We tend to experience comedy without registering the effects or thinking about its mode of operation. Yet certainly there are distinctions to be made within the genre of comedy. One important comic type consists of dramas that embody social union, as Shakespearean comedy does with its concluding marriages and dances, whereas another type satirizes the social order rather than celebrates it. Comedies that celebrate social union survive in today’s world in various forms—the Hollywood “screwball comedy” with its common theme of remarriage, and television’s sitcom, in which contrived families (The Brady Bunch) or groups of friends and co-workers (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Friends) reflect the artificial community that the program creates among its widely dispersed viewers. The theme of social union is also embodied in the “comic” fine-art productions, the hybrids of art and entertainment, that David Robbins has been staging for a decade under the name of Ice Cream Socials.

A David Robbins Ice Cream Social has its roots in small-town gatherings—end-of-the-week opportunities for rest, relaxation, and mingling—and like them it creates a temporary, voluntary community around the act of consumption. Membership is a matter of eating a man-made food, a luxury product that exists solely for the sake of delivering pleasure. In addition to its “folksy” roots, the Ice Cream Social has roots in twentieth-century art history, although its connections here are far from simple. For example, Robbins’ use of frozen cream as a social binding agent may bring to mind the work of another artist interested in sociality and animal fat, the German pioneer of social sculpture Joseph Beuys. It also has connections to the Happenings of Allan Kaprow and the “relational” work practiced in the 1990s by such artists as Rikrit Tiravanija and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. However, the project’s occasional incarnation as a real-life social gathering must also be considered in the context of the overall mutability and expansiveness of the Ice Cream Social idea.

From the start, the project has evolved with no rules about artistic media and methods and therefore is always changing. The idea for the Ice Cream Social began with Robbins’ desire to create a special kind of abstract painting, one that would have different intellectual baggage from the aspirations to sublimity usually associated with abstraction. This artwork spawned a real event in a Baskin-Robbins ice cream parlor in downtown Manhattan. The live event, which took place in 1993, in turn fed a novella, further Ice Cream Socials, and then a screenplay. Fact and fiction have become deeply intertwined in the evolution of the Ice Cream Social: ideas scripted in the imagination are transported into real space and time, while real events are later brought back into the traditional forms of literary fiction.

From the outset, the work has also been deeply collaborative. For the first Social, Robbins parodied the Baskin-Robbins corporate partnership by hiring the artist Chris Sasser to produce, in effect, a collaborative “Sasser-Robbins” painting. In the Ice Cream Social prior to this one at the Art Center, at London’s Cubitt space, the community supplied specially decorated cakes. The Des Moines Art Center’s event adds a brief theatrical entertainment, and the décor, which forms a sort of stage set, was produced by more than one hundred participants. These include students from Merrill Middle School and St. Augustine School, who made drawings based on themes provided by the artist; students and faculty of Drake University’s Department of Art and Design, who created abstract “dot” paintings; potters in the Art Center’s ceramics classes, who made ice cream bowls; and even the Maytag Corporation, which lent four gleaming white refrigerators. These varied works are unified by a pink-brown-white color scheme. The palette refers, in part, to the ice cream flavors strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla, but it also brings to mind flesh tones, hinting at sensual and bodily pleasures. However much it resembles a corporate brand, the constant color scheme works in the service of experience rather than marketing and tends to enable creativity and independent interpretation for those involved rather than inhibit it.

Robbins claims that the modern world prefers the idea of community to community itself. He holds that modernity offers us the option of forming a community based on ideas more than on natural connections—a new world of voluntary association that his Socials celebrate. This is a wholesome enterprise, given the perils that have attended efforts to establish communities based on race, blood, or inflexible social ideals, such as those that so often underpin the ideology of “family values.” The idea of artificial community finds its perfect metaphor in ice cream, a substance that is at once man-made, cold, and pleasurable.

Chris Gilbert

Published as a one-sheet to accompany David Robbins: Ice Cream Social, June 8, 2003, organized for the Des Moines Art Center by Chris Gilbert, associate curator, and Paula Hutton McKinley, community relations director.