The avant garde American artist Elizabeth Folk creates sculptures, often with an interactive dimension, that emphasize themes of empathy and social justice. And she also spends a lot more time thinking about I Love Lucy than the average person does in the late 2010s.
Like some forward-thinking young women who also have a sense of history, she acknowledges and applauds Lucille Ball’s significant place in the development of American comedy, as the first woman to be at the center of her own television sitcom.
And like many forward-thinking young people who also have a sense of politics, she gives especial, perhaps disproportionate, prominence to four particular scenes in the 181 episodes, the four scenes in which this happens:
The fact that, from time to time, Lucy gets spanked by Ricky is deeply troubling to the kind of people who have been taught the joyless modern doctrine that all products of the creative human imagination must be interpreted and judged strictly in terms of the social attitudes they embody. But Elizabeth Folk has a more original take on the contradiction between Lucille Ball the feminist heroine and Lucy Ricardo the spanked wife, and she gave it expression in a complex piece of mechanical sculpture that was exhibited at the Harold J. Miossi Art Gallery in San Luis Obispo in the spring of 2019.
It’s a paddle-boat that works a bit like a bicycle: the rider lies on it prone and pedals the paddles to propel the boat. The difference is that it is also a spanking machine: as well as working the paddles, the pedal action has the secondary effect of causing the palm branch to rise and fall so that the rider not only goes places but gets her bottom whacked on the way.
Elizabeth Folk’s insight into I Love Lucy is, of course, that the spankings are not the crude acts of patriarchal oppression that some people get so phobic about: they fulfil a fundamental need in Lucy, which is one of the things that makes the marriage work. How to square that with a modern feminist approach that honors Lucille Ball? Well, obviously Lucy must get rid of Ricky and propel herself through life unaided – and if she also needs to be spanked, the Elizabeth Folk paddle-boat can take care of that too!