paul mccarthy’s art is offensive

paul mcarthy tokyo santa 1996
paul mccarthy - tokyo santa - 1996

“For a long time my window gave onto a cabaret painted half  green and half bright red–a sweet torture for my eyes.” 

 –Charles Baudelaire (Salon of 1846)

 Paul McCarthy’s art is not for everyone.  Viewer beware–caveat spectator!  We’ve known this for a while now.  He’s been as distasteful back in the 70’s as he is now.  Who needs to remember his prurient ketchup, the sleazy masks, the unfortunate dolls & the horrible sexual affronts?  We’ll avoid detailing all the other petulant paraphernalia, gooey performances, cheesy props & whatever-else, for the sake of saving the appetite. 

His work is often spoken of  in relation to Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abject: the revolting other that threatens to intrude on the boundaries of the self.  The self is threatened by the offending abject-object, often not to be admired, nor given an audience.  This is contradicted by McCarthy’s aggressive subversion.   Without our fear of filth, our porous fragile bodies are vulnerable.  This doesn’t mean that we’ll be rescued from our malaise, our idle fear of the profane.  It is within us, where abjection never leaves.  The residual abject is always present, reviled we push back, pushing it away.  McCarthy tries to be & mock that boundary, that precipice, that polemic. He begs us to face our disgust & revulsion.  He has to know that few will understand his insistence, his churlish advances.  “I hate all that mess” says nothing to his value. 

Okay so he’s hated, or reviled.  Moving from there we’re left wondering why he’s liked.  He obviously has not run out of ways to annoy.  McCarthy apparently wants you to hate or at least to consider his ridiculous gestures.  Then what?  The Dadaists wanted this too.  The ribald methods of Tzara, Schwitters, Duchamp &c. all anticipate McCarthy’s performances, his corrosive humor, & his insistent cynicism.  We’ve had artists behaving badly in the name of art (anti or otherwise) before.  

Also McCarthy’s Pop themes give little relief all the same.  His Santa Claus acts out an excessive psycho-drama we’d be happy to forget.  Food as a symbol of any corporeal effluent is rarely pleasing.  Art often works with a currency of symbols & signs.  Fast food always approaches on the vulgar as it is.  McCarthy shoves all this along till it’s no longer food, food as an eruptive side-affect.  Along with the inane packaging, he forces us to see what’s been rejected inside, now spilled & thrown outside.

Disgust hasn’t been absent from the consideration of art over the years, nor has is been absent from our lives.  Who has the audacity to be the fool who reveals our interior hell, the repressed hell of popular culture, just slightly hidden underneath?  Comedy can offend; McCarthy’s offense is that he makes art.  His art effect results in how a taboo is judged.  Why shouldn’t we regard the abject?  What’s instructive about this horror-pleasure?  The squeamish who revolt, won’t stop the distaste. 

McCarthy’s value is that he’s not a liar—the fool unveils a virulent truth.  This petulant darkness is fundamental within us, unavoidable yet often disguised.  Since we are threatened by waste or putrescence, we’ll often imagine an ideal purity.  The septic stupidity keeps the purists away, while it opens & introduces the possible initiate to understanding.  McCarthy’s art suggests that the ugly has a place, & that it isn’t needful of a perfunctory make-over.  How conservative are we really, when we can’t face our own demons?  How narrow are we, when we ask art to be only pleasing, easy & sweet? 

Paul McCarthy’s art is offensive—that’s why we look.

–Aurelio Madrid

IlllllllllllllI (& aurelio)


(…this post leaps into Grant’s answer on a general question concerning aesthetics & ethics—followed by our inconclusive discussion on art & philosophy.  Grant kindly involved himself with my questions.  Perhaps we’ll assume the voluble philosophical/art mantle, another time soon.)

IlllllllllllllI: I am interested in aesthetics, but I’m not sure I grasp any connection to the ethical. I think the early Nietzschean conclusion about the Dionysian terror of reality being best borne in an Aesthetic way of being is something valuable to contemplate though that’s a pretty localized historical phenomena that doesn’t seem relevant anymore. I mean, slavery is kind of necessary for that way of thinking to work and I don’t think anybody would advance a pro-slavery claim anymore.
To me Kantian aesthetics speak more to the value of the Sublime or in more contemporary thought the un-beautiful, the challenging, etc. Maybe this has an ethical turn in that it requires of its viewers conscious effort, like some forced Heideggerean authentic reaction but I don’t think most people experience it this way. In my immediate experience, the avant garde or experimental or radically conceptual work or whatever one would like to call it, ends in alienation or capitulation to the trend for most people who encounter it. Which is frankly a terrible and elitist ethic but I think we’d be hard pressed to validate low-culture in the same way. There exists something in that division that retains deep and terrifying origins that I’m not prepared to pretend doesn’t exist but am willing always to be disputed over.
That said, the method of aesthetic creation that seems most valid today is beyond any philosophers general conception as I’ve read or heard them. I guess one would expect such a thing if art since the last great philosophical wave in the 70’s and 80’s has changed as much as it appears. Deleuze, whom I think had a very contemporary conception, still divided it into this other category of percepts and affects and insisted that it be divorced from concepts (which is to ignore the best of 20th century aesthetics) and science, a tremendously fertile production method and necessary element in almost all contemporary product. To me, aesthetics instead is about the production of environments, something like Heidegger’s conception I think but in an immediate and fictive sense. The work is about crafting a universe in which the work exists and has relational effects with a viewer and with other pieces, that remnant of postmodern ideology that may be most legitimate, but a location that is more fluid than the temporally absent Greek Civilization or the culturally momentous cock-fight. We instead are indoctrinated into a new location, a becoming-point in space, and aesthetics is the study of how to create that becoming-point, either according to an artists conception or a structural pace depending on one’s view of the self. I think this can have ethical dimensions but epiphenomenally perhaps, where the form taken causes certain ethical behaviors and effects yet in unintended ways to distance itself from any socialist realism or Marxist aesthetic.
I’m so tentative on these things that whatever I have in my mind will have collapsed in a few minutes so I’m very interested to hear what you’re working with, especially regarding ethics. At this moment I can’t see how aesthetics and art can rise above nihilistic capitalism, but perhaps there is something much more there that I am blind to.

Aurelio:  When speaking of the avant-garde in art, can you present any examples of how one has to capitulate to a trend?  Perhaps you’re suggesting that we are subjected to an assault on our good taste as with Jonathan Meese (“The dictatorship of art is the holy grail”) or even Thomas Hirshhorn (“energy yes—quality no”) where the viewers are subjected to “bad-taste” in an exaggerated way, a psychotic & (playfully?) sadistic way.  Certainly with these two artists a good number of people are taken aback enough to question (their own & others) taste standards.  Another artist we’ve noticed is Santiago Sierra who—for example—paid workers to sit inside cardboard boxes (in a gallery) for minimum wage, or where he hired workers in India to make blocks of human-waste. With Sierra we start to see a clear nexus of aesthetics & ethics. 

IlllllllllllllI: The avant-garde is so problematic, isn’t it, because it contains the capitalist’s constant expansion of production model in thought but unlike capitalism the well of natural resources is endless. This is instructive too, but in our immediate circumstance, I think the central problem with avant-gardism as a method is that the early 20th century attachments from which avant-gardism seemed the best inversion were of a very specific variety. Contemporary attempts to repeat the structure of these methods occur and proliferate but after those giants are dead. Avant-garde? If one stands on the side of the exploited workers and exposes/flagellates the recursive decadence of art, this is an instinct that contemporary people have. Avant-Garde would be something evil, something beyond the bounds of taste. The Futurists were so avant-garde they started fascism, bolshevism. That’s truly a slap in the face of public taste, no?

To be very clear, I am not impugning anyone by suggesting that the Fascists and Bolsheviks were doing it more completely, I am not so absurd. I am only suggesting that the use of the avant-garde mechanism, attempting to seek out the edges of bourgeois life and destroying them via aesthetic production, is perhaps impossible today. There are no more bourgeois lives, or no more attempted bourgeois lives, not among artists or art-lovers. (Here is another side problem of the avant-garde; by consistently alienating, one produces an avant-garde audience who appreciates the shock but is no longer attacked by it while those who were initially assaulted are back to their soft realist hearth.) But even among this audience, the targets of taste or economics are far too large to be dealt with on the tip of the subject. We all know it is wrong to exploit workers and children, yet today all of us continue. We might attempt to limit our damage, but what is an ethics that says we will exploit only so many, kill only so many?

Aurelio: What about Deleuze?  Didn’t write on aesthetics? Was he arguing for a aesthetic-relativism?

IlllllllllllllI: This point, about the failure to further radicalize the critique (again, perhaps with some very good historical context in which to remain conservative lest artists again choose their Mussolini), is taken up in Deleuze. His descriptions of aesthetics weren’t relativistic or otherwise, he was more of a diagnostician and underminer, a subterranean. In the first guise, he draws Art as a condensation of composed methods of seeing and feeling, constructing subject-independent mechanisms then attached to the material. Foucault’s description of Las Meninas is an analysis of this practice put into its highest movement. This is not about a hermeneutics, but dealing with the very surface of paintings, what Heidegger calls the nearness of the nearest: what exists in this painting that has caused it to be and be here? In Deleuze’s second costume, the Subterranean, these experience-producing mechanisms should be put into practice toward our desires, the independent strains that occur in bodies and against the corralling of those desires into the corrupted coherence of the subject. This is perhaps where the avant-garde can still reside, but frankly how that might occur is as yet obscured.

Aurelio: You also speak of an aesthetic environment & its relational effect on the viewer as compared to Heidegger, can you expand on this?  Can we see Heidegger’s use of the terms “world & earth” to mean culture & the purely physical dimension (& where a work of art is the fusion of the two)?  

IlllllllllllllI: This is difficult and I hope to avoid becoming jargonistic. First, it would be a mistake to limit Heidegger’s ‘Earth’ to only the physical dimension. It would be more accurate to think of it as all the existing forms which condition and constrain what occurs there. For instance, a certain climate and geography will cause the world of Coats and shelters and food that occurs there, but the relation between two words which causes one to think of a pun is another Earth-World occasion. Behaviors occurring as a result of believing in phantoms and gods is another. And while World is a sphere that occurs as a result of that physical dimension, it is also an action of human being where our intrusion into history causes both the existence of World and the construction of relations.  As it relates to art-encounters, between Heidegger and Deleuze, the piece of art can occur within the Earth and World as a mechanism of the subjects who are produced by the Earthen history. I think art in these formulas is a point of very difficult sublation, where the relation between world and earth is constantly overcoming itself yet with sometimes little or no effect on us. Here relativism is unhelpful because this clash is actually existing in a terrifying and important intensity, and it is of a certain variety of ethics, honesty or integrity, perhaps even that despotic authenticity, that one would chase this.

Aurelio: Nicolas Bourriaud wrote on relational aesthetics which proposes more interactive art, as with Rirkrit Tiravanija or Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster where the viewer is more an active participant or convivial to the art work.  Are you familiar with Bourriaud’s ideas?

IlllllllllllllI: I am familiar with the premise, but I think Bourriaud puts it slightly askew with the Creole. It sounds akin to Appiah’s cosmopolitanism, but I’m not sure about the nuances of how those two machines might occur together. The interest in participatory art has always intrigued me, but more because I do not understand it. It would be quite a thing to make non-participatory art. It seems, in the residue of the postmodern, that we are distrustful of historical participation, that we identify the fascist fuhrer principle in the artist-subject-viewer relationship and we want to refuse to be dominated or to dominate by proposing that perhaps we all make art/love/culture together. While Bourriaud is quite right that multi-culturalism can be a prison (however only once it has achieved its necessary purpose of placing another kick in the teeth of morality), one must be careful not to respond with a flattening, where the artist and the art and the aesthete are unified in one triumphal chain. There are differences and while these differences occasion domination and violence but they are also the textures of Earth that themselves cause Worlds, the perversions that create new methods of seeing and breaking apart ourselves as selves, as subjects.

Aurelio: I’m reminded of the Marinetti quote “We will glorify war – the world’s only hygiene…” which is dripping with radicalism & is slightly ridiculous.  Thank you for reminding me of the Futurist’s proto-fascism—this is a good lesson on extreme aesthetics (vs. ethics).  We’ve seen additional outrageous ends of radicalism in the arts elsewhere—for example, with the Vienna Actionists.  Here is someone like Hermann Nitsch who embraced a new intensity/revulsion with the use of animals &c. and on the other polarity (same milieu) emerges Franz West who broke away with his “Adaptives” (“Paßtücke”) & his chairs.  With West we can now move full circle to “relational aesthetics.”  He simply had the idea to offer the museum/gallery visitor a chair to sit on & relax.  Surely there is an ethical connection there too—after all West offers you (physical) comfort.  As you suggest Appiah might be useful in this kind of relationship with the artist & viewer, let go of the differences & have a seat (to what end?—who knows).

…but, back to Deleuze, with whom I’m intrigued to learn more.  Didn’t he have something to say on Kant’s aesthetics?  Deleuze wrote on Bacon are you familiar with this text?  Didn’t he (Deleuze) also have a concept in the “unaesthetic?”

The Foucault essay on Velazquez’s Las Meninas is gorgeous & it also speaks to the famous painting’s origins—its complex interiority.  He explores in depth the relationship of the artist, viewer, subject & patronage.  Now I’m reminded to return to his writing on Magritte’s “This is not a pipe.” 

You’ll have to forgive me when I move around non-chronologically to ask you about Hume.  “Of the Standard of Taste,” is a worthwhile read & I was particularly interested when he defended a kind of expertise that is necessary to give well informed judgments of taste, where we’d trust the opinion of a connoisseur rather than the casual observer.  I am curious to know what you have to say on Hume’s aesthetics (?).  He didn’t seem to be as stringent as Kant.  I feel more at ease to read about how Hume uses Don Quixote to illustrate a delicacy of taste.

 IlllllllllllllI: …..