchildren cannot possibly see a plastic flamingo lawn sculpture as outrageously funny or transgressive. My 15-year-old nephew calls it “lame.” My 16-year-old cousin says, “I don’t really think about it one way or the other.” The members of this YouTube generation will find their own conventions to challenge, but they will also have to find their own objects with which to do it.
My generation is beginning to retire, and our plastic flamingo has met its demise — officially the victim of oil prices, but really the inevitable victim of its own legitimacy.
Rest in peace, my pink plastic friend. It was fun while it lasted.
Jenny Price is the author of “Flight Maps: Adventures With Nature in Modern America.”