“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.