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

7 thoughts on “paul mccarthy’s art is offensive

  1. I don’t see it as an either/or: that art be either pleasing and sweet, or offensive. (Actually, sweetness alone can be offensive.)

    I cannot give an intellectual argument against the value of a giant inflatable shit. It’s a matter of taste. I can understand, intellectually, how someone might appreciate this work. Your post makes plain sense. But a person who finds the work merely repugnant is not necessarily narrow minded. Imagine someone who was repeatedly beaten or raped as a child, or someone whose body is being eaten by cancer. They are persons who see unbearable ugliness all the time. Ugliness is very easy for some people. It is not a lesson they need to learn.

    This is just my opinion: great art has both – ugliness as well as beauty. The movement toward beauty is not necessarily a denial of ugliness.

    1. I respect your point Mark & thank you for commenting.

      Nobody can force you to like something you don’t like, even if it concerns such a controversial artist like McCarthy. Given that his art is generally about the abject, I’m convinced he is very aware of a few of these polarities & other arguments.

      I am only suggesting that we look inside ourselves for the answer to: why would anyone like this art? “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?” When I ask these questions, I am not making the statement that we need to like his work, nor that the ugly is better than the beautiful. I feel these are legitimate questions when faced with McCarthy’s offensive gestures.

      We can hate his art while at the same time defending his right to express it!


  2. I understand you. I’m only saying that (as long as we are asking, “why would anyone like this art?”) there are reasons not to like it other than conservatism or narrow-mindedness. Not liking a thing is not necessarily synonymous with calling for its suppression or denying its right to exist.

    1. …yes, there are other reasons to hate it! There are a 1,000 reasons to hate it. Is there something wrong with asking yourself to have an expansive view or a reevaluation? Am I saying: You are narrow minded if you don’t like McCarthy, or am I urging you to ask yourself: Am I narrow minded when I look at this (&c.)? Trust me, I ask myself the same questions.

      …perhaps this post is not clear enough.

  3. Lovely post here, Aurelio. And I read it right after listening, on DVD, to the first story in David Sedaris’s Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim which, I’d argue, attempts a similar mirroring of the abject in us that you argue McCarthy is aiming for. It’s a story about selfishness and greed, in which the young David wolfs down a huge amount of Halloween candy in order to avoid having to give some of it to neighbor kids he considers strange. The image his mother tells him to deal with–“Look at yourself!” she commands–is an image he suggests most of us would rather avoid through the distraction of television. Anyway, it might interest you.

    Wonderful writing here.

    1. Nancy,

      …very nice of you to drop by & read what I’ve been up to. I love Sederis & have read this story, but not with McCarthy in mind. I’ll have do that soon!

      …also thank you for the compliment, I needed it after this.

      BTW You may have noticed that I used the (now-enshrined) “horror pleasure” phrase, only because I love your writing!

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